KENANSVILLE — When André Stevens-Thomas describes the path that’s led him from the chorus room of Wallace-Rose Hill High School to the concert stages of Europe, the joy and conviction of a young man determined to succeed on his own terms is as apparent as his nervousness.
“I’ve never been good at talking about myself,” admitted Stevens-Thomas last week, during his first trip back to Duplin County since the early 2000s.
The singer-songwriter, producer and seasoned road veteran was in town to promote his newest CD, “Somebody, Somebody Loves” and reminisce about the small rural community that proved so crucial in shaping his musical success.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., music has been a part of Stevens-Thomas’ life for as long as he can remember. Through contributions of loose change tossed into a fruit jar, neighbors and family members offered early support for his vocal talents.
“By the time I was six or seven, my dream was to be an artist. There were always people who would encourage me to do certain songs. I would do things like Nat King Cole and, having understood that that brought a certain kind of reward made me want to pursue it.”
Throughout his childhood, Stevens-Thomas would spend summers in Rose Hill with his grandmother, Mary Boney, a woman he credits with inspiring much of the drive that would characterize his music career.
“It was she that instilled most of my character as far as how to treat people and how to act. Those were some of her early lessons, so I was very driven to please her. She was the one who motivated me the most,” he recalls.
Stevens-Thomas would eventually become a full-time Duplin County resident, attending Wallace-Rose High School, where he graduated in 1973. He counts himself particularly lucky to have studied under the school’s influential music and chorus teacher, Howard Boney (no relation to Mary), who mentored hundreds of students during his 33-year career in Duplin County Schools.
“He was the catalyst for me learning how to read and write music. He was very stern in many ways,” Stevens-Thomas remembers. “When it came to vocal accuracy he made sure that you had the right kind of tools. He was a very strong voice.”
After high school, Stevens-Thomas pursued music full-time. He gave his first professional performance in the musical “Pippin,” performing to sold-out audiences throughout Europe and Asia. That debut was followed up with theater performances in shows such as “The Fantastiks,” “Annie Get Ya Gun,” and “Showboat.”
According to Stevens-Thomas, his career kicked into high gear after he signed with the Franklin Agency of Beverly Hills, Calif. Since that time he has traveled the world working with music legends such as Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles and performing with the likes of Bob Hope during his annual USO Show. He also appeared as a special guest at President Gerald Ford’s Veteran’s Day Gala in Seattle.
While he has enjoyed working with other artists throughout his career, Stevens-Thomas said he eventually felt the need to take greater control of his artistic output. An important first step in that direction was the production of his one man show, “I Heard you Missed Me, Well I’m Back” that ran at The New London Theatre in London, England.
Producing his own CDs has allowed Stevens-Thomas to control his career to an even greater degree.
“I found that the way I wanted to go was to be a solo artist, a singer-songwriter. My dream was to be able to produce and record my own music,” he explains. “It takes on a whole different feel because you’re in charge of everything. It’s allowed me that freedom of knowing that I’ve done just about everything I needed to do in order to accomplish my goals.”
Stevens-Thomas’ new CD is a collection of smooth, jazz influenced “urban” R&B songs that highlight the singer’s soulful voice and emotional range. He describes the songs on the new CD as “message music.”
Stevens-Thomas wrote or co-wrote seven of the 11 songs on “Somebody, Somebody Loves,” which also includes cover versions of tunes by Stevie Wonder and Donny Hathaway.
The CD is dedicated to Mary Boney.
“These songs are about love of family, friends, romantic love, and finding oneself through love,” he explains.
He describes the title song as “the story of my life.”
“It’s about this person who’s striving for love in all the wrong places and hoping that someone will come along and allow him in.”
Stevens-Thomas said the production of “Somebody, Somebody Loves” was a learning experience. “Being the executive producer on my new CD has opened my eyes broadly because not only do I get the chance to call the shots and perform but I have my own publishing company, etcetera. It’s very rewarding.”
Stevens-Thomas says he is proud of the “old school” production techniques used on the CD.
“Lots of people just put the music together with fake instruments, but not here. I wanted to have the kinds of things that really influenced my work.”
Stevens-Thomas says changes in production styles are just one of the shifts he’s noticed over his career.
“I think Rhythm and Blues is something that really needs to be heard. I think it’s kind of lost its zest, particularly when it comes to the positive enforcements. That’s what I’ve concentrated on because that’s what I remember hearing from people like Stevie Wonder or Marvin Gaye.”
With 30 years of touring experience behind him, Stevens-Thomas, who currently lives in South Orange County, Calif., says he still enjoys performing for audiences. He began playing dates in support of “Somebody, Somebody Loves” in December and will be on the road for the next four months.
“The tour’s been interesting because it’s taken me through some extensive traveling. I’m getting ready to head to Europe.”
With a new E.P. already in the works, Stevens-Thomas says he is looking forward to entertaining crowds for many years to come, reaching back to the lessons he learned at the feet of two master teachers from a small town in Duplin County.
“When you come to my show you start out on a high and then I continue to take you up. Hopefully at the end I’ve given you something that you can have for yourself and appreciate for a long time.”
For more information on André Stevens-Thomas visit his website at http://www.stevensthomasgroup.com. “Somebody, Somebody Loves” can be purchased at cdbaby.com, Amazon.com, or on iTunes.