Tevin Campbell was the quintessential teen idol. He burst onto the music scene at the tender age of 11, under the guidance of legendary producer Quincy Jones. He was as cute as a button with his high top fade and wide grin, while his velvety-toned, perfectly pitched voice was reminiscent of a young Michael Jackson.
The first single he appeared on was Tomorrow (from the Quincy Jones album Back on the Block), which shot straight to the top of Billboards r&b chart in 1989. This was followed by several other hits including Can We Talk, Tell Me What You Want Me To Do and Goodbye, which all featured puppy love tales and even cuter video storylines. He even made an appearance on hit TV show The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, playing the love-interest of pre-teen character Ashley Banks.
However behind the music and fluffy TV cameos things weren’t as sweet. Tevin was involved in under-aged drinking and drugs, and his life was spiralling out of control. Things came to a head in 1999 when he was arrested and charged for Lewd Conduct, after soliciting oral sex from an undercover male police officer in an L.A park. Shortly after this he withdrew from the public eye and hasn’t released any new music since.
Now 33, imisstheoldschool caught up with the Texas-born former child star recently, for a very candid chat.
So first question, what have you been up to since your last studio album dropped ten years ago? Well I was in Hairspray on Broadway for three years, playing the role of Seaweed J Stubbs, and that was the greatest three years of my life. I fell in love with it.
Have you been in the studio at all in the past decade? I have been sporadically recording. I haven’t really been trying to sign any contracts as I have had enough of the music business, in terms of the industry.
‘To have immense success as a child and then in your early 20s have it taken away is pretty traumatic. But it made me stronger.’
Why is that? The music industry is really not the place for me to be right now. Most of the stuff on the radio is garbage. It’s a fad and kids love it but that’s not me. But there does seem to be this evolution happening where real artists and real music is starting to come back. I would like to be a part of that but I just have to figure out a way to do it. I never left the studio. I have a lot of songs finished and done, some have found their way on the Internet already, unbeknownst to myself (Laughs).
You talk about being disillusioned with the industry. Was there anything in particular that happened to make you feel that way? I started when I was 11 years old… I had a great time, don’t get me wrong, but when you’re a kid in this business and you have a lot of money, are introduced to a lot of bad things and start hanging around a lot of people, you start getting into trouble…
When did things start to unravel? My second album I’m Ready was released in 1993, and it was a huge success, but then the third album (Back To The World, 1996) didn’t do so well and the fourth album (Tevin Campbell, 1999) did even worse. And that’s the price you often pay for being a child star. I understand and accept that now. But at the time I didn’t understand, so as a teenager I was really going through it. To have immense success as a child and then in your early 20s have it taken away is pretty traumatic. But it made me stronger. I had to kind of just step away from the business and become a man. Prior to that I didn’t do anything for myself, I always had someone to do it for me. I couldn’t do anything, so I rebelled every chance I got.
How are things different now? I have my own life. I’ve been in New York independently for four years. I pay my own bills (laughs), and it’s a great feeling. I’m just glad I came out on that end, because a lot of child stars don’t come out on that positive end, so I thank God. And I thank my family, and my mum, who won’t let anyone mess with me now. But as much as she tried before, when I was a child superstar, she couldn’t protect me from everything. But I thank God I came out the other end and I still have my voice.
Are you gay? ‘That’s nobody’s business. If someone is interested in me and they wanna be my friend or whatever, then we can talk.’
Do you regret getting into the business so young? I don’t regret anything as I learnt a lot way earlier than most people do. Even some people who are my age now still don’t know half the stuff I know. I travelled the world… Most of it was drug-induced, but… I was a kid I had fun. When you’re a kid doing that kind of stuff it is amazing, so it wasn’t all bad. But it was a lot of work. I had no school life. I had no real friends. Everyone who was my ‘friend’ was leaching off of me. So it was hard but I had a good time, so no regrets.
You have been out of the media spotlight for a while, but the last time you were really in the news was when you were arrested in 1999… That was… a part of me. When I got pulled over, I was drunk and I remember the cops putting their handcuffs on me and throwing up. It was a lewd conduct charge… and you know I was 22 at that time. It had nothing to do with who I am today. I have never actually spoken on the subject…
Will you speak on it now? I did some stupid shit. I was driving around drunk, doing drugs. I had too much time on my hands and I got caught doing something I shouldn’t have been doing. It has nothing to do with who I am today or my sexuality, or whether I’m gay or straight.
Are you gay? That’s nobody’s business. If someone is interested in me and they wanna be my friend or whatever, then we can talk. It’s nobody’s business what I like to do behind closed doors, just because I am a celebrity. I hate that. And I like the fact that people wanna know. Let ‘em wonder. I like to leave a little bit to the imagination. But if you happen to get to know me and we hit it off… I share a lot of personal things with friends, which is a normal thing to do.
But with so many years of speculation, don’t you want to take the chance to clear things up? I don’t care what people think of me. I like a lot of different things – you have no idea. But that was all part of acting out and just being lost. And I got into a whole bunch of more trouble after that, which no one even knew about. I mean jail and really really bad stuff. God was talking to me and telling me ‘you better watch it.’ That arrest was just the beginning of a long road. Kids today want to be in the business so bad, but you have to be protected, and I was, but I still got into it. It is not a place for a young person to be.
Do you mind me asking what drugs you were doing at that time? Erm… Cocaine, and of course marijuana. Never heroin. I never used needles.
Were you introduced to it at a young age? Oh yeah. 14. When you are young and successful, people wanna be around you. I had a lot of older people inviting me to their houses. I didn’t have a licence, but I was driving cars and everything. It’s sad to say it but when you are a celebrity you get away with a lot. And I drank a lot and was driving drunk. I was quite a kid. I really was.
How hard was it for you to finally get clean and move away from all that? Once I got out of the business and started being around my family more, I just did it. It was hard to accept that success being taken away, but now I know it lasted. The songs lasted. I have Facebook and people are always leaving messages telling me how much they still love certain tracks and that feels nice. My musical talent is the only thing I have. I didn’t go to college. But when I was younger I took it for granted.
You performed at the BET Awards a few months ago, your first TV singing performance in years, how was that? When they called my name and the sound that came from the crowd and all the people standing up, that shocked the hell out of me. It made we wanna sing the hell out of the song. I mean I literally had about five seconds, but I did my thing. It was a great moment, a lot of people saw it and were like “Oh, so that’s where he is”. I also got to see a lot of people I hadn’t seen in years, such as Chaka Khan, who was like, “Oh my God! Aww, baby”. We were on the same label when I was a kid. I also saw Bobby Brown, and so many other people. It was a great moment and I’m so glad I did it.
So many people, including entertainers, were devastated over the passing of Michael Jackson, how did it affect you? I was really said when I heard. I was in shock. People literally killed themselves when he died. Everybody cried. It was just to soon. I’m just glad I got a chance to meet him.
‘Michael wanted to sign me. He flew me, my mum and my brother out to his ranch and we had lunch. There were monkeys jumping all over the tables and stuff’
When did you meet him? Bobbi Humphrey, a flutist in New York, discovered me when I was 10 and recorded me singing in her club. She sent the tape to the record company, but before that she brought me to Michael, and Michael wanted to sign me. He flew me, my mum and my brother out to his ranch and we had lunch. There were monkeys jumping all over the tables and stuff. We saw his zoo and his arcade house and it was beautiful. I’m so glad I’ve still got the pictures from that day. So yeah he wanted to sign me but we didn’t end up signing with him. Quincy snatched me up instead.
Wow! That is an amazing memory… Yes it is, but even more amazing is this story, which I will never forget. After Quincy signed me he let Michael hear Tomorrow, which is the first song I did. And Quincy said “man, that sounds exactly like you when you were younger, don’t it Michael?’ And Michael said, “No, that sounds better than me when I was that age.” I was like, (Shrieks) “Oh my God, you got to be kidding.” So that was phenomenal for Michael Jackson to say that about me. I’m so glad I got the chance to meet that man.
Check out Tevin (below) first, in his first ever video, Quincy’s Jones’ Tomorrow (the track that moved MJ – his voice does sound amazing!), and then arguably his most popular hit, Can We Talk?
TEVIN CAMPBELL – TOMORROW
TEVIN CAMPBELL – CAN WE TALK?