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Gentle Giant

aris Delane is at home, preparing to audition for the role of a samurai-trained ex-Special Forces bodyguard named Virgil in an upcoming film. A monolith of a man, Delane is seemingly perfect for such a role. It doesn't take long to discover, though, that despite his imposing figure, he's really just a soft-spoken giant -- not unlike his childhood friend, actor Michael Clark Duncan.

A native of Chicago's South Side, Delane is best known as the deep voice of genre-bending gospel-rockers Sonia Dada. But around the Windy City, he's still remembered as Rough from Rough, Smooth and Silk, a lionized band of subway buskers made up of Delane, his brother Sam Hogan and Michael Scott. The three men, who would go on to become the vocal tag team of Sonia Dada, were well-known local celebrities. In fact, in 1991, the Chicago Bulls tapped Rough, Smooth and Silk to perform the chart-topping single "The Battle of the Bulls" after Jordan and company won their first championship. Oprah Winfrey even invited them to appear on her show. But the three were making more than just fans in the subway: Though Delane is reluctant to disclose how much they used to bring in daily, the amount is said to be somewhere in the vicinity of $1,400. That staggering figure explains why fellow buskers anointed Delane with a "King of the Subway" plaque.

"For IRS purposes, I don't want to tell you how much money we made down there," he says. "But let's say it was a beautiful day in the neighborhood."

Delane's neighborhood, though, was anything but beautiful when he was growing up.

"I was born on the South Side of Chicago, where most young black men didn't live past the age of sixteen," he says. "They were just dying -- shot or killed." The singer's childhood continued amid the civil-rights movement, punctuated by the deaths of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Hearing gunshots outside his home was commonplace, and the whole wide world stretched from 46th Street to 95th.

"My mother, she kept her hand on me and kept me focused by just giving me a lot of love," Delane says. "We went to the Omega Baptist Church every day. I didn't think there was anything else outside of that church, either. That can get pretty intense for a child. But that was the way it was at the time, and now I'm grateful that my mother disciplined me that way."

There's a pained longing in Delane's voice each time he speaks of his mother, Lillian, who passed away in 2001. "Man, to hear her sing was an honor," he says. "My mama sang like Sarah Vaughan."

Lillian performed with gospel greats like Albertina Walker and kept company with even more, including Grammy winner Jessie Dixon, who was the music director at Omega. In fact, Delane's earliest musical memory is of Dixon singing "Precious Lord" with his mother. "I used to sit me on the piano stool next to him," he remembers, "and she would run through the fa-sol-la-ti-dos. As I was sitting there, Jesse would tell me, 'One day you're going to be a great singer, too.'"

During his teenage years, Delane turned his back on gospel and embraced funk and R&B -- along with basketball, martial arts and, of course, girls. After graduation, he walked away from music entirely and moved to Florida, where he worked as a bodyguard, taking advantage of the karate, tae kwon do and aikido he had mastered in high school. He also fell in love with "this incredible woman," Rose, whose dream was for Delane to become a professional singer. When she died all too young, something snapped in him, and he headed back to Chicago.

"If anyone ever told me I'd be doing this, I'd have thought they'd lost their mind," Delane confesses. "But I went down in the subways of Chicago and started singing." At first it was just Delane, but soon he brought along his brother and friend and started performing under the smirk-worthy moniker Totally Awesome before settling on the Rough, Smooth and Silk handle. The trio's literally underground following landed them on tours in Japan and all along Nashville's Music Row, and they became the singing voice behind the White Sox for more than a year. The act also caught the attention of guitarist and Sonia Dada founder Dan Pritzker, whose family owns the Hyatt hotel chain -- a topsy-turvy twist of fortune that left Delane dizzy.

"For us to come from where we came from, a very poor neighborhood, and then to meet one of the richest families in the world, that's really confusing," he says. Delane is even more baffled at how a band that "was qualified to be one of the greatest in the world, up there with U2 and Bruce Springsteen," could have failed to make a lasting dent in the U.S. music market. "Sonia is no more, as far as I'm concerned," he says. "I've talked to some of the other members, and they've told me it's done."

Sonia Dada began to fragment in 2001, with its members recording sporadically over the next three years before finally putting the kibosh on the collaborations last year. "I feel like every time Sonia Dada started making a name, someone in the organization kept pulling them back," says Delane. "You say you're going to do this and you're going to do that, but then you don't do it. In the beginning, it was supposed to be all for one, one for all, but somehow that got turned all around. I definitely feel like I was a member in somebody else's band."

Even though Delane has noticeably avoided using Pritzker's name -- perhaps out of loyalty or a sense of love for the guy despite how things turned out -- it's pretty clear who he's talking about. "When you're hungry, you're hungry," he says. "You've got to be prepared to eat McDonald's hamburgers every day and stick together, even if you don't have much. Sometimes people who don't have that problem, they lose sight because they're too spoiled. They're not hungry enough."

Delane's appetite finally outgrew what he apparently saw as Pritzker's limited ambition. "My mother, bless her soul, she called me on her deathbed and said to me, 'Baby, you've been singing with everybody,'" he explains, tearing up. "'You've been playing everybody else's music, doing everybody else's thing. Promise me that you'll play your own songs, and I'm going to be your biggest agent in heaven.'"

Not long after that conversation, Delane's sister Anita rang his doorbell. "I went to the door, and my sister looked at me and said, 'She's gone, baby,'" he says, before pausing to collect himself.

At that point, Delane decided he could no longer devote his life to a band that didn't want everything he wanted, that didn't allow him to express himself the way he wanted to. Pritzker was Sonia Dada's primary songwriter, leaving little room for Delane to contribute outside of his glorious voice. Now on the verge of releasing his debut solo effort, The Learning Tree, Delane has moved to the lyrical forefront, showcasing soulful wordplay, sincere heartache and passion, as well as a healthy love for artists such as Barry White, Isaac Hayes and, surprisingly, Carlos Santana. "I'm basically the sole writer of everything on this album," he says. "I love it. I feel free. I feel like the weight of the world that was on my shoulders has been lifted."

The Learning Tree -- so named because Delane says he's still learning -- is an eclectic mix of sensual vintage R&B à la Al Green and praise-worthy gospel, incorporating elements of the blues, honky-tonk, African choral music and even Peter Allen. "You're Looking Good" might be one of the most infectious '70s grooves not made in that decade, while "Rainfall," a song Delane wrote for his mother as she was dying, will make you want to jump to your feet and praise all things Paris Delane, hallelujah! Ultimately, though, the title track, a softly sung ballad of life's heartaches and new opportunities is the album's centerpiece. "Now I'm crying like a little boy with broken toys," he sings. "And it's sad to say my heart isn't filled with joy/Lord, I'm standing at the root of the learning tree again."

"Whether I see a dime or not," Delane declares boisterously, "I'm happy. I'm happy because I'm in control of everything I'm doing now. Like I said, I wish them all well. But it's my time now."