Elder Barrino launches search for fresh talent

by Jordan Green

Auditioning performers and members of Joseph Barrino’s entourage idle in parked cars on both sides of the one-way street Saturday morning waiting for the historic Sunset Theatre in Asheboro to open. Sleep-deprived hoots and wisps of gospel singing emit from a white truck with a trailer hitched to the back. An unseasonably cold wind makes a heated vehicle preferable to standing out on the sidewalk.

A magician with what sounds like an Australian accent pulls to the curb and hops out of his car to inquire about the goings-on. After learning that the theater has been booked for a talent search by a record label he concludes that his particular skill set will most likely not be in demand. He returns to drop off some resumes and then decides to stick around, after all. When the doors open, he can be heard describing his gig to anyone who will listen.

Joseph Barrino shows up dressed in a black suit and white shirt with no tie a little after 9 a.m., accompanied by singer Tia Caviness, who carries a legal pad. Marshall Edwards, a friend described by Barrino as “a country music critic,” sizes up the 1930s-era, Spanish-style movie house. Edwards shakes his head in admiration and attests, “Joe’s got a great ear for talent.”

Barrino attends to some business and then the singer-songwriter, bass player, manager, label head and music patriarch – his daughter, Fantasia’s stunning success as a winner of “American Idol” put High Point on the map and made Barrino a household name – takes a seat in the back row of the theater and entertains a reporter’s questions.

He confesses that he would have preferred to hold the talent search in High Point, but he couldn’t find a venue with an affordable rate. He also would have liked the event to have been better promoted – a shortcoming for which he says, “I kind of take responsibility.” That said, he’s confident that towns like Asheboro are where he’ll find the unspoiled talent to get Jodiba Records off the ground.

“A lot of places where people don’t know, in the country, is where the talent is,” says the 45-year-old Barrino in a smoky voice that is hardly a notch above a hoarse whisper. “There’s a lot of undiscovered talent.”

He’s soliciting artists who perform R&B, gospel, hip hop, country and soft rock – a wide range of genres that embraces popular tastes, crosses racial boundaries and emphasizes small-town over cutting edge.

“I love all types of music,” Barrino says. “I love country. Country has a meaning, a feeling to me.”

He harbors ambivalent feelings about “American Idol” and says he tries to avoid capitalizing on his daughter’s star quotient.

“‘American Idol’ is an asset to someone who wants to make it,” Barrino says. “Sometimes they want to market them kind of crazy, sending an artist in the wrong direction, as far as bringing in the family past. [They should] make them successful, but leave the personal stuff behind.”

Barrino’s own music career in its own way is as fabled as his daughter’s. He started performing at the age of 14 with a gospel group known as the Heavenly Voices that eventually became the Barrino Brothers. The ever-evolving family tree of groups in which Barrino has performed or he has shaped in some way includes K-Ci and Jo-Jo, Little Cedric & the Hailey Singers, Jodeci, the Samaritans and the Barrino Family. Of the latter group, he notes, “That’s where Fantasia comes in.”

Every artist will have three minutes to perform today, he says. He wants to do more talent searches, possibly including one in Fayetteville, and later this month he may be ready to sign someone. He already plans to record a duo from Kannapolis who go by the names Arijunal and Jvo. At the moment Arijunal is slouched low in a theater seat with an Eskimo-jacket hood pulled over his head, while Jvo plays keyboards onstage.

Even though they’ve already secured a spot on the roster, Arijunal and Jvo will perform later in the day, both of them seated on monitors and singing their song, “Laidback.” It’s a commanding R&B number that deftly balances relaxation and intensity, employing a chorus of three female backup singers and piercing notes played by a house guitarist.

“I listen to their ability to sing, if they can move an audience,” Barrino says. “The bottom line – to see if they’re really entertainers.”

He takes a call on his mobile phone from someone wanting a status report.

“It’s kind of slim,” Barrino says.

A little before 10 a.m. the auditions start with a hip-hop artist from Winston-Salem called Ced It Off. The MC and his hype-man rap over a recorded track. Seated at a folding table in front of the stage with Caviness and Edwards, Barrino soon waves his hand.

“I can’t hear what they sayin’,” he says. “Everything’s all over the place.”

They try it again a capella.

“Give me something else,” Barrino says.

After another song, Barrino has a quick word with Caviness and looks up.

“Okay, we’re good,” he says.

Next up is a singer from Randleman named Chelsea Vernon. She wears a black blouse and jeans, and her shoulder-length curls frame a face inscribed with a healthy mixture of nervousness, determination and poise. Accompanied by the label’s music director, Mark Jones, on keyboards, Vernon’s performance conveys sincerity and restrained passion. The audience claps when she finishes, and she smiles and walks offstage. After conferring with Barrino, she returns to the stage with the house drummer to do another song.

The young man who has accompanied her here this morning, Eduardo Gallegos, a singer from Asheboro, more than matches her in focus and good looks. Dressed in a polo shirt he begins with a contemporary R&B song of the exquisitely sensitive variety, crooning “I want to be everything you’re man’s not/ And I’m gonna give you every little thing I’ve got.”

“Give me another,” Barrino says.

He launches into the Bill Withers soul classic “Ain’t No Sunshine.”

Barrino interrupts, asking, “Do you know that whole song?”

“Most of it.”

“Do you want to play with it?” Barrino asks. “We got time.”

Gallegos shrugs with an expression of good-natured amenability.

The full band – minus the guitar player who hasn’t showed – joins Gallegos onstage. The bassist imprints a spare line. The drums are restrained and the keyboardist’s playing is discrete, but the instrumentalists tease the musicality out of Gallegos’ song, providing a platform for a building crescendo of passion.

A fourth judge, Joe Gardner, has taken a seat at the table.

“What’s your nationality?” he asks Gallegos.

“Hispanic,” the young man says. “My mother’s white and my father’s from Mexico.”

“Can you do country?” Barrino asks. “Do a little bit.”

Gallegos shrugs.

“Can you speak Spanish?”

“Sure,” Gallegos says.

“Can you do country Spanish?” Barrino asks. “If you can do that, you’re a winner.”

“I don’t know the words.”

“Make it up.”

He sings a couple tentative lines, not enough for the band to accompany and shrugs. The band and audience clap and Gallegos walks offstage.

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