Who the Hell is Francesco Yates? (Asking for a Friend)

I been had. I been took. I been hoodwinked! Bamboozled! Led astray! Yes, Malcolm X reportedly said it first, but it still applies. It started with a sexy little song I heard on a car ad. Every time it came on, my hips began to swivel, my shoulders began to undulate, my eyes began to drowse. A hypnotic guitar ostinato mated with a sensuous tempo. And that voice, that voice like a Robin Thicke who, in the vernacular, “might could dance”; that voice with the smooth falsetto of Eddie Kendricks; that voice with the lazy moves of Billie Holiday, just barely tapping on that beat before moving on. This young guy understands exactly where the beat is, as if the beat were a beloved Stradivarius he knows so profoundly that he can play it at any time, always bringing pleasure.

The only words I heard were “Sugar, how you get so fly?” I went into musicologist mode and started looking things up. I found a video posted by “Robin Schulz.” Well, the guy onscreen had that big pouffy afro-esque hair that some cute Jewish guys can have, but his hips had a little sumpin’ sumpin’ that I thought might be Latino.

Francesco Yates

Then I looked up Robin Schulz and there was this mishegas about his origins being in Lower Saxony in Germany and the picture had a skinhead vibe. It wasn’t the same guy on the video. Say what, now? I couldn’t accept it. I know pretty much anything can happen among humans, but this didn’t seem right. The guy with the afro I was seeing didn’t look like somebody from Lower Saxony.

Turns out, I was right to resist. The person singing in the video was not Robin Schulz. It was Francisco Yates. But then, what was all this about a Schulz?

Let’s back it up a bit. There’s a new thing going on where popular music “artistes” behave as if they’re Rachmaninov writing a famed piano concerto or Vivaldi writing The Four Seasons for violin. In Romantic and Baroque styles the composer is more renowned than the performer; the performer plays what the composer has written.

In pop music, it’s traditionally the performer who’s listed in the forefront. Part of that is because pop music songwriters basically just sketch an outline. The performers, especially in Soul or R&B, give so much individual expression, embellishment, and improvisation that it seems right to bill them before the songwriters. But now, producers (called “arrangers” or “orchestrators” in classical genres) want top billing.

If you go to “Uptown Funk,” the international runaway hit of 2015/2016, you’ll see Mark Ronson listed rather than Bruno Mars, the featured performer in the video. Ronson, the producer who also plays bass, is actually in the video somewhere, but front and center is Motown star Bruno Mars, an American Latino-Filipino mix with tight dance moves.

In the “Sugar” video, there’s no sight of Schulz, a German DJ who, as it turns out, looks as stereotypical auf Deutsch as his name, with transparent skin, blond hair with shaved sides, a crest atop, and erect posture with stiff gestures.

The guy featured in the video, the not-Robin guy looked, for lack of a better word, “American.” The hair, the Seattle grunge biker threads, the sound, the moves. He’s Canadian, from one of my fave cities, Toronto, where I’ve spent two summers studying Baroque flute. Like Mozart, Francesco started writing music as a child, but unlike Amadeus, his career shows more financial success, signing with Atlantic at the age of sixteen where he’s produced by powerhouse Pharrell Williams. As of this writing, he’s on tour with superstar Justin Timberlake.

Listening to Yates’ single, “The Way You Were,” sounds very much like JT’s “What Goes Around” and his “When I Found You” bears too close a resemblance to Taylor Swift’s “I Knew You Were Trouble.” Even as a child, Mozart didn’t sound like other composers, so I don’t cut breaks for youth. Yates might simply be better for stellar covers like his take on Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You” or The Weeknd’s “Starboy” rather than original songs. Or so I thought.

I listened to five or six original songs and they were all ballads. But then came “Change the Channel,” a fully funked-up Isley Bros-style groove with a touch of Prince and the Revolution, and like the old Mississippi Bluesters he trades his vocal riffs with his own guitar whips and I, a Stanford-educated musicologist, went back to my Tennessee roots and said “Damn, boy, go ‘head.” Although…the more I listen, the more one little section (start at 2:30) sounds like the “Mamase mamasa, mamakusa” (at 4:44) in Michael Jackson’s “Wanna be Starting Something.” (FYI: that Jackson phrase was originally a play on the word “makossa,” a style of Afro-Latin music from Cameroon).

I got my musicology groove back and kept looking. After visiting his website and reading his Wikipedia entry, I knew very little more. I thought, “Who the hell is this guy?” Scrolled down a bit farther on my Google search page and chuckled as I read, “Who the Hell is . . . Francesco Yates?” an article on the VH1 News website. Chuckled again when I found out his Twitter followers use the hashtag, #TeamAfro. But there was not much more information. Nothing about family, education, nothing.

What’s odd is that I usually don’t want to know. If the music is jamming, I’m fine. I don’t like reality TV. I don’t want to know which Kardashian is sleeping with what mega-rich athlete. I don’t care that Brahms pined for Clara Schumann (though I must admit I’m hanging by a thread with my guy G. F. Handel, who owned slave-ship shares that helped finance his operas). But in the age of social media, the lack of info on Yates made me curious.

Perhaps it’s his a-sonorous Italian/English name. Perhaps it’s his ability on guitar and keyboard, showing that he’s a full-service musician, in addition to his killer pipes. Perhaps it’s that rubbernecking and the full lips. I want to know where he got that groove. As we say in the South, I want to know who his people are. Then one day I check my phone and find a YouTube notice that he has a new video out and some tips pointing the way to his roots sprang into view.

The setting for the video “Do You Think About Me?” is a spacious recording studio with hardwood floors and attractive rugs. Yates starts with his white-jean-clad tush facing the camera. The way he’s moving and grooving, I suspect some Temptations’ genomes might show up if his music DNA is ever tested. And the way he spins around, making his guitar assume the position, suggests Prince might be a not-too-distant cousin. Be sure to listen all the way to the end; there’s a little surprise.

This version forms a dramatic distinction to his slower (twenty metronome beats slower) smooth jazzy solo rendition of the very same song on Montreal’s radio station 92.5 “The Beat” studio for The Jeremy White Show. Oozing sensuality this time (whew, is the air conditioning broken?): same song, different tempo, different style, different instrumentation: both versions, essentially exceptional, equally effective.

The “moves” version is enhanced by a kick-ass backup band. The drummer has a full kit and — unlike many drummers who use additional drums and cymbals as just so much additional flash and noise — it’s not just for show. The drummer makes those Zildjians sizzle and sing. Like the jazz drummers of Bebop and Cool eras, he’s an equal partner. The funkmeister on bass could stand next to Bootsy unembarrassed (though he’d have to up his wardrobe game). And what about that tight little reggae backbeat and the breakdown into just voice, bass, and drums for the verses. Talk about taking folks to church. The only thing I could have asked is that the keyboard guy bust into some Billy Preston gospel shouts, revised Hammond organ version, but you can’t have everything.

What you can have is a singer with a finely honed weapon, ready to slay. But before you give up the ghost, he slips into an electric guitar solo that wails. Lord, help me! He’s one of the few singers who’s equally blessed with great talent in his throat and at the tip of his fingers. The voice wins out, though, as the instruments drop out and he holds that last note. I keep going back to that unexpected little vocal kick at the end, like that jazzy little lick he sings to end the two-guitar acoustic version of “Sugar,” easing up to that last final note. Ahhhh.

I sit here and all I can say is a full-throated AMEN!

A Stanford-trained musicologist who recently took a career swerve after 20 yrs in Texas. With a Columbia MFA in writing & translation she moved back home to TN.

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