After more than a decade in the music business — more, really, if you count all the way back to his 1994 debut single — R&B artist Eric Roberson is finally getting some recognition for his efforts.
He's best known for his vocal and songwriting contributions to projects by fellow Philadelphia scene makers like DJ Jazzy Jeff and Jill Scott. Meanwhile Roberson, who performs Friday at Minglewood Hall's 1884 Lounge as part of the Basement Soul Lounge series, has simultaneously been cranking out smart, tuneful, challenging neo-soul on his own to little more than critical acclaim.
But his most recent effort, Music Fan First, released in 2009 on his own Blue Erro Soul label, broke that pattern last year. That's when the spare, erotic single "A Tale Of Two," featuring guest appearances by Ben O'Neil and Michelle Thompson, garnered the singer-songwriter his first Grammy nomination for Best Urban/Alternative Performance.
Roberson repeated the accomplishment earlier this year when "Still," another track from the same record, was nominated in the same category.
"The two songs we got nominated for were very off the scale in terms of songwriting rules," says Roberson from his home in Southern New Jersey, where he is putting the finishing touches on his next record, Mr. Nice Guy, due in late summer. "We broke every rule we possibly could. And for those songs to get nominated shows that what we were going after was correct. And what we were going after was a feeling. We weren't going after what someone would say would be right. We were going after what felt right."
For Roberson the hard work began when he was a child growing up in Rahway, N.J., just outside of New York City. The Roberson household was a creative one. His father worked in a factory but also sang and played guitar, keeping an instrument in every room of the house. Roberson's mother quit a job in the corporate world to work in fashion, a passion shared by his older sister, who also played in bands and competed in beauty pageants when she was young.
Roberson first got the performing bug playing in church but quickly followed the lead of his sister, taking piano lessons, appearing in plays and even competing in a pageant. At age 14 he won Mr. Black Teen Universe, a title that included a scholarship to Howard University.
By the time he graduated high school, however, it was not entirely clear Roberson would be going to college. In 1994 he was signed to Warner Brothers Records. The next year the poppy ballad "The Moon" was released, but the full-length record he had made never saw the light of the day. His music career seemingly squashed, Roberson fell back on college.
"It was very humbling at the time," he says. "But the regrouping time that I took was the best thing I could have ever done. It made me a better person in every aspect you could think of — a better artist, a better student and a better person in general."
At Howard, Roberson threw himself into musical theater, culminating in his senior year with a star turn in the college's production of "Jelly's Last Jam."
Though he got his degree in Music Theater, after Howard Roberson moved to Atlanta to pursue a career as a writer, producer and performer. He recorded an indie release, The Esoteric Movement, in 2001, but his big break came a year later when he hooked up with DJ Jazzy Jeff's A Touch of Jazz production company. A publishing deal soon followed, and Roberson began collaborating behind-the-scenes with a number of neo-soul's biggest names, including Musiq Soulchild, Vivian Green and Scott.
"I was honored to be in the rooms to see Musiq's first album get made, to see Jill's first album get made," he says. "To be a part of them was one thing, but to see them get made and know this is going to be something big was something else. It's a very proud moment to know that you helped someone and you saw someone's dreams really come true."
Roberson's own dream persevered through four more studio records and a live set, but by the time he was to begin work on what would become Music Fan First, he was feeling, after all the years of writing and recording for others as well as himself, estranged from the love for music.
"For me this record was a reinvestment, a reinvestment into remembering that music has pretty much been my sidekick through my entire life," says Roberson. "It's been the soundtrack to everything I've done. For me, the way to make this record was to be a fan first."
Eric Roberson w/The Iron Mic Coalition
Friday at 1884 Lounge, 1555 Madison Ave., inside Minglewood Hall. Doors open at 8 p.m., show starts at 9 p.m. Tickets: $20, available online at memphisrebirth.com. For more information, call 265-5185.