Cab is this crooner's stage


If passengers in James Kent's cab display disbelief when he says he's a singer, he has a bit of proof that will cause them to change their tune quickly. He pops in one of his tapes.

"I'd say I probably have about 25,000 fans out there," the cabbie says nonchalantly. "Just about everybody who gets in my cab hears me sing."

The world truly is a stage for Mr. Kent, 35, who began warbling to his riders several years ago. The Baltimore native booked time at a local studio last year and now sells a cassette he produced featuring two of his original songs.

"Who better to try it out on than my customers?" asked Mr. Kent, who spent $1,300 to mass produce his songs on 1,000 cassettes.

For $5 a tape, listeners hear Mr. Kent singing his tunes "She's Mine" and "Flea Bag." Aided by friends who distribute his music and customers who request copies, the crooning cabbie says he has sold about 800 tapes since he began marketing them in September.

"The public believes in me," said Mr. Kent. "When 95 percent of my family and friends laughed at me and didn't support me, the public supported me. They are putting me in the driver's seat."

l Mr. Kent said he always has enjoyed singing and songwriting but considered it a hobby. It was his female passengers, he said, who persuaded him to pursue his musical career.

"Women love a beautiful love song," Mr. Kent said. "I made over $1,500 in tips from singing to them, and that's what gave me the confidence to put my stuff on tape."

And how does his wife of almost three years feel about her husband setting hearts afire with his ballads?

"It's fine with me," said Doreen Kent, who sometimes sings backup for her husband. "Whatever he needs to do to capture his audience."

Mrs. Kent said her husband often sang to her while they were dating and even credits his vocal stylings with wooing her.

"He claims that's how he caught me," she said, laughing.

Whether it's tourists on their way to the airport or little old ladies goingto Lexington Market, no one gets away without hearing a sample of his pipes. Many confuse him with another male singer who's also a velvet-toned balladeer, he said.

"People think it's Lou Rawls trying to make a comeback," Mr. Kent said, smiling at the compliment.

One passenger who was impressed was musician Bill McLain. While driving Mr. McLain to work two years ago to his job buffing floors at a local school, Mr. Kent sang for him. The two began a collaboration that has resulted in Mr. McLain, who plays a variety of instruments, supplying the music for Mr. Kent's lyrics.

"James pretty much knows what he wants in his head," Mr. McLain said. "He comes to me, and he hums what he wants and I try to match it."

Mr. Kent has written 35 songs ranging from calypso to rap music. Long hours spent cruising the streets for fares gives him time to come up with catchy tunes, he said.

"I'll hear a tune in my head and jot it down real quick while I'm driving," said Mr. Kent, who has been a self-employed cabbie for three years.

His lyrics are inspired by his experiences, he said. "Flea Bag," a song about "dirty" women, came to him after years of observing city prostitutes.

The prostitutes "get into the cab, and they hear it," Mr. Kent said. "They don't like it, but hey, I'm telling the truth."

Radio airplay has been elusive, Mr. Kent said, and he is trying to get booked into clubs for more exposure. But lack of exposure has not deterred him from dreaming of starting a record label in Baltimore to help other aspiring singers.

"There is a wealth of talent in Baltimore," Mr. Kent said. "People just need someone to help them out."

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