Salute To Gospel Shows Genre's Contemporary Side
Shirley Caesar, Billy Ray and Bill Hearn, and Richard Smallwood honored
They sang, testified and shook downtown Los Angeles with a joyful noise to the Lord. Over the course of two roof-raising hours, some of the greatest names in contemporary Christian music transformed the Millennium Biltmore Hotel into a hard-rocking house of worship during the GRAMMY Salute To Gospel Music on Saturday.
The event featured the presentation of President's Merit Awards to singing legend Shirley Caesar, EMI Christian Music Group founder Billy Ray Hearn and group President and CEO Bill Hearn, and gospel innovator and songwriter Richard Smallwood.
This year's performers demonstrated just how rapidly gospel music is evolving. As evidenced by Kirk Whalum's funky opening performance of "Christ Is All," today's gospel music retains the intensity and melodic grace of classic spirituals and country gospel songs. But thanks largely to digital keyboard innovations, many of today's Christian acts are infusing the music with jazz, R&B and pop sensibilities, creating sounds are both accessible and devotional.
Responding to the genre's fast-changing needs, The Academy has created an eighth gospel GRAMMY category for Best Gospel Song. As acclaimed songwriter/producer and Recording Academy Vice Chairman Jimmy Jam explained during his welcoming speech, the GRAMMY Salute To Gospel symbolizes The Academy's commitment to Christian music. "We want to make sure that gospel music is recognized as the force that it is," Jam said.
As if to demonstrate that force, singer Kim Burrell took the stage to sing "You're Next In Line For A Miracle." The tune, which was popularized by honoree Shirley Caesar, urges patience in the face of adversity. It's a song Caesar could relate to — as a girl, she struggled in school, but eventually graduated magna cum laude with a Bachelor of Science degree from Shaw University. Currently the pastor of the Mount Calvary Word of Faith Church in her home state of North Carolina, Caesar has won 11 GRAMMYs and 15 Dove Awards, among many other honors. She was inducted into the Gospel Music Hall Of Fame in 2000.
Seizing upon the never-say-die theme of "You're Next In Line For A Miracle," Caesar urged vigilance during her acceptance speech. "Let's pull gospel from the back, and bring it to the forefront," the gospel legend said to thunderous applause. An admittedly "overwhelmed" Caesar concluded by proudly proclaiming that "this is my time to be blessed."
Exhibiting the gothic American charm that has made him a cultural icon, television star and singer Andy Griffith introduced the entrepreneurial father and son team of Billy Ray Hearn and Billy Hearn. During a powerful solo performance in which he accompanied himself on piano, GRAMMY winner Smokie Norful sang a medley of songs from the Sparrow Records' catalog, including selections by Keith Greene and Steven Curtis Chapman.
Hailed by Academy President Neil Portnow as "the father of contemporary Christian music," Billy Ray Hearn formed Sparrow Records in 1976 and proceeded to transform it into the premiere label for emerging gospel talent. Under Billy Ray's supervision, Sparrow has run the gamut from modern Christian rock (Steve Taylor, Steven Curtis Chapman, Switchfoot), to soul-inflected gospel (BeBe & CeCe Winans) and Andy Griffith's GRAMMY-winning inspirational CD, I Love To Tell The Story. When Billy Ray semi-retired, his son Billy helped Sparrow Records continue its dominance after the company's 1992 sale to EMI.
In tribute to Richard Smallwood, a trio of gospel giants including Edwin Hawkins, Andraé Crouch and Israel Houghton delivered a finale rendition of the Walter Hawkins tune, "Thank You." The resulting performance was a study in counterpoint, with Edwin Hawkins' clearly articulated phrases contrasting sharply with Crouch's gritty baritone and Houghton's stratospheric tenor.
During his presentation speech, Portnow hailed Smallwood's myriad accomplishments, including his founding membership in the Celestials, the first gospel group to appear at Switzerland's Montreux Jazz Festival. Smallwood's 1982 debut recording (with the Robert Smallwood Singers) spent nearly 90 weeks on Billboard's Gospel chart, while his production on Quincy Jones' "Handel's Messiah — A Soulful Celebration," garnered a Dove Award. Described by the Smithsonian Institution as a "gospel innovator," Smallwood's songs have been performed by Whitney Houston, Destiny's Child, Yolanda Adams and others.
Saturday's event also featured performances and presentations by Jonathan Butler and a choir under the direction of Donald Lawrence.
Salute To Gospel is one of four GRAMMY Week Salute To events that also includes Jazz, Classical Music and Industry Icons.