Tye Tribbett and Richard Smallwood
Photo: Paul Morigi/WireImage.com
Tye Tribbett, Richard Smallwood Talk Gospel Music, God & Inspiring Fans
“Did we start with praise and worship already?”
Two-time GRAMMY-winning gospel artist Tye Tribbett began his earnest, heartwarming and reflective conversation with GRAMMY-nominated gospel composer, director, arranger, and artist Richard Smallwood with a joking notion. However, this jovial mention ideally framed the Washington, D.C. Chapter’s Up Close & Personal event. The conversation proved to be a “meeting of the minds” between the ever-innovative Tribbett and gospel legend Smallwood, a Washington, D.C. native whose God-given gift — and songs including “I Love The Lord,” “Total Praise” and more — has inspired generations of gospel fans worldwide.
“We’re all out here with a specific purpose. I always knew I was supposed to do this,” Smallwood started regarding his four-decade career. “When I was very young, my mother would bring me home from church and I would hum whatever was sung that morning in church.” He continued, “I was bought a toy baby grand piano when I was two, and I would bang out the [gospel] rhythms on it. When I was five, my mother made me a robe, and then I would stand in front of a mirror, put on the latest gospel recordings, and with a choir of her Christmas decoration angels behind me, perform a full concert.”
Though Roberta Flack was Smallwood’s eighth-grade music teacher and he played piano at Howard University with Donny Hathaway, the gospel hero’s sound — rooted in a mix of classical, soulful and traditional spiritual sounds — begins with his family. “My mom introduced me to classical music when I was nine years old. I was familiar with gospel, hymns and the songs of the church, but she introduced me to Rachmaninoff’s “Piano Concerto #2” and she said that if I liked it, that she was going to take me to some classical concerts. I liked it, so my life became going to say, a gospel concert on a Friday, then hearing the National Symphony Orchestra play classical on a Saturday.”
Time spent playing, writing, and arranging for the Howard University Gospel Choir and his father’s Union Temple Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. was the harbinger for what would become the Richard Smallwood Singers. “While I was at Howard, I composed a version of “The Lord’s Prayer,” and the legendary Reverend James Cleveland, he set up a tour for our gospel choir to go to California on tour. We sang that arrangement out there, and seven months later, our performance was on the radio! The song wasn’t copyrighted though, so that was my first experience with the business of music, too.”
Recording with his first group, the Richard Smallwood Singers, initially wasn’t a smooth and successful road, Smallwood remembers. He framed those memories as a cautionary tale of support to other progressive-minded gospel performers. “I was very insecure about my gift, and thankfully, I had people around me who supported me.” Continuing, he said, “I was so shy that I took my talent for granted. People in the industry said, ‘why do you put that classical stuff in there,’ and I just said, ‘that’s me, that’s what I write.’” Regarding the lessons he took from that era, “[b]e aware of what’s going on around you musically, but don’t become what’s going on around you musically.” He continued, “Everyone from Edwin Hawkins to Kirk Franklin who’s made a different statement in gospel has had to deal with people saying, ‘that’s not good, that’s not for the church, that’s not marketable.’ Pioneers have to go through that.”
Smallwood shared how his bout with depression has helped him not only write more empowering songs, but to shine a light on this disease usually not talked about in church. Contemplating a successful career that has seen the likes of Whitney Houston, Kelly Price, Chaka Khan and others cover his material, Smallwood states, “I still get excited when I hear my songs on the radio. When you raise something up that’s part of your spirit and soul, and people like it, that’s an honor to me.” When it comes to winning awards for his music, “it’s the icing on the cake. It’s more impressive to me when I hear that my songs help get people through a rough time in their life. That’s what matters.”
For one evening, Malmaison in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C. was transformed from a bar and lounge into a house of praise. Tribbett and Smallwood bore witness to Smallwood’s illustrious career and the heaven-sent gift that he has transformed into something much more. In his manner that night, Smallwood proved that the worth in success comes from the journey, lessons learned, and humility in the face of excellence.