Buddy Strong sauntered through the throng during an intermission at the Cricket Pavilion last Sunday night, looking for friends and family there to celebrate his homecoming.
The 21-year-old Phoenix native was about to take the stage as the keyboard player for Usher Raymond, one of pop R&B's biggest young stars. More than 13,000 people — average age, maybe 18 — awaited the budding superstar's first appearance in the Valley.
"The bass sound here really kicks it, so we got no excuses tonight," Buddy said. "We gonna get after it."
Several members of Strong's family were seated in the second row of the sprawling west Phoenix venue, including his mother, Kathy. But Strong's father, Pastor Arthur Strong, said a few hours before showtime that he'd be unable to attend because of back problems.
"It hurts me that I won't get to see my baby perform," said Strong, referring to his youngest of five children. "I'm very proud of him, and I'm not worried about him being in the secular world, because he's been very well-trained and he believes in the Lord."
To call 24-year-old Usher's shtick "secular" doesn't cut it: If only "sexular" were a word.
But the fact that Pastor Strong says he's proud of his son means a lot, considering what Buddy told New Times almost five years ago ("The Prodigious Son," Paul Rubin, October 30, 1997).
"I'll try to hold on to sticking around here and playing church, directing the choir and everything," he said then. "But being young and wanting money, you know...it's temptation. I know my dad may not want to hear this, but I want to be a recording artist and I want to tour."
Right now, he's got all of the above: money like he's never seen before; songwriting credits on Usher's smash release, 8701; and a monster tour that won't end until he plays Japan, Australia and another 35 U.S. cities over the next several months. (Buddy's own recording project with his singing sister, Kerry, may have to remain on hold until Usher's tour ends.)
By church, Buddy was referring to the Faith Tabernacle Church on South 24th Street, between Broadway and Roeser. That's where he grew up, musically and otherwise, first performing there on the Hammond B-3 organ before his eighth birthday, as his dad sermonized nearby.
Though Buddy had few formal musical lessons, his level of invention and technical prowess on keyboards, bass and drums is profound. For years before he hooked up with Usher, Buddy had been a towering presence on the local gospel scene, leading choirs and jamming with the best players in town.
Buddy caught his break the old-fashioned way — word of mouth led to a chance to perform about two years ago for famed gospel artist Derrick Starks, visiting from Detroit.
"People told Derrick I could play, and he hooked up with me when he was in town," Buddy says. "He stayed in touch with me, kept saying he'd find me the right gig, the right place to be. I didn't wait by the phone."
But Starks came through, introducing Buddy to veteran R&B/gospel musician and producer Valdez Brantley. Brantley is Usher's musical director, an official title that carries great weight in his world.
"He called me and asked if I was interested in being in Usher's band," Buddy recalls. "I said, 'What do you think?'"
Brantley sent copies of Atlanta-based Usher's CDs to Phoenix by overnight delivery, then conducted a telephone audition with Buddy the following day.
"He wanted to hear if I could play straight R&B," Buddy says. "He asked me to play 'You Make Me Wanna,' and 'Nice and Slow,' big hits. I played from my house, doing it nice and clean. He said, 'You're hired.'"
That was more than a year ago. But delays due to injuries — Usher had shoulder surgery — and the vagaries of the music world kept the star from touring extensively until a few months ago.
At the same time, Usher's long-awaited new recording was overhauled, which delayed its distribution for months after its scheduled release date in early 2001. That provided Buddy with another break of sorts, as Usher re-recorded several tunes with Buddy on keyboards and added a few new ones — including the pair that earned Buddy writing credits.
Usher's popularity is undeniable: His slick 1997 album, My Way, sold more than 7 million copies, and the new one, 8701, is headed in that direction. Though he's breaking no musical ground, Usher is a competent crooner who adequately handles middle-of-the-road, boy-girl material without breaking much of a sweat. His slightly older contemporaries, D'Angelo and Maxwell, seem far more musically daring.
But that didn't matter to those who hung on Usher's every bump, grind and moan at the Cricket last Sunday. Buddy and the band performed on a riser located to one side of the stage as Usher pranced in various states of undress. Three huge video screens projected close-up images of the star, often from the crotch up, as the audience repeatedly screamed out his name.
The result was a sexually aggressive, highly theatrical, professional performance, but one that musically lacked edge and elan.
The set was so tight (and in synch with the MTV-style video images often interspersed with the live stuff) as to give it a canned feeling; the only reason it felt like a live performance was the sheer volume.
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That said, the gig with Usher is providing Buddy Strong with experience for a lifetime, one that should hold him in good stead as his own musical career blossoms.
"I get a chance to show some real musicianship, tasteful stuff, as we back him up," Buddy says. "And I'm getting to see the world and get paid for it."
Immediately after the gig, Buddy boarded one of Usher's five tour buses and headed to the next concert date, in Minneapolis.
"I'll be back around," he said. "Come on down to my dad's church next time I'm in town."