There are singers who cross over. And then there are singers who get just as much airtime on urban radio stations as they do on pop ones.
To paraphrase one of his songs, he's not the only one. George Michael and others before him rowed those waters. And their songs, too, became staples on urban radio.
Just like love, music is music is music is music is music. Or one hopes.
That's not always the case for R&B and soul artists. Turn to a "Top 40" station and you probably won't hear a lot from the deserving Tank or Jaheim or even other artists who identify as R&B. (Robin Thicke, Color Me Badd, Jon B. ... I see you.)
Those are other columns for another time.
[Insert your own commentary about the ubiquity of Bruno Mars here.]
But the other way is so common that there's even a name for it, a genre if you will: "blue-eyed soul."
It's talent, yes. But there are many good musicians.
It's pipes, true. But there are many good singers.
There are other forces at play.
Smith's songs hit at the foundation of R&B, which is longing and love and loss. In short, he keeps it real. He's certified greatness by his Grammy, Golden Globe and Academy awards wins. And I would bet good money that more than a few listeners don't know anything about him beyond his voice.
His repertoire is steadfast. What you hear is what you're going to get the next time and the next time and the next time. That's a true mark of a soul man. Listeners don't have to worry that Smith is suddenly going to come at them with some bass-heavy dance track. And there's nothing like a great falsetto that gets urban radios' antennae up (see Prince, D'Angelo, Eddie Kendricks of The Temptations and Smokey Robinson, among others).
Smith also wears his influences on his voice. He has said that he listened to legends Chaka Khan and Whitney Houston growing up.
Smith is just the latest and the greatest. Many other singers have crossed over, and it took only minutes for longtime friend Aprille Bonner and me to tick off names. Obvious ones include Michael McDonald and Hall & Oates and The Bee Gees. And then there's the not-so-obvious, including Boz Scaggs and Elton John. "Bennie and the Jets" became No. 1 on black radio in Detroit in 1974, propelling its release as a single and John to a performance on Soul Train.
Then there are the dabblers: Justin Timberlake was a favorite — have you heard "Cry Me a River" or *NSync's "Gone"? — until he squandered it by seeming to abandon Janet Jackson after the "wardrobe malfunction" during their performance at the Super Bowl. Now the poor man has to settle for just being one of the biggest pop stars on the planet. Loyalty matters.
And name a Brit, any Brit. Most of the old guard of legendary rock and roll British bands idolized old-school rhythm and blues singers such as Muddy Waters. And then there was that crush in the '80s, led by Sting and Phil Collins.
Even Ireland's Bono got some of the love. Exhibit A: His duet with Mary J. Blige on U2 hit "One" saw him reaching a wider audience. And keeping it.
There's history behind Smith's infiltration of radio format slanted toward a different audience. He's just the latest, most inescapable purveyor of "blue-eyed soul." Game recognizes game. He'll inspire another one and programming directors will find them.
You can bet on it.