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Soul goes POP 

Atlanta's PJ Morton serves up something for everyone

In the beginning, there was soul. It got the message across and then some. Over time, it got pushed to the background, called "old school," beat on with programmed rhythms and called "neo." But thank God there are still some practitioners who understand and respect the genre.

"Soul music is a feeling," says Atlanta-based soul man PJ Morton. Though not around when the big dogs like Otis and Pickett were serving up steaming platters of the stuff, the minister's son nevertheless understands the basic principle involved. "It's how it makes you feel, it's not necessarily having certain instruments involved."

Morton, who is the son of prominent televangelist Bishop Paul Morton, decided not to follow in his father's footsteps. "He wasn't upset about it. He took the stance that any cool father would ­-- to support me in whatever I was doing. He's always been really my biggest fan."

Although he admits there's a gospel as well as a soul element in what he does, he doesn't cling to either label. "I've made a term for my music, and it's called soulful pop music," Morton says. "It's soulful always because I write from my heart, and usually when people relate to my music, they can feel it right there where it came from -- a pure place. The pop in soulful pop, because I try to write music that all types of people can relate to: all ages, all races, genders."

There's a spiritual element as well, attributable to how Morton says he lives his life. Though he doesn't perform gospel, he's still active in the genre, writing and producing for gospel artists including Dewane Woods, who had one of the biggest records in gospel this year.

A lot of Morton's secular music comes across Stevie Wonder style. On his latest release, Perfect Song, the Wonder spirit floats though on piano and vocals. "Blah Blah Blah" sounds like it could be an outtake from Talking Book. "Here For You" is a mix of Wonder and another influence, James Taylor.

He credits Wonder as being a part of his development -- writing as well as singing. Although he thinks Taylor is soulful, it was his storytelling abilities, not his voice that got Morton interested in him. "His writing is unmatched," Morton says. "I think James on the folk side just lyrically is how I was so deeply influenced."

Morton was able to channel those influences into his own easygoing style and by the age of 14, he was a working pro, playing at the House Of Blues gospel brunch. "I couldn't get on gigs just because I was good for a 14-year old," the singer/pianist says. "I had to be as good as those older guys I was singing with." But it was in his 20s, while attending Atlanta's Morehouse College, that he made his most important connection. "I was playing on the piano in the lobby in my apartment complex and she came down and started singing," he says of his first meeting with India.Arie. "I didn't know who she was at that time. Her first record hadn't even come out yet ­-- she wasn't India yet." Morton met India.Arie his second year in college. By his third year, he had written a song on her second album. By the time he was a senior at Morehouse, he had won a Grammy.

Since then, he's written more for her, toured with Erykah Badu and written and produced for Kierra Kiki Sheard and L.L. Cool J, and continues to do production work for Atlanta's Jermaine Dupri, founder of the So So Def label.

Morton has kept busy this year with the release of Perfect Song and the formation of The PJ Morton Band. He's appearing on MTV's Beach Blast, then gets busy recording another record for U.K./Japan release, and, in his spare time, works with a slew of artists in the Dupri stable. "It's packed this year," Morton says, "but it's a good thing."

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