Ricky Fante wants to show you his scar. The male-model-handsome D.C. native arches his eyebrows in an are-you-ready? wiggle. Then, as in that classic scene from "Jaws," when the shark hunters spend a night at sea displaying their body-maiming badges of courage, the retro-soul singer being positioned as the second coming of Otis Redding lifts his shirt, points to a gouge on his ribs, and gives the vaguely sinister details: L.A., a woman, scissors.
"I couldn't get out the door fast enough," he says.
Fante chooses not to delve much deeper into the incident -- he had children with this Los Angeles woman, he will eventually whisper, but marriage was a nonstarter after the scissoring. And that's about it. Still, this 27-year-old Next Big Thing in Waiting has flashed that dark mark of violence to prove a point. You see, he's more than just a GQ-ready face with a voice unlike anything you've heard in the last 35 years. There's a hardened, life-weary soul behind the slickly produced soul music that he first unveiled during an unsexy tour of Borders bookstores. He's suffered to sound so good.
"Women have been the soundtrack of my life," says Fante, sitting in the posh artists' lounge of Virgin Records, the label that will release his debut album, "Rewind," on July 13. "I've really only had three heavy-duty relationships in my life, but they've all been very energy-soaking."
And then, before he can elaborate on how the ladies have made him miserable, his cell phone rings, and his serious face gives way to a dashing Colgate smile. It's Hollywood bombshell Nia Long ("Big Momma's House") leaving a message. "Oh, I'm in love," he says with hand over heart. Staring at his phone, Fante unleashes a laugh that sounds like a parrot coughing up a cherry bomb: HWAT!
And there you go: That HWAT! says a lot more about Fante than that nasty scar.
As it turns out, Fante is not very convincing at the dark 'n' brooding act. He's better at being a charmingly goofy wunderkind, from a good home and supportive parents, who's still figuring out the fame game. Born in Anacostia, he spent his teens in Largo, living with his father, Metrorail worker Frederick Douglas Fant. ("I added the 'e' in defiance of my father," the singer says with a puckish smile.) Their home was a stone's throw from the old Capital Centre, an arena he dreamed of selling out, "like the Grateful Dead." And now those silly schoolboy dreams of long, winding lines of fans clamoring for him, just him, are that much closer to reality.
Talentwise, Fante is a freak of nature -- but in a beautiful way. He doesn't need to show the scar to prove his music depth. His voice sounds like it was born in the '60s heyday of Memphis's Stax Studio, the joint that made Redding a legend.
Smooth and deep, pained but seamless, Fante's pipes have left people double-taking and knee-buckling ever since he was a tyke crooning Elvis songs on street corners. That voice -- oh, that voice, untrained and perfect and what more can you say? -- has also earned him flashy appearances on network TV talk shows and a high-profile role as '60s R&B star Wilson Pickett on NBC's remember-yesteryear drama "American Dreams." A spot on "The Tonight Show" has just been booked to coincide with the release of "Rewind."
When he talks about the album, Fante jumps, stomps and claps. (Actually, he jumps, stomps and claps when he's talking about his first job bagging groceries, singing as a kid at Ebenezer AME Church in Fort Washington, his teen years in a go-go band, and most other topics, too.) At one point, he even hops over to a piano in the corner of the lounge to plink-plunk a few keys and unload that gorgeous wail:
"And I feel good! Knew that I should!" He has reason to be pumped. "Rewind" is a fun, grooving homage to the sounds of such legendary soul singers as Redding, Pickett and Sam Cooke. In a perfect world -- or in the year 1965 -- it would be the hit of the summer.
Co-written (with Guyora Kats) by Norah Jones's chief songwriter, Jesse Harris, and produced by Virgin's senior A&R man, Josh Deutsch, who signed Fante after hearing a demo, the album is awash in swaggering horn fills and slinky keyboard lines, drive-time beats and yearning but G-rated romantic lyrics. There's nothing modern -- or, for that matter, "neo" -- about it.
Usher is a neo-soul artist. Maxwell is a neo-soul artist. Fante is pure soul.
There are certainly other young, pretty talents fueling the retro-soul mini-movement these days -- hipster Calvin Richardson achieves a slowed-down Sly Stone coolness, and teen looker Joss Stone is on her way to becoming a blond, British Aretha Franklin. Alabama's Ellis Hooks is also generating a good deal of buzz. But perhaps no one fires up the wayback machine like Fante, who has no use for up-to-date pop sheen -- and certainly no use for songwriting tricks that aren't at least three decades old.
"I could not believe that that voice was coming out of that face," says Deutsch. "Can you imagine the luck of running into a talent like that?
"It was so obvious to me that he was meant for a particular kind of record. . . . We were trying to be reverential. But we weren't trying to make a throwback record."
"I believe that we have enough falsetto singers," says Fante, who didn't discover soul music until just a few years ago. "I don't feel like smacking someone in the booty. I do enough of that already." HWAT! "I'm not about bling-bling. I like to talk very clear. I like to present myself in a respectful manner. . . . I feel it's necessary to do it this way."
At a small, private show the night before, in a dark, swanky hipsters-only club/Bond-villain lair on the Bowery, Fante and a five-piece band made it very hard for all the beautiful people to maintain their cool-bored poses. If Fante, who looks very much like hunka-hunka supermodel Tyson Beckford, sounds good on his album, then he sounded even better live, a trick not many singers can pull off. As his short, 40-minute set got sweatier and sweatier -- and Fante howled, grimaced, and shimmied with all the boundless, heaven-kissed energy of a young Al Green -- the crowd was drawn closer and closer to the stage. They might not have known who Sam Cooke was, but by the end, they were definitely ready to cha-cha-cha.
"That was a hip, hip, hip crowd. A challenge," Fante says with a knowing smile. "But they were into it."
Getting the youngsters to dig Fante will be a bonus for the moneybags-that-be at Virgin, who, although they won't come right out and say it, are banking on the type of success that Norah Jones had with 2002's smash hit "Come Away With Me" (more than 17 million copies sold worldwide). Jones is an attractive young woman who sings safe, soothing folk-jazz to a cash-strong, risk-averse audience. And how about that twisted sales plan: Get the old folks first, and maybe, just maybe, the kids will follow.
"From a business standpoint, it's very flattering to be compared to Norah Jones," says Deutsch, prickling slightly at the mention of her name. "We take that as a compliment in terms of a business model. But this was a very pure experience, one of the purest I've had musically."
Deutsch says that "Rewind" is "not exactly representational of what's out there. But like Norah, the biggest records fall between the cracks and change the format. To make a big impact on a broad level, you have to be a lifestyle artist."
And, finally, Deutsch gives in: "I hope everybody buys two copies -- one for them and one for their kids."
"I'm gonna take it like a super-duper challenge, because a lot of the young kids just really don't know [about soul music]," Fante says. "So if I can be some kind of cool bridge, maybe they will get it."
From a hometown perspective, it's hard not to root for Fante. Although he currently lives in Los Angeles, the polite-to-a-fault singer has made it a point that he be sold as a D.C. artist.
"D.C. is the place," he says proudly. "No one ever wants to say he's from Southeast. I was that little black, skinny, big-haired, bowlegged boy sitting on the corner waiting for the ice cream truck. Honestly, I cannot complain about my upbringing. I was fortunate enough to have parents who were college-educated and had honest jobs."
"He knew what he wanted to do early," says his mother, Pat Onakoya, a teacher at Hart Middle School in Anacostia. "Even with everybody telling him he couldn't. But being his mom, I knew he could sing from Day One."
During the interview, Fante honors his childhood musical heroes by doing decent impressions of Elvis Presley ("That's All Right") and Frank Sinatra ("Fly Me to the Moon"), and then a dead-on dynamite one of Stevie Wonder ("Village Ghetto Land").
There's a reason his Wonder impression is so spectacular. When he was 5 years old, Fante's mother and aunt took him to the Mall to see Wonder sing at a Martin Luther King Jr. celebration. It would be the magic moment -- all stars seem to have them, don't they? -- that would decide his fate.
"I remember hearing the melody of 'Higher Ground,' and, as a child, for some reason it reminded me of [the theme from] 'Sesame Street,' " Fante says. "I was on my aunt's shoulders, and the melody just really made sense, you know? . . . When my parents divorced, Stevie was like a refuge.
"He was like my musical pops."
"Stevie Wonder was the man for him, all the time," Onakoya says. "He'd close his eyes and bob his head back and forth, and I'd be like, 'Hey, it doesn't work like that!' "
After high school, Fante, like his father before him, joined the Marines. "At boot camp on Parris Island, there were times when I actually got in trouble for singing," says Fante, who was trained to be a sharpshooter. "I had never shot a gun before. Now I can bust a pimple from five football fields."
It wasn't until his four years of service were up and he moved to L.A. -- living in an apartment where there were "more roaches than there was garbage" -- that he finally started to seek out soul music. "I'm from the hip-hop generation, so I was into A Tribe Called Quest and Nas then.
"But then somebody told me I sound like Otis," he says, laughing. "At that point, I basically only knew the whistle part to 'Dock of the Bay.' "
On "Rewind," Fante sounds like he's been a soul man since the day he was born. No matter how good the album is, however, there are still questions surrounding its prospects. In the hopes that the first single, "It Ain't Easy," would become a radio hit -- it hasn't -- Virgin pushed back the album's release date twice. In a related note, "It Ain't Easy" apparently sounded so much like a Wilson Pickett song called, um, "It Ain't Easy," that Pickett and co-writer Jon Tiven have since been given credit in the liner notes. "The matter has been resolved," says Virgin Records publicity head Tracy Zamot.
The only thing Fante worries about these days, besides calling Nia Long back ("We're like Claymation -- we're a great form"), is that he not break down in tears when he finally meets Stevie Wonder -- and he will meet Stevie Wonder. "I think I'll cry. I'll kiss his shoes," he says.
"I'll be like a female who will have to watch a Tyson fight to get my manhood back."
He's already planning his next album, a smooth, soulful effort that incorporates the music of his home town: go-go. "I'm gonna record it in D.C., and I'm gonna have whoever's the hottest band play on it," he says. "I'm serious, too."
And -- jump, stomp, clap -- he's just counting the minutes until "Rewind," after all the delays, all the hype, all those stops at Borders, finally hits the streets: "I'm like, 'When can I go down Sunset and see my ugly face on a billboard!' " With that, he lets out one of those glass-shattering, exploding-bird laughs: HWAT!
Scar and all, it's good to be Ricky Fante.