Jesse Powell is a gifted singer who has shown flashes of brilliance, but has generally not had the consistent material or production to match his obvious vocal talent. Though he cut a handful of truly great soul songs (arguably some of the best Soul tracks of the late 90s and early 00s), the frustratingly inconsistent style and quality of his releases has resulted in him remaining "under the radar" of many soul music fans and radio programmers.
Born and raised in Gary, Indiana, Powell spent his childhood and teen years singing in his local church with his musical family (his sisters Tamara and Trina later recorded for Sony Records). He then met writer/producer Carl Roland and they formed a musical partnership that led them to California looking for a record contract. Powell was spotted at an L.A. artist showcase in 1994 by record executive Louis Silas (of New Edition fame), who signed him to his Silas label under a distribution deal with MCA.
Powell released his eponymous debut in 1996, which featured a minor R&B hit with "All I Need." While the material was rather generic and his vocal style not yet distinctive, Powell boasted a crystal clear, strong tenor voice, and it appeared he could develop into a solid, classy soul singer. Despite including new material written by a number of accomplished contemporary songwriters, its was the album's medley of Enchantment's "Gloria" and "It's You That I Need" that was the clear highlight. Though basically a note for note copy of the original versions (even produced by longtime Enchantment mentor Michael Stokes), the medley was excellent cover that showed what the young singer could do with solid material.
Powell reached his biggest fame two years later with 'Bout It and his first and only top 5 hit, the lush ballad,"You" (which had also appeared on his debut disc). Even better was the album cut "You Should Know," an acoustic Babyface-like track that was one of the year's best soul songs and which Powell absolutely nailed vocally. Unfortunately, these two excellent cuts were surrounded by mediocre material that highlighted the somewhat schizophrenic nature of most of Powell's albums, which tended to be weak overall packages containing odd mixtures of sensitive, almost saccharine ballads, decent midtempos and distractingly raunchy, often poorly written funk tracks. Despite its inconsistency, 'Bout It hit the R&B top 20 on the strength of "You."
Powell put it all together in 2001 for JP, far and away his best album and the one boasting the best material and most consistent style: a solid Urban Adult Contemporary slant. He again showed himself to be a developing song interpreter, as his haunting cover of Al Hudson's "Something In the Past" became a career moment and a single that deserved much more attention than R&B radio gave it. While not perfect, JP gave the impression that Powell was on the verge of a great album.
Sadly, Silas died after the release of JP and MCA merged into oblivion, leaving Powell to find a new label. In 2003, he signed with Riviera/Liquid 8 and in the Fall released Jesse, which was highly anticipated by his growing UAC fan base after the development Powell showed on JP. Unfortunately, Jesse was a major step back from JP, repeating the inconsistent material and production problems that plagued Bout It. The disc's first three cuts, produced by The Co-Stars, were disastrous, with mechanical arrangements (oddly sounding like 70s video games) and forgettable tunes. He recovered with "By The Way," a nice ballad produced by Roland that would have fit nicely on JP. He also handled covers of Debarge's "I Like It" and Michael Jackson's "I Can't Help It" well, though neither added much to the original versions. The rest of the album was generally disappointing, and the disc stunningly failed to chart at all.
Jesse Powell retired from recording new music after JP and began working more extensively in video. Working with sisters Trina and Tamera, he formed a television production company. In the end, Powell showed himself to be an extremely talented singer who never fully had the material or production to consistently produce albums worthy of his talent. But there are songs and moments from his too short career that still bring chills more than a decade after we last heard from him.
By Chris Rizik
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