The fact that Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds is playing at Billboard Live makes total sense, since his songwriting and production has dominated the Billboard charts for the past 25 years. With 10 Grammy Awards and a list of collaborators that reads like a who’s-who of modern R&B, Edmonds has enough hits to keep the sold-out crowd entertained for hours on end.
The 55-year-old music industry powerhouse takes the stage in a three-piece suit, backed by a band of consummate professionals, and kicks off with “For the Cool in You.” This immediately gets a good portion of the crowd on their feet. A smooth R&B jam, the song sets the tone for the evening, allowing Edmonds to warm up his vocals and find his groove. With the second song, 1996 ballad “Every Time I Close My Eyes,” that voice is put to work via an amazing display of vocal acrobatics rivaling any of his world-class collaborators.
He may be most famous for working behind the scenes, but Edmonds’ solo career is nothing to sneeze at. The first half of tonight’s set showcases this with “When I Get Home” and “When I See You Again” showing the crowd why he’s most famous for writing ballads. It’s not all slow-jams though, as the band kicks into high gear with an energetic instrumental gospel number. Further showing off his versatility, Edmonds straps on his acoustic guitar for an impeccable cover of James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain.”
For the second half of the show, the crowd is treated to an extended medley of some of Edmonds’ most famous hits that he’ has written and produced for other artists. You can tell that the man is proud of his work, performing the songs with a huge smile and a knowing wink to his bandmates each time the crowd reacts with excitement to the beginning chords of the next song. The audience is treated to Edmonds’ breakthrough song, The Deele’s “Two Occasions,” before the band runs through a clutch of New Edition classics, Tevin Campbell’s “Can We Talk” and Johnny Gill’s “My, My, My,” getting the women in the audience visibly swooning.
This impressive run through Edmonds’ songwriting career culminates in the note-perfect, one-two punch of a pair of Boyz II Men hits. The moment when the band transitions from “I’ll Make Love to You” into “End of the Road” gets the biggest cheers of the night, deservedly so.
The audience would have likely been satisfied if the show had ended there, but Edmonds isn’t ready to stop just yet. Eric Clapton’s “Change The World” is given a faithful rendition by its producer, complete with a call-and-response section that sees him running up and around the room, high-fiving his rapt audience all the way up to the back of the venue. As an encore, the crowd is gently sent home with a final solo track, “Whip Appeal,” which manages to still sound fresh despite being released in 1990. I’m left feeling quite amazed that Babyface has spent so much of his career working behind the scenes. With the vocal talent and stage presence I witnessed at Billboard Live, I get the feeling that, if he wanted to, he could quite easily have had a solo career to rival even the biggest stars in his songbook.