On Feb. 9, 2012, Brian McKnight attended record producer Clive Davis’s pre-Grammy party at the Beverly Hilton and ran into his old friend Whitney Houston. Two days later, Houston was dead.
“She looked good, and I should have told her that,” the R&B singer-songwriter recalls. “I don’t like to be saying the same thing to her that everyone else is always saying, but when she passed, I thought maybe I should have said it anyway.
“To me, when she was at her best, she was the greatest female singer we’ve ever had. Considering she didn’t write those songs, she was able to make them her own, which is a hard thing to do.”
That weekend, inspired by Houston, McKnight wrote the song “Another,” which appears on his new album, “More Than Words.”
Unlike the lusty come-ons and sugary valentines that fill most of the tracks, “Another” is a somber eulogy that resembles a hymn. Playing the piano, McKnight sings, “There’s no predicting the shortness of forever / and why the plan is always difficult to see / ’cause you were taken so unexpectedly.”
In the video for the song, there’s a photo collage of Houston, Luther Vandross and Michael Jackson as well as rock stars and athletes who also died young. Houston, Vandross and Jackson were the lodestars of an R&B era that gave McKnight, 43, his start. As one of the dwindling band of survivors, he’s trying to find ways to make his sometimes-bawdy, sometimes-romantic, always-melodic songs relevant in today’s hip-hop world.
One strategy has been to pull his sons into the record-making process. On the new album, Brian Jr., 23, wrote two songs with his dad and sang one, “Ididntreallymeantoturnuout,” as a duet. Niko, 20, co-wrote “The Front the Back the Side” and sang it as a duet. Both sons also contributed guitar and keyboard tracks. The brothers also have their own band, BRKN RBTZ, which has been attracting attention for the single “Marry Your Daughter.” It easily could have been on one of their father’s albums.
“We’re a team. . . . They live five minutes away, so we see each other a lot,” McKnight says. “They’re the ones who listen to the radio; they help me keep it current. If you listen to the drum beats on this record, they’re different, more contemporary than my earlier records. There’s more rhythm on this record, and that’s by design, because I don’t want people to fall asleep on me.”
You can hear the sons’ influence on songs such as the hard-funk opener, “Don’t Stop,” and in the programmed rhythms of “4th of July.” Even the first single, “Sweeter,” a typical McKnight love song, boasts a chunkier bottom as well as a Brazilian-flavored guitar intro.
“The lineage is being carried on,” McKnight says. “In my family, music is like walking and talking. When your kids are interested in education, you get them books. When they’re interested in athletics, you get them sports equipment. When they’re interested in music, you get them instruments. As parents, that’s our job: To find out what they want to do and help them to do it. Whatever they decided to do, I was going to be behind them 100 percent.”
McKnight also has a 5-year-old daughter, Briana, who inspired another song on the new album. “Trying Not to Fall Asleep” is a kind of counter-lullaby in which a young child fights against sleep. “If I close my eyes,” the lyrics insist over lulling synths, “I know I’ll be missing something / a shooting star or something good on TV / Daddy, don’t be mad if you hear me crying / I’m only trying not to fall asleep.”
“Every night when we tried to get her to go to sleep,” McKnight says, “she would fight it to the point of falling asleep sitting up. . . . The kids can’t put it into words, so I wanted to explain it from the kids’ point of view. It’s the kind of challenge I enjoy as a songwriter.”
This weekend, McKnight performs at the Howard Theatre. Last month, though, he came to Washington in a very different context: as the star of Hinton Battle’s play “Love Lies” at the Warner Theatre.
It wasn’t McKnight’s first acting turn. He had played Billy Flynn in “Chicago” on Broadway and had toured with Vivica A. Fox in the JeCaryous Johnson play “Cheaper to Keep Her.” McKnight also was a contestant on Donald Trump’s “Celebrity Apprentice.” The singer views such projects as refreshing breaks from his real job, but they also have influenced that job in subtle ways.
“After doing ‘Chicago’ and ‘Cheaper to Keep Her,’ my live concerts definitely changed,” McKnight says. “You learn how to design a show and how tell a story. In addition to doing my band shows, I’ve also been doing these one-man shows with me, my guitar and electric piano. I basically just tell stories and sing the songs for an hour and a half. It gives people a better insight [into] who I am than with the band. It’s definitely a master class on Brian McKnight. That’s basically what my album ‘Just Me’ is all about.”
That album included two discs. The first was a studio session with his two sons, but the second was taken from his one-man tour. Those 30 tracks include not only solo versions of his biggest hits, but also his autobiographical monologues and his versions of songs that influenced him.
To hear him sing Stevie Wonder’s “Overjoyed” and Michael Jackson’s “Rock With You” is to understand the sources of McKnight’s own music. And it explains why he wrote “Another” for all the singers who inspired him before passing on.
Himes is a freelance writer.
at the Howard Theatre. Shows start at 8 and 10:30 p.m. 202-803-2899. www.thehowardtheatre.com. $65.
For a sampling of Brian McKnight’s music, check out:
From “More Than Words”:
“Trying Not to Fall Asleep”
From “Just Me”: “One Last Cry” “Back at One” “Overjoyed”