R&B star Brian McKnight plays Strathmore

Listen to our full conversation on my podcast “Beyond the Fame.”

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews Brian McKnight at Strathmore (Part 1)

R&B icon Brian McKnight has sold over 30 million albums over the past 30 years.

This Friday, the 16-time Grammy nominee plays Strathmore in North Bethesda after the pandemic postponed previous dates on April 11, 2020, Sept. 27, 2020 and March 5, 2021.

“It’s been quite a while,” McKnight told WTOP. “It’s great that we’re getting this opportunity for the fans and everyone involved to be able to do this now. I’ve been waiting and they’ve been waiting for quite some time. … We had a death in our family and for a lot of reasons I probably shouldn’t even be doing shows, but therapeutically it’s good to be on stage.”

If you show up at Strathmore, you can expect to hear all of his greatest hits.

“I’m not a fool, I know why people come to see me,” McKnight said. “I’m going to play all of the songs that they want to hear, and I’ll sprinkle some new ones in. There will be some humor. I try to take folks through all of the emotions.”

Born in Buffalo, New York, in 1969, McKnight grew up in a musical family.

“When you’re born into our family, it’s a forgone conclusion that you’re going to be musical,” McKnight said. “My grandfather was the minister of music in our church. Our choir was mostly comprised of our family. … Everybody sings, everybody plays. My brother, who sings in the gospel group Take 6, has [8] Grammys, so it’s a family business.”

After his older brother Claude’s group Take 6 signed with Warner Alliance in 1987, McKnight began recording demos at a studio in Huntsville, Alabama during college.

“The actual studio where Take 6 got discovered … was the studio I was working out of as a professional writer,” McKnight said. “I got a publishing deal when I was 18 to write. All those demos were sent to the record companies and they asked, ‘Who’s writing music?’ ‘I am.’ ‘Who’s producing?’ ‘I am.’ ‘Who’s singing?’ ‘I am.’ ‘Do you want a record deal?’ ‘OK.'”

Initially, McKnight thought that he would remain strictly behind the scenes.

“I wanted to be David Foster, the guy behind the music,” McKnight said. “But everybody wants to be a rock star. I don’t care who you are, whether you sing in the shower, whether you can sing or can’t sing, there’s always that dream of being either an athlete or a rock star, so I took that chance, not thinking it would actually turn into a 30-year career.”

He signed with Wing Records to produce Vanessa Williams’ album “Comfort Zone” (1991) — their duet “Love Is” (1994) was also on the “Beverly Hills 90210” soundtrack — followed by his own platinum album “Brian McKnight” (1992) with the hit single “One Last Cry.”

“‘One Last Cry’ was written when I was 18, thinking I could pitch it to Bette Midler,” McKnight said. “I didn’t think it was cool for a guy to sing this soft, broken-hearted song. I thought a woman would sing it. … Back then, that’s the type of songs that women sang. Ed Eckstine, who signed me, was brilliant, showing that a man could be sensitive.”

He next produced Boyz II Men’s holiday album “Christmas Interpretations” (1993), featuring a cover of “Silent Night” and an original song called “Let It Snow.”

“I met those guys in a hotel lobby in New York … I was just playing the piano in the lobby,” McKnight said. “Fast forward to two years later when they were going to their Christmas album. … I wrote ‘Let It Snow’ walking down the street in London in July. It’s blazing hot. It was a really fun experience and those guys are definitely my extended family.”

His second album, “I Remember You” (1995), included the hit “Crazy Love,” which was also on the soundtrack for “Jason’s Lyric” (1994), but it didn’t sell as well as his debut. The sophomore slump is precisely what inspired the hit song and album “Anytime” (1997).

“The beginning of that song was really a letter to the fans saying, ‘I’m trying to figure [myself] out,'” McKnight said. “I spun it into more of a relationship-type song, but I was really lamenting the fact that we all want every record to do better than the last. … Then ‘Anytime’ becomes the juggernaut that it is, so I figured out what people wanted from me.”

He followed the double-platinum “Anytime” with the triple-platinum “Back at One” (1999).

“‘Anytime’ built that the house I was moving into,” McKnight said. “I’ve always been an electronics geek. … Guys were there putting in the home theater. I’m looking at the manual for the DVD player. Pretty much every troubleshooting page says, ‘Do step one, step two, and if the problem persists, repeat steps 1, 2, 3.’ I was like, ‘Whoa, that’s a song.'”

The song reached a different audience when it was covered by country artist Mark Wills.

“I’m like, ‘Well, I’ve got every other chart except for country,’ so if Mark does this and it even becomes a pseudo-hit, then I’ve actually hit almost every chart,” McKnight said. “I got to meet Mark, I got to actually perform the song with Mark and we became really good friends. That’s why that year, from 1999 to 2000, I think that was the most played song.”

Today, a new generation is discovering McKnight by listening to his Kobe Bryant duet “Hold Me,” as basketball fans look back at the fallen NBA star’s rare music attempt.

“I have the distinction of being one of the only artists in the world that’s created music with Kobe Bryant,” McKnight said. “If you look at that video, I’m playing basketball with a bunch of first-round draft picks: Derek Fisher, Paul Pierce, Chris Mills … When he passed, it was like one of my brothers leaving this earth. It’s been two years almost and it’s still surreal.”

How does McKnight keep reinventing himself through the years?

“One thing I’ve never talked about much is how to walk that fine line between crossing over into popular music while also keeping your foot entrenched in your base, which is whatever you want to call Black or R&B music,” McKnight said. “That’s the tightrope I’ve walked.”

He says it’s “almost impossible” to walk such a genre tightrope.

“If you look at myself, Boyz II Men and a few others who have had success on other charts, when you start at one place, then you go to this other place where you become more of a household name, people think you forgot where you came from,” he said. “As artists, we want our music to be listened to by the greatest number of people that we can.”

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews Brian McKnight at Strathmore (Part 2)

Listen to our full conversation on my podcast “Beyond the Fame.”

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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