The premise of the gag seemed simple enough: sultry-voiced superstar Brian McKnight would crash a bunch of Vegas weddings and croon his certified-gold hit “Back at One” for a select group of unsuspecting newlyweds.
The problem was that some people thought the bit, which aired on Steve Harvey’s talk show in 2016, was real.
“It was completely staged,” McKnight said during an interview ahead of his show at the Academy of Music Theatre tonight. “At least one person, either the groom or the wife, knew I was coming.”
Admitting his Vegas videos were staged hasn’t slowed the rumor mill. McKnight said he constantly receives requests to sing at weddings, but he hasn’t accepted any of the offers so far.
“Wouldn’t it be embarrassing if you showed up and [were] like, ‘Hey, you want me to sing at your wedding?’ and they’re like ‘Who are you?’” McKnight said with a laugh.
Somehow, that scenario doesn’t seem likely.
Since sweeping onto the airwaves — and into the heart’s of women worldwide — with his silky vocals and smooth falsetto more than 25 years ago, McKnight, now 50, has long since solidified his status as an R&B legend.
He’s released 15 albums (and has another on the way), collaborated with everyone from Justin Timberlake to Drake to Willie Nelson and received 16 Grammy nods.
“In a business where turnover is rapid ... McKnight has not just survived; he’s flourished,” Jeff Miers wrote for McKnight’s hometown paper, The Buffalo News, in 2010. “And he’s done so without stooping to trend-hopping.”
And, much to the delight of female fans everywhere, his songbook is packed with enough first dance-worthy ballads to fill a wedding playlist.
“Brian McKnight [is] still around,” a headline in the Associated Press proclaimed earlier this week. “Making fans swoon.”
Before he serenades his audience at the Academy, McKnight talked about connecting more deeply with love songs since marrying his wife, Leilani Malia Mendoza, in 2017, playing the tuba and reworking his upcoming album.
What does it feel like having a true wedding staple in your songbook?
“[Laughs] As a songwriter, one of the things you want to have happen is that you have something that can be used as occasional, because that means any time that happens, you might be thought of at that time, whether it’s a Christmas album, or a wedding song, even something patriotic. When you have a song — in my case there’s been a few that people have constantly been playing at these weddings for the last 25 years — you just look up and you go, ‘Wow, I must have done something pretty good that people, at the most important time of their lives, are using it as an integral backdrop.’ It’s a really great feeling.”
It must be kind of cool to be part of the musical backdrop of someone’s life.
“Yeah, it truly is cause now they can tell you. You get tagged in their wedding photos and you get tagged in their wedding videos. You see on Instagram that that’s happening pretty much every weekend of the year. It’s humbling, and it’s really amazing.”
While you’ve been singing love songs your entire career, you’ve said it took you more than 40 years to find that fairy-tale love. Has finding that love changed how you feel about or how you sing those older songs?
“I didn’t really know what love was and never really experienced it. So, the songs that I’ve written since Leilani and I have been together ... I actually know what that feels like. I know that every word of these new songs since 2013 is rooted in something that’s real, and when she’s in the audience, and I can see her you know, I’m like ‘What’s this wet stuff coming out of my eyes?’
“I finally know what it’s like to be emotional. ... Now I have somebody else to live for, and can you imagine how that feels to sing those songs that are based on that? I think people, when they’re in the audience and they see that, they can tell the difference.”
So what is it like now for you to sing “Back at One” since you said you didn’t feel anything?
“That song belongs to the audience. It’s their song because of the way they’ve used it. And I kind of feel that way about all the songs that I’ve written. That once I write them, they’re not really mine anymore. Except these new ones, they’re totally mine and hers cause it’s our story. ... This is our life that I’m writing about. And it’s just a completely different place to come from. I’m sitting here right now looking at her [and] music is just flowing through me.”
How do you bridge the gap between the sound that made you famous in the ‘90s and today’s music, which sounds completely different in many ways?
“It’s not easy because I can’t really just make music that sounds like today, and I can’t make music that sounds like the ’90s either. I kind of have to walk a really fine line sonically between the two of them, because people are expecting me to be a certain way, but at the same time, if I do they’re like, ‘That sounds like everything else you’ve done.’ So, I try not to worry about it. I just create and hope that what I’m writing about and the way I’m writing it, and the way I’m singing and playing it is enough.”
You are probably best known as a singer and a pianist, but you play I believe nine other instruments. Which one do you think would surprise people the most?
“I can play the tuba and the sousaphone? I don’t [play them]. But I can.”
Wait. You mean you don’t go into a concert like the one at the Academy and just bust out a tuba?
“No, but I could maybe for about five minutes.”
So don’t expect to hear a tuba version of ‘Back at One’ anytime soon?
“No, probably not.”
You do have a new album coming out soon called “Bedtime Story.”
“It was already supposed to be out, but I listened back when I thought I was done and I wasn’t completely happy. What I’m doing is 60 minutes of love-making music, which makes all the songs around the same tempo. There were a few parts that to me were feeling a little redundant, not from a content standpoint, just from a tempo standpoint and thematically. So, I went back in to tweak some of the songs and change some of the perspectives.”
It’s got to be something of a challenge putting all the songs at the same tempo.
“The night doesn’t start in the bedroom. That night may start with some dancing. There may be some wine, there may be some dinner, there may be some conversation. So it’s the entire night, not just the parts that take place in the bedroom. And the next morning, if you’re lucky enough to be allowed to stick around. It’s the serious parts and the light parts. You can’t have up-tempo on this record, because that’s just a singular bedtime story, not bedtime stories.”
Emma Schkloven covers arts and entertainment for The News & Advance. Reach her at (434) 385-5489, and follow her on Twitter and Instagram @byEmmaSchkloven.