Biography: Brian McKnight
Brian McKnight (born June 5, 1969 in Buffalo, New York) is a talented singer-songwriter who has fashioned a surprisingly strong career over the past decade as a soul balladeer. One of the most consistent and versatile adult contemporary R&B artists, Brian McKnight placed seven albums spread across 15 years - from the early '90s through the first decade of the 2000s - within the Top Ten of Billboard's R&B albums chart. Whether he wrote and produced for himself or collaborated with the likes of Diddy, the Underdogs, and Tim & Bob, he enjoyed moderate commercial success without ever quite becoming a superstar. This, along with a down-to-earth personality and a catalog heavy on mellow material, may have helped McKnight for the sake of longevity; he made his first mark during the tail end of the new jack swing era and, nearly 20 years later, shared chart space with singers half his age. He holds a Grammy record for 16 nominations without a win.
Brian McKnight grew up in a family where music came naturally. He was a member of the church choir along with his immediate family; his grandfather was the director. "At age four, I learned to sing seated on my mother's lap in the alto section of the choir," says Brian. "My mother is a fine singer and good gospel pianist. My grandfather was minister of music. The choir was a cappella, the voices were awesome, and I still hear the harmonies in my head."
Holy harmonies - the harmonies of the African-American church - form a foundation for Brian's sound. A quality of spiritual awe infuses his songs, whether the subject is innocent nostalgia ("I Remember You") or physical passion ("The Floor").
"The Church," he explains, "was Emanuel Temple in Buffalo, where I grew up. I'm the fifth generation of Seventh Day Adventists and the youngest of four brothers. When I was still very small, we formed a gospel quartet. Our models were the great gospel groups, the Swan Silvertones and Mighty Clouds of Joy. The McKnight Brothers were serious singers. The reputation went out: these boys could shout. My big brothers -- Claude, Freddie and Michael -- man, they were my heroes. Each was a leader in his own right. Outside church, they listened to jazz. Church music thrilled me, but jazz stimulated my mind."
"My childhood," Brian continues, "was a happy combination of the Platters and Nat Cole, Woody Herman and Gino Vannelli. My brothers loved sophisticated multi-leveled music -- they loved Steely Dan, for example -- and I inherited that appreciation from the get-go. They'd come home with albums by the Four Freshman and Hi Los. We'd hear those gorgeous close harmonies and rip them right off the records. I sat down at the piano and taught myself by ear. I was also a sports freak. I worshipped the Philadelphia 76ers and Dr. J; I dug the Dallas Cowboys and Tony Dorset. As a junior running back, I wore Tony's number 33. I had two dreams -- to play professional sports and professional music."
"At age eight, we moved from the snow to the sun, from Buffalo to Orlando. The Florida burbs were a little rednecky at first, but I was programmed to excel. Obstacles were there to overcome. Before I was a teenager, I could play jazz piano. I heard the changes and learned the electricity of improvisation. On my own, I went back to study the masters, Oscar Peterson, Art Tatum, the real geniuses. Meanwhile, the contest between music and sports was a tie. In junior high, I was a flat-out jock, running track, starting on the football and basketball teams. No one knew I could sing. I was still burning on piano, but not ready to step out as a vocalist. Until I got into Stevie Wonder."
"For me, Stevie is the Michael Jordan of music. A category of his own. His Original Musicquarium changed my life. He drew me deep into the tracks. His vocals are almost athletic. I call him a "hard singer," someone who can sing gently but has the power and range to do whatever he wants. That's what I wanted -- the sound I heard in Michael McDonald, Kenny Loggins, James Ingram, Michael Sembello, Bobby Caldwell -- guys with power and the ability to compose pop songs based on superbad jazz chords. I loved that combination."
By high school, the struggle was over. B's passion for music won out. "I got into trumpet," he explains, "and followed Wynton Marsalis. As a serious musician, Wynton was a heavy role model. By age 17, I was leading a group called Spontaneous Inventions, after Bobby McFerrin's album. Mom knew nothing about it, but I was painting on a mustache and playing clubs. We were into jazz fusion, Anita Baker, David Sanborn. Funny, but I've never been a sideman. I always liked leading my own groups."
Brian followed older brother Claude to Oakwood, a Christian college in Huntsville, Alabama. "Claude had formed Take 6," says McKnight, referring to the celebrated gospel group whose trademark harmonies have had a strong impact on contemporary music. "Just when I arrived at school," B adds, "Claude was heading for Nashville. Take 6 had finally gotten a deal and was about to make their first record. It was 1987."
Huntsville was the scene of McKnight's first exposure to a professional recording studio. Sound Cell was the home of Brandon Barnes, the gifted writer and musician who became Brian's mentor and partner. "Brandon is a key to my artistic growth," B explains. "He first showed me the in's and out's of cutting tracks, making demos, working the knobs. We're still together today. In fact, we co-wrote five songs on I Remember You."
In 1989, during his second year at Oakwood, Brian's college career screeched to a sudden halt. "It's a little embarrassing," he confesses with a smile, "but I was caught with a girl in my room. Got kicked out. It happened in March. Mom said, 'Come home now.' But I said, 'I'll come home in June... if I don't have a record deal.'
"So I went to work at Sound Cell. Worked day and night. Turned out three tunes a day. By the time summer came 'round, I had 65 songs. I couldn't be stopped. I had to convince some record exec that I had the goods."
Ed Eckstine of Mercury was convinced. "When I signed the deal," says B, "I was 19. And arrogant. You couldn't tell me anything; couldn't tell me how to sing or what to write. Man, I knew it all. I had a lot of growing up to do -- as a person and artist. Fortunately, Ed was patient."
McKnight's first release on Mercury was The process of making his all-important first album took almost three years. "I credit Ed for having the foresight and sticking with me but at the beginning, it was very frustrating. I wanted a record out! Around the same time I got my deal, I got married so it was difficult because advances from record companies only last so long."
The pressure was eased somewhat when labelmate Vanessa Williams heard some of Brian's work and asked him to produce several tracks on her 1991 multi-platinum "Comfort Zone" album. "While I was working with Vanessa, I was tweaking my own album. We must have cut fifty songs for my first record and it was mindblowing for me," he recalls. "I was in real state of the art studios for the first time."
Brian's self-titled album was issued in July 1992, just a month after "The Way Love Goes" landed on the R&B singles chart. Receiving standing ovations and garnering support from the media at incredible industry showcases he did throughout the U.S. – where he would simply accompany himself on the piano – Brian quickly became an industry favorite at a time when rap and hip-hop was becoming the dominant focus in the world of black music. Brian's soulful authenticity was refreshing, harkening back to another time and place when the art of the singer-songwriter held sway. "I guess I was the bridge from 'there' to 'here,'" he considers. "I came out just on the cusp of when things were changing."
The Brian McKnight album did not have an immediate impact but serendipity stepped in once more, this time in the form of "Love Is," a duet Brian recorded with Vanessa Williams for the then-popular television show "Beverly Hills 90210." He remembers, "I recorded the song reluctantly. Here I was this black guy singing a pop song – and it was a song someone else had written! I didn't want to have my first success with someone else's song." As it turned out, the response to the single laid the groundwork for the release of "One Last Cry" in June 1993. "That was another song I didn't want to record!" Brian says. "I had originally planned the song for one of those real pop songstresses – you know, a Bette Midler, someone like that who could sing this brokenhearted, sad song. Ed Eckstine was the one who really had the vision for what the tune could especially after "Love Is." When "One Last Cry" started taking off, I breathed a sigh of relief… and at the same time, I got my first real taste of celebrity, of being recognized and signing autographs wherever I went. It was a little overwhelming, a lot to deal with, especially since I had a family. It was hard on them, hard on me."
Brian says he "rode the wave" and enjoyed being able to turn to all those naysayers who had doubted that a self-contained black male singer, songwriter, musician and producer could make it at a time when the industry was so focused on selling music to a teen generation. Validation came with the platinum status of the Brian McKnight album but following it was, by Brian's own admission, no easy task. "I ended basically writing a record that followed the feel and flavor of songs like "One Last Cry." It was clever and I used my classical music and technical training and I kinda got all the stuff out of my system with the I Remember You album." Fortunately, one track – "Crazy Love," originally cut by Van Morrison – was used for the 1995 movie "Jason's Lyric" and ended up as the centerpiece for I Remember You along with the hit singles "On The Down Low" and "Still In Love," propelling the album to gold status.
"I was on the road, building a name for myself at this point," Brian notes. "Riding bus, hanging out with the crew and the band, those were good times. We played whatever we wanted, we had so much fun." At the same time, Brian's recording career was undergoing change with the departure of executive Eckstine from Mercury Records. While Brian's music – influenced by the work of such soul legends as Wonder, Gaye, Mayfield and others – had found favor with music buyers, the emergence of the so-called 'neo-soul' movement (with artists like D'Angelo and Maxwell) was now becoming the focus, particularly at black radio. He reflects, "I remember that with the release of my second album, I thought it was me trying to rule the world! As it turned out, with all that was happening with musically at the time, it felt more like I was in a decline."
As it turned out, any concern for a downturn in his career quickly abated with the 1997 release of Anytime. The album's first single, "You Should Be Mine" featuring rapper Mase and produced by Sean "Puffy" Coombs was a major R&B hit, immediately expanding Brian's audience to a younger demographic. The title track became the follow-up and record buyers who had been supporting Brian since his first release were instantly satisfied that he was still producing and creating his own distinctive brand of contemporary soul music. "Anytime" became a No. 1 R&B and Top 10 pop hit, pushing sales of his third album to three million copies. "It was a calculated move," Brian says. "I was asking myself the question, 'how can I have it all?' Hip-hop was so prevalent and I wanted to see how I could be the cool with that audience. That's when we called Puff Daddy and decided we'd make the kind of record we made with "You Should Be Mine." I found out I could be commercial at that end of the spectrum…and then we came back with the single "Anytime" and just killed 'em! Before I did the Anytime album, I was at the lowest point of my career; after that, my feet came right back to the ground. I understood that what I needed to do was to please my fans, make music that would get on the radio and please myself at the same time."
Candidly, Brian admits that the enormous success of Anytime "made it difficult to prioritize. My second son Niko was born after the release of my second album and my first on Brian Jr. was almost ten. I had finally begun to achieve being where I thought I should be with my career but there were not enough hours in the day. I was doing major tours, there were a lot of pitfalls I hadn't encountered before." While struggling with the balance between his personal life and a career that was in its ascendancy, Brian never lost sight of his one constant love -- "it didn't matter how many records I sold or how successful I became, I knew I was never going to get away from writing songs."
In addition to nurturing his passion as a songwriter, Brian had also been spreading his creative wings as a producer. By the time Anytime was released in 1997, he had produced tracks for a diverse range of artists including Az Yet, Philip Bailey, Boyz II Men, For Real, Damion Hall, Cindy Mizelle, CeCe Peniston, Take 6, Waymon Tisdale, Vesta and Christopher Williams. In the wake of the multi-format success of Anytime, Brian dueted with Mariah Carey on the song "Whenever You Call" from the singer's 1997 smash album "Butterfly" as well as earning the first two of the string of Grammy Award nominations he's earned to date.
In 1998, Motown Records (which had become Brian's recording home with the release of Anytime) issued the holiday album Bethlehem (which featured Boyz II Men, Dave Koz, brother Claude McKnight, Tim Miner, Julie McKnight and Brian's two sons). The same year, he began planning the 1999 album Back at One.
"I think of that album as a marker. If Anytime was black and white, Back at One was like color. The tours got bigger, the audiences more diverse. I went from playing Radio City Music Hall to Madison Garden. I remember what a trip it was for my father, who's a New York native, to see my name up there at The Garden. By the time I finished Back at One, I had built my 'dream' house. With that record, I felt like I really got on track with my career.."
With sales of over three million copies, 1999's Back at One yielded significant singles: the title track which stayed at No. 2 on Billboard's pop charts for eight weeks; "Stay Or Let It Go"; and the standout acoustic-flavored "6-8-12." Commenting on Back at One, Brian says, "I approached making the album with a particular psychology. It was about setting the bar higher creatively. I don't ever want to be complacent so it was about challenging myself, trying to come up with original ideas. As a lyricist, I write conversationally and while I want the music to be accessible, I also have to make it interesting for me."
In 2000, Brian was featured on Motown labelmate BeBe Winans' "Love & Freedom" album and as a result, nabbed another Grammy nomination for "Coming Back Home" (which featured Brian, R&B star Joe and Winans).
Brian continued adding to the ever-growing list of accolades and awards by becoming the first songwriter to be ranked No. 1 on the Hot 100 Songwriters, No. 4 on the Country and Tracks Songwriters and No. 7 on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Singles and Tracks Songwriters with Billboard's Songwriters 2000 listings. The following year, he worked on records with N'Sync (as a producer on the group's album "Celebrity"), Alicia Keys (on her auspicious debut "Songs In A Minor") and duetted with the legendary Willie Nelson on "Don't Fade Away"(a key cut on Nelson's "The Great Divide" album) as well as completing work on his sixth album, superhero. In between sessions for the album, Brian took time to devote to one of his other life passions, playing basketball. He muses, "Because of some of the songs I write, people tend to think of me a particular way – this gentle, sensitive man. I may be that but the concept is that I am the same guy in person that I am in the music I write when in reality, there is a difference between the two. I've been playing semi-pro every summer for the past few years and whenever I get out there, I have to show that I am serious about playing."
Once again showcasing his multi-faceted musical skills, Brian applied himself to the production of Superhero and the result was another hit album that included the key cuts "Still" and "Love Of My Life." He observes, "making that record was like another reinvention for me, like my sound was evolving again. You could view the album as a diary of the past year of my life and these songs as a beacon for me to try to reach higher. I had a tremendous amount of fun making this album and I didn't get all caught up in the notion of trying to duplicate past hits or necessarily sticking to 'my sound'. This time I said, 'OK, What can I do to make things more fun?'" The answer came with cuts like the title track which was inspired in some part from melodic but heavy acts like AC/DC, Van Halen and The Who: "People hadn't heard that side of me before but I really wanted to show a side of me that's different."
Some time playing basketball for the ABA's Ontario Warriors helped keep McKnight out of the musical picture for a couple years. Gemini (2005), his final set for Motown, was released in 2005 and contained some of his most overtly sexual songwriting. Ten, a Warner Bros. release, followed quickly the next year, sporting a handful of Tim & Bob collaborations among otherwise self-produced material. A second Christmas album, I'll Be Home for Christmas, was released in 2008. Evolution of a Man, for the most part a self-sufficient collection, was released in 2009 on E1 (aka Koch). This wasn't merely one of McKnight's most productive phases from a musical standpoint. He hosted a radio program on a Los Angeles radio station, performed on Broadway in Chicago, and competed on the second season of Celebrity Apprentice. The following decade, he released Just Me (2011), a live CD/DVD set.