Chances are you may have already seen or heard R&B singer Chester Gregory without knowing it. Gregory first established his career as a Broadway performer, appearing in The Jackie Wilson Story, Hairspray, Tarzan, Cry-Baby, and the upcoming live production of Shrek. Recently he released his first CD, In Search of High Love, which showcases his love of hip-hop and contemporary R&B.
Clearly Gregory possesses a strong voice, although not a typically loud, stagy one. Unfortunately too many of In Search of High Love’s cuts are common bass-thumpers, with the requisite middle-eight rap. Nondescript mid-tempo numbers like “Search In” and “Universe 4 U” dominate much of the album; although Gregory sings them well, they are simply not distinctive enough to stand out among the already overcrowded field of other R&B albums.
Ballads also comprise a good part of the CD — again, Gregory performs them admirably, but the songs are not memorable. “Dreamin,” “High Love,“ and “Move On” make for pleasant listening, but not much more. “Clouds to the Ground” frequently changes tempos and ranges from gentle to bass-driven, so at least that track attempts to be different. The first single, “Questions,” shows off Gregory’s range and emotional delivery, but again does not linger past the first listen.
Glimpses of originality can be found, however. “Say It’s Over” cleverly, if improbably, samples Kenny Loggins’s “This Is It” to create a crowd-pleasing club tune. “On + On” features Gregory confidently crooning over a heavy beat, sounding energized; this could have been the first single and received some radio airplay. On these two cuts Gregory establishes an identity as a Montell Jordan-like artist who can create irresistible urban jams. “U” has some pretty chord changes and harmonies, so that slow jam largely works.
Trying to vary the selection, Gregory includes two standards made over hip-hop style: “I Only Have Eyes for You” and “Higher and Higher.” It would have been interesting to hear Gregory sing both classics straight, as his Broadway-trained voice could have added soul and emotion. Since he appeared in The Jackie Wilson Story, he could have applied that experience to covering “Higher and Higher.” Instead the hip-hop remakes sound like forced attempts to fit in the current R&B market.
Gregory possesses a powerful, soulful voice that has impressive stylistic range. His next album should capitalize on those strengths and not succumb to trends. I would like to see him collaborate with Musiq Soulchild or Donell Jones, two artists who successfully blend old-school soul with contemporary beats. Scattered tracks on In Search of High Love show promise; with the right songwriters and producers, Gregory could make a real splash on the R&B scene in the future.