Ann Johansson  /  AP file
Rick Fante performs at the 2004 Rock the Vote Awards at the Hollywood Palladium in Los Angeles, Saturday, Feb. 7, 2004.
updated 6/17/2004 6:52:42 PM ET 2004-06-17T22:52:42

Ricky Fanté flirts with stardom. The retro 27-year-old soul singer has signed with one of the biggest record companies in the world: EMI. His debut album comes out July 13. Hip celebrities like Samuel L. Jackson hail him.

But when it came time for him to play New York in March, the lanky crooner found himself in the children's department of a Borders bookstore. He went on without any introduction and played for an audience of 21 people — most of them with EMI. When he finished a six-song set, the Borders manager almost got his name right: "Thank you, Nick."

Fanté's inauspicious Borders gig, moreover, was but one of 19 dates he has done for the bookseller in various markets in recent months. It is part of a subtle but meticulously orchestrated campaign to stoke Fanté's debut not through the overnight-fame outlets of radio and MTV, but through tastemakers, the cognoscenti and word-of-mouth. "I understand the machinery of what it takes," Fanté says with resignation. "What I want is for my music to find its way to the audience and be well received."

In this cacophonous era of digital music downloads, fascination with instant fame and a resulting deluge of one-hit wonders, EMI and Fanté's handlers are forgoing trying to be heard above the din, focusing instead on moving beneath it. And so Fanté croons before small but (he hopes) influential crowds: He has been a regular at the Viper Room, the fashionably shabby Hollywood club founded by actor Johnny Depp, and has opened for James Brown.

For better-known acts, "you go to the big outlets faster and get publicity faster," says Matt Scrletic, who runs EMI's Virgin label in the U.S. and signed Fanté a year ago. But for Ricky, "we phase our money out over time. Our business, out of necessity, is pushing us back into" developing artists more slowly.

EMI deftly built early buzz in much the same way for Norah Jones, its hottest new act in years; her first album went on to sell 17 million discs worldwide (and win 8 Grammys). Songwriter Jesse Harris, who co-wrote most of her debut album, also worked on Fanté's, titled Rewind. Like Jones, whose torch singing was new to the young and happily familiar to aging baby boomers, Fanté also could straddle the two markets with his updated take on the soul and R&B singers of the 1960s and 1970s.

"Ricky is going to appeal to all kinds of people," says Keith Sarkisian, a William Morris agent who signed on with Fanté a year ago. "The 25-year-old girl who's just started her first job has his music in her car, and when the 40-year-old co-worker gets in her car, he's going to like it, too."

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