Grammy-nominated, platinum-selling, straight-up R&B superstar Joe (a.k.a. Joseph Lewis Thomas) is a solemn, respectful, even-tempered interviewee. Which makes sense given his background: He was raised in the church, and his father was a street preacher/traveling minister. As a kid, Joe joined his dad on the road, driving all over the South, learning how to quickly reach the emotional center of a discussion.
It’s a carefully honed talent that has served Joe well over a nearly 20-year career. It all began with his New Jack-influenced debut Everything, through his 1997 Top 40 breakout hit “All the Things Your Man Won’t Do,” and up to last October’s The Good, The Bad, The Sexy. For this last effort, Joe relied on outside writers and producers for the first time. It’s his humble origins, residing in places such as Cuthbert, Ga., and Opelika, Ala., that remind Joe how far he’s come, and how much further he plans to push himself.
“Every aspect of instruments and songwriting I ever learned took place in a gospel setting,” Joe says. “I worked in a gospel record store and taught guitar lessons there. My dad would take me to small areas, rural communities that weren’t on any maps. For him, it was about saving lives, to assist the sick and soothe the wounded.”
Although he doesn’t accept the notion that his music offers the same redemptive power of his father’s sermons, Joe admits he’s old school in his approach to making old-school R&B. Even if, at times, record labels pushed him to take his music in a more commercial direction.
“There are always different roads for an artist to go down,” he says. “But I never wanted to compromise. The hip-hop scene did something different with R&B, and I respect that. But that doesn’t mean I should change.”
What Joe, 38, is changing is people’s lives. And he’s keeping humanity intact by recording music to make love to. From the get-her-on-the-rebound slowjam of “I Wanna Know” (“Girl, you never understood what you were worth/And he never took the time to make it work”) to the bass guitar-popping, pleading-for-booty lament “Good Girls,” Joe’s music is always on the make. When I suggest that his CDs should be sold with free condoms, he doesn’t laugh. Turns out his sexually healing R&B is deeply appreciated by his fans.
“Countless people come up to me to say they were conceived or had a child while listening to my music,” he says. “It’s a testament to the fact I’m doing something right.”
But calling Joe’s music “babymaking background” doesn’t do it justice. The sonic textures of and references in his songs—“Let’s Stay Home Tonight,” for instance, wickedly borrows a smidgen of the theme from Nintendo’s Super Mario Bros.—are difficult to beat. For Joe, it’s all about bringing creative people together.
“My friend, producer Allen ‘All Star’ G., came up with that Nintendo riff. He thinks differently, hears things no one else can hear. I like to put great musicians in a room and let the magic happen. By magic, I mean we want to take credit for the music we make, but often we don’t have any idea how we did it.”
What Joe has absolute control over is his personal life, keeping it off the tabloids and maintaining a limited posse: “I have normal life,” he says. “I take care of myself and move in silence, and everyone in my operation plays his or her role. I plan to be around for a long time. Sometimes the best thing a guy can do is stay home instead of going out all night.”