Inspired to Sing at Young Age, Groomed for Stardom, Forged Film Career
Rhythm and blues singer, actor
With his natural good looks and personal presence that set him apart from the pack, Usher has risen from genuine teen idol to mature pop star. Usher has to travel with bodyguards to hold back the throngs of screaming adolescent females. "I actually have been hurt," he told Interview magazine writer Dimitri Ehrlich. "I twisted my ankle—well, they twisted my ankle—in Amsterdam." Usher's musical talents were obvious, and the industry rewarded him with a 1998 Grammy award nomination for Best Male R&B vocal performance. At the century's end, Usher built on his teenage success, thanks to what People described as his "sculpted pecs, six-pack abs, and come-hither croon," to launch a successful acting career and media empire that will fuel his meteoric rise in the entertainment industry.
Inspired to Sing at Young Age
Usher was born Usher Raymond IV on October 14, 1978, in Dallas, Texas, but grew up in Chattanooga, Tennessee. His father, despite the long continuity of male family lineage implied by the fourth generation of the "Usher" name, abandoned his family. But Usher benefited from constant support and encouragement from his mother, Jonnetta Patton. "She showed me the difference between good and evil," Usher told Interview. "My dad never did. He split when I was born," he continued.
The members of Usher's extended family, which included grandmothers and aunts, were fans of R&B music, and he soaked up various vocal sounds when he was young. Ironically, it was a song recorded eight years before he was born, the Jackson 5's "I Want You Back," that first caught the youngster's attention and made him think about singing himself. Usher's mother spotted her son's talents and honed them by getting him to join her church choir, a critical step for many vocalists in the R&B tradition. Then she nurtured his competitive instincts by entering him in talent contests, and Usher justified his mother's confidence by winning many of them.
The family moved to Atlanta because of the city's importance as a spawning ground for new R&B talent during the 1990s. Usher continued to enter competitions, and, around 1991, took home his biggest prize yet: he was named best teen male vocalist on the nationally broadcast television program, Star Search. The win propelled Usher, barely of high school age, to a contract with the LaFace music label in 1992.
Groomed for Stardom
Usher's signing fell during the rise to prominence of Sean "Puffy" Combs, the famed hip-hop impresario and producer who played a key role in the successful marketing of the "gangsta" rap style and later emerged as a multi-platinum-selling artist in his own right. Usher spent a year under Combs's tutelage, and the relationship between the two young men was not always a harmonious one. "That whole bad-boy thing, me frowning for the camera-that wasn't me," Usher told People. Sales of Usher, the self-titled Combs-produced 1994 debut CD, though modest, did yield one gold-selling hit single, "Think of You," and Usher was on his way.
Taking steps to forge a new and friendlier image on his own, Usher began to work with hot R&B producer Jermaine Dupri. Part of Usher's effort to take control of his career was a new emphasis on writing his own songs, and Dupri had the sense to partner with his young new charge in this enterprise. Usher's refashioning of his career began to pay big dividends with his sophomore CD, 1997's My Way; led by the Usher-Dupri composition "You Make Me Wanna," a smooth ballad that brought to life the beginnings of a love triangle, My Way achieved sales of over five million copies and vastly broadened Usher's appeal beyond the R&B field. Another Number One single from My Way was "Nice & Slow." Asked about the album by Time magazine, Usher demonstrated awareness of the resonances of its title: "I know who Frank Sinatra is, daddy," he answered, showing the charismatic confidence he often exuded in interviews.
The album effectively mixed R&B and hip-hop stylings, and Usher proved that he had the vocal chops to go with his good looks when he wowed an audience at Harlem's prestigious Apollo Theater during the tour he undertook to promote it. Thanks to the success of My Way, Billboard named Usher its 1998 Artist of the Year. On top of the music world, Usher took the opportunity to enjoy the fruits of his success, repaying his mother's long years of investment in his career (she remains his manager) with a new Mercedes 420 automobile and a Cartier watch. But he was already planning the next stage of his career.
Forged Film Career
Usher had already made his acting debut with a stint of several episodes on the television series Moesha and Promised Land. For his first film project, he would choose a different kind of teen setting. Usher astutely zeroed in on the horror genre, largely an untapped field for black performers but tremendously popular among young people of all races. In late 1998 he made his debut in The Faculty, playing a high school football star possessed by aliens.
The film was a hit, and it attracted interest from the hip clothing designer Tommy Hilfiger, who featured images of its youthful cast in his advertising that year. It was a measure of Usher's appeal that he was played prominently in these ads, and he wrangled with Hilfiger over the use of his image. Ultimately he filed suit against the company for $1 million with the claim that Hilfiger had gone far beyond the guidelines the cast had agreed to, without "paying the money appropriate for an endorsement deal." Clearly Usher was aware of his own potential for further marketability.
Usher's movie career entered an upward trajectory more quickly than did his musical one. Faculty director Robert Rodriguez praised Usher in a People interview, saying, "He was already way above and beyond a lot of people I have worked with who were coming in for the first time." In 1999 Usher also appeared as a student disc jockey in the film She's All That, Light It Up with Vanessa L. Williams and Forest Whitaker and two more films were set for release in the year 2000, Gepetto and Texas Rangers. "I've found a new love," he told People. "My acting is making me want to leave my singing."
Musical Offerings Brought Unprecedented Fame
But while Usher developed as an actor, he continued to tour and music remained a huge part of his life. To appease fans, he released Live in 2000. The album documented Usher's development as a performer, featuring remixes of his early work and songs with guest artists such as Trey Lorenz, Shanice, Twista, and others. But it was not until 2001 that he came out with an album of new work. Writing for 8701 Usher created songs with stories. His stories touched fans and sent the album to multi-platinum success and fans kept "U Remind Me" and "U Got It Bad" at the top of both the pop and R&B charts for weeks. Usher won his first Grammy awards for these songs, and about a dozen other industry awards for his work on the album.
The success of 8701 made the 25-year-old Usher wonder about how he should develop his career. "With every album, I try to better myself," Usher noted on the UsherWorld Web site. "I'm a perfectionist and with the success of my last record, I wasn't sure about where my growth should be—as a performer, as a vocalist. I always felt like I held something back on my albums—on every album, I was playing a 'role.'" So for his next album, Confessions, Usher said: "I decided to shake my fears and allow my personality to come through."
His efforts created a record-breaking, chart-topping, award-winning album. Four songs from Confessions landed at number one on the Billboard 100, and Usher became the third artist, after the Beatles and the Bee Gees, with three songs in the top 10 at the same time. Confessions also won him three Grammy Awards and four American Music Awards in 2005. With sales of more than 25 million albums by 2005, his success has inspired comparisons with the youthful rise of Michael Jackson to the top of the charts and led the media to dub Usher the new King of Pop.
But Usher's phenomenal success in music had become only one segment of his vision for the future. He started his own record label, Us records, with his mother in 2002; began producing films; bought a stake in the Cleveland Cavaliers; and had begun preparations to start selling his own line of clothing, cosmetics, and fashion accessories. In addition to his business ventures, Usher started a summer music camp for talented youth and Usher's New Look, an organization focused on developing teen leadership. Usher related his vision for his future in an interview with Essence: "I hope to do something as a businessman that opens up more opportunities for people to believe in themselves, if I can do it, you may believe you can do it as well. Let me become the motivation for moving forward. Oprah Winfrey is a great motivator for Black people. How can I do the same thing?" Given his ambitions and recognized drive, many would guess that Usher certainly can.
Usher, LaFace, 1994.
My Way, LaFace, 1997.
Live, LaFace, 2000.
8701, LaFace, 2001.
Confessions, LaFace, 2004.
The Faculty, 1998.
Light It Up, 1999.
She's All That, 1999.
Texas Rangers, 2001.
In the Mix, 2005.
Contemporary Musicians, volume 23, Gale, 1999.
Larkin, Colin, ed., Encyclopedia of Popular Music, Muze UK, 1998.
Daily News Record, January 4, 1999, p. 6.
Ebony, January 1998, p. 46.
Entertainment Weekly, April 3, 1998, p. 96.
Essence, June 2005, p. 124.
Forbes, May 9, 2005, p. 18.
Interview, May 1998, p. 102.
Jet, December 14, 1998, p. 38.
Men's Health, May 2005, p. 160.
People, January 11, 1999, p. 83.
Time, February 23, 1998, p. 93.
UsherWorld, www.usherworld.com (March 22, 2006).
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