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.