His hit single ''Nobody Knows'' vaults Rich to VH1 and the Grammys

Pop-R&B wunderkind Tony Rich is resigned to the ironies of being a crossover artist. When ”Nobody Knows,” Rich’s breakthrough top 10 single, came out, ”program directors at black radio said, ‘That’s not a black record,”’ recalls the 24-year-old singer-songwriter-producer-multi-instrumentalist. ”Then it started climbing the pop charts, and they changed their tune. I expect black radio will be more open to the next single.”

No doubt. ”Like a Woman,” the soulful second single from Words (LaFace), the Tony Rich Project’s debut album, is slated to be released to black radio on May 27, then to pop stations June 10. The video will ship to MTV at the end of May. Given the rapid upward trajectory of Rich’s career, ”Like a Woman” will not need lady luck to chart.

In the five months since Words‘ release, Rich has vaulted the obscurity-to-ubiquity fence. First came the early success of ”Nobody Knows,” then a galvanizing appearance at the Grammys, where he and R&B sensation D’Angelo reinvented a medley of Stevie Wonder tunes. Six weeks later, Rich and Joan Osborne brought the house down at the VH1 Honors, delivering smoldering duets of the Stones’ ”Beast of Burden” and Al Green’s ”Let’s Stay Together.” In the same broadcast Rich took part in an all-star finale, a rousing rendition of Peter Gabriel’s ”In Your Eyes,” featuring Gabriel, Osborne, Natalie Merchant, Gloria Estefan, and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.

Receiving the imprimatur of such an elite corps is the stuff of crossover dreams, and Rich says he’s ”thrilled” by all the attention. Still, he has no stomach for humble pie. ”I knew it would happen,” he says. ”I put a lot of work into my music, and when you put a lot of work into anything, you expect returns.”

Rich began developing his sensuous, moody music (think: new jack swing for folkies) as an adolescent in Detroit, where he thrived on an eclectic diet of rock, pop, rap, and funk. The son of a piano-playing father, Rich remembers spending endless hours in his room, composing songs on an acoustic guitar and drawing inspiration from a diversity of artists, including Tracy Chapman, Bruce Springsteen, Prince, and Tom Petty.

A fortuitous introduction to LaFace Records copresident Antonio ”L.A.” Reid several years ago led to an upstart career as a producer, writer, and remixer for such R&B and hip-hop artists as Toni Braxton, Pebbles, and TLC. Rich insists, however, that he had zero interest in becoming ”a straight-up R&B artist. I always wanted to appeal to the world.”

Such grand ambition has not come without controversy. Rich recently withdrew from this summer’s much anticipated Smokin’ Grooves tour (featuring Fugees, Cypress Hill, A Tribe Called Quest, Busta Rhymes, Spearhead, and Ziggy Marley & the Melody Makers), passing up a plum opportunity to heighten his already high profile. Sources close to the singer say he agreed to participate before learning of the preponderance of rappers. Why do the immortal words of James Brown — ”It’s too funky in here” — come to mind?

On the subject, Rich is guarded, a bit agitated, but characteristically forward-looking. ”The tour started out one way,” he says, ”then turned into something different where I didn’t really fit, so we had to pull off of that one. But there are a couple of other offers we’re looking into. I have to re-plan my whole summer now.”