Richard Smallwood is without a doubt one of the most prolific and gifted songwriters of his time. Each week across America, and undoubtedly other parts of the world, one of his songs is being sung during Sunday morning church services. The DC-area artist’s song list is extensive and includes “I Love the Lord”, “Center of My Joy”, “Healing“, “Bless the Lord” and the song many would say has become a church anthem, “Total Praise”.
With so much success you would think the legendary Stellar and Dove award-winning GRAMMY-nominated artist would rest on his laurels. Not so. After some time away after the passing of his beloved mother, the maestro is back and better than ever with his new CD, Promises which debuted #1 on the Gospel Charts and was the #1 album on the combined Christian/Gospel charts.
With the release of Promises, the maestro may have created another church anthem with “Trust Me,” a song that seems to speak so provocatively to listeners about God’s ability to be with us in the midst of our struggles and the need to trust Him. In this first of a two-part series, GME spoke with the celebrated singer about his decision to record again and the meaning and thought processes behind the songs on Promises.
It’s your first album since your mom’s passing. How important was it to get your music out there for your fans and for yourself?
“It was definitely important. Actually I stopped writing after mom passed. It was about four years before I wrote again. I don’t think I chose not to write, it just didn’t seem to be anything there and even when I would try nothing would come. I basically thought within myself that maybe I wouldn’t be writing again, certainly after four years. So when the music started coming it was certainly an incredible experience. The CD is very close to me because it’s the first music that I have written since Mom passed. I think that I wrote from a place that I hadn’t written before, so it makes the music even closer to my heart because of the way that it came and when it came.”
Musical Approach and Style
You’ve been at this for a while. What has led you to remain so consistent in your musical approach?
“Well, it’s all I know, it’s who I am. It’s who I’ve always been and it’s what God has given me to do. There are so many incredibly gifted songwriters and artists out there and I think the thing that sets everybody apart is that everyone is unique in their own way. It would be boring if everyone was the same, so I just want to do what it is that I do. I don’t have a secret. It’s sort of all that I know.”
The Smallwood signature style blends classic and traditional so well. But the maestro does not seem afraid to embrace all styles. In “Promised Me Grace” Daniel Weatherspoon included some rap lyrics. I asked why it’s important for artists to be open to different styles.
“You know music changes, the public changes in terms of what they listen to. Styles change, so I think it’s important that we are open, not to change who we are certainly, but to be open to some of the other musical trends and musical things that are out there. I always want to remain current and one of the things God has blessed me to do throughout the years is to still be relevant to young people. I have kids who write me on Facebook, 17, 18 years old and I’m like, “wow, your parents are probably a fan.”
The songs of “Promises”
You have said this album is a very personal for you. Which of these songs is the most personal?
“All of them have a special place in my heart for different reasons. It’s a little hard to pick one. Certainly “Trust Me” is the favorite; “Sow in Tears” is close to my heart. I wrote “Mender” and didn’t know that it was going to happen, but it was before the transition of one of my dear friends, Bishop Walter Hawkins. I know he inspired that. They all have a different connection to me for different reasons.”
You pay tribute to Bishop Hawkins with “Is There Any Way?” sung so beautifully by Vanessa Williams.
“I’ve known Walter, Edwin, the whole Hawkins family since I was about 19 years old when I was at Howard University. We’re friends but Walter and Edwin have also been mentors to me throughout most of my life. They are an encouragement in terms of my ministry. I patterned so much of my ministry after them. When he passed it certainly was an incredible blow to all of us and a loss that resounds throughout gospel music and the church. I wanted to do something on the CD that honored him. “Is There Any Way” is one of my favorite Walter Hawkins songs. So that’s the one I definitely wanted to do and just let people know that the storms and the valleys that you’ve gone through, you haven’t come through them, God brought you over them. When you face a new mountain, just remember the same God that brought you over that other mountain is the same God that’s going to bring you over this one you’re facing now. So I think it’s a great song.”
You previously recorded “Be Faithful” with the Smallwood singers. What made you revisit that song on this album?
“The whole theme of this album is Promises and all of the songs that are on the project have to do with the different promises of God and the things that God has promised us in His word. I think that we need to know that in this era that we’re living in, with the economy and recession and racism rearing its ugly, blatant head again. With all of those things we really have to remember that God is still in control regardless of what the economy says, regardless of what the media says or the naysayers say. “Be Faithful” was one of those songs that came to my remembrance. We talk about if we are faithful God promised that He would give us a crown of life. So that sort of fits in with the whole concept of Promises.”
You have written songs about peace before. What’s the significance of “Praying for Peace”?
“I just think we need it. I was going through some songs that I had written in college and the whole theme was peace. Even then we were dealing with wars and people not loving one another and people taking advantage of one another and not living in a peaceful co-existence. So, I think that’s still a problem even today and I believe as the Word says that if we humble ourselves and pray and seek God’s face then he will heal our land and that’s certainly something needed in this day that we are living in and so that’s the whole concept of that song.”
Collaboration with Lalah Hathaway (“Praying for Peace”)
“I’m very proud to have Lalah on this project. I went to Howard University with her father, Donny who was sort of a mentor to me for about a semester when I came in as a freshman. He was a senior and sort of took me under his wing showing me chords and music concepts that I’d never thought of, heard of or dreamed of before. So he certainly was a heavy influence on me. I never got the chance to work with Donny after I graduated so it’s like this is coming full circle that I was able to work with Lalah who is an incredible gift and incredible person. She’s a beautiful, humble young lady so I’m excited that she’s a part of it.”
Longtime Smallwood fans are very familiar with Vision, the melodious ensemble that has been with the maestro for more than 15 years. Many can identify most of the singers on sight: Carolene, Vanessa, Charisse, Maurette, Byron and so on. I asked what he felt contributed to the longevity of Vision.
“It’s incredible. It will be 16 years this year.
We lost two members who went home to be with the Lord during our time together, but I have every member that started out with me in 1995 when I called that first rehearsal. I think we’re so close that we’ve become a family. We’ve gone through deaths, marriages, engagements, we’ve gone through divorces, we’ve gone through births and I think all of that has brought us together like a tight close knit family. So, I don’t really look at them as background singers or as the group. I look at them as part of my extended family. I think that the love we have for each other has kept us together all these years. And thank God, their belief in me and their belief in my ministry have kept us together.”
Next week: Richard Smallwood talks about his time at Howard University, his thoughts on hymns, growing up in DC, and what’s next.
“Promises” is available at www.richardsmallwood.com, Walmart, iTunes and other digital outlets. To book a “Promises” tour contact firstname.lastname@example.org
© 2011Sarah Hearn