Ready For His Close-Up

EVEN BACK IN JUNIOR HIGH IN Indianapolis, Kenneth Edmonds--you know him as Babyface--was more or less the guy he is now. He was in his first band then; onstage, he'd let others sing as he hung back, playing guitar, registering the crowd's response. ""I'd watch to see what they reacted to,'' he recalls. ""We were doing other people's songs and it helped me see what I needed to write so people would be drawn to it. I've always paid close attention to what makes people tick.''

At 39, Babyface has figured it out as well as anybody in the music business. The albums he's produced--for such singers as Whitney Houston, Toni Braxton and Mariah Carey--have sold nearly 80 million copies and yielded 110 top-10 singles. Four of the 16 No. 1 pop hits he produced are on 1995's ""Waiting to Exhale'' soundtrack album; another, Boyz II Men's 1994 ""I'll Make Love to You'' stayed at No. 1 on the pop charts longer than any other single in history. There is one difference between reticent young Kenneth Edmonds and Babyface: on some 8 million of those albums, he's also the singer--the biggest R&B heartthrob since Luther Vandross. Another difference: he's also become the hottest black film producer in Hollywood.

This week Babyface releases his fifth CD under his own name, the live recording of his ""MTV Unplugged'' special. It's a refreshing change from his usual mix of programmed drum tracks, featureless synthesizer backgrounds and crooning vocals: here he is with real live musicians, singing with unwonted intensity. (As usual with MTV, the array of electric instruments makes you wonder what got unplugged.) Babyface is the last guy you'd call rootsy, but the blues-drenched lead guitar of guest Eric Clapton seems to have done for him what that tea-steeped madeleine did for Proust. On hearing Clapton play, Face tells the studio audience, ""I started smelling neck bones, grits and greens and things.''

Meanwhile, back at the new office of Edmonds Entertainment in L.A., the phone's ringing. And ringing. The hit movie ""Soul Food,'' produced by Edmonds and his wife, Tracey, has made some $40 million since it opened in September--it cost just $7 million to make--and its soundtrack album, with Puff Daddy, Boyz II Men and Dru Hill, has gone double platinum. ""Now we're getting all the calls,'' Tracey laughs, waving her hands and making her huge diamond wedding ring coruscate. (They met when she auditioned for one of his videos.) ""We couldn't get the same people to have any interest in "Soul Food.' I guess they thought blacks wouldn't go to anything but shoot-'em-up movies.'' As his wife talks, Babyface hangs back, watches and listens.

Babyface--as he's been called since the legendary funkmeister Bootsy Collins forgot his name at some long-ago session--hooked up with his best-known creative partner, Antonio (L.A.) Reid, in the early '80s. (Their band, The Deele, had a middling hit with the paradoxically tender ""Shoot 'Em Up Movies.'') By the end of the decade their production style, combining raw R&B, slick Earth, Wind & Fire-style funk and a soupCon of hip-hop, had yielded hits for Houston, Bobby Brown and Paula Abdul, and helped change the sound of black music. Face and L.A. started their own record label--LaFace, what else?--and signed such stars-to-be as Braxton and TLC; the company's now worth an estimated $300 million. Babyface, predictably, stayed behind the mixing console while the flashier Reid paid more attention to the business side. Nobody will say exactly why they fell out in 1993, but sources hint that it was about money. Still, though they dissolved their working partnership, they remain co-owners of the label. ""It was almost like your parents getting a divorce,'' says Braxton. ""You love them both and you understand both.''

Babyface soon began writing and producing for such mainstream pop stars as Clapton (""Change the World'') and Madonna (""Take a Bow''); last year he became the first person ever to win two consecutive Grammys for Producer of the Year. But his biggest coup may have been the soundtrack album for ""Waiting to Exhale.'' Quincy Jones was offered the job first, but his price was too high. ""I have to envy him a little,'' Jones says now, ""because everything he touches turns to gold.''

It was largely the soundtrack that led Twentieth Century Fox to give the fledgling Edmonds Entertainment a three-picture deal--anyone with such a sensitive finger on the popular pulse must be on to something. ""Soul Food,'' by novice writer-director George Tillman, was the first script Babyface and Tracey read. This story of a Chicago family struggling to stay together through the mother's illness and death was shot in a month; it became the surprise hit among this year's black films. In the spring, the Edmondses plan to release the romantic comedy ""Half Plenty,'' about a struggling writer who falls for a rich record producer. They'll also produce a sitcom about black college life for Fox, and they're working on a ""dance-driven'' film project for John Travolta. ""He still really loves to dance,'' says Tracey.

As you'd expect, Babyface isn't letting himself get carried away. He plans to spend much of next year doing the usual--producing new records for Braxton and TLC. Music, after all, is what got him here. ""We've had some good luck, and we just happened to choose a script that we would've been interested in going to see on the screen,'' he says of his new career as a movie mogul. ""There's no magical way of choosing something that might hit, be it a film or a record. We just had really good luck.'' Sure. The same kind of luck he's been making for himself since he was a kid back in Indianapolis. Don't let that baby face fool you.