Old Soul

At 27, Marylander Ricky Fante has become the next big thing by recalling the smooth sounds of the past.

July 12, 2004|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

NEW YORK - Chic, sexy people mill about the joint - chatting, laughing, nursing cocktails. For industry insiders, the place to be on a rainy May evening is Crash Mansion, a multilevel club in Manhattan with stone-embedded walls and sleek furniture. It is here at a well-attended showcase where newcomer Ricky Fante, a Maryland-raised homeboy, will preview what is supposed to be one of the year's hottest debuts.

On this night, the release of Rewind, the singer's album in stores tomorrow, is two months away. For nearly a year, anticipation for the record has steadily grown. Music circles have been abuzz about this "soul cat" whose refined, good looks and suave fashion sense recall Sam Cooke; his torrid, gritty vocals bring Wilson Pickett to mind.

But Fante seems like a tough sell in these derivative, hip-hopped times. There's nothing "jiggy" or street about the guy. No thuggish posturing, no baggy jeans, no hip-hop embellishments - none of the things typically associated with today's popular black male performers. At 27, Fante looks and sounds as if he's lost in time - circa 1964.

He's reviving the golden era of soul. Raised in Largo, the singer has taken a completely raw approach - a stripped production reminiscent of black pop during the civil rights movement. And with the sudden commercial success of Joss Stone's rootsy soul debut, Fante may become the Next Thing.

In the last 10 months, VIBE and Vanity Fair magazines have written about him. He's appeared on American Dreams (playing Pickett), the Wayne Brady Show and Soul Train; he's done a national, unplugged Borders tour. In the fall, he will play a nightclub singer in Their Eyes Were Watching God, an Oprah Winfrey-produced TV adaptation of Zora Neale Hurston's classic novel. All this with neither a flashy video nor a hit single.

Josh Deutsch, Virgin Records' senior vice president of A&R (artists and repertoire), brought Fante to the label and produced his debut.

"This is my baby," the 15-year industry veteran says of Rewind. "Ricky's voice implies a kind of context that's been missing for a while. There's nothing neo about his record."

On the surface, the aptly titled Rewind sounds like a lost Stax recording, replete with punchy horns, driving live drums and country guitar fills. The album teems with broken-hearted melodies imbued with Fante's ragged bluesiness.

It's show time. The announcer comes on: Welcome to Crash Mansion. Ladies and gentlemen, Ricky Fante ...

Decked out in a black leather jacket and crisp caramel-colored slacks, the singer takes the stage, backed by a competent seven-piece band. He's unrelenting, singing with so much intensity that the veins in his neck look as if they're going to pop. Beads of sweat roll down the sides of his face. Clutching the mike, his eyes shut tight, he wails, "It ain't easy/It ain't easy on your own ..." His stage manner seems a little stiff and melodramatic at times, but there's no denying it: Ricky Fante is definitely charismatic.

After the show - upstairs in an empty, all-white barroom under eerie red lights - you sit down with the hot boy of the hour. Slender with a slightly mischievous smile, Fante is more handsome and younger-looking in person than in publicity shots. His speaking voice is husky, a little softer than you'd expect.

"I just want it to be understood that I'm not getting caught up in all this," Fante says between sips of his beer. "In this industry, it's so easy to become so jaded. It's give and take, but you gotta have a strong sense of self."

Just as his music suggests, Fante is an old soul. Even his look and manner give off the air of a classy, mature man. "We have enough of the same kind of image in R&B right now," he says. "It's time for something different."

Born in southeast Washington, Fante comes from a solidly middle-class background. And music, particularly gospel and soul, filled his childhood. His mother, Patricia Onakoya, is a teacher at Hart Middle School in Anacostia, his father, Frederick Fant (the singer added the "e"), a Metrorail engineer. The oldest of three, Fante was about 6 years old when his parents divorced.

"He has always been the leader and the protector," says Onakoya, who now lives in Southeast D.C. "When his father and I divorced, he had a talk with Ricky and told him, `Now you're the man of the house.' That was a lot to put on a child."

But he took the role seriously. One evening when he was 9, Fante, his mother and his two brothers were on their way home when "this young thug came up and snatched my mama's purse," Fante says. "It was a Tuesday, Mama's payday. We always went to McDonald's on payday."

Onakoya, a sweet-voiced woman, chuckles at the memory. "My Lord. I had his baby brother, Freddie, on my arm and Maliki (Fante's other brother) was walking beside Ricky. (The mugger) came up so fast, and Ricky ran after that boy. He ran and ran."

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