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