RICHARD SMALLWOOD Journey! Live in New York The story of Richard Smallwood reads like a script for a great movie. It’s a struggle for survival—leading to success beyond one’s wildest imaginings—set against the long odds of poverty and discrimination that were just a routine part of everyday life for most African-American families in the “Old South.” The cast of characters includes parents of often diametrically different dispositions: a stern taskmaster/pastor father, and a mother of a gentler, artistic disposition; and a little boy born into the world with prodigious gifts as well as a profound loneliness. The scene could open with a baby in his crib, humming melodies to hymns before he’d even learned to articulate a word to go with them; and later, as a youngster in his robe, standing before a mirror, “conducting” a choir of Christmas-tree-ornament angels, to whatever music was playing on the radio at the time.
Then, as a young man at Washington, D.C.’s renowned Howard University—living a life immersed in both the great classical music of the last several centuries, and the campus radicalism of the late-‘60s that raised a loud—and proud—voice, that would not be silenced, demanding that studies of African and black American history, music and all art forms be included in the school’s curriculum.
Perhaps, more than anything, it’s a love story: the love of a mother for her son, God Almighty’s love for all His children, and Richard Smallwood’s lifelong love affair with music. And while it’s not a movie—at least, not yet—Richard takes a long and loving look over his career…past, present and future…on his new, 25th Anniversary release, aptly titled Journey! Live in New York. With 17 songs spanning the two-disk set, and a dazzling roster of superstar guest artists (including Chaka Khan, Kim Burrell, Kelly Price, The Hawkins Family, and the original Smallwood Singers), Journey! Live in New York plays like a veritable collection of favorites. Still several selections shine with a particular brilliance.
“I’ll Trust You” resounds with the power of a modern-day anthem. Richard delivers a soul-stirring vocal atop the heavenly harmonies of Vision—his 21-voice choir since the mid’90s—and gorgeous, evocative orchestration; all essential ingredients of the Gospel/classical synthesis known to the masses as the “Smallwood Sound.” To help him celebrate his 25 years of recording, Richard invited both longtime friends and collaborators to join him on several of Journey’s other stand-out tracks, as well as artists he’s admired but only now found the perfect project on which to share a mike. An airtight, incendiary Vision stirs vocal sparks, which Gospel great Kim Burrell fans into full flame on the album’s arresting title cut.
Superstar Chaka Khan (who recently gave her life to Christ, and whose ‘70s and ‘80s smashes, “Tell Me Something Good,” and “I Feel for You” are still radio staples today), turns in a commanding take on the propulsive Gospel/funk of “Precious Is Your Name.” Reigning R&B diva, Kelly Price, literally soars on the devastatingly powerful ballad, “Morning’s Breaking,” with Vision lending a perfectly polished, soul-deep counterpoint. The Hawkins Family—Walter, Edwin, Lynette and Tramaine—career-long friends and contemporaries of Richard, exult in the dare-you-to-sit-still, straight-ahead, Sunday-morning Gospel of “We’ve Come Too Far,” written for the project by Walter and Richard; while Richard and his original, five-voice Smallwood Singers, have a joyful reunion on “He Won’t Leave You,” a gentle ballad that locks into a smooth, percolating groove, and a delightfully righteous reinvention of “Holy, Holy.” Journey! Live in New York closes on an appropriately somber, deeply moving note, with great personal significance for Richard.
“I’d Rather Have Jesus,” was the only song Richard ever heard his mother play on the piano. The rock and foundation of her son’s earthly existence, she passed away—after a protracted illness—in 2005. As a final and fitting tribute to her, Richard went into the studio and—seated solo at the grand piano—poured out his soul in love, honor and tribute to his mother, with a truly touching and virtuoso rendering of the beloved hymn. That quiet-but-crowning moment on which Journey! Live in New York concludes, and the album in its entirety, all stand as hallmarks of the diversity that has been the one absolute constant in body of work that has been Richard Smallwood’s life.
His music has never been confined to any single artistic genre, and the accolades accorded him have spanned the range of contemporary culture. His song, “I Love the Lord,” crossed into the mass market when Whitney Houston sang it on the multi-million-selling soundtrack to the hit film, The Preacher's Wife, co-starring Denzel Washington; and his work has been recorded by a star-studded array of artists, including Destiny's Child, Yolanda Adams, Boyz II Men, and Karen Clark-Sheard. Prominent in a trophy case filled with an abundance of awards and citations are numerous Stellar and Dove Awards (Gospel music’s highest honor), and a Grammy Award for his production on the Quincy Jones Gospel project, Handel's Soulful Messiah. Richard’s gifts have made room for him to minister to presidents and dignitaries all over the globe, as well as the numerous, world-renowned performance centers in his native D.C. - among them, Constitution Hall, the Kennedy Center, the Smithsonian Institution—which honored him for his singular cultural contributions—and the White House, where he accompanied legendary opera diva Leontyne Price during the Reagan administration. Richard completed work on his Masters of Divinity at Howard University's prestigious School of Divinity in 2004, graduating with honors. Ordained in June of that year, Richard serves as a minister and Artist-in-Residence at his home church, Metropolitan Baptist Church in Washington.
On November 14, 2006, Richard joined the ranks of a select few when he was inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame by the prestigious Gospel Music Association (GMA), placing him in the company of some of the greatest artists ever to perform sacred music, among them Elvis Presley, Mahalia Jackson, Andraé Crouch, and Thomas A. Dorsey. As a child, Richard had thrived on rich and diverse musical fare, including not only Gospel, but classical, R&B and pop as well (though it was well into his adolescence before he worked up the nerve to share his penchant for “worldly” R&B and soul within the four walls of the family home). He had begun picking out melodies by ear on the family piano when he was only 5, and by age 7 he was receiving formal instruction and performing as the regular pianist in his father’s churches.
When his mother gave him a recording of a Rachmaninoff piano concerto and began taking him to symphony concerts, Richard was enchanted, and developed a love for classical music that would later profoundly influence his life and his own music. The elder Smallwood’s profession—as a Baptist pastor who “seeded” new churches, on an almost-yearly basis before moving on...family-in-tow…to new,” untilled turf”—rendered Richard always the “new kid in class,” in school-after-school. Until, at his mother’s insistence, the family settled in Washington, when Richard was 11. As an 8th grader, Richard would be taught by a brilliant, fresh-out-of-college music teacher named Roberta Flack. Not long after settling in D.C., Richard—already known for his amazing instrumental and vocal skills, formed his first Gospel group, which he now refers to jokingly as “The Baby Smallwood Singers.” The boys’ talents were no joke at all, however, as they built a following and found themselves in great demand in the Washington, D.C., area where Richard would meet Roberta Flack as his 8th grade music teacher.
Three years later, Richard was accepted into a program for musically gifted children at Howard University); which he later attended full-time, graduating with a degree in classical piano and voice. Richard’s talents became well-known as his profile grew in his years as an undergraduate student at Howard. He became a founding member of the Howard Gospel Choir, and a featured member of a contemporary Gospel group, the Celestial Singers; taking the place of its previous keyboardist, Donnie Hathaway, who went on to become one of the great R&B/pop stars of the ‘70s.
Richard’s abundant gifts quickly carried him to the forefront of the group, which gained special prominence in 1973 when it became the first Gospel act ever to perform at the internationally renowned Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland. That group was the forerunner to the original Richard Smallwood Singers, which, among a long list of firsts in its nearly two-decade tenure, was the first black Gospel group ever to tour the Soviet Union. Richard never pursued his formal classical studies any further, although his years of classical training had a profound effect on the derivation of what the world today knows as the “Smallwood Sound”—a fusion of the Gospel, classical, pop and R&B styles he’d grown up on, and that has been the hallmark of his music throughout his illustrious career. Upon his graduation from Howard, Richard taught music privately and at the University of Maryland to support himself, as he began to focus more and more on Gospel music as a life’s work.
Forming the Smallwood Singers in 1977, Richard set about the arduous process of doing demo recordings and trying to get a hearing in the music industry. He got that hearing, and a major-label recording contract followed in 1982, leading to an almost-unparalleled string of what is now, with Journey! Live in New York, 15 consecutive Top-10 albums. “I never try to make my music sound any particular way,” Richard explains. “It’s just all my musical exposure and influences filtering through my own creativity. I’m known for Gospel with a classical touch, but traditional Gospel has also been very much of an influence. It’s what I cut my teeth on. I grew up with it. I emulated it as a child. It’s been both a tremendous inspiration—spirit, heart and soul—as well as a strong musical foundation. I believe that’s one reason my songs seems to transcend age barriers. They are contemporary without losing that traditional feel.”
As Richard—with Journey! Live in New York—looks back, as well as forward, on one of the great stories of contemporary music, it’s clear that this “script” is very much a work-still-in-progress. “There are some tangible musical things I still want to do,” he says, “but to continue to grow—creatively and spiritually—has always been my heart. I hope and pray to increase this ministry in a way that will do supernatural work in the hearts and lives of the listeners. We’re here for a certain season and a certain reason, and it is a journey. And when you’ve done all you can do— then God takes you home. “I want to make music that will linger and have a lasting effect—one that will lift burdens and change lives…and heal—long after I’ve gone on.”