GRAMMY Hall Of Fame Inspirations: Israel Houghton

GRAMMY-winning gospel artist reveals five GRAMMY Hall Of Fame recordings that influenced his sound and career
  • Photo: John Shearer/
    Israel Houghton
January 14, 2014 -- 1:35 pm PST
By Lisa Zhito /

(To commemorate the GRAMMY Hall Of Fame's 40th Anniversary in 2013, has launched GRAMMY Hall Of Fame Inspirations. The ongoing series will feature conversations with various individuals who will identify GRAMMY Hall Of Fame recordings that have influenced them and helped shape their careers.)

Gospel artist/worship leader Israel Houghton says he grew up "a black kid in a white family in a Hispanic neighborhood." Such is the multicultural mélange that distinguishes Houghton's brand of contemporary Christian/gospel: a blend of jazz, R&B, pop, Latin, and rock. Recording as a solo artist and as the leader of Israel & New Breed, Houghton has earned five GRAMMY Awards, including Best Contemporary Christian Music Song for "Your Presence Is Heaven" at the 55th GRAMMY Awards in 2013.

Houghton cites his father, a pastor and music lover with an eclectic taste, as a major musical influence.

"With my dad, I always wanted to communicate or connect with him on some level," Houghton recalls. "It didn't always work! When I said, 'Hey Dad, I found this cool thing,' he'd go, 'Yeah? That's ridiculous! Let me show you something really cool.' And then he'd play Mr. Fantasy by Traffic and I'd hear Steve Winwood's voice for the first time and I'm like, 'Oh my gosh! OK, I've got it!'"

Houghton likened choosing his GRAMMY Hall Of Fame inspirations to picking your favorite candy in a candy store: "You just can't do it!" Here are the five he selected.

Songs In The Key Of Life
Stevie Wonder
Tamla (1976)
Inducted 2002

"My little brother would have been 9 at the time, I was 11. Our neighbors next door had a garage sale and my brother comes home with this album, it was vinyl. He paid 25 cents for it! I think I listened to that record probably four or five times a day in its entirety for probably three years. I know that sounds like an exaggeration, but it's not. I knew that record inside and out.

"It was my first kind of real introduction to Stevie. It was like an immersion into who Stevie Wonder was. Even at 11 years old, I knew I was being influenced — just how I started singing after that, how I started playing after that, and the things I gravitated to musically after that, all literally goes back to the genesis of that moment."

Paul Simon
Warner Bros. (1986)
Inducted 2012

"I grew up in a fairly heavy-handed, legalistic church environment. My parents were pastors, and before it was ever a kind of legalistic thing, it was just my dad's old-school thinking that we're not going to have a TV in the house. They wanted us to have an imagination. So I read books like crazy.

"But my dad brought Paul Simon home. They were legalistic on almost every front except for music. So I wasn't one of those kids who could only listen to Christian music growing up. I was able to experience the Beatles and the Eagles. I remember my dad bringing Graceland home, it was still on vinyl then, and I remember listening to it top to bottom. 

"There was that sound with Ladysmith Black Mambazo ["Homeless"] providing all of these really intricate harmonies and rhythms, and the way their vocals would follow altogether — I'd never heard anything like that! It gave me a passion for Africa before I ever went there.

"I think I always appreciated a good lyric. Because my dad made us read so much, we developed a passion for literature, poetry and how things were written. Graceland stands out as one of the most clever records ever made, lyrically and sonically.

"And I think my ear, from a musical standpoint, was definitely drawn to the global sound of that record, because there were things that [Simon] captured that mainstream America had not heard before — certainly, a 14-year-old kid from Arizona had not heard before. I think it resonated because I grew up a black kid in a white family in a Hispanic neighborhood, so anything that sort of felt 'other' just hit me. I was attracted to it."

"Oh Happy Day"
Edwin Hawkins Singers
Buddah (1969)
Inducted 1999

"Edwin Hawkins and [gospel singer/songwriter] Andrae Crouch were the first gospel people who were embraced by mainstream media. 'Oh Happy Day' was the message of the Gospel being [played] on R&B radio and pop radio. So years later as a gospel artist you have to look at that and have a sense of gratitude that that's in the [GRAMMY] Hall Of Fame and has been recognized. There's not a lot of gospel that's been recognized yet. So Edwin becomes our kind of pioneer."

Off The Wall
Michael Jackson
Epic (1979)
Inducted 2008

"I know Thriller was a bigger seller and there are other great records [that] came after that but for me, the quintessential Michael record is Off The Wall. That's the first time I heard just really, really crisp production; it's the first time I really [understood] Quincy Jones and what he was going for. And it's the first time I understood that you can have something with a lot of rhythm and a lot of feel with this massive, epic production value as well — the strings and horns, the vocals, the rhythms, all that kind of stuff. I like Off The Wall better than Thriller, and I know that's not everybody's story but that's definitely my story. To this day I can track influences in that record in the stuff that I record."

Asylum (1972)
Inducted 2000

"The Eagles were another band where if my dad liked [them], then I knew I was going to like [them]. I think the Eagles did a greatest hits [album] in 1980 and my dad had that record. There was something about the way Don Henley sang 'Desperado' with so much soul. And again, the production value was always very, very high on those Eagles records.

"'Desperado' was one of those songs that could almost move you to tears. You get that lump in your throat listening to it. At the time, I didn't really understand why [Glenn Frey and Henley] wrote that song or what it was about or who it was about. Something just resonated in it, and I felt like I could connect to it."

(Five-time GRAMMY winner Israel Houghton garnered a 55th GRAMMY Award for Best Contemporary Christian Music Song for "Your Presence Is Heaven."  Israel & New Breed's latest album, 2012's Decade, peaked at No. 10 on Billboard's Top Gospel Albums chart.)

(Lisa Zhito is a Nashville-based freelancer covering travel, arts and entertainment.)

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