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Shai is another link in a chain of successful singing groups including Jodeci, Silk, and H-Town that have resurrected something of the Sixties soul/R&B sound and crossed it with a Nineties smoothness to capture a new generation of groove lovers. In fact, Shai's ability to top the charts puts them in the same league as Grammy champs Boyz II Men. Shai's debut album, If I Ever Fall in Love, released in February, has been certified double-platinum with more than two million copies sold.
Fame was the last thing Marc Gay expected when he left South Florida for Howard University in Washington, D.C. "Life is funny," he says. "I've been singing for years and I pretty much figured that my singing would always be like a fun hobby. I'd go to graduate school and never really make much from my singing."
He took his degree in zoology, but Gay hasn't made it to graduate school. Instead, while attending Howard, Gay hooked up with two fraternity brothers A Darnell Van Rensalier and Carl "Groove" Martin A who also sang. They then enlisted lead vocalist Garfield Bright and cut a demo tape of the mostly a cappella tune "If I Ever Fall in Love." They submitted the tape to the campus radio station, WHUR-FM, which, unlike most college stations, is a broadcast powerhouse whose signal covers the entire D.C. metro area.
WHUR listeners freaked, turning the unsolicited track into a top request and dedication selection. Word spread. Gasoline Alley/MCA signed the group and released the demo song as a single. It sold more than 500,000 copies, went to number one on the R&B chart and to number two on the pop chart. Zoology would have to wait.
"After we landed the deal," Gay says, "things started moving at blinding speed. We began a promotional tour that took us to four or five cities every week. Coming home to play the Miami Arena is really pretty amazing. Before we signed our deal, the largest audience I had played for was about 600 people at my church."
It soon became clear Shai was no one-hit wonder. Their second single, "Comforter," went gold and hit the Top 10, and their third, the recent "Baby I'm Yours," has also gone Top 10. For Gay, singing in church as a child, and later just for kicks, quickly turned into a life large. Shai performed at President Clinton's inauguration festivities, the MTV awards show, and on Arsenio and The Tonight Show. Gay and his cohorts now reside in L.A. They are currently on their first tour, which stops at the Arena this Friday.
The moving up has come on the strength of the group's tight-as-a-noose vocal harmonies, which would make the old doo-wop groups proud of the legacy Shai is recognizing and reinventing. Mostly slow and easy, the backing instrumentation moves up a notch for the refreshing "Baby I'm Yours," carried by an addictive melody. Gay wrote the group's next single, "Together Forever," due out next week, a romantic departure in that it lacks the standard mid-song break in which Garfield Bright does his love-patter routine.
Gay's -- and Shai's -- is a remarkable success story, but even more remarkable is how unaffected he seems. Soft-spoken almost to the point of being an introvert, Gay hasn't let the meteoric rise go to his head. In fact, in a way, he's already come to resent at least one aspect of stardom. "The thing I like least about our success," he says, "has been how it's distanced us from the public. Now all of a sudden we have to have bodyguards to walk through a club or auditorium."
This week, when Gay returns to South Florida with Shai to perform at the Arena, he will be among friends. "This is going to a real homecoming," says Gay, "with friends from high school, family, and people I've worked with over the years." He says he's so excited about the homecoming he's been giving away more than his allotment of tickets, paying for them out of his own pocket so his homeys can see just how far a college education has gotten him.
Shai and others perform at the Budweiser Superfest at 8:00 p.m. Friday at Miami Arena, 721 NW First Ave, 530-4444. Tickets cost $24.50 and $26.50.