Anthony Hamilton: Based on a True Story

Charlotte native Anthony Hamilton’s debut album went platinum, but he’s no overnight sensation—more like over-a-decade. And after three years of acclaim and stardom, he hasn’t changed much since he was a singing barber

Before he ever released a record, before he ever had a hit single, before he ever headlined a cross-country tour, Anthony Hamilton cut hair. His chair was in Mangum’s, a little barbershop on West Boulevard. Darrick “Chop” Staton worked the clippers alongside Hamilton, got to know him, encouraged him, and in fact helped him chase that first big break.

“He’s the same cat from fifteen, twenty years ago—same spirit. That’s why people love him,” Staton says about his friend. “He’s a people person, and he’s very humble.”

Hamilton is now a celebrity, but he doesn’t seem to know it. His rich and soulful voice got him on the radio, and his ability to connect with listeners has helped him sell millions of records. His down-to-earth appeal attracted large crowds to his recently wrapped Change Your World tour. When he went on TV with Jay, Dave, Regis, and Ellen, he was the same guy who went to barber school with Chop. And his realness makes those who knew him back in the day feel as if his story is their story, too.

Now thirty-five, Hamilton grew up on Hemphill Street near West Boulevard. His childhood wasn’t easy. His mother struggled to provide for him and his brother and sister, and his father wasn’t around much. He spent a lot of time with his maternal grandmother, who got him his first singing gig—in the church choir. Hamilton says that experience is a part of his music today: “There were a lot of influences from my church, Macedonia Baptist Church in Mount Holly.”

His rhythm and blues is secular, but he takes listeners to church with a voice that could easily be coming from behind a pulpit. He’s often compared to such icons as Sam Cooke and Al Green because of the spiritual undertone that pervades his voice and his lyrics. The music industry labels him as both neo-soul and retro-soul, because his sound is as new as it is old. To Hamilton, who writes or co-writes all of his songs, it’s simply his life.

“My inspiration is usually things I’ve gone through that I thought I was over, until the music starts to play, and I’m like, ‘Wow, I did go through that.’ ”  

It’s the week before Hamilton’s tour kicks off, and he’s excited. He’s enjoying some downtime at home with his family before preparing to hit the road for two months. It’s his first official tour as the headliner, and he is both proud and humble. “This is the next step up for me, like a graduation,” he says. “It feels good, you know, but I’m not getting a big head. It’s just a time slot, that’s all. It doesn’t make me any better than the opening acts.”

The tour’s third stop is at Ovens Auditorium, and it’s been more than a year since he’s performed in his hometown. “It’s real emotional,” he says. “If there’s going to be any crying, it’s going to be at home.”

Hamilton isn’t afraid to cry on stage. His lack of inhibition helps draw fans to him. In the title track for Comin’ From Where I’m From, his 2003 platinum-selling, Grammy-nominated debut album, he touches on things from his past that he isn’t necessarily proud of (“Tried to be good. Tried to keep from trouble. Living too fast,” he sings). That honesty and search for redemption can also be found on his latest CD, Ain’t Nobody Worryin’, released in December.  

“I feel like Ain’t Nobody Worryin’ is so different than what is out on the radio,” Hamilton says. “Anybody can talk about love between a man and a woman.” Hamilton sees a bigger world out there. “Okay, I have a record deal, but on my way from the airport I see pain, I see crack, I see AIDS, I see homelessness. And have I done as much as I think I could to try to change it? No. But I’m getting there.”

Hamilton spent much of the 1990s trying to be heard. “He would sing everywhere he went. When he should’ve been talking, he would be singing,” Staton says. Hamilton was good at cutting hair, but it couldn’t compete with his first love. “Any avenues I could be a part of and sing and let my voice be heard, I would definitely do it,” Hamilton says. “I was known mostly for singing in the barbershop. I was the singing barber.” But he would have to put down the clippers to reach his dream.

“He started doing showcases, a lot of talent shows—winning all the talent shows in Charlotte,” Staton says. “He never struggled in Charlotte. He was the hometown hero. But he had to step outside of the city limits.” So he did. “We went to Daytona during spring break for this event, but it didn’t turn out the way we had hoped,” Staton says. “So the next week we went to New York. We weren’t even old enough to rent a car—we had to get somebody to rent one for us. When we got there, we would sleep in the car, sneak in buildings, sneak in studios—just trying to get his demo out. We snuck on several tour buses—Jodeci, Boyz II Men, Hammer—and Anthony would start singing.”

Finally, in 1994, he signed with Andre Harrell’s Uptown Records (where Puff Daddy and Mary J. Blige got their starts). But Uptown folded the next year, before Hamilton’s album was released. It was the first of three failed record deals for him.

“When he went to New York, he had it hard,” says his mother, Pearl Hamilton. “It seemed like everybody was turning him down.” But she remembered his childhood, and she knew he would make it. “I knew he was going to be a singer because when he was a kid he would walk around the kitchen table with a spoon or a spatula, singing into it like it was a microphone,” she says. “He would even sing himself to sleep.”

Hamilton spent eleven years between Charlotte and New York, singing in the barbershop, performing in showcases. His record deals kept falling through, but people in the industry took note. He started singing background vocals and hooks for big-name artists.

In 2003, he performed in an artist showcase in Los Angeles attended by Michael Mauldin, former president of Columbia Records and father of music mogul Jermaine Dupri. Mauldin told his son that he had to hear this guy. Dupri did, and he signed Hamilton to his So So Def Records. Two hit albums have followed. Ain’t Nobody Worryin’ debuted at number four on Billboard’s R&B/Hip Hop chart and was certified gold in April.

“It just feels good. It’s kind of like a rebuilding type of CD,” he says. “With Comin’ From Where I’m From, I was kind of hurt, went through a lot, had a lot of pain. You could hear it in my voice and how I was delivering it. And this one has allowed me to heal.”

Hamilton is healed and happy, including happily married since last year. He also recently bought a house in the gated Longview community, south of Charlotte just inside Union County. He has three sons from prior relationships—two of them live with him and one lives in New Jersey.

“Being there for my kids is very important,” he says. “And my wife is so supportive of it. She’s very much about family. Her name is Tarsha McMillian.” Just like that, Hamilton begins talking about his wife. You have to understand what’s taking place here. Most male artists, especially those in the R&B world, rarely mention the women in their lives, let alone go into detail about them. Some record execs would say it’s better if female fans think you’re single. Those execs would be wasting their time with Hamilton because he is too honest, too open, and too much in love.

“Something about her was different,” Hamilton says about McMillian, a singer in her own right. They met about three years ago when he was in need of a backup singer. “She had a real mature innocence about her. Not gullible, she had sort of a bold, soft edge that I liked.”

Hamilton hired her as a backup singer; he wasn’t looking for anything more than a working relationship. But he was drawn to her, and after a courtship of less than two years, they were married. “I was going to wait a little longer, but I was like, you know what, I’m only waiting because I want to wait. We didn’t have a long engagement or anything. I knew that she was the one I wanted to marry . . .  she could care less about my record deal. I vowed to love her for the rest of my life.”

If that sounds like the perfect line for a love song, knowing Hamilton, it probably will be. But he’s simply keeping it real—in his music and his life.

“I’m just like the guy next door. I’m not perfect. I’m not on a pedestal. It wasn’t easy to get to where I’m at, but now I’m here and I’m very fortunate. If you see me on the street, speak. If you don’t like my music, speak anyway. I might just need somebody to talk to that day.”

Categories: Feature, The Buzz