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Soul woman
R&B singer Deborah Cox is kickin' it old school

Once upon a time, rhythm ‘n' blues was known as soul music. After hip hop came along, and the jittery rhythms of rap were married with R&B, locating the actual soul in the music became a sometimes-tricky business.

A natural progression, perhaps, and in the name of creativity not necessarily a bad thing. But there are a handful of artists who prefer to keep the emphasis on the voice and the emotion - the very soulfulness - of R&B.

Deborah Cox, who co-headlines with smooth-style crooner Kenny Lattimore Saturday at the Trustees Theater, graduated from R&B's old school with honors in mid 1990s, when Arista Records head Clive Davis signed her up as his label's diva-to-watch. Her 1998 single "Nobody's Supposed To Be Here" spent 14 weeks on top of Billboard's Hot R&B chart, and was No. 2 on the Hot 100 (pop singles) chart for eight weeks.

She's had numerous songs reached the top spot on the dance charts, too, including "I Never Knew," "Absolutely Not," "We Can't Be Friends" and the recent "Beautiful U.R." The latter song is from The Promise, the first album on Deco/Image Records, a custom label started by Cox and her husband/producer Lascelles Stephens.

The Canadian-born Cox, who lives in Miami with Stephens and their three children, has done a little acting - in 2004, she replaced Michelle Williams (of Destiny's Child) in the Broadway production of Elton John's Aida.

You and Kenny both have that smooth, old-school R&B thing going on. It seems like a natural that you would tour together.

Deborah Cox: We've been friends for a while, and we've talked about collaborating for the longest time. When I had "We Can't Be Friends" out, and I would do shows without (duet partner) R.L. Huggar, people would say "You should seriously think about doing something with Kenny Latimore." He's always been there, as far as one of my top picks for people to collaborate with. And yes, we will sing some things together.

How do you feel about contemporary R&B and its gradual incorporation of rap and hip hop? Is there a place where you just say "I'm not going that far? I like it like this."

Deborah Cox: Music is always going to be evolving and changing, and I think we're at the point where we're trying to get back to live music. For three or four years, R&B was sort of inundated with a lot of more programmed stuff. Now, the artists like myself, Kenny, Kelly Price, the ones who were really doing R&B strong in the ‘90s, are coming back like "We can't let this era completely die."

We understand that we have to grow, and to stay relevant. But we also need to stay relevant to the style of music that we do, which means not forgetting about the musicians in rhythm ‘n' blues, and making sure the lyrics not only appeal to the young'ns but to people of all different ages who have grown up with many different styles of R&B, including the ‘70s stuff like Aretha, and Donny Hathaway.

For artists like myself and Kenny, who want to keep that style alive, it's important to do a tour of this type to sort of offset - and make sure that there's a balance happening.

I understand you appeared with Michael Jackson once in New York?

Deborah Cox: Well, it was Sept. 10, 2001 at the Michael Jackson 30th Anniversary Special in Madison Square Garden.

Ah, Sept. 10. That's why I've never heard anything about it ...

Deborah Cox: Right. After that great night of music, and celebrating his legacy, here comes 9/11.

But Michael was there?

Deborah Cox: Michael was there; we did rehearsals, and got a chance to meet him. He'd given me a phone call before to say he wanted me to be a part of the whole celebration. I'm really good friends with David Guest, who was a producer of the show, and his best friend. So I had a nice rapport with him.

I had been a huge, long-time fan of his since I was a kid. I grew up with the posters all over my wall. I was a member of the Michael Jackson Fan Club and I got the newsletter. And fan mail - I would write every week. I had the Michael Jackson doll.

For me, (his death) was a serious, serious blow. Because I felt like I knew the man, even though I've only had a few experiences working with him. But I feel like this is the end of an era, in some ways. Even though he has a great legacy of music that we can still listen to, the fact that the human being is gone is still hard to process.

In 2007, you recorded a tribute album to Dinah Washington. I always thought of her as more of a jazz vocalist.

Deborah Cox: I did it because I have this jazz side of me that I have been longing to bring out, for the longest time. She was one of my all-time favorites - I loved the way that she was so diverse. I feel like the two of us are very, very similar in that we have conquered many different styles, all at the same time. In her time, in her day, she did pop ballads, she did jazz, she did blues, she did gospel.

Me, I do essentially the same thing - I have an R&B base, but I have a really huge dance base as well. And the jazz project gives me three genres that I've tackled. And I feel musically and artistically that I'm at the point that I've really explored many musical styles. And that's why I wanted to pay homage to her.

The business sure is changing - 10 years ago, an artist on a major label had a big marketing and publicity machine to back her up. But that doesn't really exist any more. You guys recently started your own independent label. Are you confident that you can keep your career going with this new setup?

Deborah Cox: I've always been very, very confident about my live performance, so I've never relied on record sales so much. I've never let that be the thing that makes or breaks me; I've always felt like the live performer will always live on - like Michael, or Tina Turner, Gladys Knight, Patti LaBelle - to me, those are iconic figures that will always be around because they could still get up on a stage and sing, with just piano. That's who I aspire to be.

Now, starting the record label was really out of necessity, because a lot of these majors were just falling by the wayside. A lot of good people were being let go. I didn't want to get into a situation where I signed on with one person, and then they ended up leaving the company, and then the project is shelved.

Of course, while we were getting ready to come out with the record three major chains - Circuit City, Tower Records and Virgin Records - shut down. So that was a big blow.

But I feel that through the live shows we've still been able to sustain ourselves. I feel really fortunate that I've built enough of a fan base where I'm always busy doing shows. So I don't have to totally depend just on the record sales.


Kenny Lattimore/Deborah Cox

Where: Trustees Theater, 216 E. Broughton St.

When: 8 p.m. Saturday, July 11

Tickets: $12-$75 (VIP tickets include choice seating and an after-show reception)

Phone: (912) 525-5050


Proceeds to the Mauldin Scholarship Endowment