When Pollstar put James Hunter on its cover in November, we asked his agent, Ron Kaplan, about why he signs who he signs. After all, he was the agent for Joss Stone and there looked to be a pattern developing. Hunter and Stone are rooted in classic R&B - was it all a coincidence?
“This is the music I believe in and the music I’m passionate about,” Kaplan said at the time. “When you see new people who drive that sound, it’s so hard to say no.”
That wasn’t all. There was another artist on the waiting list, somebody Kaplan thought we should look out for in 2007.
“He’s named Ryan Shaw. He’s a young black singer who sounds like Jackie Wilson meets Wilson Pickett,” he said. “There’s a song on the record that sounds like Michael Jackson in the Jackson 5. It’s awesome.” We tucked that away in our memory banks. And Shaw has started to emerge - after a live performance on National Public Radio, he went on tour with Robert Randolph, then landed the opening spot for Stone the same week his record dropped. That release, by the way, was pushed up a month from its original May due date. “I can tell you, honestly, it is the quickest setup I’ve ever seen with an artist,” manager Ant Demby told Pollstar.
Shaw had been kicking it around NYC for a few years, playing in the Sugar Bar, Café Wha? and even The Apollo. The 26-year-old sang in church since he was 5 years old and came to the Big Apple as a cast member of “I Know I’ve Been Changed,” performing at the Beacon Theatre. Shaw eventually joined the Fabulous Soul Shakers and, from there, cut a demo with percussionist Jimmy Bralower. Then Shaw went to David Sonenberg’s DAS Communications to show what he’s got. “I saw him sitting down in David Sonenberg’s office and I didn’t know who this guy was,” Demby said. “He opened his mouth and sang ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ a cappella and we lost it. Everybody was speechless. You don’t see real-deal singing like that anymore.” Demby, who manages John Legend and Elisabeth Withers, asked for the project and got it. In August, he went with Shaw to the Boulder AAA radio conference, where the singer played a midnight set and “annihilated everybody.” “Ron [Kaplan] looked at me and said, ‘I don’t care what I have to do but I want Ryan.’ He came to the plate early, before the record was done, before we had anything. Ron came through and started booking shows right away off of a five-song demo.” For Shaw, getting Kaplan on board was a no-brainer. “It’s not about people who say, ‘This is going to make me some money.’ It’s about people who believe in the music,” the singer told Pollstar. “With Ron Kaplan, that was his mindset. He’s a musician, he really felt the music and he works with a reputable company. I spoke to him, loved his spirit and was, like, ‘Let’s go for it.’ To have two tours before your album even drops is remarkable.”
Shaw said he checked out a couple of managers but Sonenberg’s company was the way to go.
“David sees beyond what I see,” he said. “He’ll ask me, ‘Where do you see yourself in five years?’ and he’ll add to it.
He sees way beyond this album. He has a lot of power and a lot of pull so, between God and David, I think everything will work out just fine. And I’m not comparing him to God in the least but David can be a very powerful man.”
Shaw should be ready to headline by next year, according to his team. Meanwhile, along with the Stone tour, he’s playing festivals from Bonnaroo to Austin City Limits, picking up fans along the way.
“I’m not the kind of manager who sits backstage,” Demby said. “I like to walk around the crowd for, one, sound purposes and, two, to just look at the response from fans. People are just coming in, they’re buying beer, they’re buying food and I’ve seen people at the cash register hear him sing and are, like, ‘Who is this?’”
Demby added that Shaw recently played with John Legend at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville.
“Most artists that open for John get the courtesy clap, but Ryan had two standing ovations. He destroyed that crowd and spent an hour at the merch table signing CDs and meeting people who heard of him through MySpace. One woman bought the album on iTunes that morning, saw that he was playing with John and just came down to meet him.”
Pollstar got a chance to see Shaw play at The Warfield in San Francisco, and it was just as Demby said. The audience warmed up to Shaw and by the last three songs of his 45-minute set were dancing and shouting.
“I’m only doing my job,” Shaw said modestly.