Spotlight

Success No Illusion For Rob Thomas

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 14, 2005

IT HASN'T always been "Smooth" sailing for Rob Thomas, who performs a solo concert at DAR Constitution Hall on Sunday.

Take back in 1996 when his band, matchbox 20, released its debut the same day that Lava, the small boutique label that had signed the Orlando-based band, was folded into Atlantic, part of a corporate retrenching in the face of an industry-wide sales slump. Matchbox 20 had been signed in the feeding frenzy that followed the explosive success of grunge and so-called alternative rock, but the group's debut sold only 600 copies in its first week.

"Our manager was letting us know, this might be it on this record," Thomas recalled recently, noting that a major label honcho (whom he declined to identify) "told us to go back and rewrite the album because there were no singles on it."

Except a couple of influential alt-rock stations decided that they liked "Long Day," and a station in Birmingham gave "Push" a push without any help from Atlantic, which at that point, Thomas says, "decided to give us a chance."

Gradually sales for the band's debut, "Yourself or Someone Like You," started picking up, and then they couldn't be stopped. By decade's end, "Yourself or Someone Like You" had earned the Recording Industry Association of America's Diamond Award, marking certified U.S. sales in excess of 10 million units and adding matchbox 20's name to an elite roster of artists reaching that milestone. The album now has sold more than 14 million copies.

Its prolonged shelf life, however, posed a problem for a band trying to establish its identity and rise above the morass of pop-rockers who'd arrived in the post-grunge era. In 1999, a road-weary matchbox 20 was on break when Thomas, the band's singer and principal writer, got a call from his publisher. A rock legend was looking for songs for a comeback album. Could Thomas work on a song with another writer, Itaal Shur, who happened to live just a few New York blocks away?

He could, he did and they co-wrote "Smooth" for Carlos Santana, who was also looking for guest vocalists. Thomas envisioned George Michael on "Smooth." But Thomas's girlfriend, former Victoria's Secret model Marisol Maldonado, who happened to be the inspiration for his line "my Spanish Harlem Mona Lisa," thought he should do it. After hearing Thomas's demo, so did Santana.

It turned out well: "Smooth" closed one millennium and opened another at No. 1 on the Billboard "Hot 100" chart and won Grammys for song of the year, record of the year and best pop collaboration. Santana, who hadn't been in the Top 10 since 1970's "Black Magic Woman" and "Evil Ways," experienced a gigantic comeback, with "Supernatural" accounting for nine Grammys and selling more than 25 million copies worldwide.

The "Smooth" video became a favorite on both MTV and VH1 and kept Thomas's face on TV, much as the single kept his voice on the radio between matchbox 20 albums. It also transformed Thomas from an anonymous singer in a faceless band into a frontman and pop star: People magazine named him one of its "50 Most Beautiful People," and he married Maldonado. (Their nuptials ended up on an ABC special, "Celebrity Weddings In Style.")

Now, Thomas has embarked on a third stage with "Something to Be." Released in April, it debuted at No. 1, the first solo debut by a male artist from a rock or pop group to do that since Billboard introduced its album chart 50 years ago. It was also the first of the new CD/DVD DualDisc releases to reach No. 1.

And, no, Matchbox Twenty (the spelling changed on 2000's quadruple platinum album, "Mad Season") is not over. According to Thomas, his solo album is about opportunity, not separation or frustration.

"You can be 100 percent completely happy with everything that you do within the confines of a band, so it's not like I felt anything has ever been taken away from me. But even with all that, there's still all kinds of music that you want to be a part of, all kinds of different musicians you want to work with, all kinds of music you want to write and produce and record." It's true that Matchbox Twenty sometimes rejects Thomas's offerings, including one, "I Am an Illusion," that pops up on his solo album. But, he says, "a lot of times they're right. When the record's done and you look at the songs you picked, those are the best ones to put on, and it's good to have these guys there to censor."


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