HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — Gospel singer Richard Smallwood has just deplaned from the US Airways first-class cabin. He stops to take a few quick photographs with star-struck flight attendants and passengers, then hurries through the airport to a car and driver waiting to rush him off to prepare for the evening’s concert.
When Smallwood and his group, Vision, strutted onto the stage that night at Oakwood University in Huntsville, hundreds of fans, already out of their seats in anticipation, whip out their cellphones and begin video recording, as if choreographed. Tiny white lights shine from the floor like dancing fireflies. Fans are sitting on the floor and balcony, and standing along the walls and in the aisles.
During the 40-minute set, fans of the multi-Grammy-nominated writer, singer and pianist stand and sing along with every song, many with a hand raised in praise to God. Smallwood is center stage, in front of 11 of his singers in evening dresses and suits, revving the audience with mini-sermons before each number.
“He’s worthy of the glory, he’s worthy of the honor, every time I think of the goodness of Jesus and allllll he’s done for me,” Smallwood exclaims as the audience cheers. “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.” And with that, Smallwood’s group breaks into the up-tempo “Lift Him Up.”
Ushers walk the aisles trying to get audience members to take a seat so people behind them can see. When the group performs Smallwood’s newest recording, “Same God,” the crowd’s applause forces the singers to extend the song five times.
Wiping tears from her face, 22-year-old Oakwood student Jodel Bernard, from Grenada, says she has never stood during a gospel concert before. “I picture angels singing around the throne when he sings,” she says.
Smallwood’s concerts are part performance and part revival. Generations follow the 66-year-old singer. He travels the globe with his music, but Washington has been his home since he was 10.
After 40 years in the industry, Smallwood has done what no other gospel artist arguably has done as successfully: blend gospel with classical music.
Congregations have translated his songs into Korean, German, Hebrew and other languages. He has eight Grammy nominations and within the gospel music industry has won four Dove Awards and 10 Stellars. Three of his 14 albums hit No. 1 in Billboard magazine’s gospel category.
He has sung for presidents Nixon, Reagan and Clinton. One of his songs was requested for the funeral of a child killed in the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings. His songs have been recorded by non-gospel artists such as Destiny’s Child, and his music helped Whitney Houston deliver one of the biggest-selling gospel albums in history for the 1996 film “The Preacher’s Wife.”
Last August, 2,000 people, many of whom waited in line for hours, crowded into Evangel Cathedral in Upper Marlboro, Md., as Smallwood and Vision recorded his 15th album, “Anthology Live,” which was released last month and was the No. 1 album on iTunes’ gospel list.
It has been an incredible journey, a life of worship and praise. What few know is that the journey has been taken while Smallwood staged a private battle: that he is a man who has fought depression and thoughts of suicide. Who has had entire years when he could not write a lyric. Who has found himself asking God: “Where is the healing in my life?”
Ironically, he credits his pain for helping him to write some of the very songs that inspire around the globe.
“Songs of pain last,” Smallwood says. “They make a difference. My prayer has always been, ‘Give me songs that last.’ I want my songs to last after I’m gone.”
It’s a wintry January evening in Prince George’s County, Md., and Smallwood has ordered Papa John’s pizza. Inside his five-bedroom, four-bath home in Bowie, 12 members of his 20-voice Vision have gathered to record overdubs on songs they recorded during the concert in August for “Anthology.” Smallwood wants to make sure the sound is fuller.
He has turned his basement into a makeshift sound studio. To the side are two Nautilus machines. He and the singers first go through a vocal warm-up of aaahs, eees and ooohs. Smallwood, a baritone, stands with two tenors; the altos are to his left, sopranos to his right. His 8-year-old Yorkie, Mozart, is darting around the singers’ feet, barking, to Smallwood’s chagrin.
Smallwood has handpicked his singers, most of whom have been with him for 20 years. An only child and never married, he calls the group his “family,” and many of them refer to him as “Uncle Rich” or “Papa Rich.”
The producer takes the singers through “Holy Spirit,” from 1989. Smallwood, hands in his pockets and eyes closed, faces the microphone.
“We gotta start that high?” he asks.
“All your songs are high,” one soprano snaps back. “You wrote this.”
“I know, but I was younger then,” Smallwood laughs, shaking his head and grasping his throat.
As the group begins singing, Smallwood listens. “No, no, sopranos. Go over that again. There’s a first and second soprano part there that I need to hear,” he says.
Mozart starts yelping again. The louder the group sings, the louder Mozart yelps. Smallwood scoops him up and carries him out.
“We are a family because of Richard and have been for 20 years or more,” says singer Debbie Steele. “He is a true representative of Christ.”
“His ear is magnificent,” says Vanessa Williams, a former D.C. art teacher who started singing with Smallwood in 1993, two years before he started Vision.
The ensemble begins the “Amen” ending to one of Smallwood’s most popular songs, 1996’s“Total Praise.” He wrote it when his mother had begun struggling with dementia and a family friend was dying of cancer, leaving Smallwood to serve as a caregiver at times for both.
The song came in a dream, Smallwood says, which is why he now keeps an audio recorder next to his bed.
“I felt left by God,” he says. “I was trying to write a pity-party song, but God pulled me to do a praise song. God said, ‘I want your praise no matter what the situation you are in, good or bad.’ It’s about trusting him.”
Lord, I will lift mine eyes to the hills
Knowing my help is coming from You
Your peace You give me in time of the storm
Smallwood was born in Atlanta and moved to Washington as a child with his mother, Mabel, and his stepfather, the Rev. Chester L. Smallwood, a strict, Bible-enforcing preacher and founder of Union Temple Baptist Church in Southeast. (For more than 30 years, Smallwood has been a member of Metropolitan Baptist Church in Northwest Washington, where he has served as musician and choir director.)
While Richard was growing up, his mother listened to music all the time, mostly classical and church songs, but also jazz artists such as Ella Fitzgerald when her husband was out of the house. She would find Richard humming to hymns from the crib.
By the time he was 7, he was taking music lessons and continued until he was 15. But young Richard had a secret: He could play only by ear. He couldn’t read music. He’d have each teacher play a song, then he’d memorize the chords and play the song back to his teacher’s delight. “I was used to getting over on my teachers,” he admits.
He formed his first gospel group when he was 11, made up of kids from his Northeast Washington neighborhood. When he was in eighth grade at Browne Junior High, he had a fresh-out-of-Howard University music major as his teacher: Roberta Flack.
He went on to McKinley Technology High School in Northeast, where he auditioned for a music program at Howard. The instructor quickly figured out that Richard could not read music but agreed to admit him if he’d learn.
Smallwood later majored in classical piano with a minor in voice at Howard, beginning in 1967. He was mentored by a talented music major named Donny Hathaway. Hathaway showed him how to play a jazzy version of the hymn “Nothing but the Blood,” Smallwood recalls. “He told me to play and sing what you feel — it’s all God’s music.”
Smallwood helped form Howard’s gospel choir, and sitting in a basement practice room in the fine arts department, he penned what became another of his biggest hits, “I Love the Lord.”
He graduated in 1971 and with his ensemble put out eight albums between 1982 and 1996. The first, “The Richard Smallwood Singers,” spent more than 80 weeks on the Billboard gospel chart, driven largely by “I Love the Lord.”
Then, more than a decade later, Smallwood’s first hit became a hit again with a new generation, thanks to one of the most successful singers of all time.
Whitney Houston grew up singing “I Love the Lord” in her church in New Jersey, and when she starred in “The Preacher’s Wife,” she wanted it on the soundtrack.
“It was one of her favorites,” says composer Mervyn Warren, the five-time Grammy winner who put together the film’s music. “For me it was a no-brainer. Everyone loves the song.”
The song helped “The Preacher’s Wife” to become the best-selling gospel soundtrack album of all time, with more than 5 million copies sold worldwide, according to the Recording Industry Association of America.
I love the Lord
He heard my cry
And pitied every groan
Long as I live, and troubles rise
I hasten to His throne
In the late 1990s, Smallwood found himself having difficulty getting out of bed. He wouldn’t bathe. Wouldn’t shave. Couldn’t write music. He’d be alone, sobbing, not wanting to leave his house. He thought about ways to kill himself.
“I had no desire to live,” he says. “I was consumed with suicide most of the day.”
In 2002, he was finally diagnosed with clinical depression. “I had no idea. I just thought I was unhappy a lot,” he says. “It was debilitating. I knew Jesus probably longer than some folks have, and I suffered. It’s an illness, like cancer, or diabetes. You can’t just say, ‘Pray about it.’ You gotta get help.”
He eventually started medication and was able to perform, but once the concert was over, he would retreat to his bedroom.
“I felt like a fraud. I would get up and talk about Jesus being the center of my joy, but as soon as I got offstage, I would go into a dark hole,” he says.
Smallwood’s depression worsened when his mother suffered a severe stroke and several close friends died. He went to his psychiatrist, who was also a minister, two to three times a week. The psychiatrist would remind him of the power of God, and church folks encouraged him to pray.
“Most people in the Bible all had issues. They were flawed, but God gave them grace to go through,” says Smallwood.
When in 2003, Smallwood couldn’t finish his album “Promises,” Joseph Burney, head of artists and repertoire for Smallwood’s label, Verity Gospel Music Group, flew to Washington, and the two had dinner at a Cheesecake Factory. Burney remembers how much pain he saw in his friend.
“I completely grew up on his music. When he said to me, ‘Help,’ I could assist,” Burney says. To allow Smallwood time to recover, the label, now called RCA Inspiration, released a best-of album, “Praise & Worship Songs of Richard Smallwood.”
For more than a decade, Smallwood wrestled with depression. Then one night in 2010, he had a dream: He was walking down a street with his stepfather — odd, as they were estranged early in Smallwood’s life — and heard music coming from a huge building. They sat together listening, then as they walked away, Smallwood’s stepfather offered to carry him.
When Smallwood woke up, he broke down in tears. The dream erased the pain of his relationship, he says, and cured him of his depression. “At that point, I never had to take another pill,” he says. “It was God’s way of healing me of some of the things I was dealing with.”
“Promises” was issued in 2011. He says the music he heard in the dream gave him a missing instrumental line for “Sow in Tears.”
Tears are for cleansing, stress and relief
Created by God just to give us release
They’re not in vain, for soon will come peace
If you sow in tears you’ll reap in joy
Some of the greatest hymns have come from sorrow, for sorrow is universal. Thomas Dorsey wrote “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” in 1932 after his wife and child died. Horatio Spafford wrote the hymn “It Is Well With My Soul” after his four daughters died in a shipwreck in 1873. John Newton, a onetime slave ship captain, wrote the first lines of “Amazing Grace” in the mid-1700s following a stormy journey on a ship.
Before 6-year-old Ana Grace Márquez-Greene was fatally shot along with 19 classmates and six adults on Dec. 14, 2012, at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut, she loved singing and dancing to gospel music.
“Ana loved big, rich gospel choirs. Ana loved good music. Ana loved Jesus,” says her mother, Nelba Márquez-Greene. “We did not get a graduation. We did not get a wedding. We did not get to see her meet milestones. All we had was this funeral.”
She asked that “Total Praise” be performed at it.
Ana’s father, Jimmy Greene, a jazz saxophonist, remembers standing with his arms outstretched as the choir sang. Smallwood reminds “everyone that the Lord is the source of our strength and that He is the strength of my life,” Greene says. “Even at that moment, I needed to lift my hands to Him.”
Smallwood’s songs even transcend faiths. Cantor Sheldon Levin, conductor of the Makhelat Hamercaz Jewish Choir of Central New Jersey, heard “Total Praise” sung by a choir from the Jewish Theological Seminary about two years ago. He taught it to his choir in both English and Hebrew. At a North American Jewish choral festival, they received a standing ovation. “It blew people away,” Levin says.
“Total Praise,” like many of Smallwood’s songs, is based on Psalm 121, in which David wrote about relying on God during his most difficult times: “You are the source of my strength/ You are the strength of my life/ I lift my hands in total praise to You.”
Levin says the words are a universal prayer. “We can all praise God and thank God. It doesn’t have to be a Jewish composer or a Christian composer,” he says. “His music is awe inspiring.”
When Destiny’s Child was looking to do a gospel medley for the 2001 album “Survivor,” Michelle Williams suggested “Total Praise” to fellow group members Beyoncé and Kelly Rowland. Williams was a longtime fan of the song and taught it to the other two. “I’m a church girl,” Williams said in an interview.
The gospel medley was the last song on the album, and Smallwood’s “Amen” chorus was the final part of the medley. “To end the album with amen, it is finished, was a perfect fit,” Williams said.
She described Smallwood as “a brilliant mind who transcends gospel music.”
The wall of his sunroom, next to his baby grand piano, is covered with awards and proclamations. Then-mayor Vincent Gray declared Sept. 16, 2013, Richard Smallwood Day in the District. Smallwood also worked on a team of producers including Mervyn Warren and Quincy Jones on 1992’s Grammy-winning “Handel’s Messiah: A Soulful Celebration.”
Still, he has watched RCA Inspiration’s younger artists, such as Donnie McClurkin and Fred Hammond, register platinum sales, while he has yet to have a single album sell more than 500,000 copies to reach gold status. Smallwood says that before his diagnosis, he felt his depression was brought on by comparing his success to others’. “I have always been very insecure about my gift,” he says.
But longtime gospel publicist Bil Carpenter says: “Richard is not for the masses. He’s for a more sophisticated, smaller group of people. He’s a thinking man’s gospel. It’s the chitlin’ circuit versus the Kennedy Center. Richard is the Kennedy Center.”
Smallwood’s legacy has long been established, according to those in the industry. For 34 years gospel legend Bobby Jones has hosted a one-hour show on BET. For gospel artists, being on Jones’s show did for careers what “The Ed Sullivan Show” in the 1960s did for Motown. Jones’s weekly program, now entering its 35th and final year, has the distinction of being the longest-running original series on any cable network. Smallwood’s music, says Jones, is unlike any other artist’s.
“You listen for what his words are. You’re going to hear clarity. The audience loves it, and they go into an atmosphere of praising and worship,” Jones says.
Some gospel artists, such as multiplatinum Kirk Franklin, have achieved wider commercial success by mixing in hip-hop. But Smallwood has remained with his classical sound.
Jacquie Gales Webb, who for more than 20 years has hosted a popular gospel segment on Washington’s WHUR radio, says Smallwood’s songs are distinctive because of the importance of the piano — not electric piano or keyboard playing, but a grand-piano style.
“No matter what genre he’s playing, in his music the piano is the prominent feature,” Webb says. “That’s how you know it’s a Richard Smallwood song.”
Valerie Simpson, who helped create the Motown sound as part of the husband-and-wife songwriting duo Ashford & Simpson, likens Smallwood to Stevie Wonder, because his lyrics, she says, “transcend a moment” and capture a sound of a generation that lasts for decades.
Simpson says something happens in her Sugar Bar in Manhattan when a jazz or R&B artist starts singing “Total Praise.” The energy in the room shifts, and “everyone is wiping tears from their eyes,” she says.
The ability to write a song that becomes, and remains, a classic for generations is what every songwriter strives for, Simpson says. “Richard Smallwood has done that,” she says.
“His songs will live on and continue to be sung long after we are all gone.”
Jesus, You’re the center of my joy,
All that’s good and perfect comes from You
Smallwood has come to realize that it was during his depression that he was able to write songs that connect most to people and their own pain. That, he says, is true ministry.
“So many people, from the pulpit to those ushering on the door, are suffering with depression,” he says. “And, yes, I believe God can heal anything. But I also believe that He puts things in our lives so that we can truly minister to others.”
These days, Smallwood is focusing on the release of “Anthology.” He also has plans to work on his autobiography and eventually sees himself teaching music on the college level.
“I have lived such a very blessed life. I am so thankful to God,” he says. “What a journey this has been. This is not about making money. It’s about winning souls and encouraging people through Christ. He takes care of it all.”
Amen, Amen, Amen, Amen
Amen, Amen, Amen, Amen
Keith L. Alexander covers D.C. Superior Court for The Post. His last story for the magazine was on Michelle Obama’s makeup artist.
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