WASHINGTON - Jazmine Sullivan has always been ahead of schedule.
"I came out of the womb singing," says the powerful-voiced 21-year-old rising star, who grew up in Strawberry Mansion. Yes, the Strawberry Mansion.
Sullivan, who will open for Maxwell at the Susquehanna Bank Center in Camden tomorrow, currently has two hits from her debut album, Fearless, on the Top 10 Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop song chart - her breakout single, "Need U Bad," and revenge song of the year, "Bust Your Windows."
She was only slightly exaggerating about her ultra-early musical entrance.
Sullivan's husky, dusky, attention-demanding voice first started eliciting shouts of "Sing it, girl!" - as it did at Constitution Hall in D.C. on Monday night with her stirring ballad, "In Love With Another Man" - when she was a soloist in the children's choir at St. Andrew's Fellowship Baptist Church in Germantown.
And even before that, her mother and manager, Pam Sullivan, recalls, her daughter had jaws dropping.
"I had a few members of the choir over at my house, and I was going over this note that they were having trouble with," she said in a separate interview backstage at Constitution Hall.
"Jazmine must have been about 2; she could barely talk. And from her crib, she just blurted out the exact note, with the exact pitch. And everybody just burst out laughing. It was over for choir practice that day. She made everybody look bad."
At the Apollo
By the time she was 11, Sullivan was wowing host Steve Harvey, singing "Accept What God Allows" on Showtime at the Apollo. But her oversize voice made her self-conscious.
"I had insecurities," she said. "Everybody wants to have a really high, pretty voice and I had the opposite of that. People always asked me, 'What's it like to have a grown-up voice trapped inside a kid's body?' But then I realized as I got older that it was my low and raspy voice that drew people to me."
People like Kindred the Family Soul, the husband-and-wife duo of Fatin Dantzler and Aja Graydon with whom Sullivan started singing at the Black Lily jam sessions at Old City's Five Spot in 2000. People like Stevie Wonder, whom Sullivan sang for at his grandson's birthday party when she was 13. "I was so young," she says. "I didn't really understand the magnitude of what was going on." And people like Missy Elliot, who collaborated with Sullivan on "Need U Bad," the reggae plea from Fearless that topped the R&B charts during the summer.
From age 5 until she turned 17, Sullivan's father worked as curator at Strawberry Mansion. The family, including her two brothers, lived in the elegant estate in Fairmount Park, rent-free.
"It was beautiful," she says of the house, built by Judge William Lewis, an 18th-century abolitionist. "But we couldn't have pets, and, of course, when I was little I wanted a doggie, so I didn't like it."
She grew up listening to gospel, as well as her mother's Prince, Donny Hathaway, and Stevie Wonder records, and educated herself on singers like Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald, whom people were always comparing her to. (Today, she names gospel singer Kim Burrell, Aretha Franklin, Hathaway, Wonder and Brandy as her five favorite singers.)
Not a normal teen
Living in the mansion underscored her sense that she was not a normal teenager: "I was in the 'hood, but not in the 'hood," she says. "That's pretty much my life story."
She missed her first week at the High School for the Creative and Performing Arts in South Philadelphia because she was in London, touring with Black Lily. And when she was a sophomore, she landed a record deal with Jive Records.
Sullivan recorded "hundreds" of songs while she was signed to the label, most of them tentative collaborations with other writers. But when she was 18, and set to embark on her full-time career after graduation, the label dropped her.
"That was a big blow," she says. "I was angry. Everybody was going off to school, and I had already decided I wasn't going to college because singing was going to be my career."
Looking back, though, she understands why it didn't work out. "They didn't know what to do with me," she says. "I was young and I didn't know what to do with my own self. I didn't know who I was, so I couldn't take control of my career and tell them what I wanted to do."
The solution for that was "to start writing my own songs, so I could make an album that reflects who I am." Those songs, and a performance for legendary exec Clive Davis last year, earned her a new deal with J Records.
Which led to Fearless, a musically varied, wholly impressive effort whose 12 songs range from the murder (in self-defense) fantasy "Call Me Guilty" to the girl-group goof "Switch!"
Despite the album's title, two songs, "Lions, Tigers and Bears" and "Fear," are, in fact, about the things that Sullivan is afraid of, which include love, gaining weight, fame and failure.
"I think it's fearless to express that you have fears," she says. "I think a lot of people don't want to be that real or open with their audience, but I want to come straight out with it."
After finishing her tour next week with Maxwell, whom she calls "the sweetest person in the world" - the silky love man had flowers waiting for her backstage when she did two solo gigs - she'll take a break at her parents' house in Northeast Philly.
Early next year, she'll make her singing and acting debut on screen in Red Tails, an Anthony Hemingway-directed George Lucas production about the African American World War II pilots known as the Tuskegee Airmen.
In making music that blends her love for gospel and classic R&B with radio-ready beats, Sullivan looks to John Legend as a model. "To combine real music and still be able to appeal to the masses," she says, breaking into a chorus of Legend's "Ordinary People." "I hope I can do that."
But it's not her singing that gives her the most satisfaction.
"I want people to hear me sing," she says. "But more importantly, I want them to listen to the lyrics. I've always gotten compliments about my voice. But if you're good at something, and people tell you you're good at it, you're like 'Oh, whatever.' But if it's something you really have to grow into and work at? That means something."