Usher, the 2000s star who owes his success to his mother, limbers up for the Super Bowl

The eight-time Grammy Award winner, with more than 80 million albums sold, will perform his 101st concert in Las Vegas on Sunday, after a residency lasting almost three years in the city and comprising 100 shows. However, he will have to jostle for media attention with Taylor Swift

Usher, at the Oscars after-party hosted by 'Vanity Fair' on March 12, 2023 in Beverly Hills, California.
Usher, at the Oscars after-party hosted by 'Vanity Fair' on March 12, 2023 in Beverly Hills, California.Leon Bennett (FilmMagic)
María Porcel

Like so many southern U.S. kids with beautiful voices born in the mid-1970s, Usher Terrence Raymond IV began by singing in a choir. However, so few of those choir boys went on to enjoy a career in music. Most of them could only dream of what the 45-year-old from Dallas will do on Sunday — performing part of his 30-year musical repertoire at the Super Bowl halftime show, the most watched sports performance on the planet, in a stadium in Las Vegas with 70,000 spectators and with more than 100 million viewers around the world.

His mother, Jonetta Patton, never intended for him to become a gospel star, but she saw early on that he had a remarkable voice, stage presence and a striking personality. That’s why, when he was just five years old, she encouraged him to sing with the members of the church choir in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where she raised Usher alone after divorcing her alcoholic husband when the boy was barely a year old, and she was only 22. Shortly after, she remarried, had another son, James Lackey, and later divorced again, bringing up both. When she realized how talented Usher was, she backed him and did whatever was needed to ensure his success.

Her instinct was not misplaced, as an array of number ones, 80 million records sold, eight Grammy Awards, movies, musicals, tours and residencies (he has been performing for two and a half years in Las Vegas, where he has moved to an even bigger venue) have testified over the course of three decades. Usher is one of the most successful acts of the early 2000s, when he released his most accomplished albums. Yet he has managed to retain his place in the limelight — and amass a fortune of an estimated $180 million — without causing too much of a stir, without the scandals that have plagued other R&B stars, especially from that period, such as the case of the musical godfather, Puff Daddy (Sean Combs, also known as Diddy), who faces multiple lawsuits for sexual harassment.

Usher and his mother Jonetta Patton in Chicago, Illinois, in December 1994.
Usher and his mother Jonetta Patton in Chicago, Illinois, in December 1994.Raymond Boyd (Getty Images)

Despite being a superstar, he has managed to carve out a career with a degree of discretion. Indeed, he says that the worst moment of his life was very early in his life. After church and children’s television shows, he went through another ritual of passage — band practice. Usher decided to rebrand himself and join the R&B quintet NuBeginning. And he was so successful that Jonetta packed their bags and they moved 124 miles away from home: “My mother, she took me out of the group and we moved to Atlanta, Georgia, and my career started. I think I was around 11 or 12 years old, and I’d been winning talent shows. We had a record deal, so we had music, and I felt like my world was being taken away from me,” the singer said in an interview in the autumn. “No baby, your world is only beginning because you are a solo artist and there’s something incredible in you,” Patton told her son. “You took my dreams away,” he cried to his mother. “Nope, I’m giving it to you.”

After catching the attention of producers (who convinced him to leave the R&B quintet behind and go back to being Usher), there came the hard part, the minor change that almost destroyed his career — namely his voice. Antonio L.A. Reid, the music promoter who signed him at the age of 14, never wanted to make Usher a child star because he knew he could go further. But just as Reid was preparing his debut album, Usher’s voice changed. Reid admitted to The Hollywood Reporter that he wanted to quit. “I wanted to drop him. It would break his heart. It would break his mother’s heart. It was a very tough period in both our lives. Then someone said to me: ‘Don’t be a fool. Don’t sell your stock in Usher. He’s still going to be a star.’” That someone was Puff Daddy, who took him to live with him in New York for a while and got him to record his debut album in 1994. But for 17 years his mother continued to manage his career single-handedly, and she herself has amassed a fortune of around $2 million.

At that time, Usher met Chilli Thomas, lead singer of the famous girl band TLC. The pair had an on-and-off relationship for years, as well as a long friendship, and when they didn’t have a partner they would get back together, as Chilli recently recounted. They were together for three years, from 2001 to 2004. Later, after dating some supermodels, including Naomi Campbell, he began a relationship with his stylist, Tameka Foster, to whom he was married between 2007 and 2009 and with whom he had two children (Usher ‘Cinco’ V and Naviyd, who are now 16 and 15 years old). She also brought to the marriage the three children she had from a previous relationship that he considered to be his own, including the youngest, Kile, who tragically died in 2012, aged 11, after being run over by a jet ski on a lake.

After their separation, Usher began dating his agent, Grace Miguel. Their relationship began in 2009 and they married in Cuba in 2015 until they broke up in 2018. It was around that time that three people brought legal action against Usher for giving them a sexually transmitted disease — herpes — without forewarning them. For the past five years he has been in a relationship with Epic Records executive Jennifer Goicoechea, with whom he had his first daughter, Sovereign Bo, in September 2020, and his second, Sire Castrello, just one year later.

A 15-year-old Usher recording the song ‘U Will Know’ with Black Men United (a large group of African-American singers) in July 1994 in New York.
A 15-year-old Usher recording the song ‘U Will Know’ with Black Men United (a large group of African-American singers) in July 1994 in New York.Al Pereira (Getty Images)

It is now 20 years since his greatest success, through his fourth album, Confessions, which sold more than 20 million copies and earned him all of his Grammy nominations. It was with this album that he established his image and style (more R&B than rap; he is also an avid fashion enthusiast). He developed his own particular voice and way of acting, very much in keeping with the late 1990s and early 2000s, with a sexy but affectionate air, as he posed with languid gazes and his torso exposed. Since then, he has diversified his career. He starred in the musical Chicago on Broadway for four months in 2006 and has held a residency in Las Vegas for the past three years. He is also about to embark on a tour of some 20 U.S. cities.

Usher was awarded an honorary Doctor of Music from Berklee a few months ago. However, his endeavors are not confined to the world of music. He has made financial contributions to Democratic campaigns, especially in support of the Obamas, as well as the Black community. He successfully advocated for June 19 — Juneteenth — which commemorates the end of slavery, to become a national holiday in the U.S. He has also invested in perfumes and restaurants, as well as catering services, urban skating rinks, shares in music businesses such as the Tidal platform and even basketball teams — he has a stake in the Cleveland Cavaliers and plans to invest in American football. Usher was also one of the promoters of a young boy who played the guitar gracefully on YouTube — Justin Bieber.

Both Bieber and his manager, the somewhat controversial Scooter Braun, are close friends of the artist. Kim Kardashian, who was one of those who officially announced that Usher was the chosen artist for the Super Bowl, is also a huge fan of his. In fact, she has recently made him the face of her men’s underwear campaign, where he poses with $18 underpants and $200,000 worth of jewelry. Jeff Bezos is also a big admirer. The artist spent a few days on the entrepreneur’s yacht last August, sailing along the Croatian coast together with Orlando Bloom and Katy Perry. He reportedly asked Perry for advice on the Super Bowl, for which the performers do not see a single dollar — the competition covers all expenses and travel, but does not directly remunerate them. Many of those celebrities may well be in the stands, especially with the league showdown taking place in Las Vegas, the epicenter of the entertainment world. Usher will be sharing the spotlight with the San Francisco 49ers and the Missouri Kansas City Chiefs. And of course, superstar Taylor Swift, who will be at the stadium to support her partner, Travis Kelce.

Usher is eager to perform, so much so that he has managed to shave minutes off the intermission and get not just 13, but 15 minutes, in what will be a grand tribute to Black American artists, as he revealed on Good Morning America. “I’m so ready for it to happen. I just want to sing louder than I’ve ever sang; dance harder than I’ve ever danced,” he said this week in an interview with Billboard.

Not much is known about the halftime show: a change of clothes, a guest artist, some skating, a song from his new album, his first in eight years, Coming Home, which was produced by his own label and released on Friday. “I want to celebrate the 30 years of this career where I’m very fortunate to have made songs and moments with people that they will remember forever,” he explained. “What an amazing crescendo. I’ve played 100 shows in Las Vegas and my 101st will be the Super Bowl.”

His mother also spoke of the “pride” she feels: “I thank God for so many blessings,” she said on television. On the same stage where Michael Jackson (for him, the most influential artist in modernizing this spectacle), Beyoncé, Rihanna, Eminem, Jennifer Lopez, Shakira and Coldplay have performed, Usher will be remembering all those who have accompanied him on his journey: “I didn’t start where I am now, and I didn’t get there by myself. So, everybody that has been a part of it, I’m carrying them with me.” His immense success is also largely down to Loretta, who will be in the stands supporting him as always.

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