As the late 1980s arrived, Warner Brothers Records was expanding its roster of urban talent. Benny Medina was dispatched to helm the grooming and production of new talent. Among his many signees to the new division at the label was the promising voice of a beautiful songstress named Karyn White. She made her introduction known to the masses when her self-titled debut album was released on September 6, 1988.
Coming off a standout career as a session writer and background singer for various artists, White found herself in the position to capitalize on her gifts by signing a record deal with Warner Brothers.
Her breathtaking beauty along with powerhouse vocals proved to be a devastating combination that captured music audiences upon her arrival as a dynamic solo artist.
During this juncture, there were a plethora of women looking to make their mark on the industry as solo acts. The musical landscape was being dominated by the likes of Whitney Houston and Anita Baker. Despite the competition from her contemporaries, White carved her niche and left an indelible mark on pop and urban culture. White became a hot commodity after being signed in 1986. Her debut offering delivered an unprecedented amount of success to the artist and label alike.
This album would introduce White as a strong contender in the expanding field of R&B artists. Each of the nine songs on the album highlighted her flawless vocal capabilities. It would also highlight the production talents of up and coming producing giants Babyface, LA Reid and Daryl Simmons with contributions from Evan Rogers, Arnie Roman and Steve Harvey. All of these elements proved to be fruitful once the album hit stores in the late summer of 1988.
White began singing in her hometown church in Los Angeles and by the time she graduated from high school, she was performing with a group called Legacy. After being removed from the group, she was discovered by O’Bryan Burnette and Don Cornelius. It was during this time where she began writing songs and singing background vocals on records for Stephanie Mills, Jeff Lorber, and O’Bryan. As the story goes, White signed to Warner Brothers Records in 1986, but wouldn’t release her album until two years later.
Between the months of November 1987 and March 1988, the album Karyn White was recorded at Music Grinder Studios in Los Angeles, California.
SoulCulture recently sat down with Karyn White to discuss how her debut album was devised from start to finish.
“I was discovered by O’Bryan and Don Cornelius,” says White. “While living in Los Angeles, I was in a band called Legacy that was put together by Jody Simms, who was a member of the group Switch.
“I just got kicked out of the group because they wanted to go with one female singer and they thought that my voice wasn’t commercial enough. It was really devastating when it happened, but it turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me.
“I just graduated from high school and I heard about an audition for O’Bryan who was going on a world tour with Cameo at that time. I remember being very intimidated because O’Bryan was like Prince during that time and of course, Don Cornelius being the icon he was then. I had to go through a series of auditions and interviews with O’Bryan and Don Cornelius and I ended up getting hired. This is how my career began and I went out on the road with them.
She continues, “Don started to take a liking to me. I think he was really impressed by people who were focused and had a great work ethic. I remember being off the tour and receiving these surprise checks. When you’re a broke musician, it meant a great deal to have someone thinking of you in that way. I would randomly get thousand dollar checks from out of the blue from Don. He was always supportive in this regard. He supported me because I was putting in the work and that’s what it was all about.
My first professional writing credit was on a record I did with Stephanie Mills. I wrote a song for her called “Automatic Passion” with the late Robert Brookings and Tony Haynes. This is where I received the money to produce my demo tape. All of this happened before working with Jeff Lorber.
“I asked my Dad could I borrow some money and I told him I just wrote a song for Stephanie Mills. It was here where he started to believe I had a chance to make it. I eventually paid him back and I recorded my demo tape. Michael Jeffries was the person who heard my voice on my demo and it led to the audition with Jeff Lorber. It was all connected.
I received my first big break when Warner Brothers signed me to a deal after hearing me on a record with Jeff Lorber called ‘Facts of Love.’ I was able to make Warner Brothers my home. Benny Medina actually signed me to the Black department over at Warner Brothers.”
White describes her initial mindset going into the production phases for the album and the relationship that developed between her, Babyface and LA Reid.
“I actually started working on my album with Evan Rogers and Carl Stergen because they wrote the ‘Facts of Love’ hit for me,” says White. “Then, there were these two guys making a little bit of noise in the industry. Benny Medina came to me one day and said, ‘I have these two guys who I think would be wonderful for your project.’
“I went and met with them and they liked what I did with Jeff Lorber so they knew who I was and they thought we could have a good chemistry together. This is how our relationship started and it was an awesome experience being at the forefront of their careers because it was right before everything took off for them.
“They spent all of their project money on me because at that time their big thing was to have a certain feel for songs. They wanted me to sing with a lot of passion and emotion on each song. They used every dollar for the project and I knew they felt like they weren’t going to make any money from it. But I saw their work ethic and it wasn’t about today for them. They really invested in themselves and their songs.
“Some people I worked with were always focused on getting in and out of the studio and making money off of the budget versus someone looking at it as this being a hit song and we don’t care what it costs to get the job done right. I always remembered that and I loved working with them.
“It was a great time to be in the music industry. It was very creative coming out of the 1980s. Everyone had their own sound and style. It was fun being a recording artist at Warner Brothers Records.”
White expands on the studio atmosphere that existed between all parties involved.
“Babyface, LA. Reid, and Daryl Simmons pretty much knew what they wanted to do from the beginning,” says White. “Face would come in and play me an idea for a song then I would record it with LA.
“Many people don’t understand the role of a producer. A producer works to get the best out of an artist and LA and I had a very good connection and working relationship to where he could really push me. He had the right temperament.
“With me, I love to get the melody and then make it my own. I didn’t want to sing it like Face, but I wanted to put my spin on it. To me, a true artist is one who has their own signature sound.
“When we were recording ‘Secret Rendezvous,’ we would play some of the mixes, test it in the clubs, and go back to the studio. At that time, I was learning and soaking it all in. I really didn’t understand that I would be around geniuses. This was truly my training ground and of course, we would have our debates because I like to debate,” she laughs.
“It wasn’t a free flowing process in the studio because back then it cost about $100 per hour to be recording in the studio,” says White. “This is why I felt so bad during the recording process because I didn’t have some of the songs down the way I wanted to.
“As a singer, you know if a song doesn’t grab you or touch you. We learn that from being in the church and we know what feels good. Again, with ‘Superwoman’ I couldn’t find my delivery and I knew with every extra take that I was running up the budget,” she laughs.
“Fortunately, they didn’t make me feel bad because some people would have yelled, ‘Just sing the song!’ I’m so glad they were patient with me because when I found my delivery especially toward the end of the song there was just so much emotion in the studio.
She adds. “The first part of the recording phase was finding out who Karyn White was as an artist. They saw things in me that I didn’t even see in myself as an artist. This is why LA is a judge on X Factor now because his gift is seeing an artist.
“For them to believe in me that I could sing a song like ‘Superwoman,’ meant the world to me. They could have easily produced a bunch of dance/pop stuff, which was big for me as well, but when that song was released it separated me from my contemporaries back then such as Pebbles, Jody Watley, Anita Baker and Janet Jackson. This song separated me from being just a dance diva. I’m grateful they saw that type of artistry in me.
“They did the majority of the harmonies because that was part of their production style. I made sure I delivered the songs because I was so blessed to have them producing for my album. It could’ve been Whitney Houston or Anita Baker singing those songs. They could’ve had anyone singing these songs. I felt honored and I stayed in my lane and made sure I delivered the songs to best of my ability. We truly had magic.”
White remembers how the lead single, “The Way You Love Me” came to fruition.
“‘The Way You Love Me’ was the last song we recorded for the album,” says White. “I remember LA saying that we needed an up tempo banger because we already had ‘Secret Rendezvous,’ which was a pop record influenced by Prince’s sound. Prince was hot back then and who wouldn’t have tried to produce a song reminiscent of his style. He was a big influence of mine and theirs. I love the whole scatting part of the song because it reminded me a little bit of Natalie Cole. It made me happy while recording it.”
“The Way You Love Me” went on to peak at #7 on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart, #1 on the Billboard Hot Dance Singles Chart, and #42 on the UK Singles Chart. It helped to generate sales for Karyn White after it was released to music audiences in the summer of 1988.
The second single, “Superwoman” would become the second straight single that landed at the top of the charts and it became an anthem for women everywhere. White recalls how difficult it was to record the song.
“For ‘Superwoman’ I was only 21 or 22 at the time and that lyric was something I couldn’t fully relate to yet,” says White. “I didn’t feel like I was that type of woman yet who lived my life that way, but I actually pulled from my mother’s experiences and I sang from that perspective. It took quite a while for me to be able to nail that song.”
“Superwoman” went on to peak at #8 on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart, #1 on the Billboard Hot Black Singles Chart, and #11 on the UK Singles Chart.
The third single, “Love Saw It” became the third consecutive single to land atop the Billboard Hot Black Singles Chart placing her in regal company as being the first R&B artist to have their first three singles top the charts in history.
White recollects how she enjoyed singing the duet with Babyface and experimenting with her vocals.
“‘Love Saw It’ was my favorite song off of this album,” says White. “I’m singing in this certain register and I should’ve been singing in this key all along. It was so cool singing in this lower tone and Face and I had such a great chemistry on the record. It was one of the last songs we finished for the album. We went in the studio and completed it so fast.
“When he played me the idea for the duet, I really put my foot in my mouth by telling him O’Bryan should do the duet with me,” she laughs. “Face said, ‘No, I’m going to sing it with you.’ I could’ve lost the song by saying that to him. He could’ve told me that he was going to save it for Whitney or Anita instead, but he didn’t.”
Karyn White – “Love Saw It”:
“Love Saw It” went on to peak at #1 on the Billboard Hot Black Singles Chart.
The final single released from the album was the popular dance record, “Secret Rendezvous.” White briefly recalls the experience of making the song.
“‘Secret Rendezvous’ was a great song to record because I was able to get O’Bryan to do some background vocals on it,” says White. “I remember Face, LA, and I going to a club called Paradise, which was a popular club in Hollywood back then and we had the DJ spin a version of the record. The response we got from it was wonderful.”
“Secret Rendezvous” went on to peak at #6 on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart, #4 on the Billboard Hot Black Singles Chart, #1 on the Billboard Hot Dance Singles Chart, and #52 on the UK Singles Chart.
White goes on to provide brief insight on how the remaining songs were constructed for the album.
“‘Slow Down’ is a song I wrote with my English buddy Steve Harvey,” says White. “The song was inspired by Janet Jackson because she was such a phenomenon back then as well. It was my version of ‘Let’s Wait Awhile.’ I was a young woman myself and I wanted to write a song telling young girls to be ladies and be virtuous.”
Karyn White – “Slow Down”:
“‘Family Man’ this song was about infidelity and the woman not knowing what’s going on,” says White. “It showcased the rough side of my voice. It was kind of like my Michael Jackson interpretation. There were different textures within the vocals of the recording.”
“‘Don’t Mess With Me ‘ my young version of saying I had swag,” says White. “It was me saying it before Kanye [West] and Jay Z,” she laughs.
Karyn White – “Don’t Mess With me”:
“‘Tell Me Tomorrow’ is a song that was written by Evan Rogers and Arnie Roman,” says White. “They’re actually responsible for finding Rihanna. It was a very beautifully written song. The melody was reminiscent of Cyndi Lauper’s song ‘True Colors.’
“‘One Wish’ was just my little corny worldly song,” says White. “This was a Benny Medina record. It was one of the first records brought to me by a writer that I recorded for the album.”
White expresses her feelings on being a part of the music culture that existed in 1980s and the significance of her album.
“I loved growing up in the 1980s because the music was so diverse,” says White. “There wasn’t any prejudice. Everyone had their own music and styles. Artists didn’t have to be the same like with artists today striving to be the next Beyonce or Usher. You had George Michael, Chaka Khan, Peter Gabriel, Madonna, and Prince. It was an awesome time to see these different musical styles. It was legendary.”
“I’m more excited today about how the music has lasted. I actually ran into the actress Meagan Good recently and she told me that she used to be in the mirror singing my songs and how much they inspired her growing up. I’m really seeing the influence now because when you’re in the recording stages, it’s like on-the-job training. You don’t know if it’s going to be great, you’re just doing the work.”
Karyn White peaked at #19 on the Billboard 200 Albums Chart and #1 on the Billboard R&B Albums Chart in the early winter of 1989. The album went on to sell more than 1 million units worldwide.
To this day, it’s regarded as one of the more signature albums to be released from a female R&B artist during the decade of the 1980s. This album earned a plethora of Grammy, American Music Award and Soul Train Music Award nominations and wins.
Her debut record signaled that the future of R&B songstresses would continue to churn out high quality material, and Karyn White remains a shining example of the collaboration between a great voice and exquisite musicianship.