As a kid growing up in Providence, R.I., singer Jeffrey Osborne was exposed to all kinds of music. He has his brothers and sisters to thank for that -- all 11 of them.
"Being the youngest of 12 I always had to wait my turn in line to play my records," recalls Osborne, who along with Jennifer Holliday will perform in a benefit concert for the Martin Luther King Jr. Mural Project at the Warner Theatre Sunday night.
"I listened to everything," he adds. "To the early Motown groups -- the Four Tops and the Temptations -- to Johnny Mathis, Gloria Lynne -- my sisters loved her. Sarah Vaughan. Everything."
The 37-year-old singer's informal education in pop music has paid off. In just a few years he has moved from being a largely unknown front man for the funk band L.T.D. to being a platinum-selling solo artist, with three hit albums and more than a half-dozen chart singles to his credit. His deep yet rangy baritone has become one of the most familiar voices on the pop airwaves (and television's too: a much-ballyhooed WDVM promotional jingle last year was built around Osborne's uncredited vocals). That voice is appealing to both black and white audiences, and the singer's only regret about embarking on his solo career is that he didn't do it sooner.
The 10 years he spent with L.T.D. (Love, Togetherness, Devotion) were marked by frustration, says Osborne. He joined the 10-piece group when he was 19, impressed with the band's colorful horn section and thrilled with the prospect of recording songs and touring the country. Increasingly, though, he found the band's rigidly controlled structure allowed for little personal expression and few financial rewards.
"Everyone in the group sang when I joined them," Osborne explains. "That was one of the problems with L.T.D., there was no focal point. It took until 1976, or about six or seven years, before I was put into the spotlight as a vocalist. That's when I recorded 'Love Ballad,' and it became a hit for the group.
"But there was no room for an individual to grow. In all the time I was with L.T.D., I was never allowed to do an interview by myself. I wasn't even allowed to talk on stage between songs. I couldn't get a publishing agreement or a production deal because everyone had their own little role to play in the group . . . and the money, well, anything split 10 ways can't be much. Sometimes we'd play for the door the price of admission , which was maybe a couple of dollars at the time. When you divide that 10 ways you're lucky if you can buy a can of beans."
Even so, there were plenty of good times. Osborne values the friendships he made as a member of L.T.D. and the opportunity to develop his talent as a songwriter. When he left the group he signed a three-record deal with keyboardist and producer George Duke, feeling that it would take that many albums before the public would begin to automatically link his name to his voice.
It didn't take that long, however: 1982's "Jeffrey Osborne," modeled closely after the L.T.D. sound, became popular enough to allow Osborne to start touring almost immediately. He began to develop a distinctive style of his own on his last two albums -- "Stay With Me Tonight" and "Don't Stop" -- mixing the seductive love songs that have always been his strength with more contemporary uptempo material.
Osborne is currently putting the finishing touches to his most ambitious album, which he has yet to title. He began working on it last summer with pop producer Richard Perry, feeling that Perry, who has a track record of producing hits (for the Pointer Sisters, among others), could deliver a Top 10 hit. Osborne has never had one, and he thinks it's essential at this stage in his career.
"He gave me some great material," Osborne says of Perry. "But I think he kind of missed who I was at times. I felt there was a big hole in the album, so I started looking around." As a result, the album, due out in March, will feature tunes produced by Perry, Duke, Osborne and Rod Templeton. Also included will be a new song by the Average White Band's Hamish Stuart called "Soweto," a view of the struggle to end apartheid as seen through the eyes of South African children.
Osborne says he generally doesn't like to mix politics or social issues with music -- "it just gives people another reason not to buy your album" -- but he doesn't shy away from controversial subjects in conversation. On the contrary, he feels strongly about a number of issues, including the recent movement to rate records for offensive lyrics.
"I personally think it's sad it had to come this far," he says. "It's bad enough to be categorized every time you open your mouth to sing, but now they have to analyze everything you say. The kids are going to buy what they want to hear anyway . . . When I was growing up I'd listen to Redd Foxx. My parents didn't know I was listening to Redd Fox when I was 10. But when they left the house I'd find those records and put them on. It's just a part of growing up."