Old Soul Alicia Keys Sets Off R&B Buzz

The buzz of an industry crowd in Los Angles for a new artist showcase is a scene that first occurred in New York and has since been repeated in Atlanta, Detroit, Chicago, and other major markets, as

An industry crowd gathers outside the Roxy Theatre in Los Angles for a new artist showcase. But the buzz this early May evening is different. Usually jaded media reps are anxiously jockeying for position to claim a seat ahead of the overflow crowd.

It's a scene that first occurred in New York and has since been repeated in Atlanta, Detroit, Chicago, and other major markets, as word-of-mouth builds about J Records' neo-soul newcomer Alicia Keys. Her debut album, "Songs in A Minor," arrives in stores today (June 12).

Appearing at the (Billboard sister magazine) Airplay Monitor conference in New York last fall, the 20-year-old singer/songwriter/producer/keyboardist sat down at a grand piano and performed a stirring rendition of Donny Hathaway's inspirational "Someday We'll All Be Free."

"I'm a live-performance artist," says the Manhattan-raised Keys emphatically. "I'm also a classically trained pianist, so I've been doing showcases since my teens. It's something I've always enjoyed."

It's also something that J Records zeroed in on when, after being signed by then-Arista chief Clive Davis in 1998, "she sat down at the piano at Clive's place and knocked people's socks off," says Tom Corson, J Records executive VP of worldwide sales and marketing.

That live component is the linchpin for introducing Keys. Since her Monitor debut, she has appeared at New York's Joe's Pub and the Bottom Line, the Villa in London, and a private Recording Industry Association of America gathering in Washington, D.C. A coveted spotlight at Davis' annual pre-Grammy bash preceded an intimate tastemakers gathering a few days later at L.A.'s W Hotel.

"The reaction was strong, and we liked the aesthetic," Corson says. "So we asked the W's management if they'd like to work with us to co-host more shows. It turned into this enhanced, sexy promotion tour." The tour has encompassed the label's 10 branch markets, with Keys performing and meeting the media.

A self-professed old soul, Keys comes along at a time when the industry is riding R&B's resurgent wave. Mixing traditional R&B with hip-hop accents and thought-provoking lyrics, Keys is equally at home performing her own tunes -- including the piano-rich, love-can-be-hard single "Fallin' " -- or reaching back to put her own spin on such classics as Marvin Gaye's "Trouble Man" and Prince's "How Come U Don't Call Me Anymore."

The big question, as always, is whether the enthusiastically received showcases will jump-start the record-buying public. "Fallin' " currently rests at No. 40 on Billboard's Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Singles & Tracks chart.

Musicland's urban buyer Sonya Askew is impressed with Keys and believes she has a long career ahead. Yet Askew cautions that "the market may be a little crowded now. It's similar to the Jill Scott project -- once the record hits the streets, word-of-mouth will spread as long as J Records hangs with it."

Notes program director Carl Conner of KMJQ Houston, "Times and tastes change. But with all things considered, if she continues on this course, she'll make it all the way."

In the meantime, the artist remains confident. "The moon and stars are in alignment," she says, "and I'm prepared. The timing is right."