Afanasieff, Walter (Contemporary Musicians)
Though they rarely become stars themselves, producers and songwriters are often crucial in making stars of othersr at least enabling established talents to remain in the spotlight. This certainly seems to be the case with Walter Afanasieff. While he has been an enormously successful songwriter, producer and musician, working with some of the biggest pop music names in the last two decades, Afanasieff is hardly a household nameven to the fans of the artists he is closely associated with (most notably, Mariah Carey). Nevertheless, Afanasieff's stamp appears on many of the top popular hits of the 1990s.
Born Vladamir Nikitich in Brazil in 1958, his Russian parents Nikita and Tatiana moved to San Francisco when Afanasieff was five years old. By then, he had already been studying classical piano for two years. Even as a child Afanasieff, who was exposed early on to a variety of musical styles, knew he wanted a career in the music industry. As he recounted to David Farinella in a 1998 Billboard article, "I would sit there as a little kid, rocking on my bed, listening to the Beatles, and know that this is what I wanted to do. I wanted to make music ... . I had this internal clock, this musical rhythm, this music inside of me from day one." A young Afanasieff enrolled at the Conservatory of Music in San Mateo, California, before heading to Europe foradditional schooling in classical music. Returning to California in 1978, he developed an interest in jazz thatwould lead to work with violinist Jean-Luc Ponty and Narada Michael Waiden. Before becoming a producer, Afanasieff was a well-known session musician and composer in the San Francisco area, spent time in a number of bands, and backed vocalists such as James Brown, Aretha Franklin, and Whitney Houston. He got his start playing with Ponty, and later Waiden, with whom he worked for approximately 10 years and who gave him the nickname "Babylove." His time with Waiden, Afanasieff told Farinella, was particularly important to his career development. "I think the greatest teacher was Narada, because he truly is a magnificent producer," Afanasieff said. "He's very talented, he's very creative and improvisational. Theone thing I really learned from him is how to do vocals."
After working with Waiden for a decade, Afanasieff was appointed an executive staff producerfor Sony Music in late 1990. Early on in his tenure at Sony, Afanasieff was involved with several successful projects including the Celine Dion-Peabo Bryson duet "Beauty and the Beast" for the Disney movie of the same name, and Carey's Emotions album. "I just happened to get lucky having a bunch of great artists to work with," Afanasieff told Billboards Susan Nunziata in a 1992 article.
If he isn't famous in his own right, though, Afanasieff's credits are legion. Among his many songwriting credits alone are his collaborations with fellow songwriters Waiden, Preston Glass, and Kenny Williams on "Don't Make Me Wait For Love," a single on Kenny G's 1986 album Duotones. With John Bettis, he co-wrote the title track from Peabo Bryson's 1991 album Can You Stop the Rain, which was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Rhythm and Blues Song of the Year. The same year Afanasieff co-wrote "Missing You Now" with Michael Bolton and legendary songwriter Diane Warren, which appeared on Bolton's best-selling Time, Love and Tenderness album. Afanasieff and Bettis also collaborated on "If You Go Away," a 1992 song which appeared on greatest hits album from NTKOB (formerly New Kids on the Block). With David Foster and Linda Thompson, he co-wrote the 1997 Celine Dion-Barbra Streisand duet "Tell Him," which appeared on both singers' albums that year.
Afanasieff is probably best known, however, for his work with Carey. He has had a hand in writing, producing, and arranging on the bulk of Carey's work, beginning with her self-titled 1990 debut album. Afanasieff produced subsequent releases by Carey, including hit singles such as 1993's "Hero" and "One Sweet Day," the 1995 duet with Boyz II Men. Besides working behind the scenes with Carey, Afanasieff has had occasion to share the spotlight with her as well. He backed Carey on piano during her May 20, 1992 performance on MTV's "Unplugged" show, which was later released as an EP. His reputation as a top producer caught the attention of Hollywood, as well. Afanasieff worked on a numberof movie soundtracks, including 1991's Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Bodyguard in 1992, and Hercules in 1997. With Waiden he co-wrote, co-produced, and arranged the title trackfor the 1989 James Bond film A License to Kill, which was performed by Gladys Knight.
While he has worked on a number of high profile projects and with a number of well-known artists, Afanasieff said he enjoys the challenge of working with new performers as well. "In a pure, honest sense," he told Billboard in 1998, "I would prefer an artist who is an unknown, unheard artist." One of the newer artists he was working with in 1999 was the Australian pop duo Savage Garden (Darren Hayes and Daniel Jones).
His musical craftsmanship and skill did not gone unnoticed by the music community. In a 1998 tribute in Billboard, Carey praised Afanasieff as a "knowledgeable musician," and collaborator Bettis added that Afanasieff "can literally play, write, or produce anything." Sony Music head Thomas Mottola told Billboard for the tribute, "One of the things I respect most about Walter is that, for him, a great record is about feeling, about emotion, and each element of his productions serves to bring that out of the songs. You know when you work with him he's going to dig deep and come up with something that sounds classic and brand new at one and the same time. And he achieves these results with very different artists."
For Afanasieff, producing is apparently ultimately something of an organic process. "I wasn't a guy who studied the engineers and studio techniques and 'miking' and what consoles everybody was using... I'd always read that, but that wasn't what I was interested in," he told Farinella. "I was into pure music, what moved me musically, what sounds the best, what keyboard sound work with that bass line, the chord changes, the vocals, the harmonies, the orchestra."
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K. Michelle Moran