Songstress Alicia Keys likes nothing more than to mix a little Beethoven with a dash of Biggie when she sits down to compose. The influence both artists have had on her is instantly evident in her debut release "songs in A minor,'' which sent the music world spinning when it premiered at No. 1 on the Billboard charts two weeks ago. From the sample of Chopin that opens her hit song "Falling,'' to the hip-hop-laced "Girlfriend," Keys's eclectic mix of something old and something new is striking a chord with radio stations looking for the Next Big Thing.
President of J Records Clive Davis figured he'd found something pretty special when he signed the 20-year-old away from Columbia Records and onto his upstart label last year, following his ouster from Arista Records after 25 years. Anxious to show that he still had the touch, Davis, 68, put his hands-on approach into overdrive with his new find. He wrote a two-page letter to Oprah, asking that she let the singer perform on her show. Oprah obliged. That appearance, coupled with a spot on "Jay Leno," sent shipping orders for "songs in A minor" soaring from an initial 200,000 copies to nearly a million after both programs aired. "It was so wild, those weeks!'' says Keys.
Born to an Italian mother and an African-American father, Keys grew up in New York's Hell's Kitchen, surviving on her mother's paralegal salary in a one-bedroom apartment. Though money was tight, Keys's mother managed to pay for ballet and classical piano lessons. "I would want to quit because money was in short supply,'' says Keys. "But my mom would tell me, 'Quit what you like, but you're not quitting piano.' She didn't care what it cost.'' Her talent got her into the prestigious Professional Performing Arts School in New York. Afterhours found Keys studying voice with a girls' group at the Police Athletic League near her home.
While her early years were filled with the sounds of Mozart, Marvin Gaye and Nina Simone, Keys began reaching out in her teens for the music of her own generation. "I definitely got the best of both worlds with music,'' says Keys. "I knew I wanted to somehow merge all the stuff I grew up with. Which was a little of everything. But it was easy when I sat down to do it. All the music reflects my life in some way.''
Keys graduated from high school at 16, and with her soaring, soulful voice promptly landed a deal with Columbia Records. But she languished at the label for four years, writing songs that wouldn't be released until Davis came along. "In my first deal I felt they wanted me to be a clone of Mariah or Whitney, and I couldn't do that. I'm not the sequined-dress type or the high-heeled type, or the all-cleavage type. I'm not coming like that for no one.'' Indeed, her preferred style is beaded braids, a black leather jumpsuit, a black fedora and colorful do-rags that would make even Allen Iverson envious. "I told her to be herself and to just make great music,'' Davis says. "People know true talent when they see it.'' And the man who discovered Janis Joplin and Whitney Houston oughta know.