written by cameron cook
photos by dokk savage
It’s Grammy Night 2022 and the odds are in Kelvin Wooten’s favor. The Huntsville-based producer and songwriter has two horses in the race for Best R&B album: Back of My Mind by critical darling H.E.R., and Jazmine Sullivan’s Heaux Tales, the evening’s favorite to win. The category is stacked, and it’s a fierce competition, but Wooten has a feeling tonight might very well be his night. And finally, it is—Heaux Tales takes the gold, and Wooten can now officially add “Grammy Award Winner” to his already astonishing list of accomplishments. The track he produced for the album, the dangerously smooth and sexy “On It” (which features another one of his recent collaborators, Ari Lennox), has now forever been entered into the annals of music history.
“You could say there was an inkling that we might win,” Wooten says with a wry grin a few weeks later, when we connect via Zoom to chat about his ever-expanding career. “I had been nominated a few times before, but I had never felt this strongly about winning. I thought, ‘You know what? One of these has got to take it home!’” In a way, it’s almost unbelievable that it took until 2022 for Wooten to win his first Grammy. At the age of 46, he’s nothing short of an industry veteran, a versatile force in the hip-hop and R&B community that has written songs and produced records for everyone from Earth, Wind and Fire to Jill Scott, the Bee Gees, Kelis, and J. Cole, just to name a brief few.
But then again, it seems like Wooten has always eschewed the spotlight. When speaking, he comes across as home grown and humble, his deep, resonating voice peppering in a few “darns” and “shucks” as he runs down the list of bona fide hits to his name. In his own words, Kelvin slipped into his musical aptitude by total “happenstance”—mainly, the reason being his teenage lack of athletic abilities. “It was in the 6th grade, and they asked everyone for their extracurricular choices,” he explains. “As a kid, I just knew that I wasn’t very athletic, but the last option they presented was to sign up for the band. I started playing the tuba and remember being like, ‘I can do this music thing! But that’s kind of where it started, with me running away from being an athlete,” he says, laughing.
Later on, with the nurturing help of his high school band director, Wooten was able to expand his repertoire from the tuba to piano, guitar, and bass guitar, and a slew of other instruments, some learned essentially on the fly during services at his local church. “I would see the instruments I was being taught in school while in church, and I really wanted to try out the things I was hearing in my head,” he says of his multi-instrumental talent. “They eventually let me start playing, and I built a lot of my skill set just by being in that atmosphere.”
It wasn’t long until the teenage Wooten was making a name for himself around Huntsville as a young upstart eager to cut his teeth in the music biz. An early influence was Spanky Alford, a prolific jazz and soul guitarist who became known in the ‘80s and ‘90s as an integral part of the era’s neo-soul movement. “Spanky was a guitar god,” says Wooten with due reverence. “He was on the Roots’ stuff, Eric Benet’s work, he was on A Tribe Called Quest’s stuff. He lived in Huntsville too, and we went to church together.” It was Alford who introduced Wooten to the man who would become his most frequent collaborator early on in his early career—Raphael Saadiq, who at the time was still the lead singer of legendary R&B trio Tony! Toni! Toné!. “Spanky already kind of had a relationship with Raphael. He was an older guy, but was always inquisitive and trying to learn,” Wooten says. “Raphael gave him an Akai MPC3000 sampler, which at the time was more of a hip-hop piece of gear, but meant that if I hung out at his house every day I got to use this piece of equipment.”
This friendship resulted in the very first track Wooten ever wrote and produced on his own, a song called “Top Notch” on Tony! Toni! Toné!’s 1996 album House of Music. While it ended up being the band’s last record, Wooten was just beginning. Even while he was studying music at Alabama A&M University on a scholarship, the work kept coming in. “I had done some other stuff, playing keyboards on some stuff that Raphael was producing. That’s how I got on the Bee Gees’ Still Waters album,” explains Wooten, dropping iconic names like it’s absolutely nothing. “Raphael pulled up to the studio with a 24-track reel the band had given him and I just happened to be there that day for that session. I helped do some drum and keyboard programming on that song—so I had done some work playing on some professional projects, but the Tony! Toni! Toné! song was the first one that I wrote and produced.”
With time, Saadiq would become Wooten’s connection to many of his early hits—songs by people like Anthony Hamilton, Babyface, and the Isley Brothers. Saadiq brought him onto his short-lived but highly successful Lucy Pearl project, with Dawn Robinson of En Vogue and Ali Shaheed Muhammad of A Tribe Called Quest. “It’s crazy that to this day, people still approach me about that particular album,” says Wooten, almost wistfully. “I wish they had put out more music—it was such a crossroads moment in my life. You can even hear my old marching band from college on the very end of the album.”
Nowadays, Wooten still loves to work with other writers and producers, and his list of collaborators has somehow widened in the last 20 years. “When I’m writing, a lot of what I am doing is coming up with musical ideas with artists,” Wooten explains. “I work with a lot of beat producers in the hip-hop and R&B space. They work with existing music, like samples, or they work with people like me, who create a musical bed over drums. A lot of these producers are really great arrangers too, in terms of shaping how the song sounds. What I do is provide music in these spaces—but in providing music, I’m also songwriting.”
One of these producers is the hyper-prolific, New Jersey-based Cardiak, who Wooten started to work with sometime in 2020. He was the one who brought Wooten onto the Heaux Tales project, although “On It” had originally been written by Wooten for Ari Lennox. “I would say 90% of the time, I’m writing music with a specific artist in mind,” states Wooten, “especially with Cardiak. A lot of the time, we’ll write 50 songs that have a certain sound we know an artist is keen on. It’s much easier to write that way for me, to get into the mind space of: ‘Today I’m going to just focus on Ari Lennox songs, or today I am going to focus on Queen Naija songs, or today I’m going to focus on Lucky Daye songs. And in any case, what winds up happening is that when those artists don’t pick those songs, we still give them to someone else.”
In many ways, Wooten says he owes a lot of his disciplined work ethic to living in Huntsville, where he’s surrounded by old friends and family, decidedly away from the glitz and glamor of a lot of the music industry. “In the beginning, living in Huntsville made it a little bit more difficult—there were some projects I missed, because I just wasn’t there,” he states, speaking of opportunities offered from collaborators in New York and Los Angeles.
“My family plays a large part in me staying in Huntsville, but the world has gotten so small with the internet, and I love the comfort of my own studio at home. These artists like what I produce here in my basement, so they think, ‘Well, if I have to come to Huntsville, I’ll come to Huntsville.'”
Recently, rapper Rapsody and R&B vocalist Masego have both spent time in Wooten’s home studio, living in his house and laying down tracks during their stay. “Huntsville has a lot more to offer now than it did when I was first starting out,” he says matter-of-factly. In essence, the trajectory of Wooten’s career has been inextricable from his status as a resident of Huntsville.
“Huntsville is a very white collar town. Our industries here are military defense and space exploration, with the U.S. Space and Rocket Center. I tend to adopt the work ethic of the environment around me. I treat working on music like a 9-5—Monday through Friday, with weekends off. Being in this hard-working environment just makes me not think about the hustle and bustle of trying to get a record done, because everybody around me is just doing their job. It makes me treat working on my music the same; I set aside time just to be creative.”
It’s clear that Wooten takes joy in watching his hometown become a bigger and brighter influence in his industry. “I love the fact that our music scene is growing, and the city itself expresses an intent to see it grow,” he says, somewhat proudly. “We’re building an amphitheater, and we’ve opened a lot of other smaller and mid-sized venues for artists to come through and do shows. Five, ten years ago, a person like Wale wouldn’t have a place to perform, unless it was a hole in the wall type of spot. But now, we have places where more eclectic artists can perform. I see Huntsville making these changes, so now it’s like, ‘I gotta stay and make sure I am a part of that.’”
One of the most important ways Wooten is contributing to the Huntsville music scene is through his record label Woodaworx, where he shows a particular interest in local talent. “Huntsville is a college town that always cycles through new talent,” he explains. “Whether it’s the school that I went to, Alabama A&M University, or Oakwood University, which are both HBCUs. Every year, there are some great new talent that come on the scene from those schools. Huntsville used to be more of an uncommon place to find talent like that—it was a diamond in the rough.” Wooten linked up with Oakwood alum Elayna Boynton, who collaborated with him and Anthony Hamilton for the track “Freedom” from the Django Unchained soundtrack.
And then there’s Deqn Sue, an incredibly unique and eclectic artist who was invited to perform a coveted NPR Tiny Desk concert, for which Wooten joined in on bass guitar. “Having a label is just way more fun,” Wooten says, smiling. “It takes the pressure off of trying to get a track to this person or a composition to this person. I treat that kind of stuff like it’s my day job. A lot of my creativity goes into developing artists like Deqn Sue. Our music is so experimental, we just throw paint on the wall and see what sticks. We don’t know what we want to call it, if it’s R&B or pop or whatever. It takes much longer for those artistic processes to manifest into whatever they need to be, but when you realize that you love the process, it’s almost OK.”
So, while more Grammys are certainly in Wooten’s future, you’re much more likely to find him hanging with his close-knit circle in Huntsville than rubbing shoulders with celebrities. It’s that good ole’ down south attitude again, the one that comes through so clearly when he talks about the things and places he loves the most—chief among them, his hometown and the joyous music he can make there. “I didn’t choose this career path for it to be stressful or for it to be anything that I don’t enjoy. There are aspects of everything that you might not like, that’s just how life works, and there have been times where I’ve been questioning my career or what comes next, but what grounds me is working from my home.” He gets contemplative for a moment. “I even keep the gear I worked on as a kid. Sometimes inspiration sparks and it’s like, ‘Wow, this is crazy, this is my first keyboard and I’m still making huge hits on this thing!’ Or, ‘I got these drums from a pawn shop around the corner!’ It’s important to me to keep that connection to my childhood, to the past. It reminds me of why I started doing this.”