January 27, 1992 12:00 PM

CALL IT SWEET TIMING. JUST AS THE sight of Michael Jackson clutching his crotch has left fans longing for his lost innocence, along comes singer Tevin Campbell, 15, clean-cut as a choirboy and hailed by critics as the new Michael Jackson.

Signed as a seventh grader by Quincy Jones, producer of Jackson’s 42-million-selling Thriller album, Campbell first topped the R&B charts at 13 with his Quincy-produced single, “Tomorrow (A Better You, Better Me).” His next vocal effort, “Round and Round,” became a featured song on Prince’s Graffiti Bridge sound track and earned him a Grammy nomination as the best male R&B vocalist. Now, with his debut album, a catchy collection of hip-hop, ballads and dance tunes titled T.E.V.I.N., the Texas-born teenager is suddenly wondering if standing out will make it harder fitting in.

“It’s tough trying to balance school, family, mother, grades—you know, that kind of stuff,” says Campbell. “It’s like you’re trying to live two lives and the normal one becomes difficult.”

The latter, for Campbell, is lived in the modest, ranch-style home in Encino, Calif., which he shares with his sister, Marché, 19, brother Damorio, 13, and his manager-mother Rhonda. As for Dad, Campbell met him for the first time only last year. “I respect him as my father,” Campbell says evenly, “but I don’t feel any love, because he was never there.”

Campbell himself can be hard to find when it comes to homework and his nightly chores of dish cleaning and garbage removal. “He’s no star at home,” says Rhonda. Pause. “He may see stars from time to time, being the regular child that he is.”

Fact is, of course, Campbell has seen quite a few. He has appeared on Saturday Night Live, sung for Arsenio and chatted with Oprah—and he even did a guest shot on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air last spring. “My friends lead very different lives from me,” he admits. Classmates at the private Buckley School in Sherman Oaks seem to ask only about his celebrity pals these days. “I’d ask the same questions,” he shrugs, “[but] it gets a little tiresome.” So do those comparisons with the young Jackson. “I’m just me,” says Campbell, “and that’s all I want to be.”

There are, however, some things he would like to see change. Like his voice. On his recent Arsenio Hall appearance, the young singer reached for a high note only to find his pipes caught in the abyss between puberty and manhood. “I learned my lesson,” he says. “I can hit the note, but I just didn’t warm up that day.”

Actually, Campbell has been warming up since he was a toddler trilling to radio tunes by Luther Vandross and Marvin Gaye. Growing up in inner-city Dallas, he joined his mother, then a postal worker and amateur singer, in the choir of their Baptist church and onstage at weddings and talent shows. A demo tape of one performance eventually reached Quincy Jones, who promptly signed him, at 12, for his Qwest record label.

“I’ve had four encounters with amazingly precocious 12-year-olds,” says Jones. His first was in Detroit years ago with the young Aretha Franklin. “Then one afternoon at a party,” he says, “Sammy Davis Jr. introduced me to a skinny little kid from Gary, Ind. Michael Jackson and I wound up spending a lot of time together. And I met Stevie Wonder backstage at the Apollo when he was just 12. So I guess all this really proves is that I’m getting better at spotting 12-year-olds.”

Even with Jones as mentor and producer, Campbell still shuns the spotlight when family calls. Sister Marché gave birth last November to a baby girl, and Campbell canceled all appearances to be on hand during the final weeks of her pregnancy. Although the baby’s father has quit the scene, Campbell says he’s happy for his sister. “My mother did just fine raising three of us by herself,” he says. “My sister has all of us here to help her, so she’ll be fine.”

Campbell will miss at least occasional diaper duty while he’s out hyping sales for his new album. Its first single, the lush, balladic “Tell Me What You Want Me to Do,” has already cracked the Top 10 on the R&B charts, and Campbell is warming to the prospect of pop fame. “The idea of being a star on MTV, BET and all that never appealed to me,” he told Arsenio on the air recently. “[But] I’m beginning to like it a little bit now.”

SHELLEY LEVITT

WAYNE EDWARDS in Los Angeles

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