Five years ago, I was at Ruth Eckerd Hall for a typically incendiary concert by the magnetic, mercurial soul singer Maxwell, when an older man nearby saw me taking notes and grabbed my arm.
"He's a modern-day Sam Cooke," the man said. "A modern-day Sam Cooke." He made a point of telling me twice.
"Wow," Maxwell said last week when I shared this story by phone. "That's my idol. For me, it's probably the biggest thing I could ever hear."
It isn't just about the voice, though, and Maxwell knows it. With no further prompting, the comparison to Cooke — who in 1964 was shot to death at age 33 — spurs him to mull his own vulnerability, as both a performer and a person.
"I have so many fears about the stories that kind of surround these types of soul singers," he said. "They're pretty tragic. Their early lives were really pretty desolate and without much hope. Then they get notoriety and there's this weird frenzy around them. You just never know how it's going to end. The ride is so amazing like that — Sam Cooke had a really tragic end, and of course Marvin Gaye. It's a pretty harrowing sort of job, I feel sometimes. There are so many ways that it can end."
Maxwell speaks softly, introspectively, cognizant of his own mysterious mythos. While his concerts, such as Friday's return engagement at Ruth Eckerd Hall, can be rowdy affairs, the 41-year-old singer is part of a great tradition of thoughtful, often reclusive, occasionally tragic R&B enigmas — Cooke and Gaye among them, but also peers like D'Angelo, Erykah Badu and Lauryn Hill. Fame, and the danger it brings, can easily mess with one's head.
"You tend to really guard yourself as you get up that ladder," he said. "You never know who you'll meet that will be crazy for you in a bad way. It's not like I think about that so much, but I have experienced it, definitely."
Gerald Maxwell Rivera was a key figure in the neo-soul movement of the '90s, his albums lush, affecting pastiches of poetry and jazz that seemed eons beyond what then passed for modern R&B. His 1996 debut, Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite, received considerable acclaim (including the first of his 12 Grammy nominations), as did singles like his visionary, falsetto spin on This Woman's Work, by the British alternative singer Kate Bush.
But over the past decade and a half, Maxwell's discography has grown frustratingly sparse, a topic he's asked about nearly everywhere he goes. 2009's BLACKsummers'night was his first studio album in eight years, and the first LP of a planned trilogy. Five years later, the world is still waiting for Part 2.
Maxwell has repeatedly insisted new music is coming, possibly even this year. He says he's recording on the road ("I have a great setup in hotel rooms"), and has no shortage of struggle heartbreak from which to draw inspiration. An ambitious 2012 arena tour was scrapped due to a vocal cord hemorrhage, and he's still grieving, he said, for a cousin and close friend who died suddenly this spring.
"It was very difficult to work through that process … having to wade through those challenges and still meet my commitments, creatively," he said. There's also the matter of dealing with "the scrutiny that comes with releasing a new album. That's kind of what I'm really feeling this summer."
Follow Maxwell on Twitter, and you catch intriguing glimpses of the artists he says inspire him these days, from neo-neo-soul singers like Sam Smith and Jessie Ware to indie-leaning pop and electronic artists like Disclosure and Sky Ferreira.
The challenge is trying to incorporate these modern influences into his signature timeless style. He likens the process to restoring a classic car: "You want the classic body, but you want the engine to be the best that is available," he said. "I'm trying to preserve my legacy and also trying to make music that I can sing when I'm old, and that will be important when I'm gone. That's why it takes so long."
Still, he doesn't let on like he's feeling much pressure. In fact, he said he actually feels comforted by the reception he's hearing this summer on the road. "It's cool to be 41 and performing songs that I recorded in my 20s and 30s and have people still be affected by it," he said.
He points to a recent concert in Nashville. "It was one of the most unbelievable, awesome experiences I've ever had. Not only because you're in the south, and you are just around so much history and beauty and warmth and great food and culture, but you were just in this amazing hall. It blew my mind, the love and appreciation. It didn't have to be about a new single, a new haircut, a new relationship. ... You just needed to feel the songs."