Usher Raymond is in this special group. Almost from the start it seemed that he was destined for bigger and better things. So it came as no surprise when the news broke a few weeks ago that Usher would be making his Broadway debut in the long-running musical “Chicago.” Not in a minor role. Rather, he will portray Billy Flynn, the conniving lawyer whose character is central to the production.
Many actors have taken on the Flynn part, but it is probably most closely associated with Richard Gere due to the award-winning success of the film version of “Chicago.”
DALLAS-BORN, Chattanooga, Tenn.-raised Usher, 27, is scheduled to begin appearing in the show on Aug. 22 and will remain with it through Oct. 1. “Chicago” has run on Broadway for many years (it is, in fact, Broadway’s longest running musical revival), so well-attended shows are commonplace. But even so, the theater owners and producers are hoping that the addition of hot young recording artist/actor Usher will add to the show’s already considerable marquee value.
“I have always admired Broadway actors for their showmanship, dedication and focus that go into performing live on stage every night,” said Usher. “Being on Broadway allows you to connect to audiences in a whole new way that’s different from music and movies.”
Among other things, doing stage show nightly, plus one or two matinees on weekends, requires a huge amount of discipline, and the ability to get into a state of mind that makes any audience feel the show is being performed for the first time, just for them.
Usher follows Wayne Brady, George Hamilton, Taye Diggs, Alan Thicke, Huey Lewis, Kevin Richardson and Billy Zane in the Billy Flynn role. He knows he has his work cut out for him, but is sure he is up to the challenge.
ACCEPTING that challenge is another part of Usher’s plan to become a megastar. In fact, he is so focused on his career that he admits that at this point in his life it is his number one concern, meaning that a romantic relationship can only go so far. (This may well have been a factor is his well-publicized breakup with Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas from the group TLC.)
Usher’s film work includes “She’s All That,” “Light It Up,” “In the Mix” (which was not a career high point),” “The Faculty” and the upcoming “The Ballad of Walter Holmes.” On television he has made appearances on, among others, “Moesha,” “The Bold and the Beautiful,” “Saturday Night Live,” “The Twilight Zone” and “7th Heaven.”
One thing that sets Usher apart from most of the competition — Ginuwine, Avant and Jaheim, for example — aside from his fierce, Michael Jackson-inspired dance moves — is that he exudes a special kind of charm and has a personality that wins people over, plus a dazzling smile. Add to all that a strong voice and above average material, and it becomes clear that it would have been almost impossible for Usher to not have become a success.
The Grammy, Soul Train, Billboard, BET, and Teen Choice awards, and even a Nickelodeon Kids Choice Award, attest to the magnitude of his success.
“I HAD BEEN building my career since I was a little boy because singing had always been what I wanted to do,” he said. “At first I thought about playing professional football, then I wanted to play basketball, but in the end it was all about the music. It’s my biggest passion and my biggest joy.”
Like most Black singers in the R&B field, Usher got his earliest experience vocalizing in church, where passion is as important as technique. Specifically, he was member of St. Elmo’s Missionary Baptist Church, in Chattanooga. His mother, Jonnetta Patton, was the choir director. She later became his manager, which she has been since that time.
Once Usher decided on show business as a career choice and determined that his genre would be R&B, the next step was to pursue a recording contract. Since the chances of securing one while based in Chattanooga were lower than they would be elsewhere, the family made a move, but not to New York or Los Angeles, as one might have expected. Instead, they headed to Atlanta, in 1993 when Usher was 13.
Atlanta had become the hot spot of the South for a lot of reasons, but due largely to the success of LaFace Records, headed by L.A. Reid and Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds. A representative from the label witnessed an Usher performance in a talent competition and was impressed enough to arrange a LaFace audition. It may have been fate, luck, or both, but Usher was signed at the conclusion of the audition.
JUST AS Berry Gordy Jr. saw something special in Michael Jackson when the Jackson 5 auditioned for him in Detroit in the late 60s, so it was with L.A. Reid as he watched Usher Raymond earnestly perform with every intention of making a positive impression.
“There was a look in his eyes that said if we intended to associate ourselves with the next superstar, we’d better associate ourselves with him,” recalled Reid. “Whenever you have someone who is that committed to their career, it’s contagious.”
LaFace connected their new discovery with some of the hottest producers and songwriters in the industry and soon Usher was doing major business on the charts and on the radio. Among the early hits were “You Make Me Wanna,” “Nice & Slow” (both No. 1), “Think of You” and “My Way.”
Usher’s popularity grew as rapidly as his ambition. The early hits made him a star, but his most recent two album catapulted him to superstardom (and in the process spawned several imitators.)
THE 2001 release, “8701,” soared to the top of the R&B and Pop charts and generated the kind of sales one would associate with Michael Jackson or Janet Jackson. It was propelled by hits such as “U Remind Me,” “U Got It Bad” and “U Don’t Have to Call.” (Obviously, at that time Usher was very much into sometimes using letters in the place of words, no doubt inspired by Prince’s penchant for the same.)
That album was huge and took Usher to another place, but the next one, “Confessions,” a 2004 release, went through the roof both in terms in sales and impact. The first single from it, the high-powered, party-perfect “Yeah,” was No. 1 for eight weeks. Following were the additional superhits, “Burn” and “Confessions, Pt. II.”
This album was also significant in that its content, coupled with things people were reading in the gossip columns and elsewhere, created an unprecedented interest in Usher’s personal life. People wanted to know if the CD was autobiographical. Usher was mostly coy in responding to that line of questioning.
“Confessions” also featured a beautiful, thought-provoking song titled “Simple Things.”
But there is not much that is simple about the life and career of singer, songwriter, actor, producer, dancer Usher. The best, in fact, may be yet to come, and Broadway could be the key. — SVH
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