Calvin Richardson reaches back for soul

Music Notes

November 13, 2003|By RASHOD D. OLLISON

ON THE surface, Calvin Richardson has what it takes to get noticed these days: the muscles, the tattoos, the b-boy swagger and hip-hop-inspired gear.

But beyond all that, the Southern soul man possesses a deeply passionate approach to singing that smolders with gospel fire and blues sensibility. It's the kind of singing Sam Cooke, Otis Redding and William Bell put down back in the day, the kind of singing that's rarely on the airwaves now. But it's gradually making a comeback, thanks to such artists as N'Dambi, Anthony Hamilton and, of course, Calvin.

Calling from a tour stop in Virginia, the artist says, "I really wanted to do my thing and put some real soul music out here."

Let me just go ahead and tell you this: Calvin's latest CD, 2:35 PM, is not one of the best soul albums out right now. It's too uneven, too predictable in spots. But he's definitely one of the most interesting male vocalists on today's painfully generic urban scene - somebody who will fly with consistent, solid material.

Since he dropped his strong but sadly overlooked debut, Country Boy, in '99, Calvin has been trying to carve an identity for himself. But it's hard to do, because homeboy has some serious competition. D'Angelo, Erykah Badu, Maxwell, Rahsaan Patterson, Jaguar Wright, India.Arie, Alicia Keys - they have all released albums of tremendous artistic depth and vision in the last four years. (Especially Erykah, whose 2000 CD, Mama's Gun, ranks up there with Aretha's Young, Gifted & Black and Stevie's Fulfillingness' First Finale).

But Calvin hasn't really been given the room to bloom. After a fruitless stint with Undercover, an early '90s Jodeci-like group, the singer signed with Universal in '97. But Country Boy came out with zilch promotion.

"You can't depend on a label to do everything for you," Calvin says, the disappointment seething in his voice. "Universal did nothing with the album. And here you had this big label with power. But I learned from that."

The North Carolina resident pressed on, hooking up with producer Raphael Saadiq and contributing vocals to his Grammy-nominated solo album, Instant Vintage. Calvin also sang on Angie Stone's sparkling CD, 2001's Mahogany Soul. I attended Angie's CD release party at Manhattan's Supper Club when that album hit the stores two Octobers ago. The two heated up the stage with their duet, "More Than a Woman" (which is not to be confused with the old Tavares number).

About eight months later, I saw another Calvin show a few blocks over at B.B. King's Blues Club & Grill, where he shared the stage with Raphael. The singer-songwriter is a charismatic performer. There's more power in Calvin's stage presence than you find on 2:35 PM, which is the time his son, Souljah, was born last year.

"There wasn't any real concept behind the album," the singer says. "I just wanted to talk about things I've lived through."

Judging from the 12 songs on the set (10 of which were either written or co-written by the singer), Calvin must have survived a hefty share of heartbreak blues. The first single, "Keep On Pushin'," may have an inspirational title, but the song deals with the darkness that lingers after the love has gone: Girl, I've lied/But please forgive me ... I don't wanna go on reliving this/Put it in the past/I wanna make this love last.

That song is one of the biggest highlights on the record with its fat organ lines and jukejoint-dusty backbeat. "Falling Out" flows in the same rhythmic vein and sounds as if it could have been on a Bobby Womack album circa 1973. But the other songs either lack energy and a memorable hook ("Not Like This" and "I'm Worthy") or sound flat and derivative ("You Got Me High" and "Put My Money On You").

But Calvin is indeed an artist to keep an eye on. Looking at his humble background, he certainly has the makings of a soul singer. North Carolina is his birthplace, the Southern black church his foundation. The artist has seven brothers and one sister. His mama could sing; his pops played the guitar and the bass. But he really doesn't know much about his father, because "he left when I was real young," Calvin says. "When dad left the family, he left his instruments. I don't know why. And we all just picked 'em up. All of us can do a little something musically."

Calvin is tight with his folks. He leans on their support as he tries to make a name in a genre filled with many blazing ones.

He says, "I want to be looked at as one of the true pioneers who brought soul back, you know - to where it's supposed to be. I'm bringing something real. I'm working hard."

And that's cool. If he "keeps on pushin'," he'll get there.

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