The Next Big Thing

A middle-aged couple with a million dollars and a big dream: To make St. Louis a pop-music hub

Still, the odds against any given song are staggering. First of all, says Melina, "It hasn't been recorded. And if it hasn't been recorded, it's not going to make any money. My bank manager would say it has 'zero value.' If I'm looking to get a song on the Beyoncé record and there's ten songs on that record, she writes maybe seven of them." That leaves three open slots, and every songwriter in the world is gunning for them.

Andy Goldmark does the math: "You make eight and a half to nine cents per song for every copy. If she sells a million units, you make $85,000 to $90,000 for the song."

Radio play pays another few cents per spin. Say Beyoncé's record tops the urban and pop charts, crosses over to adult contemporary stations, jumps the Atlantic and explodes in Europe. Goldmark: "You're looking at a very substantial amount of money: half a million to a million dollars."

Karrie and Todd Butterfield, representing the way north side (Quincy, Illinois).
Jennifer Silverberg
Karrie and Todd Butterfield, representing the way north side (Quincy, Illinois).
Next big thing Carla Carter, fresh from a session with legendary producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis.
Jennifer Silverberg
Next big thing Carla Carter, fresh from a session with legendary producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis.

Without connections, 7Fourteen would have a tough time getting their phone calls returned, much less placing Carla Carter's songs on million-sellers.

"It's like the U.S. Open," says Melina, his mind turning to tennis. "Try walking in as a wild card. The song has to be awesome. Good ain't good enough. Great is OK. If you think it's great, then sit for a week and think how you can make it classic, awesome, inevitably a standard."

Not long ago Carla Carter was working in the Juniors department at Dillard's at Westfield South County mall and writing songs in her spare time. Her contract with 7Fourteen includes only small financial advances, not enough to make ends meet. When she had to make a songwriting trip west, she'd have to ask the department store for days off. That ended in May, when 7Fourteen's demands outstripped Dillard's financial hold and Carter quit to make music full-time.

Carter's first big break had come at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport — and she wasn't even there. Her mother, Joyce McCowan, worked for American Airlines and was at the ticket counter when members of the Philadelphia rap group the Roots showed up, fresh from a show at the Pageant with Chicago rapper Common. McCowan noticed one member of the group, Kelo Saunders, who was plunking his keyboard while waiting to board.

She got him a good seat on the plane, McCowan remembers, and then, after exchanging pleasantries, told Saunders her daughter was a singer and songwriter.

Saunders gave McCowan his phone number. Not five minutes later, Carter called and sang to him as he boarded his flight.

"If she was really a singer and a songwriter, she would call, and I would hear her," Saunders says in retrospect. "Sometimes you just gotta give [people] a shot.

"She was like a little hummingbird," he adds. "She has a very beautiful voice."

Saunders invited Carter to Philadelphia. She came two weeks later (with her mother as chaperone) and stayed for two months, working with Saunders and Roots drummer ?uestlove, and sleeping in the guest room Erykah Badu used before she went platinum. Through Saunders Carter met platinum-selling producer Scott Storch, whose hits include Beyoncé's "Baby Boy" and Justin Timberlake's "Cry Me a River."

McCowan is recounting the tale in the dining room of the single-story shotgun house, painted pea-green on the outside, where her mother, Jannie Haynes, lives on North Sarah Street. Haynes, whose late husband was a Baptist minister, says many of her fifteen children learned to play music and passed along the art to their own kids. "We played at a funeral in Chicago and someone said, 'You all should get a bus and go on tour,'" she says.

Carter says she took piano and violin lessons as a child, but when she took up voice lessons, something clicked.

A younger sister, Carly, whom everyone calls Miss B, made up songs for them to sing. "[Carla] didn't have any interest in writing songs until her sophomore year of high school," says Carly.

To this day Carla insists her sister is the better songwriter, and Carly doesn't deny it.

Carter's best songs, like "Fool for Some Love," address common pop themes but do so from the point of view of a young woman who grew up on the north side. A slow confessional, "Fool" begins with a creeping rhythm, followed by a bluesy guitar riff. A Hammond B3 organ hums in the background as Carter outlines "all that ghetto shit" she did for love. "He got me turning into that girl I said I would never be, and that ain't even half of it, ladies. I was a fool for some love.... I checked his phone, I kicked his door, I bleached his clothes.... I've been running in the streets looking for this fool, feeling real stupid, don't know what to do," she admits, then confesses, "And I would do it again."

It's that persona Alan Melina is looking to harness. The Billboard charts are filled with female divas in need of songwriters. On top of that, black-oriented R&B material often crosses over onto the pop charts and reaches far beyond the urban centers where it's created.

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