McKnight, Brian (Contemporary Musicians)
R&B singer, songwriter, producer
Brian McKnight's professional accomplishments as a musician have been many and varied during the past nine years, after signing with Mercury Records at the tender age of 19 in 1989. A gifted singer known primarily as a romantic balladeer based on his first two releases, he departed from this style on his 1997 album, Anytime, which includes the single, "You Should Be Mine," with rapper, Mase. This departure from the romantic crooning heard on his first two albums challenged him and forced him to stretch musically. The results of this collaboration first came to the attention of the mainstream after his 1993 duet with Vanessa Williams, "Love Is," from the "Beverly Hills 90210" soundtrack, which hit number three on the Hot 100. McKnight has proven that although he sped up the music ladder to stardom, he has what it takes to maintain his place.
McKnight is also a prolific songwriter. He writes much of his own material as well as writing songs for other artists. Known as a brilliant producer, this versatile artist plays a number of instruments as well, including the piano, trumpet, and bass. In addition to being lead vocalist, songwriter, and/or producer of three of his own albums during the past five years, he has also performed and recorded with Take 6, Boyz II Men, Vanessa Williams, Quincy Jones, the Boys Choir of Harlem, and others. Additionally, McKnight has produced and co-produced many other releases for various artists.
Coming from a highly musical family, McKnight always thought singing and playing music were as natural as "walking and talking" according to an online interview. He was born in Buffalo, New York, on June 5,1969, the youngest of four boys. His success was obviously strongly influenced by his family and his earliest experiences. McKnight learned to sing at the age of four, seated on his mother's lap while she sang in the alto section of the church choir. McKnight's grandfather was the minister of music at the church, and had been a big band leader. Here in the Emanuel Temple in Buffalo, New York, McKnight absorbed the joyous spiritual melodies that are a trademark of the African-American church. That grounding in gospel harmonies remain a foundation in his work today.
Influenced by Gospel Music
While still a young boy, McKnight and his three older brothers formed a gospel quartet, called the McKnight Brothers. The boys modeled themselves after the great gospel groups, the Swan Silvertones and Mighty Clouds of Joy. McKnight looked up to his three older brothers, Claude, Freddie, and Michael, who were role models to him. Following their lead of listening to jazz outside of church, the youngest McKnight told David Ritz, in a online interview that "Church music thrilled me, but jazz stimulated my mind." His childhood was filled with a wide variety of music including The Platters, Nat King Cole, Woody Herman, and Gino Vannelli. Inspired by the Four Freshman and HiLos albums brought home by his older brothers, McKnight taught himself how to play piano by ear.
His other passion was and continues to be sports. He idolized the Philadelphia 76'ers and Dr. J, as well as the Dallas Cowboys and Tony Dorset. As a youngster he had two dreamso be a professional ball player and a professional musician. When he was eight years old, his family moved from the snowy region of Buffalo, New York, to sunny Florida. Even before he was a teenager, he played jazz piano. He studied the masters, Oscar Peterson and Art Tatum, whom he considered "geniuses." Still the playing field of sports beckoned. During junior high he ran on the track team and was a starter on both the football and basketball teams. His passion for sports and music continued to compete, until he was won over by the music of Stevie Wonder. He felt that Wonder's singing is "almost athletic." Wonder's Original Music quarium had a major impact on the direction of his life.
During high school, McKnight was into the trumpet and followed the work of Wynton Marsalis, who became another role model for the young artist. By age 17, he had formed a group called Spontaneous Inventions, named after Bobby McFerrin's album. Unbeknownst to his mother, he would paint a mustache on his face to play in clubs.
Soon afterwards in 1987, McKnight followed his older brother Claude to the Christian college, Oakwood, in Huntsville, Alabama. Huntsville was also Brian McKnight's first opportunity to work in a professional recording studio. It was at Sound Cell that he met Brandon Barnes, another gifted writer and musician who would later become Knight's partner and mentor. Barnes showed him the ropes, taught him how to make demo's, and how to cut tracks. Barnes co-wrote three songs on Anytime, including the title track. Two years later, in 1989, McKnight's college career came to a sudden end when he was expelled for having a woman in his room; the incident proved to be the catalyst which would jump start his music career.
Remaining in Huntsville, McKnight began working at the Sound Cell and would soon record an amazing 65 songs. Determined to succeed as a musician, he began sending demo tapes to record companies and in 1989 Mercury Records signed 19 year old McKnight to a recording contract.
Established As Romantic Balladeer
In 1992, McKnight's self-titled debut album was released on the Mercury label. Well received and a commercial success, the album included the hit single, "One Last Cry." Entertainment Weekly called it "black pop suitable for framing," with McKnight's lush tenor voice adding a heartfelt quality to the poetic love songs. During this time he also received accolades for his production work on Vanessa Williams' album, Comfort Zone, and duet with Williams,"You Got To Go." Another duet with Vanessa Williams, "Love Is," from the Beverly Hills 90270 soundtrack helped establish McKnight as a serious balladeer.
With 1995's I Remember You, McKnight was further established in the pop/R&B arena. He continued crooning about love and desire, and showed he was unafraid to reveal the sensitiveside of the contemporary man. "McKnight revels in being a hopeless romantic who fervently believes in the healing power of love," stated Rolling Stone. But People's Jeremy Helligar opined that "most of I Remember You is all too easy to forget." Whatever the opinion of this album, the jazz influence showed through the soulful sound as McKnight began melding jazz and pop sounds with his own heartfelt vocals. McKnight told Ritz that the feelings he writes about must move him first: "The sentiments must be real, the melodies must be magic."
Crooned Into Rap World
In addition to his many other projects, McKnight released his third album with Mercury, 1997's Anytime. The single, "You Should Be Mine (Don't Waste Your Time)," featured rapper Mase, while the album attempts to reach a younger audience with the rap beat. Giving up some of the control on the production end, he sought out producer Sean "Puffy" Combs for the single, "You Should Be Mine." Mary J. Bilge wrote the lyrics for "Hold Me," and both Diane Warren and Trackmasterz's songwriting talents were also enlisted for Anytime.
McKnight was determined to break new musical ground for himself and feels that Anytime presents a broader picture of his musical talents and avoids limiting him to being known as only a singer of romantic ballads. McKnight told Teddy D. in an online interview that part of the inspiration for the album came from his desire to do something "a little more dangerous. I wanted to show every side of my personality." But Helligar, writing for Entertainment Weekly, disagreed with McKnight's new approach, saying "hip-hopping onto the Sean 'Puffy' Combs bandwagon is not the way to go about it."
When asked by interviewer Teddy D. what he feels is the most significant accomplishment of his life, McKnight stated, "My kids without a doubt.... It's just amazing to see there is nothing else that I could do in life that would be as important or mean as much to me as them. " During that same interview McKnight said between performing, producing, and songwriting he enjoys songwriting the best. The advice he gives to aspiring artists is to "never enter into anything half hearted." And just to show that he hasn't totally given up on his other dream to become a professional ball player, when asked what his long term goals are he replied, laughing, "To play in the NBA," then in a more serious tone added, "Maintain and continue to perfect my craft."
Brian McKnight, (Includes "One Last Cry"), Mercury Records, 1992.
I Remember You, Mercury Records, 1995.
Anytime, (Includes "You Should Be Mine" and "Hold Me"), Mercury Records, 1997.
(With Vanessa Williams) Comfort Zone, Wing, 1991.
Always Be Around, Capitol/EMI Records, 1991.
Beverly Hills 90210 (soundtrack) Giant/Warner Brothers, 1992.
(With Boyz II Men)Christmas Interpretations,, Motown Records, 1993.
(With The Boys Choir of Harlem) Sound of Hope, EastWest America, 1994.
Billboard, April 29, 1995, p. 44; June 10, 1995, p. 20-22; August 2, 1997, p. 27.
Entertainment Weekly, August 14, 1992, p. 62; October 10, 1997, p. 40.
Jet, September 16,1991, p. 59.
People, August 21, 1995, p. 25.
Rolling Stone, September 21, 1995, p. 82.
The Source, November 1997, p. 174.
Vibe, September 1995, p. 168.