BILLBOARD MAGAZINE has dubbed Yolanda Adams the "female Kirk Franklin" because she is blending gospel and modern R&B in similar ways with the potential for similar platinum sales. But Adams has known Franklin so long that she finds it impossible to think of him as a rival or as an influence.
"I knew Kirk when he was a little kid," Adams recalls, "because we were both gospel singers in Texas and we often crossed paths. He was a cool little kid, really sweet. I remember when he was about 13 and I was about 23. We got to talking, and he said, 'I want to do this for the rest of my life.' I told him, 'Then you have to be dedicated, because there are times when it's busy but there are also times when it's slow. But you can do it if you put your mind to it because you have the ability.' And he did."
When Franklin became the first artist other then Aretha Franklin and Elvis Presley to sell a million copies of a gospel album, he revolutionized the field. He not only redefined the genre's commercial possibilities but its musical possibilities, too. By marrying gospel lyrics to funk and hip-hop beats, he yanked religious music forward into the modern era of black pop.
No one is better poised to reap the rewards of this revolution than the woman who gave Franklin some early career advice. A year ago, Adams was already a star in the gospel world, with five best-selling albums, five Grammy nominations and numerous gospel awards to her credit. To step up to Franklin's level of success, though, she felt she needed a bigger record company behind her. So she signed with Elektra Records, which last fall released Adams's "Mountain High . . . Valley Low."
"My contract with Verity Records was up," she explains, "and we put the word out that we were accepting offers for a new label. Sylvia Rhone, the CEO of Elektra, got wind of this and came to see our show with Kirk Franklin at the Beacon Theatre in New York. She said, 'I love it. You don't have to change a thing. I just want to get you to a bigger audience.'
"That sounded great because we didn't want to change our music. But we had won every award there is to win in gospel music and we felt we wanted to reach out to more people. To do that, we needed the distribution and promotion that only a big company can give you. Already we've noticed the difference."
With Elektra's corporate muscle behind it, "Mountain High . . . Valley Low" debuted at No. 1 on Billboard's gospel charts and held on there for four weeks. In January it won a Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary Soul Gospel Album. Adams is now on the road with Fred Hammond, Men of Standard, Donnie McClurkin and Dawkins & Dawkins as "The Shout Tour," which stops Friday at Constitution Hall and Feb. 20 at Baltimore's Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.
Elektra gave Adams more than business support, however. The label also hooked her up with some of the top producers in R&B, including Keith Thomas (Vanessa Williams, 98 Degrees) and Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis (Janet Jackson, Mary J. Blige). On her one song with Thomas and her three with Jam & Lewis, Adams unleashes a powerhouse soprano that eclipses the voices of the producers' more famous clients. Few vocalists can match the range, power and control of this 38-year-old singer, and these new pop-funk beats give that voice the showcase it deserves.
Adams's current tour partner Fred Hammond co-wrote and produced "Continual Praise," a hip-hop-flavored number in the Kirk Franklin style. Warren "Smiley" Campbell co-wrote and produced two similar numbers, including the infectious "Yeah," a transparent (and uncredited) rewrite of Stevie Wonder's "I Was Made to Love Her." The album also showcases Adams's roots in 1970s gospel-soul choir music on "That Name," co-written and produced by Richard Smallwood.
Adams was only 4 years old when she joined the choir at the Berean Baptist Church in Houston. It was a natural thing to do, for everyone else in her family sang in church. When she turned 13, she joined the Southeast Inspirational Choir, a 25-voice ensemble of teenage singers from various churches in the Houston area.
"This wasn't an old-fashioned choir in the James Cleveland style," she points out. "This was very young and contemporary in the Hawkins Family style. It was like the difference between Brandy and Aretha today. We were trying to make sure young people enjoyed gospel music, so we had really fresh beats and songs kids could sing along with when they heard them the first time. We were teenagers; you wouldn't expect us to sing in 1980 like Mahalia Jackson sang in 1940.
"It was like everything was planned out for me. As a teenager, I was already making records and traveling all over the United States and Europe. I didn't have to record a demo; I didn't have to pound the pavement to get a deal, because I was already in one of the biggest choirs in the United States."
Even in those days, in the early '80s, it was still unusual for gospel singers to support themselves full-time with performing. The ever-practical Adams got her college degree, got a job teaching second and third grade in Houston's public schools and continued to sing as a solo artist on weekends. This went on for seven years.
"The bills had to be paid," she says, "and I love children. I was always taught that whatever's for you, you're going to get. If you busy yourself doing something you really love, it will come to you. Most gospel engagements are on the weekend, so it was very feasible to work during the week and sing on the weekends. Eventually, though, the engagements kept coming more and more, and I was making as much on the weekends as I was during the week. And I was having trouble getting back from Sunday engagements for Monday classes."
She released her debut solo album, "Just As I Am," with composer-producer Thomas Whitfield in 1986. She moved to Verity/Tribute Records for four studio albums, including 1995's "More Than a Melody," which won a Soul Train Lady of Soul Award. Her big breakthrough came with the 1996 live album and video, "Yolanda . . . Live in Washington," recorded here in D.C.'s United Temple. It captured just how animated Adams can become before a live congregation. A new anthology, "Best of Yolanda Adams," sums up her Verity/Tribute years.
"Gospel has moved with the times, just like any other music," she says. "Technology, with its loops and synthesizers, changes the music around you, but it doesn't change how you sing. The music is different but the message is the same.
"Kirk uses all kinds of beats and he's able to get the message across. You won't catch me dancing around the stage like Kirk, because it's just not my style. I lean more in the R&B and jazz direction. But I'm always looking for ways to keep my music fresh so it can attract the young people. I'm always looking for that balance of beats and lyrics."
Appearing with Fred Hammond & Radical for Christ, Men of Standard and Dawkins & Dawkins, Friday at Constitution Hall and Feb. 20 at Baltimore's Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.
* To hear a free Sound Bite from Yolanda Adams, call Post-Haste at 202/334-9000 and press 8129. (Prince William residents, call 690-4110.)
CAPTION: Yolanda Adams's latest CD, "Mountain High . . . Valley Low," debuted at No. 1 on Billboard's gospel charts.