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A Singer's Hardy Old Soul
Ryan Shaw Is Just 26, but His R&B Vocals Are Aged to Perfection

By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 1, 2007

PHILADELPHIA -- Officially, Ryan Shaw was born on Christmas Day 1980. But those who've heard him sing -- who've heard that vintage R&B voice, a sensational instrument that sounds like something out of the Stax-Volt vaults -- sometimes wonder whether Shaw wasn't actually born four or five decades earlier.

So big and raw and rangy, that voice. So churchy and unmistakably Southern. So full of fire and conviction, exploding with energy and emotion.

So not like something you'd expect to hear out of a 26-year-old recording artist circa 2007.

"When Ryan sings, it comes right from the center of his soul," says his friend Bobby Lewis, executive pastor and musical director at Central Baptist Church in Manhattan. "And it's an old soul. He's really way older than his years."

Shaw opens his mouth to sing, and out come the ghosts of '50s and '60s soul greats, from Sam Cooke to Otis Redding. Contemporary, to him, means Donny Hathaway, who died in 1979 -- a year before Shaw was born in Decatur, Ga.

Let the others emulate R. Kelly and collaborate with Timbaland. Shaw would rather resurrect the sound of Muscle Shoals.

"This Is Ryan Shaw," his debut album, is unapologetically retro, right down to the material: Nine of the 12 songs are covers of old soul sides, from "I'll Be Satisfied" (previously performed by Jackie Wilson) and "I Found a Love" (Wilson Pickett) to "Lookin' for a Love" (Bobby Womack) and "Do the 45" (the Sharpees).

Just as the CD format is dying a slow death, here comes Ryan Shaw, singing about a dance based on . . . vinyl 45s! And then there's his cover of "I Do the Jerk." He's nothing if not anachronistic.

"I appreciate what he's doing," says Sam Moore, the legendary singer whose work with Sam & Dave helped define Southern soul in the 1960s. "Shaw is caught up in that time; he's reaching back, doing something that makes you go: Whoa-ah, what's going on here? He's putting his heart in it, showing that's where his love is."

"This Is Ryan Shaw's" three originals -- each of them co-written by Shaw -- are modeled after '50s- and '60s-style soul songs. The lyrics focus mostly on love. The music is straightforward and traditional. Even the album cover is old-fashioned: It features a grainy, sepia-tone photo of Shaw singing into a ribbon-style microphone.

"I've guess I'm just different," Shaw says backstage before a recent club concert here. "I've always been that way." He's drawn, he says, to the emotion and sentiment and sound of vintage soul. "It just touches something in me," he says. (Perhaps not surprisingly, he doesn't particularly care for sexualized modern music.)

Later, he'll open his set by singing the first verse of Sam Cooke's classic social statement, "A Change Is Gonna Come," a cappella -- a breathtaking performance that has jaws dropping all around the Electric Factory.

This is Ryan Shaw.

Shaw is sitting in his icebox of a dressing room at the central Philadelphia club, a split-level industrial warehouse with a state-of-the-art sound system. He's wearing a sleeveless undershirt, black slacks and square-tip shoes, and his shoulder-length dreadlocks are pulled back in a ponytail.

He's on the road as the opening act for the British chanteuse Joss Stone, herself a young classic-soul revivalist. Stone is the headliner with the radio hits and the platinum album and Grammy trophy. Shaw is the warm-up act who's still trying to get the world's attention. (The tour recently ended its first leg, but will resume in the fall.) This summer, Shaw is making the rounds on the festival circuit, stopping at Lollapalooza, Milwaukee's Summerfest, the Montreal Jazz Festival, Detroit's CityFest and Ottawa Bluesfest. The live shows, he says, are critical to developing his career.

"The music I'm doing is not the mainstream thing that's happening now," he says, stating the obvious. "But when people see it, it's like a no-brainer. They instantly get it."

Shaw has been singing since he was 3, and like most of the great soul singers before him, he grew up in the church. His mother is a Pentecostal minister and Shaw, one of eight children, attended services on Sundays and Wednesdays; on Thursdays and Saturdays, he rehearsed with the choir, which he eventually came to direct. The only music his parents allowed him to hear was gospel. "That's the basis for what I'm doing now," he says.

As a teenager, he joined the cast of a gospel musical, "A Good Man Is Hard to Find (Part II)," which led to a role in Tyler Perry's "I Know I've Been Changed." That took Shaw to New York, where he settled after high school to pursue a Broadway career that never panned out.

So he auditioned for anything that came up, including a gig as a singer at New York's Motown Cafe. Though unfamiliar with the secular Motown catalogue, Shaw, who wasn't even 20, got the job.

"Ryan came in never having heard those old songs, and when he sang, it was as if he was one of the Motown writers," recalls Lewis, the Manhattan pastor who was Motown Cafe's musical director when Shaw auditioned. "The one thing I look for in singers is truth. That little boy came in there and was so loud and so young but when he sang, there was truth. Even when he was singing something like 'My Girl,' it was just so real."

After Motown Cafe closed in 2000, Shaw found work on a cruise ship, performing Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra and disco songs he learned at sea. Upon returning to New York, he started working the club circuit, singing at weddings and bar mitzvahs and corporate parties while adding more contemporary material to his repertoire, including Usher and Chris Brown songs. Shaw also performed at the Apollo Theater's Amateur Night (he was a repeat winner); joined a doo-wop group; and started writing some of his own songs. But covers -- particularly Shaw's versions of vintage soul songs -- were his signature. Even after he signed a deal with Columbia Records, he continued singing them on the club circuit -- right up until the tour with Stone began and "This Is Ryan Shaw" was released.

"I had to pay rent," he says with a shrug.

Shaw's debut hasn't exactly been burning up the charts, selling roughly 14,000 copies since its mid-April release, according to Nielsen SoundScan. Compare that with another celebrated vintage-soul recording, Amy Winehouse's "Back to Black," which has been moving nearly that many CDs every couple of days in racking up 700,000 total U.S. sales. Winehouse has also landed on the cover of Rolling Stone, and the British chanteuse and tabloid magnet (think: Shirley Bassey with a brandy snifter and modern production values) is already generating Grammy buzz.

Shaw's manager, Anthony Demby, says he's not disheartened, because he didn't expect the album to do boffo business out of the box. "Very honestly, I think it's going to take a while," Demby says. "We knew that. We got into this knowing it was going to be a slow, steady grind."

The first single, "Nobody" -- a Shaw original -- has been played on some Triple-A (adult album alternative) radio stations. Demby says the follow-up concert favorite, "We Got Love," will target the urban adult contemporary format. But, he says, it's not easy to persuade radio programmers to support new music that doesn't fit neatly inside their format.

For every John Legend, a throwback soul singer who became one of the breakout stars of 2005 with a hit single, "Ordinary People," that featured nothing more than piano and vocals, there are multiple examples like Ricky Fanté, the D.C. native whose dynamite 2004 CD, "Rewind," sounded like a lost Otis Redding album but seemed to stump contemporary commercial radio programmers. It would be a shame if "This Is Ryan Shaw" suffered the same fate, says Meg Griffin, program director for the free-form Sirius satellite radio channel Disorder.

"I absolutely adore this record," she says. "I play Ryan Shaw in my car and I play him on my channel. I play him a lot. I really think he needs and deserves extra support from the people who handle him to see to it that radio plays this record."

Griffin put Shaw's song "Nobody" in heavy rotation after seeing him perform in New York. She recently added more songs from "This Is Ryan Shaw," including "I Found a Love" and "Lookin' for a Love." The latter might as well be Shaw's theme.

"My music is about love because God is love," he says onstage. And then, he sings, making joyful noise. And there goes his heavenly old voice, higher, then higher, then even higher.

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