R&B singer Jon B. is known for his hip-hop sound, but he is also a talented songwriter who has written for such performers as Toni Braxton, After 7, and Color Me Badd. He has collaborated with Kenneth "Baby-face" Edmonds, the late Tupac Shakur, Nas, and AZ. Jon B. has several gold records to his credit: Bonafide, Cool Relax, and Are U Still Down were certified gold; Are U Still Down and Cool Relax later went platinum.
Born Jonathan David Buck in 1974, in Rhode Island, Buck is the son of David Buck, a professor of music at California State University, Los Angeles, and director of the Los Angeles Symphonic Camerata. Buck's mother was a concert pianist, and he learned to play keyboards when he was nine. Soon after, he added bass and drums. His brother Kevin became a cellist, and his sister earned a master's degree at Juilliard in violin performance. Although his family was deeply involved in classical music, Jon B. was more interested in music with a beat, and from the age of five, he drummed on anything that would make a good sound.
By that time his family had moved to California, where Jon B. spent a great deal of time in his grandparents' record store. He listened to the music played in the store: Earth, Wind & Fire, Rod Stewart, the Bee Gees, and Donna Summer. His grandparents allowed him to borrow records and play them on a small turntable he had at home. As he grew older, he began listening to such musicians as Stevie Wonder, Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds, Mint Condition, and D'Angelo. He also began writing his own songs.
Through his father's friend Jack Elliott, the musical director for the Grammy Awards, Jon, who attended the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts, met executives from top record companies, but he couldn't get a deal with them. They told him he sounded "too black," according to Kim.
When Jon B. graduated from high school, he gave a tape to singer Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds and his wife, Tracey Edmonds. They signed him to their brand-new label, Yab Yum Records, in the mid-1990s. He wrote and produced work for other musicians before working on his own album, with the blessing of Tracey Edmonds, who was president and CEO of Yab Yum. She showed 50 songs he had written to various artists and immediately got work for him. He wrote and produced songs for Toni Braxton, After 7, New Edition, Color Me Badd, Dee Dee O'Neal, and Rotac. His songs caught the attention of singer Peter Gabriel, who invited Jon B. to a "recording week" in Bath, England, which involved a collaboration of songwriters and producers from all over the world who would lend their talents to an album for Gabriel's Real World label.
This background of working for well-known artists was part of a strategy envisioned by Edmonds. She told Carrie Borzillo in Billboard, "We knew we'd need this credibility as a marketing tool because he's a white guy doing R&B music. We thought there would be some resistance from urban radio because he's white." Another aspect of the plan was releasing the song "Someone to Love" to urban radio stations.
The plan worked. By the time he was 19, "Someone to Love," which was a duet with Babyface, hit number eleven on the Billboard Hot Singles chart and was number eight on the Hot R&B Singles chart. His debut album, Bonafide, produced by Yab Yum, quickly moved up on the Billboard 200, and within 3 months of its release had sold over 58,000 copies.
Jon B. told Anita M. Samuels in Billboard that his race did not make any difference in his career, noting, "In most cases, people don't even see it as an issue, especially when they hear me sing." However, Jon B. told Sonia Murray of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that with his first album, "I was getting told what to do and how to look" because the recording company wanted to carefully package a white artist performing traditionally black music. "People didn't really know how to take a guy that looked like me singing the music I was singing." He told Borzillo that he looked up to Edmonds and viewed him as a mentor. "Getting to do a duet with Babyface was like the height of everything. After we did it, it was like a dream, doors started opening. I thank him in many ways, and one is to keep my music real."
In June of 1995, sales of Bonafide were fueled by an appearance on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Polly Anthony, president of Sony's 550 Music, told Borzillo in 1996, "We truly believe he can be an artist who is not just successful in the U.S., but on a global level as well." As part of that plan, Jon B. headed out that year on an international tour to promote the album in Europe and Asia.
Jon B.'s 1997 release, Cool Relax, spent over 37 weeks on the Billboard Top R&B Albums chart, and by June of 1998 it was number six on that chart, having sold 537,000 copies by that date. It later went platinum. With this success, concerns about Jon B.'s image were somewhat relaxed; he told Murray, "I've always lived the hip-hop culture, and now I have the chance to show it." He had more creative control on this album, largely because, as he told Hyun Kim in Vibe, "I just stayed in the studio, and no one could really get at me."
As his success grew, so did commentary about his being a white musician in an African American musical tradition. "You gotta have haters to have lovers," he told Kim of his detractors. "I have to deal with people challenging my identity by the questions they ask." Despite his family background and early exposure to classical music, he said that he grew up deeply influenced by the hip-hop scene, so it was not unexpected for him to make music in that genre.
In 1998 he told Anita M. Samuels in Billboard, "Right now, the artist thing is shining for me, but it's the writing thing that keeps me going; it's the root of it all." He received offers for acting roles, but he was reluctant to pursue them, feeling that he wanted to stay in the music world for the time being. He told Samuels that he dreamed of directing music videos and creating his own concepts; he was inspired by artists such as Erykah Badu, Wyclef Jean, and Lauryn Hill, whose videos were inspired by their own personality and outlook. In 1999 Jon B. married his longtime girlfriend, Musiic K. Galloway. Also a performer, Musiic has sung backup for Macy Gray and Nikka Costa.
Jon B.'s third album, Pleasures U Like, featured guest performers Babyface, Nas, Cuban Link, AZ, and Faith Evans. In the Los Angeles Times, Natalie Nichols described the album's flavor as "syrupy" and called its mix of tunes "a generic, if not entirely unpleasant, pastiche of modern R&B." In the Dayton Daily News, however, a reviewer noted that Jon B. "keeps getting better with age."
In 2001 Jon B. made a move rare among successful solo artistse joined singers Delux and Domini Quinn to create a new band, called Jack Herrera. He had connected with his new bandmates, who were his backup singers, while on tour in Europe; they began writing during long rides on the tour bus, where Jon B. had a portable recording studio set up. "By the end of the tour, we had enough material for an entire album," he told Dana Hall in Billboard. "We just have a common vision." They named the band after a man from Amsterdam who they had met during the tour. "We just liked his vibe and the sound of the name," Jon B. told Hall. In the band, Jon B. plays drums and keyboards, and his brother has joined them for bass and cello. Although the band uses some programmed beats to achieve a slight hip-hop feel, most of its music is produced on live instruments.
The group signed with Yab Yum/550. Jon B. continued to record on his own, but he was excited about his new group, which allowed him to explore a more classic soul sound. "That's the sound that has influenced me the most in my life," he told Hall.
His excitement about Jack Herrera did not ensure their immediate success, though, as Yab Yum decided not to release any of their music. Jon B. remains hopeful, however, that in the future, the project will get off the ground.
Bonafide, Yab Yum/550, 1995.
Cool Relax, Yab Yum/550, 1997.
Pleasures U Like, Yab Yum/550, 2001.
Greatest Hits: Are U Still Down?, Yab Yum/550, 2002.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, June 19, 1998, p. P3.
Billboard, July 15, 1995, p. 8; June 13, 1998, p. 25; March 20, 1999, p. 27.
Dayton Daily News (Ohio), April 6, 2001, p. 24.
Los Angeles Times, October 17, 1998, p. 6; March 17, 2001, p. F14.
"Artists A-Z: Jon B," VH1.com, http://www.vh1.com/artists/az/jon_b/bio.jhtml (December 1, 2002).
"The Pleasure Is All Ours," BET.com, (December 1, 2002).
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