Interviews

Richard Smallwood

ADVERTISEMENT

Richard Smallwood In June 1988, I walked into a large church in Northwest DC. It was a beautiful edifice and the music that I heard captivated me. The church was Metropolitan Baptist Church where the pastor is Rev. Dr. H. Beecher Hicks, Jr. I had no idea then that that one-day would transform my life and help put me on my God ordained path in gospel music.

It was at Metropolitan Baptist Church where I met Richard Smallwood. At the time, I thought he was just the accompanist for the Young Adult Fellowship Ensemble (YAFE). It was later as a member of the YAFE that I realized that I was standing in the presence of a musical genius.

Years later, Richard Smallwood has become an icon in gospel music. Songs like "Center Of My Joy", "Total Praise", "Holy Spirit", "I Love The Lord", "Healing", and "That Name" have catapulted this humble soul to the stratosphere of gospel. But that was obviously God's plan for Richard for his gifts were stirred up early in life.

As you'll see, he got his musical start in the crib and at age five, he was playing piano by ear. At seven, he began formal training, and at eleven, formed his first gospel group. Later he graduated cum laude from renowned Howard University with degrees in both vocal performance and piano.

Richard began his recording career in the late seventies with an album simply titled, The Richard Smallwood Singers. The debut project spent 87 weeks on Billboard's Gospel chart. The next project, Psalms received a Grammy nomination. Two years later, another nomination for Textures, the album that contained the classic, "The Center Of My Joy" penned by Richard Smallwood along with Bill and Gloria Gaither

The group continued to amass successive GRAMMY nominations with the following projects, Vision, Testimony and Live at Howard University. Richard continued to climb to the pinnacle of success, receiving a GRAMMY Award and Dove Award for his production of the Quincy Jones' gospel project, Handel's Soulful Messiah.

The musical accolades and commendations attest to the fact that this man was created for music, or perhaps music was created for him. Richard Smallwood has an incomparable way of weaving classical themes with a Christian message, and producing brilliant timeless melodies that inspire, illuminate and motivate. God truly has given him a gift.

Listen to him talk about his ministry, his new project Persuaded - Live In D.C. (Verity) and what he wants to be remembered for most.

I introduce to you, the Maestro, my friend, Richard Smallwood.

Andrea R. Williams: I've heard that you were humming hymns in your crib. Is that true?

Richard Smallwood: (laughs). According to my mom, yes. Instead of the "goo goo, gah gah" thing, I used to hum. I wasn't walking or talking at that point yet. The first time she heard it, she walked in on me in the room. I had my back to her in the crib and was humming whatever hymn they had sung in Sunday morning service.

At first, she said she couldn't believe it, but then she began listening closely and I was humming the melody. So she told my father and he, of course, didn't believe her. And then I think several weeks later, he stumbled in and I was doing the same thing. So they were quite shocked. They realized that I was going to be musical in some kind of way.

They immediately went out and bought me a toy piano which fit in my crib. From then on, I started banging on the piano. I would bang out the rhythms and hum the melodies until I started to mumble. Then around 5 or 6, I started to play the piano.

AW: So I guess you knew from a really young age that you had musical talent?

RS: Yeah, definitely. It was quite evident.

AW: When did you know that you were going to make this your livelihood?

Richard Smallwood RS: It's something that I wanted to do all my life. I don't know if I ever knew it would happen, but from a very young child standing in front of the mirror with the record playing, I would pretend to be whatever artist that was on the phonograph. I imagined that I was singing in front of thousands and thousands of people. That's when it started * when I was about 5 or 6. I was always fascinated by music.

I was always fascinated by the artists I heard. And of course, my mom always took me to concerts and services like the Roberta Martin Singers and the Clara Ward Singers, the Davis Sisters, James Cleveland, The Caravans, people of that nature. Those are my idols. I never wanted to be anything else.

AW: When did you know that God had called you to do this as a ministry?

RS: As I look back, I think I've always known it. I think you can get sidetracked with other things as you grow up and become a teenager. You sort of put it in the back of your mind. I think I really knew it in the mid 70's.

Edwin and Walter Hawkins have always been two of my idols. I just admired them and had the opportunity to become friends with them in the late 60's and early 70's when I was a senior at Howard [University]. They came to D.C. in the mid 70's, around '76 when "Changed" and "Goin' Up Yonder" were at their height. When the Hawkins family came to Constitution Hall, I went to see them.

While I was sitting there as Tramaine began to sing "Changed", something just spoke to me and said, "This is what I want you to do." I just began to cry. My friends who were with me thought that I was crying because I was overcome by the ministry, which was really powerful, but what was really happening to me - little did they know - it was being revealed to me right then and there, while the [Hawkins] Family was singing, that this is what God wanted me to do.

AW: You have written classics like "Total Praise", "Center of My Joy" and "Healing", among others. Where does your inspiration come from to write? Do you get a thought or a title or does a melody come?

RS: Well, of course, ultimately, the music comes from God. And it also comes from experiences that I go through in my life - whether it be hardships or experiences that friends go through and testimonies from other people. I garner inspiration to write from situations such as that.

I was telling someone yesterday in an interview that I even find God giving me music before a situation will happen - like something that He knows that I'm going to go through or that someone else is going to go through and He'll give me a song before it happens.

Then when it happens, I look at the lyrics and the lyrics go right to the situation that's existing. They focus right on the situation I'm going through that I wrote 4 or 5 months ago and I didn't know I was going to go through that. [Inspiration] comes in different ways. In terms of technically, it can come with the melody first. It can come with just a theme or a scripture, maybe a phrase.

It comes in different ways. Very seldom am I at a piano. Mostly I'm in an airport, in a car, grocery store, 7-11, walking down the street, anywhere but near a piano. And it comes without warning. It sort of just comes and it's my duty to try to find something to write it down so I'll remember it by the time I get home so I can develop it into the full song.

Richard Smallwood AW: Last year I traveled to Jamaica and on Sunday morning, I went to a very small church in Ocho Rios. While they were doing praise and worship, I heard "Center of My Joy". Even though I was hundreds of miles away from home in a 3rd world country, I was reminded of you. It was at that moment that I realized the impact of your ministry. Did you have any idea that God would exalt your ministry as He has?

RS: No. I knew in my heart that it was something that He wanted me to do. I knew that I was put here to do music ministry, but I don't think you ever know the extent of your success. You don't know if it's really going to work. All you can really do is just say, "God I know you want me to do this so I'm going to do it to the best of my ability." Then let Him go before you and lead the way. And that's basically what I've done.

Even now, it's a humbling experience when I turn on the television and hear someone in another country or somewhere across the United States singing my song. Or an artist calling and saying, "Can I record this or record that?" It's a very humbling experience.

I'm just grateful that the music that God has given me has somehow blessed people and hopefully made a difference in their lives.

AW: You have a unique way of incorporating classical music with gospel music. Do you have a great love for classical music?

RS: I do. My musical upbringing was very unique in that I was a preacher's kid. So I came from a strict background in terms of my upbringing. Music other than Christian music was basically was not allowed in the house. So my influences in terms of other genres of music really came from outside my home...secular music and jazz, music of that nature.

However, my mom is a lover of music - all kinds of music. When I was about 7 years old, she bought home a record of Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2. She said, "This is classical music and I want you to listen to it. If you like it, I'll take you to some classical concerts." I put it in the record player and absolutely fell in love with it.

My experience as a kid was going to hear a gospel concert maybe on a Friday night and going to hear a classical concert on a Saturday night. Also, around that time or maybe a little bit later my mother was working for the Vice President of Columbia records.

She'd bring home a lot of recordings of Broadway musicals, Carousel, My Fair Lady, Sound Of Music, the whole gamut of Rogers & Hammerstein genre of Broadway musicals, as well as Lerner and Lowe and other composers. So I would listen to that as well. Coming up I just listened to these different types of music.

Taking piano lessons all my life, of course, I played classical music and then ultimately going to Howard [University] for my degree in piano performance, I studied classical music there. When I started writing, I don't think I consciously sat down and said, "I'm going to merge these two genres together." It just sort of happened because that was my exposure.

That's what I knew. That's what I listened to. So it would come out part gospel, part classical, part whatever else that I listened to because that was my frame of reference. I think that God planned that and ordained that because of what it was I was going to become and what I was going to do.

I didn't know it at the time, but that was all a part of my training so that when I did begin to write and when I did begin to play, what I played would have those influences and would be a little different.

AW: Gospel music has recently been accepted into the mainstream in a way that it hasn't been before. Do you think that's a good thing?

Richard Smallwood RS: I think it's a great thing. I think that the message of Jesus Christ need to get EVERYWHERE. It needs to reach the masses. Everybody is not going to come to church on Sunday morning although they may come to concerts. Jesus spoke about going into the hedges and the highways and compelling men to come.

That's what I think gospel music is doing; it's going into places it's never been before. It's reaching people that may not listen to a gospel radio station or come to a gospel concert. I think that artists, however, have a responsibility to take the pure news.

I'm not too concerned about the trappings because of the music, but the message needs to be Jesus Christ and Him crucified to make it different from the other music other there. It needs to be known to the listener when they hear it that this gospel music, this is lifting up the name of Jesus Christ.

I think we do have a responsibility not to compromise, but to preach the unadulterated gospel of Jesus Christ through our music.

AW: You recently recorded a new project *Persuaded - Live in DC*. Where does the title come from?

RS: "Persuaded" is one of the songs that is a part of the project. It was the last song written. It was written by myself, a great and talented musician from Washington, D.C., Freddye Jackson and another great and talented musician from Washington, D.C., Rev. Nolan Williams.

They are both two of my closest friends. They had both submitted songs for me to consider for the project. I said, "You know what, what about if we wrote together?" They came over my house and we had a good time. We spent the afternoon and the evening together and came up with the song called "Persuaded".

It's based in the scripture taken from the 8th chapter of Romans where it talks about Paul being persuaded not to let angels, powers, principalities, whatever, to separate him from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus.

When I thought about what I wanted to title the project and the adversities that I have gone through and the adversities that most Christians come up against in their lives, I wanted to make a statement and say no matter what comes my way, I'm determined, I'm persuaded to keep in walking with Christ. That's what the title is about.

AW: Your new project, as well as the past few projects, were recorded with Vision. Why did you decide to record with Vision instead of the Richard Smallwood Singers?

RS: Vision was a direct move of God. Around 1992, 1993, God began to lay on my heart to establish a new singing ensemble - one that would be larger than the ensemble that I had for a number of years.

Change is not easy. Change takes you out of your comfort zone. It was very difficult for me to make that step to do that, however, in 1995, God basically just sat me down in my den and began to dictate the people that He wanted to be part of this new aggregation.

I never auditioned anyone. He just said, "These are the people that I want to be part of this ministry." Some I knew; some sang with the Smallwood Singers; some were from my home church choir, Metropolitan Baptist; some I didn't really know; I had just heard them sing or saw them singing with other aggregations. Some I knew from when they were kids and saw them grow up and blossom into great ministers of music. But these were the people that He chose.

I called them immediately and everyone's response was "When is rehearsal? If it's tonight, we'll be there." When we came together, we became a family so fast. We are very, very close. I think that's so important in ministry. You cannot effectively minister if there's division and if there's not a family feeling among the members of whatever the aggregation is.

I praise God for the love that we have for each other. Trials we have gone through together have made us stronger. There have been marriages; there have been people called to ministry; there have been so many great things as well as valley situations that have happened since we've been in existence. All of that has come to make us stronger in Christ as well as closer.

AW: On Persuaded - Live In DC, you've remade some old favorites and what I believe are some soon-to-be classics. Can you tell me a little bit about the new project?

RS: I am just so incredibly excited about this new project. We just finished mastering two Mondays ago in New York. I am just so excited about the way that it turned out. First of all, the evening (April 21, 2001), at Jericho City of Praise was just....a night I will never forget.

We had over 10,000 people there from all over the world. I had friends from Paris, France and from the island of Martinique and Guadeloupe.....just people from everywhere. God just really met us there in a way that I never, never expected. My goal and my dream was to capture the excitement of that night on the CD. And praise God, that's exactly what happened.

Richard Smallwood People wrote me a lot about some of my music which is out of print. Music that they can't find anymore. I decided to do three of those songs, the ones that I get the most requests for and those were "Your Love Divine", "Psalm 8" and "Calvary".

We did those songs and God gave me some new songs as well. I was very pleased with the way that it turned out. There's something for everybody. There's traditional. There's I guess what you would call 'vintage Richard'; there's some Brazilian and jazz; there's a little bit of everything.

Lots of times people - because the songs that have been more popular have been classical - don't realize that my influences have been more than classical. I did a song on my second project - Psalms - called "I Wish You Love" which was serious, full-out, Latin.

A lot of people don't remember that, so when I did a Latin, Brazilian song on this one, they're like "oh, that's new!" I'm like, "No, go back to 1984 and pull out Psalms. I've always written out of my experiences and my influences and they have been varied - more than the classical; there's been Latin American and Brazilian and pop and jazz. I think on this CD, you'll see all of that.

I got a chance to do a piano solo which I hadn't done in quite a while. That was a blessing. The biggest blessing of that night was the fact that my mom was there. My mom has been very ill. She had a stroke about 5 years ago.

For a while it was touch and go. And just to see her there and rejoicing, as you will hear on the CD and see on the video while I was playing, was just probably the most outstanding moment of my life. So I'm just really excited about the project. I pray that people will be blessed when they hear it.

We also had a 30-piece orchestra. Darin Atwater who is just a genius, my protege and a dear, dear friend, did the orchestration. Steven Ford was my musical director and my co-producer. He just came in and did a wonderful job with the band. Steven is just a genius in the studio....just an awesome, beautiful person.

One thing that I love about Steven is that he takes such meticulous care of my music. He treats it like you would treat a newborn infant. He makes sure that everything is right because he knows what a perfectionist I am! We have such a wonderful time working together. I just thank God for what happened with the project.

AW: What do you want to be remembered for the most?

RS: I want to be remembered as someone who made a positive difference in people's lives with the gifts that God gave me. I want my music to live on long after I'm gone. I don't want my music to be a top 10 hit on the chart for 2 months and five, ten or twenty years from now, nobody remembers it.

I want people being blessed by my music long after I'm gone. Like Thomas Dorsey's [songs] that have stood the test of time. I want to be remembered as someone who made a difference with my music.

AW: Oh, Richard. You will. You will.





Discuss

Share your Thoughts