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Babyface brings industry wisdom to Berklee clinic

Bridgit Brown

Kenny Edmonds wants you to know that he’s a team player — really, he is.

“I’m not one of those songwriters that’s like, ‘No, you can’t do anything with this. It’s mine. Get away,’” the man known around the world as Babyface said during a recent visit to Berklee College of Music. “I can collaborate really easy.”

But don’t get it twisted — when this team player steps up to make a suggestion, even music industry superstars would do well to listen.

Case in point: a nearly disastrous dispute with one of the most popular RandB groups ever.

“There was this one situation when I thought one of the songs that I wrote would be a hit, but Boyz II Men didn’t want the song” on “II,” the 1994 follow-up to the group’s 1991 debut, Edmonds recalled. “They had this big meeting at the record company, and at the time I was thinking, ‘That’s a mistake. You should really keep that one.’”

Fortunately, he recalled, someone persuaded the group to hang onto the track.

“That song was ‘I’ll Make Love to You,’ which spent 14 weeks as the number one song” on the Billboard Hot 100 charts, he said.

You could learn a thing or two from a guy with that combination of ear and instincts.

Some 200 student musicians, including those enrolled in Berklee’s City Music program, tried to do just that during Edmonds’ visit, a two-hour trip to the school’s music clinic that culminated in the industry legend taking to the stage to perform songs from his new album, “Playlist.”

The visit included an informal conversation about everything from the first time Bootsy Collins first called him “Babyface” to making the personal connections that have enabled the hitmaker to work with the likes of Aretha Franklin, Eric Clapton, James Taylor, Madonna, Bobby Brown, TLC and others.
Ultimately, he said, success hinges on a sharp skill set honed through hard work.

“Being able to play and being able to prove you can play are the things that will make a difference when it comes to determining which doors you can knock on and being ready when the call comes,” he said.

Your chances only get better, he continued, if you’ve got skills in a variety of sounds.

“When the call finally came for me, I was ready because I had spent so many years on the road and playing so many different kinds of music that when I got a call to [work with] Eric Clapton, and produce him, I had played his music and top 40 bands all the time,” he said. “All the songs that I had been playing were preparation for knowing [top artists’] music and knowing them as artists and not feeling as though it’s a whole new world.”

During his performance, Edmonds shared the stage with his music director, Berklee alum Rob Lewis, a proven producer whose portfolio includes past work with Patti LaBelle, Toni Braxton, Sean “Diddy” Combs, Jamie Foxx, Herbie Hancock and Christina Aguilera.

“Rob knows how to write, he knows how to arrange, and he’s also keeping his street education as well,” said Edmonds. “Every chance I get, I pull him in to be a part of certain projects and use his skills, because in L.A. there are a lot of film scores, movies, TV projects and other places that you can go as opposed to just being a musician.”

And Lewis isn’t complaining.

“God has been good to me,” said Lewis. “I’ve been in a leadership position as a musical director and I’ve been able to reach back and help a lot of my homies.”

One of the beneficiaries of that reaching back was Berklee, according to J. Curtis Warner, the college’s assistant vice president for community and governmental affairs.

“When we started developing the online curriculum for the City Music program, I enlisted Rob to produce the music for the site,” said Warner. “I knew him as a student and we remained friends.”

At that time, Lewis was touring as Aguilera’s music director, a position he will resume once Aguilera returns to tour from pregnancy leave.

“Rob got Christina’s band to record six songs for us and then, on their way to New York City to do ‘Saturday Night Live,’ I intercepted them and brought them to Berklee,” said Warner. “I also took him to the Boston Arts Academy and to the Roland Hayes School” of Music in Roxbury.

Edmonds’ Berklee visit grew out of that relationship.

“[In November] I was in L.A. and I met up with Rob out there. He brought me into the studio to meet Kenny then,” said Warner. “I knew he was coming to Boston soon, and so I asked him to do the clinic.”

Edmonds agreed, a gesture Warner called “unbelievably generous.”

Also associate vice president of Berklee City Music, Warner spends 80 percent of his time involved with the City Music National Network, a consortium of organizations around the country that have a similar mission to the college’s program, a strategic initiative to provide a rigorous music education to middle and high school students at no cost to them or their families.

City Music students come after school and on Saturdays to receive state-of-the-art music instruction. The program also gives up to 50 middle and high school students five weeks of music training during the summer. Thirty-two current Berklee students are on full scholarships through the City Music program.

During his visit, Edmonds encouraged those young musicians to open themselves up to a wide range of musical styles.

“Go back and listen to the great Rolling Stones, or the Beatles. Listen to Elton John, listen to Stevie Wonder,” he said. “Get those albums and make them a part of your playlist, because there’s so much there to inspire you to do things other than just today. When you have that as a background, you’re going to know more things than the average kids that’s just listening to music today.”

Part of that background, he stressed, is being able to read and write music.

“You can be as bad as you want to be, and you should always be as bad as you are, but add that extra thing, don’t fall back on that part,” he said. “Trust me, it’s really important. It’s a big part, it will take you further. It will open doors.”

But it’s all about what you do after those doors are open, he continued. If you walk through them and take advantage of the opportunities available to you, people will back you. And once that happens, Edmonds said, you’ve got it made.

“When certain people endorse you, it doesn’t matter who else does. I have this new album called ‘Playlist,’ and it’s a lot of remakes of songs that inspired me, and [‘Fire and Rain’ by] James Taylor is one,” he said. “The coolest thing just happened. I got a letter from him and he told me that he was so pleased with what I did with his song.

“The fact that he liked it, as the creator of the song — y’all can’t tell me nothing. When you get to the point where you have something like that happen in your life, that’s when it feels worth it.”