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Soul Serenade

R&B vets Brian McKnight and New Edition bring slinky slow jams to The Orpheum.


Break out your satin sheets and call the baby sitter. Memphis will be getting a double scoop of sexy when Brian McKnight and New Edition play The Orpheum on Thursday, June 23rd. Both acts are known primarily for their smooth R&B sounds and sensual soul ballads. McKnight sometimes strays into even smoother territory, playing jazzier compositions. New Edition, often credited as the originators of that early fusion of R&B and hip-hop known as new-jack swing, will give audiences more of a chance to shake their butts.

McKnight, who recently left his longtime label, Motown, came to music through the church. He started writing music while he was still a teenager and at the age of 21 found himself signed to a major label, Mercury. His first single, "The Way We Love," went to number 11 on the R&B charts. His next hit, "Love Is," a duet with Vanessa Williams, didn't register so well with R&B fans. Instead, it went to number three on the pop charts, situating Mc-Knight as a musician with serious crossover potential.

Since then, McKnight has consistently released successful albums, including his latest, Gemini, mixing his heart-rending ballads with up-tempo love songs and hip-hop guest stars such as Juvenile and Talib Kweli.

McKnight speaks fondly of Memphis and its musical legacy: "When you think of Memphis, you think of Elvis. You don't realize the incredible history of black music here. I went to the Stax Museum the last time I was here, and I really have a lot of respect for those artists."

McKnight is also excited to be playing in Memphis because of the city's size. "When you play a big town like New York or L.A.," he says, "there are a lot of people in the front who don't know you at all. They're just there for an experience. When you play a small city like Memphis, the crowd comes to see you. I really appreciate that."

New Edition is a group whose achievements are often obscured by roster changes and side projects. The group began performing as a trio in Boston during the late '70s. The three original members were Ricky Bell, Michael Bivins, and Bobby Brown. The boys were still in elementary school and started singing for pocket money. They began winning local talent shows and added Ralph Tresvant and Ronnie Devoe to the group.

They eventually caught the eye of impresario Maurice Starr, who saw his chance to form a Jackson 5 for the '80s. With Starr, New Edition released their debut hit, "Candy Girl." A few songs later, MCA offered the boys a deal. With the release of their eponymous MCA debut, New Edition became full-fledged pop stars. As they grew, their sound become less popcorn. "All for Me" (1985) was funkier and more mature. In 1986, Brown left the group to pursue a solo career and was replaced by Johnny Gill.

Heart Break, released in 1989, was the first New Edition album produced by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. The two men refined the New Edition sound, giving it the harder hip-hop edges that came to define new-jack swing in such New Edition spin-off hits as Bell-Biv-Devoe's "Poison" and Brown's "My Prerogative."

Brown returned to the group briefly in 1996 for Home Again. It was a successful project, but the group drifted apart again. They began to tour in the early years of the new millennium and caught the attention of P. Diddy. He signed New Edition, sans the troubled Brown, to his Bad Boy label, and the group released a new album, One Love in 2004.

New Edition and McKnight are soul veterans, and Mc-Knight, for one, is enjoying his time on the road: "This is one of the best tours I've ever been on. Of course, with this many guys, there have been some shenanigans." 

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