In the ’30s, Jimmie Rodgers was known as ”The Singing Brakeman”; in the ’50s, Canadian country star Hank Snow was dubbed ”The Singing Ranger”; in the ’90s, will country fans be calling Virginia’s Cleve Francis ”The Singing Doctor” ? ”Oh, I sort of hope not,” says a chuckling Francis, who is the first African-American country singer signed to a major label since Charley Pride in the 1960s. ”Once people hear my music, I think all the labels — ‘singing doctor,’ ‘black country artist’ — pretty much disappear.” And a lot of people will soon be hearing Francis’ music: ”Love Light,” the first single from his debut album, Tourist in Paradise, is a budding hit. The oldest of six children born in poverty in Jennings, La., Francis says, ”My external system was negative, but my mother inspired a strong internal system in me — love, hard work, education.” A graduate of the Medical College of Virginia, Francis, now 45, was part of a five-person cardiology practice in Alexandria and making music on the side when he decided to film his own video for ”Love Light.” Capitol exec Jimmy Bowen saw it, signed him, and coproduced Tourist with Cleve. ”I took almost a clinical approach to making the album,” says Francis. ”It’s mostly up-tempo — no tears-in-my-beer, leave-me-and-I’ll-jump-off-a-bridge songs. I want my music to be therapeutic as well as entertaining.” Therapy never sounded so warm and inviting.
— Ken Tucker
Sophie B. Hawkins
She grew up in Manhattan listening to records by jazz saxophonist John Coltrane. Her first paid gig, at age 14, was as a percussionist with Nigerian master drummer Babatunde Olatunji. She writes her music using an African drum called a djeme, and covers Bob Dylan’s ”I Want You” on her debut album, a potent, purposely eclectic mixture of pop, rock, and dance music called Tongues and Tails, due in March from Columbia. Considering the quality of such tracks as ”Damn I Wish I Was Your Lover,” the album’s first single, why’d Sophie B. Hawkins even bother with Dylan? ”That was my favorite song growing up,” says the singer-songwriter, who once fronted rock bands called Sophie’s Private Waves and the Pinkmen. ”When I was really young, I asked my father if there were anything he wished he’d done, and he said no. And I said, ‘I wish I had written ”I Want You.”’ Because I feel I could have written that.” As djeme players go, though, Sophie pens pretty nifty pop songs of her own. ”This is the music that I wrote,” she says of her album, ”so no matter what I’ve done before as a musician backing other people, this is the music that comes from my soul completely.”
— Dave DiMartino
”When I was in elementary school,” recalls Shanice Wilson, ”they called me ‘Smiley’ Wilson. I used to smile all the time.” She’s still smiling, and can you blame her? With a single — called ”I Love Your Smile,” what else? — soaring toward the top of the pop charts and her album Inner Child just taking off, the 18-year-old, L.A.-based soul singer is finding the kind of crossover success that her label, Motown, made a tradition 30 years ago. This isn’t her first foray into records; she released an album for A&M in 1987 and scored two top 10 R&B hits there with ”Can You Dance” and ”No 1/2 Steppin’.” Though Wilson has been performing since age 8 — when she was in a Kentucky Fried Chicken commercial with Ella Fitzgerald — she says she wasn’t pressured into the business. ”My mom sat me down once and asked me, ‘Do you really want to do this?’ And I said, ‘I want to do it.”’ So does someone else: Later this year, Motown will release a debut album from a new duo: Shanice Wilson’s mother and aunt.
— Dave DiMartino
”R&B now is a lot different from R&B in the past,” says producer, writer, and multi-instrumentalist Bryan Loren. ”In the ’60s, R&B was Motown, and that was considered pop. I like to think of myself like that — covering all bases.” In his short career, Loren, 25, has already covered a lot of the bases, although behind the scenes. His smooth, bouncy style of pop-R&B — nurtured in Philadelphia when he was a teenage session man and played with the band Cashmere — has already been heard on records by Sting (”We’ll Be Together”), Whitney Houston (Loren wrote ”Feels So Good,” the B side of her hit ”I’m Your Baby Tonight”), and R&B acts like Shanice Wilson. On the recommendation of his friend Michael Jackson, Loren wrote, produced, and played most of the instruments on last year’s ”Do the Bartman” novelty hit. Unfortunately, all of the dozen or so tracks Loren and Jackson worked on for Jackson’s Dangerous album were shelved. Loren admits to being disappointed by that but feels he’ll get even when Arista releases his new solo album, Music From the New World, in March. ”When people hear my stuff, they’ll question Michael’s common sense,” he says, adding with a laugh, ”if I have my way, 1992 will make him very regretful.”
— David Browne
Once L7 — as in square — was strictly an L.A. rocker kind of thing, playing your usual slam-dance kind of venues. Now the group is five years old and about to release its third album, Bricks Are Heavy (Slash, due out in March). And fans can have fun decoding the band’s ironic lyrics in songs like ”Wargasm”:”…body bags and dropping bombs/the Pentagon knows how to turn us on ” As non-square fans know, politics is never far from the music of these four female rockers in their mid-20s: Last fall, L7 started Rock for Choice, musicians who do benefits for organizations involved in issues of reproductive rights; this month they planned to play at the Hollywood Palladium for a pro-choice benefit marking the 19th anniversary of Roe v. Wade. But if L7’s metal-punk-surfer-hardcore sound doesn’t appeal to you, that’s fine by the band — as long as you get to hear it. Because, see, the band says it’s on a mission. ”We have a spiritual obligation to expose people to our music,” says bassist Jennifer Finch. Why? So audiences loyal to bands like the Red Hot Chili Peppers, explains Finch, might ”get clued in on knowing that women can be a strong force that can rock.”
— Melissa Rawlins
Were it not for the failure of a 1988 album called Y Kant Tori Read — a misguided, hard-edged embarrassment that aimed at rock radio and missed — Tori Amos might not have put her heart and soul into the very different Little Earthquakes. This time, Amos seems a superb singer, songwriter, and pianist — and radio airplay has never mattered less. While her subjects aren’t light — the harrowing ”Me & a Gun,” for example, is an a cappella account of a rape — Amos weaves a spell that is deeply affecting and oddly reassuring at the same time. Born in North Carolina, Amos, 28, last year took refuge in Britain, where critics regularly compare her to Laura Nyro, Kate Bush, and even Patti Smith. Does she mind? ”You know when you feel like sometimes the fairy godmother has put her little dink on your hat, and you just feel like something magical is kind of happening at this moment, and you allow yourself to go with that?” she asks. ”I think what people are just , comparing is that dink on your head. I think those other women were dinked, too.”
— Dave DiMartino
Seattle’s Pearl Jam has given the world its first album, and it’s a Ten. Yes, that’s the title of the Epic release; yes, that’s the highest you can turn a volume control you’re Spinal Tap; and yes, say critics, that’s also where it reaches on the quality scale. A powerful, eclectic quintet — guitarist Mike McCready, 26; drummer Dave Abbruzzese, 23; bassist Jeff Ament, 28; singer Eddie Vedder, 26; and guitarist Stone Gossard, 25 — Pearl Jam combines the brute aggression of modern heavy metal with a surprising postpunk intelligence. A tour with Red Hot Chili Peppers has given the band enviable exposure. So will its role as the fictional rock group Citizen Dick in Cameron Crowe’s film Singles, a look at Seattle rock life that opens in April. And so may its special mix. Pearl Jam’s lyrics explore the existential angst of youth, but musically the group delivers a continual sense of hope, which may be why its version of the Beatles’ ”I’ve Got a Feeling’ connects with audiences. Seattle’s other successes are fine by them too. ”The fact that Nirvana had a No. 1 record and a No. 6 single is, like, sick,” laughs Ament. ”And it’s beautiful at the same time.” Pearl Jam might not mind its own stuff described that way.
— Dave DiMartino
Eye & I
Early on, the New York funk & roll band Eye & I was told it couldn’t get a record deal unless it played strictly R&B. Then came the success of the group’s friends Living Colour, and all that changed. Says the band’s bullhorn-voiced lead singer, D.K. Dyson, 34, ”It opened people’s eyes that people of color could make this kind of music.” In the case of Eye & I, that music is a mix of sleek urban funk, fusion, pop balladry, and psychedelic hard-rock (a crunching cover of Lou Reed’s ”Venus in Furs”) heard on the band’s eponymous Epic debut album, due in February. ”When we started, we decided to use all those different elements — dark and light, fun and serious,” says Dyson, below center. ”And we still use them.” Unconventionally mixing and matching such styles had its price: The band (Dyson with guitarist Gary Poulson; DJ Jason Kibler, known as J. Logic; guitarist André Lassalle; bassist Melvin Gibbs; and drummer Richie Harrison) endured years of record-company rejections. Yet they built a reputation as one of New York’s most galvanizing live acts, thanks in part to Dyson’s wild-eyed stage garb (exotic headgear one night, a nightgown and glasses the next). The band’s eclecticism still ”makes it a little hard to market — the business dudes are going crazy!” Dyson says with a laugh. But when it comes to Eye & I, a little craziness can go a long way.
— David Browne