Total Praise

  1. Total Praise Richard Smallwood and Vision 4:59


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Richard Smallwood‘s “Total Praise”…it has become one of the best know contemporary gospel songs and for good reason. It’s amazing.

I first heard it by accident listening to a gospel music radio show late one Sunday night. Sitting there in the dark this song came on and by the end I was a weeping mess. (see comments below…I’m not alone!)

Gospel writer Bob Marovich wrote “Like James Cleveland, Smallwood is an absolute genius at composing gospel canon. It is as if he is scoring the soundtrack for Heaven itself. On ‘Total Praise,’ Smallwood combines his classical sensitivity with gospel exuberance, creating an exquisite aural feast. His setting of the Amen at the conclusion of ‘Total Praise’ may well be the most beautiful moment in gospel music today. It’s a challenge to listen to this recording and not well up in tears of joy.”

Here is Smallwood describing what made him write Total Praise.

“Its sort of ironic how it came to me. It came to me in a very difficult time in my life. My mother was very ill, my god brother was terminally ill and I was playing caregiver, running from the hospital to my home taking care of everybody. It really felt like I just couldn’t do it. A lot of people don’t understand that care giving is just as difficult as the person who is ill because if you don’t take care of yourself you can end up in the hospital from stress and stuff.”

“I felt like, I know God has not forsaken me but sometimes you get to a point in your life where you know He’s there but you cant feel Him. I knew He was there, I knew he had my back but I couldn’t feel anything and I said God I cant. I feel helpless with my loved ones, I can’t make them get any better, and I don’t know if I’m doing enough.”

“I was sitting at the piano and Total Praise came just like that. I didn’t have to work on any melodies or inversions, it just all came as if it were already written.” (Carol King said the exact same thing when she spoke about writing “You’ve Got a Friend”…RLS)

“I knew once I wrote it that God had given me something really special. I had no idea all that it would do but I knew it was very special. He really gave it to me in that particular instance because he was saying to me, “Regardless of what you see around you or regardless of what you feel I’m still owed your praise because I’m going to get you through it, you may not see it or you may not feel it but I got your back so give me praise now, in your valley time; I call it valley praise. When you really think about it, God already mapped it out; He’s got it even if you don’t see it. That’s what he was saying to me “give me your praise in what ever season you find yourself in.” He gave it to me and then He took it elsewhere and did what He did with it.”

Here are another couple of snippets about the song:

“This uplifting anthem is stunning in its emotional power, ending with a reflective setting of the Lutkin Seven-fold Amen. Powerful from beginning to end, this anthem of praise is just what you need to fill the sanctuary with the Spirit!”

“The conclusion of this popular gospel hymn evokes the tenderness of Brahms, the boldness of Wagner, and has brought the most macho of men to briny tears.”

Lastly, here is a video of the master…the composer of the song, Richard Smallwood (with his vocal group Vision), performing the song in it’s entirety, including a magnificent orchestral intro. 

I Want To Be Ready

  1. I Want To Be Ready Rev. James Cleveland & The Southern California Community Choir 2:20


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In 1999, this was one of the very first songs Geoffrey Dana Hick taught his travel choir. The choir’s amazing tour of Umbria in Italy was the impetus for the founding of “Joyful Voices of Inspiration”. Although I didn’t know it at the time, many of the songs the early choir learned were James Cleveland songs because a James Cleveland album was one of the few gospel albums Geoff had in his early days of playing gospel music.

Geoff learned to play gospel at age 18 at 12th Baptist in Roxbury while attending the New England Conservatory as a classical pianist.  Prior to that he had lived in various places abroad since his father was in the foreign service/diplomat. 

Story goes that when he arrived in the U.S from Germany to attend The Conservatory, he was invited to dinner in at the home of Ralph Abernathy (pastor of West Hunter Street Baptist Church and noted civil rights leader working closely with Dr. Martin Luther King) and his wife in Atlanta Georgia.  After dinner Mrs. Abernathy asked Geoff if he would play the piano for them and he played several classical pieces that they enjoyed. Impressed with his talent, Mrs. Abernathy asked Geoff to play them some gospel music. He told them he didn’t KNOW any gospel music, let alone be able to play it.  Astonished, amazed, and a bit shocked, Mrs. Abernathy told Geoff to go to Union United Methodist Church, “the biggest black in Boston”, as soon as he got settled in Boston. 

One Sunday Geoff decided to follow Mrs. Abernathy’s advice and got in the cab and asked the cabby to take him to “the biggest black church in Boston” since he couldn’t remember the name Mrs. Abernathy had given him.  The cabby took him to 12th Baptist in Roxbury and that was that. Over the ensuing years Geoff learned to play gospel at the hands of the resident masters at 12th Baptist and eventually ended up playing at Sunday services!  Today, Dr. Geoffrey Dana Hicks is not only a talented composer and pianist, he also serves as Minister of Music at Tremont Temple in downtown Boston.

I’ll post a recording of Geoff playing gospel in the near future.

He’s a Keepa

  1. He's A Keepa Rodney Bryant & The Christian Community Mass Choir 5:13


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In my family we’ve always referred to good things as being “a keepa”…boyfriends, girlfriends, snapshots, recipes…whatever. So this song’s title just grabbed my attention and I love it. Yes it’s contemporary, but the vocals are good, the bassline is fun, the lyrics are simple and to the point, the vamp (3:13) is easy to get into, and the notion of God as a “keepa” is sort of kewl.

God Is

  1. God Is Walt Whitman & The Soul Children of Chicago 6:45


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“God Is” was written by Dr. Robert Fryson and was first recorded in 1979 by Rev. James Cleveland and the Southern California Community Choir.

This recording by The Soul Children of Chicago is wonderful because of the power of the performance; these “kids” make a BIG sound.  I also chose this version because I have a soft spot in my heart for youth choirs; getting children involved with gospel music can only help make a firm foundation for them for the rest of their lives.

It’s a Highway to Heaven (Walking Down the King’s Highway)

  1. Highway To Heaven First Church of Deliverance Choir 5:40


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“It’s a Highway to Heaven (Walking Down the King’s Highway)” was written by Thomas A. Dorsey, “The Father of Black Gospel Music”, and Mary Gardner in 1954.

This recording not only has wonderful vocals, but features a classic Hammond B3 organ.  The Hammond B3 was introduced in 1955 and among the early customers of the B3 were African-American churches, whose limited finances compelled them to accept what might be seen as a second-rate substitute for a “real” organ. Fortunately, creativity escaped the limitations of technology. The sounds of the B3 were unique, powerful, and captivating, and the instrument began to be appreciated on its own terms. Gospel music recordings of the 1950s and 1960s began to accentuate the Hammond, giving the music a special sound. By about 1970, the B3s (and similar Hammond models) were embraced by all sorts of popular musicians, including rock, R&B, and jazz groups.

Chicago’s historic First Church of Deliverance Choir certainly has something to sing about. Under its founding pastor, the late Rev. Clarence H Cobbs, the First Church of Deliverance was one of the earliest African American churches to broadcast its services on the radio, beginning in 1934. It was through the weekly radio broadcasts featuring the 200-voice choir that the church became widely known as a center for Gospel music. The First Church of Deliverance “big choir” sound has been emulated by choirs across the United States and abroad.

In 2006 The First Church of Deliverance Choir made a triumphant return to the recording scene after a 16-year hiatus with God Can – Live, a 10-track set showcasing the choir’s rich traditional sound plus a few contemporary offerings.




He’s Real

  1. He's Real Greater Emmanuel Mass Choir 3:40


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DETROIT, MICHIGAN!  The Great Migration bought a plethora of very talented musicians and singers to the city.  It is no surprise then that Detroit is home of lots of great gospel that emanated from the many black churches there ( not to mention that Detroit also fostered the rise of Motown records.)

Greater Emmanuel’s 1994 CD, “The Sun Will Shine Again” peaked at number 30 on the Billboard Top Gospel Albums charts and produced the radio hit “Get the Glory”. Of equal importance is the fact that Greater Emmanuel is the spiritual home of Detroit’s leading ladies, The Clark Sisters (Karen Clark Sheard serves as first lady.) [There will be lots of posts about the musical legacy of incredible Clark family in the future.]

Early in the Morning

  1. Early In The Morning Edwin Hawkins Singers 3:11


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From the 1968 “Oh Happy Day” album, ‘Let Us Go Into the House of the Lord’.

Edwin Hawkins was born in Oakland, California in 1943. He grew up in the Ephesian Church of God in Christ in Berkeley, California. He sang in and arranged for the youth choir and played piano. Edwin Hawkins and Betty Watson formed the 50 member Church of God in Christ The Northern California State Youth Choir in 1967. This choir was made up of 46 of the best young singers between 17 and 25 years old in the Bay Area. The choir produced their first album ‘Let Us Go Into the House of the Lord’ in 1968, recorded in the basement of the Ephesians Church of God of Christ in Berkeley.

The album initially had 600 presses and was meant to be a fund-raising effort to finance a trip to sing at a National Youth Congress Convention in Cleveland. A song on this album was a new arrangement of an old hymn, ‘Oh, Happy Day’ featuring Dorothy Morrison on lead. In 1969 a San Francisco rock promoter, John Lingel, found the LP and passed it to a local DJ, Abe ‘Voco’ Kesh at KSAN-FM who loved the song ‘Oh, Happy Day’ and gave it plenty of air play. One of the listeners was Buddah Records promoter, Neil Bogart, who purchased the LP from Abe. Buddah released a single of ‘Oh, Happy Day’ and ‘Jesus, Lover of My Soul’ in spring 1969 on the Pavilion label. The single sold 7 million copies, reach number 4 in the US Billboard singles chart on 31 May 1969, won a 1970 Grammy award for Best Soul Gospel Performance and has become the most famous gospel song in history.

The LP ‘Let Us Go Into The House Of The Lord’ was also distributed by Buddah and reached number 5 on the R&B LP charts on the 14 June 1969. The soloist on ‘Oh, Happy Day’ was Dorothy Combs Morrison but she left the group in 1969 to pursue a solo career with Elektra and Buddah Records.

The songs on this ground-breaking album were;

Side A:
1. ‘Let Us Go Into the House of The Lord.’
2. ‘Jesus, Lover of My Soul.’
3. ‘To My Father’s House.’ Soloist: Elaine Kelly.
4. ‘I’m Going Through.’ Soloist: Margarette Branch.

Side 2::
1. ‘Oh Happy Day.’ Soloist: Dorothy Morrison.
2. ‘I Heard the Voice of Jesus.’ Trio: Trumaine Davis, Rueben Franklin and Donald Cashmere.
3. ‘Early in the Morning.’ Soloist: Betty Watson.
4. ‘Joy, Joy.’ Soloists: Tramaine Davis and Ruth Lyons.
All songs arranged by Edwin R. Hawkins.

In 1970 the Edwin Hawkins Singers supported the US folk singer Melanie Safka on her hit Woodstock single ‘Lay Down (Candle in the Wind)’(not unlike several members of JVOI who backed Melanie up at a performance in Somerville in 2013!!).

The group went on to win four Grammys between 1969 and 1983 despite having seen some of it’s singers depart and new ones join. They received the 1969 and 1970 Grammy Awards for Best Soul Gospel Performance for the songs ‘Oh Happy Day’ and ‘Every Man Wants To Be Free’ respectively.

Edwin Hawkins also instituted the Edwin Hawkins The Music & Arts Seminars from 1982. These conferences have introduced new gospel song-writers, singers and musicians to a wider audience, including through his The Music & Arts Seminar album projects. In 1992 the Edwin Hawkins Music & Arts Seminar Mass Choir won a Grammy Award for Best Gospel Album By A Choir Or Chorus for the album ‘Recorded Live In Los Angeles’.