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OLD SOUL

NEW YORK — NEW YORK - Chic, sexy people mill about the joint - chatting, laughing, nursing cocktails. For industry insiders, the place to be on a rainy May evening is Crash Mansion, a multilevel club in Manhattan with stone-embedded walls and sleek furniture. It is here at a well-attended showcase where newcomer Ricky Fante, a Maryland-raised homeboy, will preview what is supposed to be one of the year's hottest debuts.

On this night, the release of Rewind, the singer's album in stores tomorrow, is two months away. For nearly a year, anticipation for the record has steadily grown. Music circles have been abuzz about this "soul cat" whose refined, good looks and suave fashion sense recall Sam Cooke; his torrid, gritty vocals bring Wilson Pickett to mind.

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But Fante seems like a tough sell in these derivative, hip-hopped times. There's nothing "jiggy" or street about the guy. No thuggish posturing, no baggy jeans, no hip-hop embellishments - none of the things typically associated with today's popular black male performers. At 27, Fante looks and sounds as if he's lost in time - circa 1964.

He's reviving the golden era of soul. Raised in Largo, the singer has taken a completely raw approach - a stripped production reminiscent of black pop during the civil rights movement. And with the sudden commercial success of Joss Stone's rootsy soul debut, Fante may become the Next Thing.

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In the last 10 months, VIBE and Vanity Fair magazines have written about him. He's appeared on American Dreams (playing Pickett), the Wayne Brady Show and Soul Train; he's done a national, unplugged Borders tour. In the fall, he will play a nightclub singer in Their Eyes Were Watching God, an Oprah Winfrey-produced TV adaptation of Zora Neale Hurston's classic novel. All this with neither a flashy video nor a hit single.

Josh Deutsch, Virgin Records' senior vice president of A&R; (artists and repertoire), brought Fante to the label and produced his debut.

"This is my baby," the 15-year industry veteran says of Rewind. "Ricky's voice implies a kind of context that's been missing for a while. There's nothing neo about his record."

On the surface, the aptly titled Rewind sounds like a lost Stax recording, replete with punchy horns, driving live drums and country guitar fills. The album teems with broken-hearted melodies imbued with Fante's ragged bluesiness.

It's show time. The announcer comes on: Welcome to Crash Mansion. Ladies and gentlemen, Ricky Fante ...

Decked out in a black leather jacket and crisp caramel-colored slacks, the singer takes the stage, backed by a competent seven-piece band. He's unrelenting, singing with so much intensity that the veins in his neck look as if they're going to pop. Beads of sweat roll down the sides of his face. Clutching the mike, his eyes shut tight, he wails, "It ain't easy/It ain't easy on your own ..." His stage manner seems a little stiff and melodramatic at times, but there's no denying it: Ricky Fante is definitely charismatic.

After the show - upstairs in an empty, all-white barroom under eerie red lights - you sit down with the hot boy of the hour. Slender with a slightly mischievous smile, Fante is more handsome and younger-looking in person than in publicity shots. His speaking voice is husky, a little softer than you'd expect.

"I just want it to be understood that I'm not getting caught up in all this," Fante says between sips of his beer. "In this industry, it's so easy to become so jaded. It's give and take, but you gotta have a strong sense of self."

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Just as his music suggests, Fante is an old soul. Even his look and manner give off the air of a classy, mature man. "We have enough of the same kind of image in R&B; right now," he says. "It's time for something different."

Born in southeast Washington, Fante comes from a solidly middle-class background. And music, particularly gospel and soul, filled his childhood. His mother, Patricia Onakoya, is a teacher at Hart Middle School in Anacostia, his father, Frederick Fant (the singer added the "e"), a Metrorail engineer. The oldest of three, Fante was about 6 years old when his parents divorced.

"He has always been the leader and the protector," says Onakoya, who now lives in Southeast D.C. "When his father and I divorced, he had a talk with Ricky and told him, 'Now you're the man of the house.' That was a lot to put on a child."

But he took the role seriously. One evening when he was 9, Fante, his mother and his two brothers were on their way home when "this young thug came up and snatched my mama's purse," Fante says. "It was a Tuesday, Mama's payday. We always went to McDonald's on payday."

Onakoya, a sweet-voiced woman, chuckles at the memory. "My Lord. I had his baby brother, Freddie, on my arm and Maliki (Fante's other brother) was walking beside Ricky. (The mugger) came up so fast, and Ricky ran after that boy. He ran and ran."

Fante didn't catch him, though. A few years after that, he went to live with his father in Largo. After graduating from Fairmont Heights High School, Fante joined the Marines.

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"My dad and my grandfather were in the Marines," he says. " So I did it, too."

After finishing his stint in the mid '90s, Fante decided to pursue music full-time. Becoming a professional singer had been his dream ever since the age of 5, when he saw Stevie Wonder perform in D.C. at a Martin Luther King Jr. celebration. The ex-Marine headed for Los Angeles.

"I cried when he told me he was going into the Marines," Onakoya says, laughing. "And I cried and cried when he told me he was going out to L.A. I was like, 'Who do you know out there?' But that was his dream, this singing thing. He's always known that nothing is going to be gained quickly."

Fante moved to the City of Angels in search of a career, but he didn't have an identity.

"I hadn't found my voice yet," Fante says. "I was just trying to sing like Stevie and R. Kelly. Everybody was singing like that. But it was tough, man, working odd jobs: a grocery clerk, a messenger, worked for UPS. I was eating ramen noodles every kinda way you can imagine. But you know what? I came to L.A. with $6 in my pocket, but I had a gazillion dollars worth of faith."

He joined a rock-soul group called the Soul Surfers and recorded a demo. About two years ago, the tape found its way to Deutsch, who, at the time, was leaving his A&R; position at Elektra Records. He brought Fante to New York and hooked him up with songwriter Jesse Harris, best known for his work with Norah Jones. For about three months, the guys practically lived in Deutsch's studio, studying Sam Cooke and Wilson Pickett records and writing songs. Fante hadn't been signed to a label at this point.

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"We were doing it for love," Deutsch says. "We were trying to write songs that were universal. The innocence and directness of that ['60s soul] period ripped your heart out. We wanted to reach people in that same way. Ricky can do that."

After the recording was done, Deutsch sent a copy to Virgin. Executives liked the record so much that Deutsch was offered the senior A&R; position and Fante signed a recording contract. Arif Mardin, the legendary producer behind Norah Jones' success, was later brought in to do string arrangements.

The folks at Virgin are hoping Rewind will reach a broad audience. But they want to pull in the mature crowd first - those who may have actually seen Otis Redding or Wilson Pickett perform back in the day. Then the company hopes the younger crowd will dig the CD and buy it. Jones and 16-year-old Joss Stone - whose gold-selling debut, The Soul Sessions, was marketed by EMI, Virgin's parent company - are perfect examples of such a strategy.

"Joss and Ricky are very different artists, although they both get lumped into the soul revival," Deutsch says. "It's easier to sell Joss to the MTV generation because she's younger. Ricky, we hope, has a broader reach demographically."

The video for the first single, "It Ain't Easy," is in steady rotation on VH1. In the weeks after Rewind's release, Fante will perform on the Tonight Show, Late Night with Conan O'Brien, CNN and CNBC in addition to clubs dates around the country. The L.A.-based artist recently headlined at Isaac Hayes Music-Food-Passion, the soul legend's 13-year-old restaurant-venue in Memphis, Tenn.

"He was good, man," says Hayes, who wrote the liner notes for Rewind. "I was so impressed with what I heard. He's old-school and he's got a lot going for him."

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It's after midnight at Crash Mansion, and the beautiful crowd downstairs is gone. Fante finishes his beer.

"I know I'm blessed," he says, sliding out of the booth. "Those songs I sing about heartbreak and relationships? Man, I've been through that [stuff]. It's real with me. I can't fake it."

Watch Ricky Fante

The Maryland-raised singer is scheduled to appear on these shows:

Good Morning America: 8 a.m. Wednesday, ABC (Channel 2)

Late Night with Conan O'Brien: 12:37 a.m. Thursday, NBC (Channel 11))

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The Tonight Show with Jay Leno: 11:35 a.m. July 27, NBC (Channel 11)

Ricky Fante

Born: Southeast Washington

Age: 27

Brothers: Maliki, 24, a recent graduate of the Johns Hopkins graduate program in mass communications, and Freddie, 23, a model

Influences: Stevie Wonder and his grandmother, who used to sing hymns around the kitchen

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Odd job on the way to fame: Cleaning bathrooms


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