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Rising Detroit R&B star John Brown is hanging out with his manager, Phillip Ragan, at a downtown Starbucks near his home. Even he's dressed Detroit casual — T-shirt and jeans — and though he's generally a low-key guy, he's got this energy that can suddenly kick the volume up enough to drown the sounds of blenders, registers and chatter. It's a neat trick.
"Man, we just got back a few hours ago from a recording session in Miami," he says, sipping a strawberry smoothie. "I'm just really feeling how this album is coming together."
Raised by both parents, the youngest of five, his dad a co-pastor of Greater Southern Missionary Baptist Church, the 23-year-old Brown's history is more Aretha than Akon. "When I was 6 years old, my father called me to the front of the church to sing 'His Eye Is on the Sparrow,'" he says. "I've been singing ever since."
Brown joined Detroit's Mosaic Youth Theatre, specializing in singing and acting and continued to sing in church until he was 16. And as a teen, this dude could sing: He was chosen to perform the National Anthem live at both Detroit Pistons and Lions games.
Brown attended Mumford High School on Detroit's west side, where he met singer Robert Curry. Turns out Brown's first break would come through Curry, who relocated to New York, and kept an eye out for his pal back in Detroit.
"Robert called me and said they were looking for somebody for a group," Davis says. I went to New York to audition and I was in."
"They" included star producer and Fugees founder Wyclef Jean.
Brown then moved to New Jersey and joined Curry and two more crooners to form the group E2G, a wholesome R&B and pop mash-up, which Brown says resembled Boyz II Men and Bad Boy artists 112. E2G never released an album nor created much noteworthy buzz.
Brown stares out the window, pauses and says ruefully, "We did a lot of recording but the project just wasn't headed in the right direction."
The group split. Curry later became a member of Day 26, the group handpicked in 2007 by Sean "Diddy" Combs in the finale of MTV's Making the Band 4.
Brown stayed in New Jersey, finished high school in 2004, and opted for college. He came home and then got in at Grambling State University in Louisiana on a full academic choir scholarship, and then switched schools a few times. He also became a father.
In those three years, Brown focused on three things: school, music and fatherhood. Soon he was back in Detroit. He used local industry connections to support touring acts such as Trey Songz, Ruben Studdard, Buju Banton, and he toured with Lil Boosie. He relied on friends for free studio time, and continued to network on the Internet. "I had friends who owned their own studios and, whenever they were free, I would just write songs and record," Brown says.
But hustle always sees setbacks. Brown looks down into his smoothie, shakes his head and smiles. "Man, they're people out here that just want to sell you dreams."
He talks of the fake Def Jam rep who claimed that he was getting Brown a record deal but kept asking for money for expenses.
Another nightmare was a so-called industry insider who promised the credulous young singer, and other aspiring artists, the opportunity to meet with record label A&R men. Brown and his mother gave the man $1,500 dollars in expenses.
"This guy holds seminars here. He claimed he was flying all these record execs in, but no one ever showed up. He just left people waiting," Brown says.
Toward fall 2009, when frustration was brewing and second guesses were mounting, Brown's MySpace page proved its worth.
"I got a message from this guy on my MySpace page named Rico, and said he had an opportunity for me," Brown says. This led to a meeting with local entertainment lawyer Phillip Ragan, the president and co-owner of MoPhillin Music Group.
Ragan, it seems, loved him.
"He's just a true singer with a really great voice," Ragan says. "We decided we were going to do what we had to do to get him a deal." Brown glances at Ragan, taps his fingers on the table. "If this didn't happen, I would have stopped," Brown says. "I was just going to focus on school."
A month letter, Brown flew to Atlanta to record "Imma Love You Right" a soulful, sticky-sweet-smooth melody full of unironic big-hearted romance, produced by Larry "Detroit" Nix (Lil' Jon, R. Kelly and Bei Maejor (Trey Songz, Ne-Yo), and written by the Council, a song team that includes Rico and Maejor. The tune shows how Brown isn't exactly a "seduction" type of a balladeer but a "let's take a walk in the park and hold hands" type of cat.
The track managed to get radio play in a few different states and piqued interest from major labels, including Jive, Capitol and Universal Republic.
"It was an act of God," Brown says laughing. The crooner chose Universal Republic, signed the deal in February, and the single was officially released in March. It hit and introduced Brown to a mass national audience. The debut album will see light before year's end.
Brown is a rare breed for R&B these days. The boy-faced singer doesn't swear, smoke or drink. He goes to church. He's well-mannered, humble and polite, almost militaristic in that sense. He still has that R&B soul man's confidence, but it's quiet, as if he hides it. He's Theo Huxtable with a great voice, Boyz II Men preppy with Tyrese intentions. He appears to be an all-around good guy, one you'd take home to your mother. No shit.
"I focus primarily on love," Brown says, grinning.
He plays the guitar and piano but has not worked them into his performance yet. He's also four credits shy of his political science degree. "School is a backup plan. I want to be a good example for my son."
He loves Detroit's music scene but hates the animosity. He pounds one hand inside the other, sighs and explains: "I'm supportive of every artist here but there are some people here that need to grow up and stop hating."
As Brown's energy rises, he's interrupted by an aspiring emcee selling his own CDs for $5. Brown pats his pockets and comes up empty; he wants to support him because he's been exactly where this guy is. Ragan reaches in his wallet, gives the emcee a five-spot for the CD. The guy's grateful, talks a little about his music and doesn't leave without letting everyone know he also has bootleg Iron Man 2 DVDs for sale. Ragan and Brown both look at each other and almost in unison say, "Only in Detroit."
John Brown's life-changing songs:
Al Green: "Lets stay Together"
Boyz II Men: "Water Runs Dry"
Earth Wind & Fire: "Love's Holiday"
Mint Condition: "Breakin' My Heart (Pretty Brown Eyes)"
Prince and the Revolution: "Purple Rain"
Runners-up: New Edition: "Can You Stand the Rain"; Luther Vandross: "A House Is Not a Home"