By Luis Gomez
11:24 AM CDT, April 9, 2013
Back in 2011, one night after PJ Morton watched his future Young Money record label boss and rap megastar Lil Wayne perform at the DTE Energy Music Theatre in Clarkston, Mich., the soul-pop singer returned to the venue to perform pop hits such as "Moves Like Jagger" and "This Love" with Maroon 5 — for whom he also happens to play keyboard.
Morton said the crowds were more similar than you would think, thanks to Wayne's popularity with white audiences. The backstage area? That was a different story.
"I went to Wayne's show and it was mayhem backstage. There were a million people in the back, like 30 tour buses, and it was loud. The next day I was at the same venue with Maroon 5 and it was just us, quiet, almost like symphony music should be playing back there," Morton said Friday before an album-listening party at Pressure Point Recording Studios on South Michigan Avenue for his major label solo debut, "New Orleans" (in stores May 14). He performed Saturday with Maroon 5 at the Allstate Arena. "I remember thinking, 'Man, this doesn't look like the same place.'"
Such is life for the 32-year-old Morton, a preacher's son who said he was the lone black student in his school from kindergarten through eighth grade and is now signed to the same label as hip-hop heavyweights Wayne, Drake and Nicki Minaj. It's this unique background that helped contribute to Morton's genre-crossing sound (Kanye West-meets-Stevie Wonder, Morton says). But it's also what made the New Orleans native unappealing to most record labels.
"It was always that I wasn't black enough for urban departments and not 'pop' enough for pop departments," Morton said. "Some wanted to change me, but I wasn't down with that. I stuck to my guns."
Morton released music as an independent act and toured with his band. His main source of income, however, came from writing and producing for artists such as LL Cool J, Jermaine Dupri and India Arie. In 2010, he got a call about an opening with Maroon 5 that he said came at a time when he needed it the most.
"I was at my low point when they called," Morton said. "We'd been touring the same markets and had exhausted them. We weren't getting any bigger. I was like, 'This is the most I can do independently.' When I got Maroon 5, I felt like it was God helping me out. I was burned out and needed something different."
Morton joined Maroon 5 as a temporary replacement for Jesse Carmichael, first on tour and then on the band's 2012 album "Overexposed." He said he will now remain with Maroon 5 as the keyboardist even when Carmichael returns and will perform double-duty as the opening act on select dates during the band's tour with Kelly Clarkson. And no, he doesn't plan on singing lead vocals on the next Maroon 5 record. He'll leave that to Adam Levine. Besides, he's had another outlet to scratch that itch since signing with Young Money in 2011.
"I could have never imagined when I was living in New Orleans 10 years ago that I would sign with Young Money," said Morton of the label. "I didn't have much in common with them."
Morton released his EP, "Following My First Mind," last year. It featured cameos by Wayne and Levine. His upcoming album features the Levine song, "Heavy," Busta Rhymes on "Never Get Over You" and Wonder, one of his music idols, playing harmonica on "Only One."
"It didn't need to be a full duet," Morton said of Wonder. "I just wanted his stamp of approval — a nod to me for keeping the type of music he does alive, in my way."
Heads up: The Eva Longoria-produced reality show "Ready for Love" will debut Tuesday on NBC after "The Voice" and will feature Plain White T's guitarist Tim Lopez as one of three bachelors, as well as co-hosts Bill and Giuliana Rancic. Lopez's Plain White T's bandmates — Chicago-area natives, as is Bill Rancic — will also make a cameo. "This show will do to the dating genre what 'The Voice' did for the music genre," Bill Rancic said over the phone last month. "We have matchmakers who help the guys and girls make connections. They have great insight on why relationships fail and succeeded. I wanted to pull out a pen and paper when they were talking."
About this week: Andy Cohen ("Watch What Happens Live") will sign copies of his book, "Most Talkative," Wednesday at Macy's on State Street. … Nia Vardalos ("My Big Fat Greek Wedding") will sign copies of her book, "Instant Mom," Friday at Anderson's Bookshop in Naperville.
Sightings: Adam Levine had lunch Friday at Hub 51. Maroon 5 stayed at The James Hotel while in Chicago for Saturday's show at the Allstate Arena. ... Singer R. Kelly dined Thursday at Jellyfish. … Paul Wesley ("The Vampire Diaries") had dinner Saturday at Paris Club. … Kristin Cavallari ("The Hills") worked out April 1 at the Equinox in Highland Park. … Director Ric Roman Waugh ("Snitch") was spotted March 30 at Mahoney's Pub & Grille in the West Town neighborhood. … Former "Tonight Show" band leader Doc Severinsen dined April 1 at Harry Caray's Italian Steakhouse in Rosemont. … Mexican telenovela actress Marlene Favela dined March 30 at Carnivale. … The Bears' Robbie Gould ran the Shamrock Shuffle 8K race Sunday in the Loop (I beat Gould's time by 13 minutes and 33 seconds, but who's counting?). … Caroline Kennedy, daughter of former president John F. Kennedy, dined Thursday at Lou Malnati's Pizzeria in Naperville.
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