One of the most consistent and versatile adult contemporary R&B artists, Brian McKnight placed seven albums across 15 years -- from the early '90s through the first decade of the 2000s -- within the Top Ten of Billboard's R&B albums chart. Whether he wrote and produced for himself or collaborated with the likes of Diddy, the Underdogs, and Tim & Bob, he enjoyed moderate commercial success without ever quite becoming a superstar. This, along with a down-to-earth personality and a catalog heavy on mellow material, may have helped McKnight for the sake of longevity; he made his first mark during the tail-end of the new jack swing era and, nearly 20 years later, shared chart space with singers half his age. He holds a Grammy record for 16 nominations without a win.
McKnight, a native of Buffalo, New York, grew up in a family where music came naturally. He was a member of the church choir along with his immediate family; his grandfather was the director. With a gospel upbringing, McKnight explored other genres of music. Still in his early teens, he exercised his writing ambitions by penning instrumentals (soft jazz, easy listening); he learned to play several instruments. He formed a band and began performing his originals at local venues. By the age of 18, McKnight had secured a publishing deal. His calling to the national scene manifested itself when his older brother Claude and the group he was a member of, Take 6, signed a recording contract with a major label.
After sending out numerous demos to various record companies, McKnight's tape drew the interest of Mercury Records president Ed Eckstine (son of Billy Eckstine). Eckstine was so impressed with McKnight's sound that the young artist was signed to a deal within two weeks. McKnight's first release on Mercury was 1992's "The Way Love Goes," peaking at number 11 after 19 weeks on the Billboard R&B chart. His two follow-up singles barely cracked the Billboard R&B Top 60, and included "Love Is," a duet with Vanessa Williams featured on Beverly Hills 90210. Ironically, that single peaked at number three on the Billboard Hot 100, introducing McKnight to a crossover audience. His self-titled album made a minor splash.
Though there was a fair amount of buzz around McKnight as a promising up-and-comer, nearly three years passed between his debut and his second album, I Remember You (1995). His first Top Ten R&B album, it contained a pair of Top 20 R&B singles: a cover of Van Morrison's "Crazy Love" and the relatively contemporary "On the Down Low." A very young Robin Thicke, whose admiration ran so deep that he was jokingly nicknamed "Brian McWhite" by friends, co-wrote one of the album's other songs. On Anytime (1997), McKnight shook up his sound by collaborating with Diddy and Trackmasters; the former produced "You Should Be Mine (Don't Waste Your Time)," which crossed into the Top 20 of the Billboard Hot 100 and featured Mase. A Christmas album, Bethlehem, followed in 1998 -- the first of five albums he released on Motown. A year later, McKnight returned with Back at One; its title track reached the top of the Hot 100. Superhero, from 2001, kicked off with the surprisingly rock-ish title track and a list of featured guests -- Justin Timberlake, Nate Dogg, Nelly's St. Lunatics -- made it look like a rap mixtape. Released in 2003, U Turn was a fairly straightforward and ballad-filled affair.
Some time playing basketball for the ABA's Ontario Warriors helped keep McKnight out of the musical picture for a couple years. Gemini (2005), his final set for Motown, was released in 2005 and contained some of his most overtly sexual songwriting. Ten, a Warner Bros. release, followed quickly the next year, sporting a handful of Tim & Bob collaborations among otherwise self-produced material. A second Christmas album, I'll Be Home for Christmas, was released in 2008. Evolution of a Man, for the most part a self-sufficient collection, was released in 2009 on E1 (aka Koch). This wasn't merely one of McKnight's most productive phases from a musical standpoint. He hosted a radio program on a Los Angeles radio station, performed on Broadway in Chicago, and competed on the second season of Celebrity Apprentice. The following decade, he released the split live/studio set Just Me (2011), as well as More Than Words (2013). ~ Craig Lytle & Andy Kellman
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