Saturday, December 16, 2006

MusiQuote: Ahmet Ertegun, (1923-2006)

"I'd be happy if people said that I did a little bit to raise the dignity and recognition of the greatness of African-American music."
--Atlantic Records co-founder Ahmet Ertegun, on his legacy.

Other stories about Ertegun:

Ahmet Ertegun Earned Aretha Franklin's Respect (All Things Considered, NPR): Ertegun helped discover and develop many artists, including Ray Charles, Led Zeppelin and Sonny and Cher.

The Amazing Ears of the Late Ahmet Ertegun (Morning Edition, NPR): "Ertegun, who died Wednesday at 83, had some of the best ears in the business."

Music pioneer Ahmet Ertegun dies at 83 (Associated Press): "Ertegun remained connected to the music scene until his last days — it was at an Oct. 29 concert by the Rolling Stones at the Beacon Theatre in New York where Ertegun fell, suffered a head injury and was hospitalized. He later slipped into a coma. "(Also includes a slideshow)

Rock & Roll Founding Father Ahmet Ertegun Dies at 83 (Rolling Stone): "Ertegun helped usher in the transition from rhythm and blues to rock & roll, signing Ray Charles and the Drifters to Atlantic and producing Big Joe Turner's original version of 'Shake, Rattle and Roll.'"

Ahmet Ertegun, Music Executive, Dies at 83 (New York Times): "By the 1950s, Atlantic developed a unique sound, best described as the mixed and polygamous marriage of Mr. Ertegun’s musical loves. He and his producers mingled blues and jazz with the mambo of New Orleans, the urban blues of Chicago, the swing of Kansas City and the sophisticated rhythms and arrangements of New York. "

A Mogul Who Helped Mold Pop Culture (New York Times): "Part of what Mr. Ertegun also heard in his cherished singers was the sound of the gospel church. Mr. Charles merged the beat and the call-and-response of sanctified church music with considerably more secular implications in songs like “What’d I Say.” Mr. Ertegun, who was born a Muslim, worked with church-rooted African-American musicians and Jewish producers, notably Jerry Wexler, on many Atlantic hits; that interfaith coalition helped forge soul music. "


A Pioneer. A Gentleman. And a True Original. Atlantic Records' tribute site includes photos, bios, quotes and a recording of Ertegun singing an early version of "Mess Around."

Rolling Stone and Rhapsody have compiled a mixtape of several Ertegun-related hits.

The Gospel Ghost (because if you read this blog, you know there's always one if you look hard enough): Although I'm interested in Ertegun's life/career because of my interest in African-American music history (aural fusions between gospel music/R&B/jazz/blues, etc.), I'm really intrigued by something I read: That Ertegun co-founded a gospel label, Jubilee, in 1946. Oh. My. Goodness. Anybody in the blogosphere know about this? I'm going to ask Friends-of-the-blog Bob Marovich and Bil Carpenter. I'll let you know what I find.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

A Very Short Rebus

Just for the . . .

I'm . . .

Just for the record, friends, I'm still blogging. I've had quite the summer--been running up and down the road, baking (latest project a friend's wedding cake), going to concerts, and as always, discovering some great new (and not so new) music. Meanwhile, a stack of books and CDs has been gathering dust in the corner of the coffee table. And I even forgot to observe my own blogiversary last month! No matter. Look for a new review in this space next week!

Monday, August 21, 2006

Feels Good Release Video

Check out this new video from my favorite group to learn more about Take 6's past and their hopes for Feels Good and their new label, Take 6 records.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Review: Vickie Winans' Woman to Woman: Songs of Life

Vickie Winans
Woman To Woman: Songs of Life (Verity)
Released August 2006
reviewed by LaTonya Taylor

4 out of 5 stars

Sounds like … an eclectic mix of traditional and contemporary gospel music for fans of Helen Baylor or Anita Baker.

At a glance … impressive for its magnitude alone, Woman to Woman showcases Winans' stylistic diversity and ability to choose songs that resonate with listeners.

I once saw Vickie Winans behind the scenes at the Stellar Awards, flashing her megawatt smile and wearing an elegant ball gown with little black house slippers. The combination seemed utterly natural—over her 20-plus years in the industry, Winans has been known for her warmth and wit, Motor City fashion flair and down-home honesty.

Winans brings that openness to Woman to Woman: Songs of Life, her follow-up to 2003's Bringing It All Together. Several songs deal with overcoming struggles, likely based on Winans' challenges with health, divorce, and the music industry. The double-disc set combines studio cuts with live tracks recorded at Chicago's House of Hope in May 2006. It's an extremely diverse grouping of songs, featuring Winans' throaty alto in high-energy dance-pop tracks, a soaring ballad or two, R&B slow jams, mass-choir songs, praise and worship choruses, hip-hop, quartet, smooth jazz, and calypso. There's even some gospel go-go on the album, which also includes tributes from sons Mario and Marvin, Jr., an appearance from Winans' protégé trio PreZence, and a duet with husband Joe McLemore.

The inclusion of several songs from the past—including covers of Hawkins Family favorites "Try Christ" and "I Love You Lord," and an expansive, extravagant version of Winans' own "God of Comfort"—give the album a retrospective feel amid more contemporary tracks. Fans of The Winans should listen for a shiverlicious flashback at the beginning of disc 2, when Winans echoes the group's 1989 Live at Carnegie Hall by opening the live set with "A Change Will Come."

Woman to Woman could benefit from some thoughtful trimming and reorganization along a thematic, stylistic or even past-to-present motif. As is, it's kind of a jumble, often zigzagging between different styles and emotional shades from song to song. Still, in some ways, the magnitude and eclecticism of the project align with elements of Winans' persona. After all, Winans is known for her work ethic—nicknamed "the hardest-working woman in gospel music"—and her generosity.

Review: Izzy's In Awe of You

In Awe of You (VGR Entertainment)
Released May 2006
reviewed by LaTonya Taylor

4 out of 5 stars

Sounds like … Soulful R&B for fans of Smokie Norful, J Moss or John Legend.

At a glance … Izzy's earnest tenor and whimsical production sensibilities make In Awe of You a solid debut—and a great listen.

Izzy (full name Israel Bell) is among the first artists signed to Maryland-based VGR Entertainment. Nicknamed "the urban psalmist," his debut In Awe of You seems to reflect his artistic and production vision with an earnest, melismatic tenor, and a techno-soul, rhythm 'n' praise vibe.

Izzy wrote and produced most of the tracks himself, but the album's strength is in its restraint. Even though his techno, R&B and house music influences are clear, Izzy doesn't let the toys take over. The harmonies are tight but mellow, without lots of slick, overproduced electronic layers. The result is an album that makes the most of technology while also preserving the authenticity of the human touch. Production is occasionally playful, like at the end of "Maintain," where the drum track slows, eventually stuttering to a stop, or "You Are," which integrates children's voices over the chorus.

Other potential favorites include "Destiny," which has the easy feel of friends singing around the piano. It's got a nice, rolling groove and would make great material for a small ensemble. "Can't Nobody" is a fun, head-bobbing cruise that's great for summer. Izzy flexes his storytelling muscles in "Need Him Now," which merges sounds of the city with the stories of people in need of compassion.

The title track is a piano-driven ballad with a small corps providing vocals that anchor Izzy's worshipful ad-libs. "Never Let Go Your Hand" is similarly passionate, and "Hand Clap Joint" is danceable, replete with Latin guitar, cartoonish accents, and handclap percussion. "Heaven" is an updated reinterpretation of the contemporary classic recorded by BeBe & CeCe Winans in 1988. Here, Izzy deftly adds touches that accent what we liked about the original without disturbing its essence. The combination of Izzy's vocal and his creative, often whimsical production sensibilities make In Awe of You a solid debut—and a great listen.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

From the Vault: Interview with Israel Houghton

A Friend of God
by LaTonya Taylor

Israel Houghton and New Breed are known for eclectic, cross-cultural praise and worship music and high-energy performances. With 2002's Real, rife with funky 1970s influences, and 2004's Live From Another Level, the group has continued to break new ground with their musical combination of the fresh and the familiar. I spoke to Houghton just after the Live From Another Level DVD recording in Kansas City. There, he talked about his early influences, the New Breed movement, and how he came to see himself as a friend of God.

How did you become a worship leader?

Israel Houghton:
While I was in college, I got connected with my church's worship team and they just asked me to start leading. I was 19, and I was pretty out of touch with what it took to be a worship leader. It wasn't until I really got alone with God and began to hear his sound and his signature and his affirmation that I began to discover that I was born for this, created for this, called to this. And I haven't looked back.

When you say you were created for this, that's not something you say lightly. The story of your birth is very significant, isn't it?

Sure. I really should have been one of those abortion statistics you read about. My mother became pregnant with me when she was 17. My mother's white and my biological father's black. Her family wasn't supportive of their relationship and gave her the choice to have a back-alley abortion or to be disowned. I'm here because of the decision she made-and because of her conversion shortly after that.

So when I lead worship I'm crazy. I realize how fortunate I am to be called by God and to be protected, to be covered by him. I'm incredibly grateful.

Your mom later married, and you grew up a biracial child in a white family attending a Hispanic church. How did that shape you, culturally and musically?

That certainly had a big effect on me, culturally, stylistically, musically. There were never any compartments for me growing up. I listened to the Beatles and I listened to Andrae Crouch and I listened to the Eagles and I listened to bluegrass music, and it was just all kind of one and the same. It was all music to me.

It wasn't until I started to really consider music as a career that things got confused. When I started talking with record labels, I encountered these segregated musical societies. Industry people would tell me, "You have to only do this kind of music." Basically what they were saying was, We only understand it this way, and you should only do it this way or nobody's going to buy you.

How did you respond to that?

I told them, "The day is coming when the cool thing will be the most diverse thing." They just looked at me like, You're crazy. But I just held to that. It took somebody like Carlos Santana to show that you could work with musicians and influences from every walk of life and make it cool and sell millions of records while doing it.

I think of it this way. In the Lord's Prayer, we pray, "Let your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. What does it sound like in heaven? It's not segregated there. There's a sound that is just swirling and flowing and continually going. There are melodies and sounds and tones we've never heard. There are types of instruments that we have yet to experience and hear. So I'm saying let the sound of heaven resonate on the earth—and let me have something to do with it.

So, you had a strong sense of purpose, but things weren't really taking off. How did you cope with that?

There are people who take off right away. But I realize that to whom much is given much is required. Back in 1989, 1990 I wasn't prepared. If God had done what he promised he was going to do then, it would have killed me!

I had to go through a time of preparation and becoming trustworthy in what God was going to call me to do. There have been many years of Lord, I just love you. If it's just me and you and this keyboard in the kitchen from now on, that's cool. And when I really, truly believed that, it was like then the Lord said, "Now let me do what I said I was going to do." I never doubted that, but I came to grips with the idea Lord, if it never comes, it's already come. Just the time I've spent with you has been worth it.

What did that process of becoming trustworthy look like in your life?

I think the process of becoming trustworthy begins when God says, "Open your mouth and I'll fill it. Say what I'm telling you and I'll back you up on it." But that process continues as you get to the point where you say, "Lord, here's my 'Isaac.' Here's the knife. My dreams are yours." And just before you plunge he goes, "All right. All right. I got you now."

One of the songs on Live From Another Level says, "I Am a Friend of God." How did you come to see yourself that way?

At New Breed's retreat two years ago, we were kind of defining our group mission. We had a moderator help us think that through, and I assumed it would be kind of straightforward. Here's why we exist. It's great. God bless you, everybody. Have a good day.

But God hijacked our whole time together. The moderator handed us a sheet listing promises of God and ways we're described in the Bible. He instructed us to circle the one that stood out the most to us. So there are all these statements—"I'm more than a conqueror through Christ." "Nothing can separate me from God," Romans 8, all this stuff. And then I see the statement, "I am a friend of God." Without even thinking of it, I circled that. So the moderator went around the room asking everyone what we'd circled. When it was my turn, before I could even say "I am a…" I just started weeping, uncontrollably.

Why did that affect you so much?

I grew up in a fairly legalistic home. My parents loved God, and they did the very best they could with what they knew. They came from a very discipleship-oriented, fairly heavy-handed way of doing kingdom work. So I would have more easily said, "I am afraid of God" than "I am a friend of God." The view I had of God was dysfunctional, almost like he was looking for opportunities to punish me. That was more what I caught than what was taught.

But the more I said "I am a friend of God," the more that old, condemning view was purged from my life. I gained a healing sense of God saying, "I want to know you."

How has that realization affected the way you lead worship?

It's so liberating. It sets me free just to worship with reckless abandon, complete belief that God enjoys me singing to him and approaching him with reverence and fear.

I often hear that so-and-so is the queen of gospel and so-and-so is the prince of praise, and so on. Somebody asked how I'd categorize myself, and I said, "In terms of royalty? Hmm. I'm the court jester of worship." Why? Because the court jester entertains the king.

I get to a point in leading worship where I tend to just kind of check out and focus my attention on the King. My desire is that the King eventually says, "Come up here and sit with me now. You've caused me to smile. You've exalted me. Now just come and hang." I love that, so that's where I'm at. I'm the court jester of worship.

You've said that New Breed is more than a musical group, but a movement and a way of life. What does that mean?

I didn't want it to be "Israel Houghton Ministries." I wanted to be a part of something greater than myself. So we live by that idea: the thing of which I am a part is greater than the part I play. It's a big picture-focused movement, beyond the music. It's about God connecting our hearts to walk together.

Ultimately, it really is about the GPS of your heart. Does your heart beat for your local region or your comfort zone of church? Or does your heart beat for the nations who have yet to bow their knees? To me, getting around people who cry out for the nations of the world is what I live for. And that's what New Breed is all about.

It's been almost ten years since New Breed started. What accomplishments have been most meaningful to you?

I am as crazy, passionately stupid, ridiculously in love with Jesus now as I was when I first started this thing. And as long as my knees can handle it, I'll be the same way.

I can also say that I've been a friend to my friends for a long time, and I have vital relationships 10, 15, 20 years long. The passion for the presence of God has not left me, and what we set out to do, to be deliberately cross-cultural is standing today and it's ushering in a fresh sound and, fresh movement of the Spirit of God.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Joe Carter, 1949-2006

"[The spiritual] became the entrance, the open door, into . . .a whole new world of experience. The slaves could not experience the normal world. . .They were whipped, and they had
chains, and they found the secret door to take them into that world where the
tears are wiped away.

. . .One of the things I think about when I think about this body of music, I realize that it was the foundation for most other American music. And this music has changed the face of music
in the 20th century. And the story behind the creation of the spiritual is really--it's a miraculous story. Normally, when you hear the story of African American[music] in a documentary somewhere, they go back to Ella Fitzgerald or Louis Armstrong. And I say, `Well, that's great. But if you reallywant to know the story behind the story, find out who Louis' grandmother wasand wha t she was singing. What were the songs he learned when he was a baby, and what were the messages of those songs?'

And the thing that we find is that in the midst of all the most horrible pain, some of these powerful individuals, they transcend with shining lives. They were able to rise up above. I mean, they were able to be loving and forgiving in the midst of it all. . .The interesting
thing, you don't find mean-spirited sentiments in the spirituals."

--artist, musician and educator Joe Carter, to Speaking of Faith's Krista Tippett. The broadcast featuring Joe Carter will re-air this week, or you can listen to it by clicking the link.

Gospel-ish, in a way: Jenny Lewis' Rabbit Fur Coat

Jenny Lewis With the Watson Twins
Rabbit Fur Coat (Team Love Records)
by LaTonya Taylor

"Well you praise him / Then you thank him / 'Til you reach the by and by / And I've won hundreds at the track / But I'm not betting on the afterlife / …What have I done? / Why am I always messing with / The big guns? "—from "The Big Guns"

"I didn't intend to write a bunch of songs about God," singer/songwriter Jenny Lewis told NPR's Melissa Block about her solo album, Rabbit Fur Coat. "I guess that's what happens when you're about to turn 30… maybe being broken-hearted is not the only thing you want to sing about."

Rabbit Fur Coat takes Lewis in a different direction musically as well as lyrically. The Rilo Kiley lead singer and sometime vocalist for indietronic collaboration The Postal Service moves away from indie-rock and toward folk, country and soul. Reviewers frequently compare Lewis' sound to Neko Case, Patsy Cline, Laura Nyro, and Loretta Lynn.

The result is collection of soulful, occasionally anthemic musings marked by Lewis' ambivalence toward faith and the tensions she experiences between her questions and spiritual experiences of grace and joy. She's joined by Kentucky natives The Watson Twins, who bring a southern gospel sensibility to background vocals. Tracks were recorded on tape, using vintage equipment, and an eclectic, occasionally tough-to-identify mix of instruments (including an ebow, Wurlitzer organ, and lap-steel guitar) gives a track or two an especially haunted feel.

The album opens with a mournful, blues-gospel "Run, Devil Run," before segueing into the rollicking "The Big Guns," in which Lewis laments her inability to avoid difficult questions—and asks for mercy for the tired and lonely in the world. "Rise Up With Fists!!" is a modern protest song, lamenting social ills and offering a pointed critique of prophets with suspect lives. "Rise Up" suggests that God's grace—"there but for the grace of God go I"— is the force that prevents one from hypocrisy, and posits belief—and waking and rising up—as alternatives, if not solutions.

"The Charging Sky" extends the gambling metaphor from "The Big Guns." But rather than refusing to bet on the afterlife, Lewis bets for and against: "It's a surefire bet I'm gonna die / So I'm taking up praying on Sunday nights / It's not that I believe in your Almighty / But I might as well / As insurance or bail." It further critiques indifference toward suffering and the "fear and consuming and fight" that she views as a result of "institution." The title track is a ballad in which the narrator tells the story of a coat that seems to function as a symbol of wealth, greed or status-consciousness. In interviews, Lewis doesn't say to what extent the song is autobiographical, but it seems to be a fictionalized account of her life as "a million-dollar kid"—Lewis was a child/teen actress who appeared in several commercials, television shows and films in the '80s and '90s.

"Born Secular" stands out as a kind of anti-hymn. Lewis describes herself as "born secular and inconsolable." Yet in her insistence that God goes where he wants but is "not in me"—the last word one lilting, extended note—Lewis sounds an emotional note that's not easily identified. It's not the bold rising up with fists, but it's not necessarily a longing melancholy.

The album includes several other songs with a similarly confessional tone, including the haunting "Happy" and a cover of the Traveling Wilburys' "Handle With Care." It's an honest look at the messiness of wrestling with (messing with?) the big guns—God, life, and the past—for oneself.

Growin' Up: Interview with Kierra "KiKi" Sheard

By LaTonya Taylor

The last two years involved a lot of big changes for gospel's Kierra "KiKi" Sheard. She finished high school, started college, and enjoyed an unusual level of acclaim for her debut album, I Owe You, including both Stellar and Dove Awards. Now, with her latest release, This Is Me, Sheard makes a musical move even more deeply into the R&B sounds she loves. The daughter of Karen Clark Sheard, "KiKi" spoke with me about the changes in her life and how she's dealing with them—and with the folks who are apparently jealous about her rapid rise to stardom.

Let's start by looking back a little bit. It's been two years since the release of I Owe You. How would you say you've grown since then?

Kierra "KiKi" Sheard:
I think I've grown both in a natural and a spiritual sense over the last couple of years. I've started to make a lot of my own decisions, and to reflect on those decisions and learn from them. Of course, my parents are still around, and they will still pop me upside the head if they think I'm out of line (chuckling). But I'm learning people, and learning life, and starting to handle travel details and things like that on my own.

Spiritually, I've been seeking God, not because Mommy and Daddy told me to, but because I know that it's good for me, and I want to be closer to him. I'm also growing in ministry. I'm learning how to not just sing, but actually to minister. Sometimes people come up to me and say they were facing difficult situations, but felt like I was able to speak to them, without even knowing their business.

What's the difference between "just singing" and ministering?

When you're just singing you're basically just entertaining people, and showing them people what you can do. When you're ministering, you are spreading the gospel, and letting the Lord use you, and letting his will be done. You're helping to save souls, and helping people realize that it's important to get close to Jesus. You really have to be prayed up, and really have to be focused and know that you have a responsibility.

You've grown up in a well-known gospel family, and of course sang with your mom as a child on her album, Finally Karen. But you've really become part of the industry on your own terms over the last couple of years. Has anything taken you by surprise about being in the gospel music industry?

I've been surprised as I see what God is doing through me even though I'm young. I've enjoyed being nominated for and winning awards. And it's very fun to be able to be on the same stage with music artists that I've admired through the years—people like Angela Spivey, Donald Lawrence, Donnie McClurkin, Mary Mary, the Winans, people like that. It's just a blessing to be able to work with people that I've gained knowledge from.

You started college since your last album came out. You're a fairly well-known person, though. Do you feel like you're having a regular college experience?

Definitely. I'm studying entertainment law, and it's been a pretty regular experience. Sometimes people do recognize me and run over and want to talk, but I don't mind that, because I appreciate my fans.

Talk about one of the songs that's most meaningful to you from This Is Me.

Well, I sang every last song on this record from the bottom of my heart, and I wrote several. But one of my favorites, a song that means an absolute lot to me, is "Hear This." That's one of the ones I wrote, and it's my testimony. I wrote it when I was just so deep in sin at one point, and I felt like the Lord didn't want to hear my confession, because I wasn't making any progress. I felt like, "You probably don't want to hear me, since I do this over and over again." But I knew that without Jesus Christ in my life, I would definitely be somewhere lost and not in my right mind. So the song basically says Lord, please hear my cry.

Let's talk about "Have What You Want." It seems like that song deals with people discouraging you. Have you faced people knocking you or hatin' on you?

Most definitely, a lot of people. I think when God is opening doors for you and taking you to another level, a lot of people don't want to be left behind. It can be hard to figure out who your true friends are. Some people may not think you're worthy of having a position or the opportunities you may have. It feels like, you know, I'm going through heartache and pain because these people aren't liking me. Sometimes the Enemy will use people to distract you, hate you or break you down. That can make you feel hopeless, but this song says to do your thing and be encouraged.

Are people saying unkind things to you? Or is it more like old friends saying, "Who does she think she is?"

Those are some things that may have been said to me, or behind my back. I've had to figure out who my friends are. But when you have an anointing on your life, the Enemy will use loved ones to distract you and break you down—and they may not even realize it, because they may not be saved or have that discernment of spirit. But it's just something we have to pray about, and stay prayed up.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Tagged With a Music Meme

A fellow blogger tagged me with the following meme:

"List seven songs you are into right now. No matter what the genre, whether they have words, or even if they're not any good, but they must be songs you're really enjoying now. Post these instructions in your blog along with your 7 songs. Then tag 6 other people to see what they're listening to."

I'll have to give the 6 people part some thought, but here are 7 songs that make me happy these days. Some of them are current favorites, and others are on my Unwritten List of Songs That Always Make Me Smile:

"Let Everything That Hath Breath," CeCe Winans, Purified
"Heaven," Izzy, In Awe of You (Look for a review in a few weeks)
"Blues 2.0," Fruteland Jackson, Blues 2.0
"Ain't That Peculiar," Bettye Swann, Bettye Swann
"Destination Moon," Dinah Washington, Jazz Profile 005: Dinah Washington
"Climbing Higher Mountains," Aretha Franklin/James Cleveland, Soul & Inspiration
"Mary Jane" DJ Green Lantern Evil Genius Remix, Motown Remixed

And there you have it, reader. Consider yourself tagged.

Psst! You Awake?

If you're up late tonight (well, early tomorrow, Sunday, July 2, from 3:30-7:30 a.m. CST), tune in to for Bob Marovich's monthly Gospel Memories broadcast. Here, from an e-mail Bob sends out to listeners, are some highlights from tomorrow's broadcast:

"-- In Loving Memory of Billy Preston, who passed away last month. Billy may be known as "The Fifth Beatle," but he started in gospel (his mother was an accomplished singer) and showed the world just how much a Hammond Organ could sing and shout. We'll hear examples of Billy soloing as well as accompanying the likes of James Cleveland and the Angelic Choir, and Bessie Griffin and the Gospel Pearls.

-- Pioneer gospel artists such as the Mighty Clouds of Joy and Bethlehem Baptist Church Choir covering patriotic songs to celebrate America's July Fourth.

-- Polk Miller and the Old South Quartette: Cylinders from this very early integrated vocal group courtesy of the amazing University of California - Santa Barbara Cylinder Digitization Project."

There's so much more, so tune in to the live broadcast.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Review: Kierra "KiKi" Sheard's This Is Me

Kierra "KiKi" Sheard
This Is Me (EMI Gospel)
Released June 2006
reviewed by LaTonyaTaylor
3.5/5 Stars

Sounds like … contemporary R&B for fans of Destiny's Child, Virtue, Mary Mary, and Ramiyah.

At a glance … positive, enjoyable and occasionally irresistible, This Is Me is worth listening to, despite its occasional flaws.

With the release of her debut album in 2004, Kierra "KiKi" Sheard took her first steps toward building her own style of music ministry. Sheard, who comes from the Clark family of gospel glitterati, found immediate acclaim, and related singles topped the gospel sales chart and Japan's radio charts. Now an 18-year-old college student, she follows up with This Is Me, which continues her penchant for high-energy R&B with addictive hooks, evidenced by the opening tracks "You're the Only One" and "Yes."

Things mellow more with "It Is What It Is," a track about leading people to choose heaven over hell. Lyrically, there's a sense of dissonance between the idea of speaking difficult truths with loving passion and the song's almost flippant disregard for the seeker's questions and experiences. The soft slow jam of the title track stands in stark contrast with its sense of humility, self-examination, and growth. It closes with some of the best ad-libbing on the album as Sheard changes the emotional tone from laid-back R&B to more passionate gospel. Other highlights include the hypnotic "Have What You Want," the meditative "Hear This," and Clark-harmony-laden "No Never."

Despite some hints of funk and retro pop, this album doesn't have the same stylistic diversity as her 2004 debut, I Owe You, and no gospelicious surprises like that album's quartet-based "Done Did It." The plentiful R&B is enjoyable, but Sheard shines most when displaying her churchified vocal prowess. Here that's only evident in her jazz-gospel ad-libs during the closing vamps of her songs, where they're often lost in the repetition. But appropriately enough, This Is Me is an aural portrait of an artist finding her voice. The result is not necessarily classic, memorable gospel/R&B music, but it's always positive, often enjoyable, and sometimes irresistible.

Monday, June 12, 2006

From the Vault: Interview with Kierra "KiKi" Sheard

Something About that Name
by LaTonya Taylor

The daughter of Karen Clark Sheard, Kierra "KiKi" Sheard was born into one of the most talented families in gospel music—and into the latest generation of singers influenced by Dr. Mattie Moss Clark and her daughters, The Clark Sisters. A gifted vocalist in her own right, Kierra—Dr. Clark's granddaughter—made her mark early, joining her mom on the album Finally Karen as a 10-year-old, and winning a 1997 Stellar Award for Children's Performance. Fans have listened to her artistic development through other mother-daughter duets on Second Chance (2002) and The Heavens are Telling (2003)—and watched her high-energy performance on her aunt Dorinda Clark-Cole's self-titled DVD. In September 2004, Kierra Sheard, 17, made her debut with I Owe You. I spoke to Sheard about her family's influence, her dreams for her first album and the process of growing into her own sound.

How did this album come about?

Kierra Sheard: It's something that I have prayed for, for a long time, and it's really a dream come true. My parents saw that I could sing and they saw that I had a gift from God, and the potential to do more than simply sing, but also to minister to people. So we prayed about it, sent some demos out and pursued a record deal.

You sing about testimonies in the song You Don't Know. What does that song mean to you?

Sheard: Before my mom recorded Second Chance, she had a minor surgery procedure. But she developed complications, and the doctors gave her a two percent chance to live. The family thought she was going to die.

I didn't have much faith in God at the time, and I'd decided that if she didn't make it, I was going to live however I wanted to. But with God, all things are possible. He answered my prayers and took the load from my shoulders. My mom recovered.

That song says that we all have a testimony, something God has done for us that only we can share. Something only we feel. I chose to give the album the title I Owe You because I really feel that way about God. I owe him everything. He saved my mom, he gave me the chance to record this album, and he's kept me in his arms.

You were 10 when you sang with your mom on Finally Karen. You're 17 now. How have you grown as an artist since then?

Sheard: Now that I'm older and have experienced more, I'm really able to feel what I'm singing about. When I was younger, I didn't really feel as much—I was just singing! But now I'm able to say that God has really brought me out of some things. So I'm not just this child who is singing an older person's message. I'm able to sing what I've lived through, what I've gone through. And of course, my voice is more mature now, too.

What are some of those things you've lived through?
I've gone through a lot of things that people my age have gone through. I've been through situations that forced me to learn who my true friends are. I've had a broken heart. I've seen friends drift away from God and end up having babies, or on drugs. My mom's illness challenged me a lot.

That's why I thank God for keeping his hand on my life. There's really no telling where I'd be without him. There have been times I've wanted to drift away from him, but he didn't let that happen.

A lot of people will see your album and they say "There's Karen's baby. That's Dr. Clark's granddaughter." But what would you like listeners to know about you on your own terms?

Sheard: I'd like them to know that I've sung with Mommy and Auntie Dorinda, but that I'm very serious about my own ministry. I have fun singing, but I want it to be more than that. I want to worship God and minister to young people.

It's true, my sound has a little bit of Auntie Twinkie, my mom, Auntie Dorinda. Then again, there's a little Mary J. Blige, or whoever. Everybody says I sound like somebody!

I try to learn from everybody. I've watched my mom and my aunts and how they minister to the younger and the older people. I learn from different artists, like Donnie McClurkin, Yolanda Adams and Mary Mary. I just pull from everybody, and with my own thoughts and ideas, I hope that makes me myself—crazy, unique, a little silly.

I think a lot of people my age think the only music we can relate to are artists like Lil' John, Beyoncé or Usher. But I want them to be able to relate to me and the things I sing about, too. To see that I'm cool and down-to-earth. I want my ministry to pull them in with gospel music they can relate to—music where you can throw your hands up and wave them around—and to inspire them to minister to one another. I want them to feel like now we have a groove and we have someone who's singing gospel music and now we can relate to the gospel music.

Did you have a hand in the writing process?

Yes. I wrote two of the songs—"Sweetest Thing" and "War"—with my brother J. Drew and Trey [Earl Wright III], who's like a brother to me. I think you'll hear more of my own songs on my next album.

What was it like having your brother produce those two tracks?

Sheard: My brother, Trey and I make a lot of jokes, and have a lot of arguments! (laughs) But we work well together. We'll pull different ideas together, and say, I like this. Oh, let's try this. Sometimes that goes smoothly, and then other times, I'm just like "Y'all figure it out. I'm leaving!" Other times they leave me alone and let me do the vocal arrangements the way I like them. So they work with me, and I work with them, and it's cool. We argue, we have good times, we work together.

In the song "Church Nite" you sing about being in church a lot. You're a pastor's kid, too. Were you always excited about spending so much time at church?

Sheard: I love going to church, because everybody there is basically my family. And not only do I have fun, but I like listening to my father, my pastor and being spiritually fed. When my dad preaches, sometimes it seems like he's been looking at what's going on in my life! Well, OK, he has been! He knows my secrets. (laughs)

Church is fun for me, though. Especially Bible study, because my father is kind of funny, kind of like Steve Harvey. So we laugh and joke and learn a lot there.

What are your hopes for this album?

Sheard: Most of all I want my music to minister to people. I want it to encourage them and help them through difficult situations. I want them to pull over if they are driving and get out of the car and shout. I also want them to have a good time listening to my music.

Review: Sunny Hawkins' More of You

Sunny Hawkins
More of You (Stillwaters/Hidden Beach)
Released June 2006
reviewed by LaTonya Taylor

4.5 of 5 stars

Sounds like … classic, gospel-tinged R&B/neo soul for fans of Beyoncé, Jill Scott, Angie Stone, and Lisa McClendon.

At a glance … a creative blend of genres, More of You combines strong vocals, multi-textured music, and thoughtful lyrics to yield a rewarding, enjoyable debut.

Though More Of You is her major-label debut, recently re-released for greater distribution, Sunny Hawkins is hardly a newcomer to the music industry. She's penned songs for Aretha Franklin and Patti LaBelle, played the role of Joanne in the Broadway production of Rent, and provided background vocals for such legendary artists as Chaka Khan, Ray Charles and Luther Vandross. Hawkins also has a strong gospel heritage, by birth and by marriage, as both goddaughter and daughter-in-law to Walter and Tramaine Hawkins, with husband Jamie sharing writing and production credits.

More of You is outstanding on several levels. Hawkins' confident and melismatic soprano has a sweetness balanced with a luxuriant fullness and depth that keep her voice from becoming too sugary. She's got the bold, soaring power of a stage singer, but she can also sound tender, even whispery. The album also generally distinguishes itself with the quality of the songwriting. While there are plenty of hook-based songs and gospel vamps, they accent and support the lyrics rather than simply provide substance for the song. And rather than feeling like a disconnected collection of songs, More of You flows as an album—no small feat, especially given its eclectic mix of gospel-tinged rock, R&B, pop, and neo-soul.

Given these factors, it's difficult to choose the "best" tracks on the album. Especially rewarding are the cool, layered introlude, with a spoken-word description of Hawkins' testimony and mission; the guitar-driven funk-rock of the title track; the old-meets-neo soul of "Where Would I Be;" the adult-contemporary power ballads "It's Like Air" and "What a Man;" the multitextured "Jesus the Same," which feels like a modern-day hymn; "You're Everything," and "Love Me Too," both with particularly thoughtful themes; and the bounce-pop "Alright."

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Billy Preston (1946-2006)

"When you're [making music] you're just trying to do the best you can . . . You don't know if you're doing something important, and whether it will make history has yet to be seen. Just the fact of being able to do it, and striving to do the best you can, was the accomplishment."

--Billy Preston, quoted in The New York Times

In an earlier post, I mentioned that Billy Preston was ill. Earlier today, he died. He was such an interesting and gifted person, and I wish I'd had the chance to interview him. Billy's performance on American Idol last May was, as far as I know, his last major appearance.

A few related stories:

Billy Preston, 59, Soul Musician, Is Dead; Renowned Keyboardist and Collaborator
(The New York Times) "The Beatles' 1969 single of 'Get Back' is credited to 'The Beatles With Billy Preston,' the only shared label credit in the Beatles' own career."

"Fifth Beatle" Billy Preston Dies at 59
(Fox News) "He was one of those spectacular performers who put everything into his show, even though he had no working kidneys by then and was receiving dialysis. He was a warm, wonderful human being with a mile-wide smile. He was also a genius musician, the likes of whom we will not see again."

Singer-Songwriter Billy Preston Dies at 59
(The Star Online e-Central) "Preston's majestic organ set up the perfect finale to "Let It Be," while his jazz-funk solos helped drive "Dig It" and "Get Back." His fiery remake of "Get Back" in 1978 was a high point in the otherwise dismal film version of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band."

I'm still looking for a story that digs into Preston's gospel roots. If you find one, please leave the URL in the comments section. Preston's gospel albums include Behold!, Universal Love, Ministry of Music, Words & Music: Levitical Worship; and From My Heart (Hat Tip: Uncloudy Days: The Gospel Music Encyclopedia)

Here's an entry from Red Kelly's blog, the B side, with lots of information about Billy.

Coming next week: Review of Sunny Hawkins' More of You.

Image Credit:

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Review: Andrae Crouch's Mighty Wind

Andraé Crouch
Mighty Wind (Verity)
Released May 2006
5 of 5 stars

Reviewed by LaTonya Taylor

Sounds like … there is no "sounds like" for an innovator like Crouch, but fans of contemporary gospel artists such as Israel and New Breed, Fred Hammond, Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir, and Donald Lawrence will enjoy this album.

At a glance …Mighty Wind is an excellent introduction to Crouch's work—and an aural recap of the various ways he's influenced Christian music over the last 40 years.

Andraé Crouch has a lot of musical descendants. In terms of Christian music, the praise and worship movement in general—in white churches, black churches, and others—owes its genesis to Crouch. Specifically, the funkified worship of Fred Hammond and Radical for Christ, the multicultural sonic influences and Scripturally based praise choruses of Israel Houghton and New Breed, the pop gospel of Brooklyn Tabernacle, and the classically rooted gospel of Donald Lawrence draw from the breadth and depth of Crouch's work.

Mighty Wind is Crouch's 40th anniversary project and the latest of 30-plus albums in his discography. Recorded with the San Diego Mass Choir and the choir at Crouch's New Christ Memorial Church of God in Christ, it's an excellent introduction for those who are unfamiliar with Crouch and, for those who already appreciate his music, it's a reminder of why he's often called "The Godfather of Gospel Music."

As always, Crouch's songs have an elegance you don't have to be a professional musician to appreciate. To understand what I mean, choose a song—"I Was Glad," for example—and listen to the jazzy background vocals all the way through, ignoring the lead vocals (well, try—that gorgeous throatiness is Disciples veteran Táta Vega). Check out the scatting over the bridge and rhythmic interplay between vocal parts. Repeat the exercise, this time listening to the song from an instrumental perspective. Then sit back and enjoy the lead.

Crouch's complex vocal/instrumental arrangements and the multiple energetic, effortless vamps make each song more than initially meets the ear. That's why a choir or praise team will need a few rehearsals to get a Crouch song just right. But the vocals and music are coupled with compelling Scriptural lyrics that are easy to identify with and sing. That's why, whether or not said choir or praise team nails every chord or has the musical personnel to totally replicate the sound, the congregation will respond, singing along the first time.

That elegance, juxtaposed with the apparent (and only apparent) simplicity of the music, is the genius of Crouch's gift. And it's why songs like "Soon and Very Soon," "Through It All," "My Tribute," and others are classics. Other artists have built well on this tradition (see above), but Crouch is the originator.

If you take the approach I suggest, it will take some time to get past the first song. But eventually you'll make it to the masterful "All Because of Jesus," a midtempo song of gratitude propelled by crisp percussion and sleek, clean background vocals behind Marvin Winans's lead. It includes Winans's wistful acknowledgment of the hard times he and Crouch have overcome during their journeys.

Karen Clark-Sheard leads "Jesus Is Lord," a danceable Latin-funk testimonial that morphs by way of breakdown vamp into one of Crouch's classic, multilayered endings. "Bless the Lord" is the kind of light choral gospel that Brooklyn Tabernacle is known for. "Oh Give Thanks," featuring Fred Hammond, is a timeless-feeling chorus that combines the guitar/organ/horn-driven urban praise and worship Hammond's known for with Crouch's signature husky lead interludes. Crystal Lewis leads the dramatic, orchestral "We Give You Glory," which has a sensibility similar to "Holy."

"Come Home" is a muted chorus perfect for the post-sermonic invitational moment, and "Thank You for Everything" has a 'round the piano feel and includes choruses sung in Spanish. "Yes Lord" is a surprising but not ineffective side trip into R&B, and the title track, an eight-minute plea for God's presence to overflow, is a triumph.

Not a moment is wasted here. I generally find reprises to be rather tedious rehashings of a song: the leftovers an artist or producer just couldn't bear to cut, but should have. But here they function as related outros. For example, the reprise for "I Was Glad" lets the funk rise to the top for a quick and welcome moment. The "All Because of Jesus" reprise allows Marvin Winans to speak briefly and to wander his weathered, leathery lead over the track. And the reiteration of "Bless the Lord" is breathtaking, a devastating a capella choral arrangement that transitions rapidly into an organic praise chorus—the kind that is raised rather than started.

A spiritually and aurally rich experience, Mighty Wind is destined to become a classic, like so much of Crouch's work. It's a fitting testament to the spiritual power of his God-given gift.

Review: June Rochelle's Changing Places

June Rochelle
Changing Places (Vision Entertainment)
Released April 2006
2.5 of 5 stars

Reviewed by LaTonya Taylor

Sounds like … a mix of overtly Christian and inspirational songs in smooth R&B a la Anita Baker or Oleta Adams, with some hip-hop and jazz.

At a glance …despite occasional missteps, fans of dreamy, smooth R&B will enjoy Rochelle's warm, soulful voice and positive messages.

Indianapolis-based vocalist June Rochelle has an impressive resume. Aside from her gospel credentials—which include opening for Yolanda Adams—Rochelle has performed in several theatrical productions and has shared the stage with Celine Dion and Diana Ross.

Rochelle's third album, Changing Places, is a blend of gospel with R&B and inspirational pop, marked by songs with positive lyrics—some focused toward God, some about romance, and others about the need to stay encouraged. The standout track is Rochelle's contemporary gospel reworking of "His Eye Is on the Sparrow," which features a touch of organ and soft piano behind her smooth-but-powerful mezzo soprano. Other strong tracks include "For All the Love," a mid-tempo song directed toward God; "Forever By Your Side," an inspirational wedding song; the title track, about living through trials; and "What's Going On," which encourages authority figures to take responsibility in their communities and to share the good news. Rochelle shares her testimony, including comforting reassurance from God, in "Wherever You Go."

However, themes and lyrics suffer from frequent banality and odd production choices—too much synth voice here, thunder and rain sounds there—giving too many songs a dated feel. The songs are also occasionally longer than they should be, padded with overly repetitive choruses. Others are simply confusing. Though Rochelle's "His Name Is Love" seems directed toward God, it has an uncomfortably breathy and growly vibe that seems out of character—though it does feature a cool, Badu-esque sung/spoken vocal. "Stomp Shaker" could be about Satan, or maybe it's about the "haters" mentioned in the raw-throated rap interludes. And "Just Because I'm Saved" is about enjoying the freedom to dance—but exactly where (the song mentions the dance floor and church, then includes instructions on how to form a soul-train line) isn't totally clear.

Despite the occasional missteps, Changing Places will satisfy fans of dreamy, smooth R&B with Rochelle's warm, soulful voice and positive messages.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Break Up That Fallow Ground . . .

Anyone know the song and artist/artists referenced in today's title? If so, you win . . .my admiration.

Seriously, I know my posts have been infrequent lately. The blog has lain somewhat fallow as I've added more commitments (including some grad school coursework) to my ever-busy life. But once things slow down in a couple of weeks, I should be able to pick up the pace.

In the meantime, I've decided to start a new feature: FROM THE VAULT. I've done a significant number of gospel music reviews and interviews over the last few years. I like to think they're pretty interesting, though perhaps not as timely as they once were. Anyway, I'm taking requests. Are you just dying to know what I thought about a particular album? Interested in reading conversations with your favorite artists? Leave your requests in the comments, and if I've got it, I'll post it.

Coming Next Week: Reviews of Andrae Crouch's Mighty Wind and June Rochelle's Changing Places.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

A Soul Man Testifies: Interview with David Ritz

A Soul Man Testifies
Gospel music led this skeptical author to faith.
LaTonya Taylor interviews David Ritz

Few people have the stories—or the storytelling ability—of writer David Ritz. As biographer and ghostwriter, he's told the stories of famed artists like Marvin Gaye, Ray Charles, the Neville Brothers, and Aretha Franklin. With a new book, Messengers (Doubleday, 2006), Ritz presents the voices of those who have joined him in writing a recent chapter of his own story—the story of his life as new Christian. The book brings together his Christian faith, his gifts as a ghostwriter, and the music he loves.

The story of this particular book is intertwined with the story of how you came to faith. Would you share your story?

My work as a writer has always come out of my passion about what I want to know and what I want to learn. I got interested in Christianity as a young boy, because I fell in love with gospel music. I grew up in the golden age of gospel, listening to Mahalia Jackson, Mavis Staples, Sam Cooke, and the Soul Stirrers. Part of me loved it and wanted to believe in Jesus, and just take it on face value. But because I grew up in a highly intellectual Jewish environment, my default position was to approach the music as a cultural anthropologist or an ethnomusicologist.

I'd think, Oh, this is interesting music from this ethnic group, and, here's what it's borne out of. Early on, a mentor of mine who loved gospel music told me it was suppressed sexuality and had nothing to do with anything that's real in terms of its spiritual content. I continued to have that attitude for a long time.

It seems like your career as a ghostwriter became an important part of your journey to faith.

My first book was the autobiography of Ray Charles, and that's how I discovered that my talent was for ghostwriting. And the more books I did, the more I enjoyed it.

Once I was on a panel at a writer's conference, and someone called me a hack because I'd written so many ghostwritten books. After I excused myself to the men's room and prayed up, I came back and asked: Who wrote the Bible? Weren't they ghostwriters, through the Holy Ghost? That was a great moment for me, because it made me feel like my gift to channel people's voices was the gift that the people who wrote the Bible had. I felt that they were able to channel the voice of God in a certain way, and that ghostwriting was an important calling.

I think the process of being a ghostwriter is something like surrendering to God. We give ourselves over to God, and, our whole aim is to do God's will. When you're a ghostwriter, you're serving other people, and allowing your audience to hear those people.

Your career as a ghostwriter brought you into contact with Marvin Gaye.

Marvin was an idol of mine, and he started talking to me about Jesus. And when he was right [before he became deeply involved with drugs], he was this very divine, aristocratic kind of brother. Really sweet, and very smart, and very deep. To hear him talk about Jesus made a huge impression on me. He could really preach, but in this very whispery way. I loved his music so much, and I always felt Jesus in his music.

When I met Ray Charles, his perspective was, ''If the Jews don't believe in Jesus, then I don't either, 'cause if he couldn't convince his own people, then why should I be convinced?" Toward the end, he kind of changed and embraced Jesus.

But Marvin always believed in Jesus. And never had doubts, even when he was crazy, even when he took a wrong turn and died the death of a drug addict.

Your own life had taken a difficult turn by that time.

I had developed addictions of my own with drugs, and I began attending a twelve-step group, about 16 years ago. I've been sober since. There, they kept saying that you weren't going to change your life until you embraced the notion of a transformational higher power. In reading about the history of the group, I discovered that it was based on an evangelical Christian movement in the early part of the 20th century in the United States. I loved the testimonies and felt like, Wow, this is like first-century Christianity. It's a church where two or more are gathered in his name. So, I began reading more and more about Christianity.

Around that same time, my younger sister Elizabeth became a Christian, and an evangelical Christian. At first, I argued with her about that. But then I saw how Christ was changing her life. She was always a wonderful person, but she became just amazing. Her transformation wasn't a theoretical notion for me, it was right there in front of me, and that had a huge influence on me. I've dedicated this book to her.

How did coming from an intellectual background affect your journey?

As I felt myself more and more drawn to Jesus and to Christianity, I began reading a lot of Christian theology. I read a lot of conservative and liberal Christian writers. And because I come from an intellectual background, it's easy for me to get mired in theological disputations and nuances. I think it was, in a certain way, how the enemy was sort of attacking me.

How so?

The enemy knew that I could stay in an intellectual debate about Christian theology for the next 140 years, and that would keep me away from the heart of Jesus. Jesus said you have to come to me as a little child, and that passage had tremendous, tremendous meaning for me. I realized that what I really needed was to go to those churches, go to that music that first attracted me when I was a little boy. So I began going to African-American churches almost exclusively. And that's where I was the most comfortable.

At a certain point I realized, I don't have to be a guest. I didn't have to be a person with my nose pressed to a window. I could go in, and I could pray, and I could praise the Lord. And I certainly felt the music, and I loved the preaching of different kinds. Just as I love John Coltrane, or Otis Redding, or Sam Cooke, or Miles Davis, there's a certain African-American voice that has a musicality to it, that is, the preacher's voice. And so, I wanted more and more of that.

How did that lead you to write Messengers?

Even though I love books, I'm more inspired by people than by books. When preachers talked about the word, I would think of the Living Word. It's enormously interesting to me that Jesus didn't write, other than the one thing he wrote on the ground [John 8:6-8], and we don't know what that was. Jesus was the living epistle. So, I wanted to go around and hang out with people who could minister to me, and who could share the essence of what their Christian message. I wanted the living word. Nothing moves me more than people, and living testimonies.

That desire to hear testimonies led me to people like Noel Jones, who is very intellectual, yet he's old-school in his kind of rhetorical genius. Mable John's story became the first chapter of the book, and she also became a pastor of mine. She baptized me in an African-American church in Inglewood. I love Marvin Winans, and Donnie McClurkin, and I went to meet them. I also wanted to meet Calvin Butts in New York, and Peter Gomes at Harvard. Many of the people in the book are well-known, but there are also are people I met along the way. I'd hear of someone through word of mouth and go to his church and he'd become part of the book. Women have always been able to minister to me in a unique and powerful way, so the book has lots of women in it.

What's also interesting is that the people in the book come from a variety of theological perspectives.

I really wanted to avoid theological disputation of the kind I was talking about before. My idea was that every reader should be able to kind of read any of these chapters and be ministered to, without feeling alienated, and without people arguing their positions. I just wanted it to be entirely positive. And, to be honest, I wanted to be ministered to.

My attitude was, give me what you have that's gonna help me get closer to Jesus. Let me feel Jesus in you. It was a wonderful opportunity to have person-on-person ministering to me. And I learned that my gift, for being a ghostwriter, and for channeling voices would really serve me well. I would put it all in the voices of the ministers, singers or musicians. I try to get out of the way and to let you, the reader, feel as though these people are talking to you one-on-one—which is what every good ghostwriter needs to do.

You join hearts with that other person. So, that's why this book, to me, was such a blessing. It enabled me to deepen and solidify my relationship with Christ, and learn so much, but also utilize the skills that I've honed as a ghostwriter.


Here's a link to my review of Messengers.

image credit:

Friday, May 05, 2006

Story Behind the Song: "Oh Happy Day"

by LaTonya Taylor

"Oh, happy day
When Jesus washed my sins away."

“It’s amazing that God would take a simple little song like that and do what he’s done with it,” says Edwin Hawkins, the man behind one of gospel music’s best-loved hits.

Hawkins first encountered the old-time Baptist hymn as a child listening to the legendary Philadelphia-based gospel group The Davis Sisters. He later rearranged the song and taught it to the Northern California State Youth Choir, a community choir of teens and young adults he founded with friend Betty Watson. On a bus ride home from a Church of God In Christ youth convention, the group decided to keep singing together.

In 1968, they recorded Let Us Go Into the House of the Lord on a two-track machine at Berkeley’s Ephesian Church of God In Christ, hoping to sell 500 copies of the custom LP at community concerts. “Oh Happy Day” was just one of the eight songs on the album. “Oh Happy Day was not our favorite song to perform,” Hawkins says, chuckling softly. “It just happened to be one of the songs we sang.”

The album received some gospel radio play, but its popularity soared in 1969 after a DJ at San Francisco’s KSAN radio played “Oh Happy Day.” Within weeks, the single was playing across the country, and more than 900,000 copies of the single had sold. “Oh Happy Day” became a major crossover hit, reaching No. 4 on the U.S. pop singles chart. The newly christened Edwin Hawkins Singers were invited to perform on shows like American Bandstand, and in churches, festivals and clubs.

With its gently rolling soul groove, soft Latin percussion, rich lead vocals by Dorothy Morrison and swelling, full-bodied chorus, the song revolutionized the sound of gospel music, paving the way for the contemporary movement that followed.

Though beloved now, “Oh Happy Day” was controversial at the time. A group of local pastors petitioned to have it pulled from rock radio, and many Christians criticized the group for performing in mainstream venues.

“We thought, Why would we just spend our lives singing to each other?” Hawkins says. “Those that don’t know Jesus are the ones we should be singing to and telling about Jesus Christ.”

Today, Hawkins trains choirs and musicians through his annual Edwin Hawkins Music & Arts Seminar, encouraging younger artists whose work challenges traditional boundaries. He celebrated the song’s 30th anniversary with an album featuring a club remix of the Grammy-winning hit. When he travels to Europe or Japan, he’s often surprised to find groups of singers who love “Oh, Happy Day.”

“I think that it’s not just the song, but the gospel itself that transcends all racial barriers, language barriers, all of that,” he says.

image credits: Capital Entertainment

Monday, April 17, 2006

Interview: Donald Lawrence, After the Finale

After the Finale
by LaTonya Taylor

The latest album from Donald Lawrence and the Tri-City Singers, Finale, recognizes the end of the choir's award-studded 15-year career. With hits like "Stranger," "When the Saints Go to Worship," "Never Seen the Righteous," and "I Am God," the Tri-City Singers emerged as standard-bearers of the mass choir tradition. Tri-City not only held their own when it came to traditional gospel, but they also blended Lawrence's classical choral influences and R&B impulses with the genre, adding touches of aural and visual dramatic flair for good measure. In this interview, Lawrence talks about how Tri-City came to prominence, the group's legacy and his hopes for the future.

Talk about the decision to end things with the Tri-City Singers.

Donald Lawrence:
The cliché is that all good things come to an end, and I think it's better to end at a time when things are at a good place, as opposed to a declining place. We're all growing older, and now many of the members of the choir have their own musical aspirations. Everyone's been very loyal to the choir—in fact, there are a couple of groups and artists who developed through the choir—and it's just the time for everybody to transition into their other careers.

The Tri-City Singers have never had an influx of new people, or a lot of turnover. It's always been all of us or none of us. Now that many of us are moving on, I preferred that we just come together, and, like the Bible says, "they sang their hymn and went home," rather than just turning the remaining members into a brand-new choir. Also, business-wise, it's expensive to travel with choirs, and they're definitely not a low-maintenance choir (chuckle).

It seems like we're in a period where the era of the big mass choir is in decline.

I think choir music is going to be around forever. As a recording artist, I think [the industry] should always record choir songs, but those songs will be mostly on albums as opposed to live performances. Radio-wise, they'll play it to death. It's just that the climate is not right for traveling a choir, moving them around and branding them.

When it comes to live performances, when you can get J Moss by himself, or Mary Mary or Kurt Carr or Martha Munizzi—and some background singers—nobody wants to fly 30 people or 40 people around. People still ask for Tri-City to perform, but sometimes they'll ask me if I can come with six people. My thought is, that's not the Tri-City Singers. That's Donald Lawrence and Company. Tri-City Singers is 30 singers. So, doing a record with 30 singers but traveling with seven people doesn't really make sense to me. But more than anything, I just think that spiritually it's just time for us to transition, time for everybody to get ready to do their thing. That's the number one reason.

You've talked about the end of the Tri-City Singers. How'd things get started?

My time with the Singers actually started while I was on the road. I graduated from Cincinnati Conservatory of Music and toured with Stephanie Mills as her music director. I wrote a lot of choir songs and recorded them on tapes. At that time, a friend of mine directed a community choir called the Tri-City Singers. He was always looking for songs to teach the group, and they sang some of my songs. I knew that I wanted to release a choir album—to do something with all of this music I'd been writing that other artists were interested in. I always told myself that when I got to do a choir album, I wanted to record it with them. My friend left the choir around the same time I was looking to make my own transition and get serious about recording my music.

During that time, the Singers were more of a traditional choir, with robes. They always sang really, really well. I don't know if they were very commercial, but they were always a great group. At that time, they only had 13 or 14 members. I sat with the choir's general manager, Vanessa Durrah, and shared my plan to really establish the group, to rebirth it. I brought in about 15 singers I'd grown up with, and added them to the group. I also wanted us to have a look and a style of our own—to brand ourselves [as different] among the other choirs out there. That's how I came up with the whole ethnic, kind of neo-soul, kind of African look that would be distinctive and fashion-forward—a look to go along with the music. I just kind of came up with that idea, along with the sound, and I wrote the songs, and here we are, 15 years later.

It seems like many Tri-City songs focus on personal encouragement, on looking forward, on reassurance and the character of God. How did those issues become important to you?

That's just who I am. I think Donald Lawrence is a healer; I heal people. I help them look forward and realize that no situation is forever—that it can always get better, that we're destined to be great, because that's why Jesus died for us. He took on poverty, sickness and death so that we wouldn't have it. That's the whole mission of Jesus Christ.

Can you tell a story about a time in your life when that became real to you?

I have plenty of them. I've been in several situations where I've felt alone—I'm out here on this cliff, God, I'm either going to fall and die, or you're going to have to pick me up and give me the energy to move forward. The hardest thing in the world is to struggle through times when you feel like everything is going haywire, yet as an artist you have to encourage people. You have to give people hope when you don't have any. I've just seen God come through for me so many times in that type of situation. He always shows his face, and he shows up in the most impossible of situations.

On the album, you say that gospel was at its best in the 1980s.

That's my favorite time of gospel. I'm not going to say it was at its best, it's just my favorite era. That's because I like the songwriting of that time, I like the heart of the way the music felt. I don't take anything away from our era, but we build on that. So, a lot of times, when you hear us, you do hear a little bit of Thomas Whitfield, and you do hear a little bit of the Thompson Community Choir, and you hear a little of Andrae Crouch, and a little bit of Walter Hawkins, and a little bit of Twinkie Clark. So I definitely pay homage to that era of writers and producers.

You mention that back then, you really had to sing in a live performance.

No gadgets.

Could you talk about that?

Nowadays, if your live performance involves a lot of moving and dancing, you can sing along with a 1680 [a multi-track recorder] using pre-taped vocals, and have it sound just great. That way you can kind of sing—and kind of not. In the '80s, you either had to do it, or you didn't. There were no pre-taped vocals.

My training is in musical theater, where you learn not to let the dancing interfere with your vocal quality. I'm all for 21st century technology, though. In our earlier days, when Tri-City would go into the studio, I loved to experiment with different sounds. Sometimes we'd sing the same song several ways. Sometimes we'd sing eight passes in the studio, sing all of those songs, all the way through, eight times. Now, you can sing one section eight times, and repeat it through the rest of the song.

But back then, with no gadgets, you just had to stand flat-footed and do it. On Finale, we sing "Matthew 28," where you can't use pre-taped vocals because of the way the song is written. That's why I say we're taking it back to the '80s. We had to sing that song all the way through. No gadgets.

Who pushes you to the next level and inspires you?

Lawrence: The people who've inspired me, on the gospel side, were definitely Walter and Edwin Hawkins, and Andrae Crouch, who is definitely one of my favorite songwriters. Also, Richard Smallwood and Twinkie Clark, and I've been strongly influenced by [the late] Thomas Whitfield. One of the great things about this journey is that I didn't know these people early on, when I started. I knew of them, but now we really have grown to be good friends. I've worked with Richard, Edwin, Walter and Twinkie. I've worked with Andrae. I'm really proud to say that we are friends. We stand on each others' shoulders.

You teach at Chicago's Columbia College now. Talk a little bit about your work there.

I teach a class called Urban Inspirational Music. It's a fuse of R&B, hip-hop and gospel. I teach about production and business. I'm trying to help mold the next wave of industry professionals so they understand the basics: publishing, contracts and distribution, anything from getting your business started to understanding how bar codes and Nielsen SoundScan work. Helping people who want to do this become more well rounded rather than just talented.

Are you working on anything else?

I'm also developing my own label imprint, Quiet Water Entertainment, through the Zomba Label Group. I've signed two of the Tri-City Singers, the Murrills, as well as Dewayne Woods. My long-range goal is to develop it into a management company and to do publishing. I'd like to grow as an executive. And I'd love to get back into theater. Theater's the thing that I love and am most passionate about. I'm kind of nonchalant, laid-back, but if you see me in a theatrical mode, that's when you see the light and the fire in my eyes. I've always wanted to do something on Broadway.

What do you see as the legacy of the Tri-City Singers?

That we encouraged. That we always came out to help people to get through life. That's what my music does.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Gospel Ghosts on American Idol

I haven't paid much attention to American Idol since Season Two (the Ruben-Clay matchup), other than to cry at the hairdresser's at the end of Season Three when Fantasia sang "I Believe."

But I happened to have the show on this evening and discovered that one of the contestants, Paris Bennett, is the granddaughter of Ann Nesby. Nesby was, at one time, a lead vocalist for Sounds of Blackness.

There's also been quite a bit of coverage of Mandisa Hundley since she was voted off the show(hat tip:, particularly related to The Advocate's "discovery" (ahem) that Hundley is a fan of Beth Moore's (Which means, for those of you who haven't made the immediate connection, that because Moore's site includes links to ex-gay ministries, Mandisa must be "a gross, amoral religious jerk who refuse[s] to do . . . that whole 'love everybody' stuff"). She sounds pretty gracious to me in this Q&A she did with the magazine, which also covered her departure here.

Mandisa's got some great credentials--she's reportedly a former Fisk Jubilee Singer, has led worship at Lifeway conferences, and has performed with Take 6 and Larnelle Harris, among others. She's deciding which direction she'd like to take next in her career.

Next post: June Pointer (1953-2006)

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Monday, April 10, 2006

Does It Get Any Better Than This?

This weekend, I went to my first record show, where I spent the Easter Shoe Fund on the following treasures:


Rev. C. L. Franklin: I Will Trust In the Lord. Battle Records, 1962.
Ray Charles and his orchestra: What'd I Say. Atlantic, 1959.
The Womack Brothers: Yield Not to Temptation. SAR Records, 1961.
Harry Belafonte: An Evening With Belafonte. RCA Victor, 1957.
The Delfonics: Ready Or Not Here I Come. Philly Groove Records, 1968.
The Delfonics: Didn't I (Blow Your Mind This Time). Philly Groove Records, 1970.
The Delfonics: Walk Right Up to the Sun. Philly Groove Records, 1971.

The proprietor, a cool aging hippie-type who looked a lot like Jim Henson, saw me deliberating and gave me a great deal (Thanks, Marty! See you next year. . .). And you wouldn't believe what I had to leave behind--some Sam Cooke, Clara Ward, et cetera.

I finally dragged myself over to one more booth, where I bought the following LPs:

Louis Armstrong With the Sy Oliver Choir and the All Stars: Louis and The Good Book. Decca Records, 1958.
Lena Horne: Give the Lady What She Wants. RCA Victor, 1958.
Della Reese: Melancholy Baby. Jubilee Records, 1957.

Come Easter Sunday, I'll be wearing my pink church girl suit with old shoes and a big smile--that is, if I can just find a good record player . . .

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More With Mark Kibble . . .

As I promised my new friends over at the message board, here is another snippet from my interview with Mark Kibble:

How can jazz be integrated into church services?

Kibble: To me, what matters is the spirit in which you bring your music. If you come with an attitude of worship--and it’s not just about you and the type of music and your ability to bring music, but you really want to come in and worship God and serve God--people feel that. Check yourself, so that your motive is correct when you come. And then, let God use you.

Can you share an example of someone who does that well?

My favorite jazz saxophonist of all time is Kirk Whalum.
I’ve never heard anyone play with such conviction and use an instrument to communicate through Christian music like he has. He just blows me away with that. Not that there aren’t others that do that. But in my eyes, Kirk’s taking a historically jazz instrument, and just by the nature of his spirit, and his love for Christ, he translates the sound into something that helps whoever is listening to understand that love. That’s the essence of someone who can bring it, and can bring it with the love of Christ. It really comes from what’s in your own heart.

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Review: Darrel Petties & Strength In Praise: Count It All Joy

Darrel Petties & Strength In Praise
Count It All Joy (EMI)
Released April 2006
3.5 out of 5 stars
reviewed by LaTonya Taylor

Sounds like … traditional, choir-based gospel with contemporary influences for fans of Hezekiah Walker and the Love Fellowship Crusade Choir, or Bishop Eddie Long and the Total Praise Choir.

At a glance … this well-executed debut is a serviceable homage to the mass-choir tradition, but lacks the musical or lyrical surprises of a standout album.

Discovered by Smokie Norful, Darrel Petties and Strength in Praise features a tight band and a well-crafted sound, with several appreciable moments reminiscent of the '80s-era mass choir. Count It All Joy, their debut album, is firmly rooted in traditional themes. The 21-year-old Petties' voice has a full, occasionally Cleveland-esque throatiness and authority that sound like they could belong to someone decades older.

The album is a pleasant listen, especially the title track, the rolling, rural-bluesy "Thank You Jesus," the energetic "Yes Lord," and Petties' updated arrangement of "Glory Hallelujah." "I'm On My Way" is solidly old school, combining a rural quartet feel with a classic mass choir sound, and "Surely He Knows" and "Mighty God" feature exceptional leads by Nikki Ross-Turnley and Angela Holmes, respectively.

Petties and Strength In Praise are to be applauded for smoothly carrying on the mass choir tradition, which seems to have been supplanted by an industry more interested in smaller ensembles and individual stars. They've got a clean, polished sound. But there are just no surprises here, lyrically or musically. There's nothing wrong with the album, but it would be cool to hear more that stands out as beyond right.

Review: Donald Lawrence Presents the Tri-City Singers Finale: Act One and Two

Donald Lawrence Presents the Tri-City Singers
Finale: Act One and Two (EMI)
Released April 2006
4 out of 5 stars
reviewed by LaTonya Taylor

Sounds like … contemporary choir music featuring elements of R&B, with the occasional classical influence.

At a glance … a fitting send-off for one of gospel's best-loved choirs, Finale also seems packaged to force listeners to purchase both CD/DVD sets.

Recorded live last November, Finale represents the end of a 15-year collaboration between Donald Lawrence and the Tri-City Singers, a group whose dramatic vocal styles, interesting arrangements and ability to incorporate both R&B and choral music into traditional gospel makes them among the best representatives of the modern gospel choir tradition. New songs like the choral "Matthew 28"; "God Is," a jazz-inflected song that refers to, then expands on, the gospel classic; "Giants," reminiscent of an '80s-era mass choir; and "These Nails," featuring a deep, gorgeously full lead, remind us of the breadth and depth the Tri-City Singers brought to the industry. Medleys including favorites like "Never Seen the Righteous," "Stranger," "I Am God" and "When the Saints Go to Worship" remind us just how badly they'll be missed. Several gospel greats join the group to reinterpret Tri-City classics.

Act One and Act Two are being sold as two separate albums, each packaged with a live DVD of half of the final concert. Also available is the entire set, packaged as a limited collector's edition with liner notes. A listener's decision whether to purchase Finale—or to stick with 2003's The Best of: Restoring the Years—really depends on his or her level of fandom. Those who need everything the group's done—or who have just discovered the Tri-City Singers—will prefer the limited edition. If it's important to you to hear Tri-City's new material, well, it's pretty evenly split between Act One and Two, forcing you to purchase both. Listeners who are most interested in the groups' collaborations with celebrity gospel guests like Vanessa Bell Armstrong and Walter Hawkins will prefer Act Two.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Good News About Pilgrim Baptist Church

In this article from the Chicago Sun-Times, architecture critic Kevin Nance reports some good news regarding Pilgrim Baptist Church: There are enough records, photographs and documentation related to the original building to rebuild the church in a way true to its original form.

From the article:"There's not many buildings where you have this kind of documentation to tell what was there," says Chicago cultural historian Tim Samuelson, who worked with architect and Sullivan expert John Vinci to restore Pilgrim Baptist in the mid-1980s. "It's one of the great tools in trying to figure out how to put the building back together again. Luckily, we have the photographs, we have the drawings, we have the castings. If you wanted to rebuild this church, there's enough information to be able to responsibly do it and have a degree of accuracy and integrity that would be critical to justify doing it."

Now, the church needs the funds to make that happen. The website of the Chicago Historical Society lists an address where you can send donations and links to a photographic retrospective of the building.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Review: Feels Good--Take 6

Take 6
Feels Good (Take 6 Records)
Released March 2006
reviewed by LaTonya Taylor
4.5 out of 5 stars

Sounds like … a capella vocal jazz, gospel and R&B for fans of artists like The Manhattan Transfer, Acapella, Boys II Men and Glad.

At a glance … a return to Take 6's a capella roots, Feels Good is a reminder that when it comes to vocal jazz, these peerless cats haven't merely built a eclectic musical home of their own—they own the block.

Feels Good begins a new era for Take 6 as the first album on their eponymous label. Yet it's grounded in their unique blend of a capella vocal jazz, gospel, pop and R&B. This musical brew is a combination of contagious joy and the appearance of cool-cat, unstudied ease—the kind of "unstudied" ease one develops after writing, rehearsing and performing with the same group for more than 20 years. So casual listeners sing along within a chorus or two—and music lovers uncover new layers of complexity years after the first listen. And this album doesn't disappoint either audience.

Opening with the celebratory "Come On," Take 6 then adds a Sabbath-morning gospel ad-lib vamp to a crisp arrangement of Andrae Crouch's classic "This Is Another Day," before the cool, swing-rock of "Feels Good" (listen for a playful reference to "I Got Life" from 1994's Join The Band). John Stoddart's "Wait for the Sunshine" develops themes of patience—for good things ahead, for healed relationships, for courage to pursue dreams.

"Family of Love" eases into a reflective phase of the album that also includes "More Than Ever," a radio-ready R&B song over two-man snap-clap percussion, as well as the confident "Set U Free." Take 6's trademark diversity is represented in the natural transition from the joyous jazz standard "Just in Time" into an arrangement of Twila Paris' richly meditative "Lamb of God." "You Can Make It—Go On!" is a funky thematic bookend.

Fans with extensive Take 6 catalogues might be a shade disappointed that earlier arrangements of two of the album's tracks—"This Is Another Day" and "Family of Love"—appear elsewhere. On a 40-minute album, it'd be cool to have an extra new track or two to savor, or maybe an extension of "Vinterlude" or the tribute "I'll Never Turn Back No More." But we—um, they—shouldn't be too greedy. If the last 10 albums are any indication, there's plenty to tide us over 'til the next one.