The Arms of Gospel Reach Far & Wide
Darwin Hobbshascollaborated with countless artists from Jars of Clay to Donna Summer
By Jenny Bennett for GospelMusicChannel.com
As we enter the first-ever Gospel Music Heritage Month, the meaning of gospel heritage can be vastly different depending on who you talk to. The hymns your grandmother taught you as a child, the artists you listened to in high school, your very first concert, or the songs that come to mind when you're going through the most difficult times in your life, all represent a rich history. In any case, gospel music heritage points to a great American art form that affects all of us deeply – regardless of race, musical tastes or even religion – perhaps more than any of us realize.
"I remember song lyrics from when I was really little, and they still impact me now," says gospel artist Anthony Evans. "When I'm going through hard stuff I'll remember these songs. That's the power of gospel music." Featured Video: Anthony Evanson the MostInfluential Gospel Song
As gospel and Christian artists influenced by all styles of music shared with GospelMusicChannel.com what gospel heritage meant to them, we found diversity to be a key theme. Often this meant unexpected collaborations with other artists that range frominteresting to just plain bizarre.
Gospel artist Niyoki, whose second solo project, Rest, released August 19, recalls the opportunity to get acquainted with one of the most iconic performers of all time.
"We went to Minneapolis to do a set and that's when Prince saw us," Niyoki recalls. "He loved our harmony, loved our blend and said, 'Wow I want you to do my background vocals.'"
Niyoki, who started singing at the age of six, recorded and performed with her family, The Wright Family, before forming the gospel group Millennia with her two sisters. The sisters crossed paths with the famed performer and sang with him for three years, but the experience gained working with Prince has been much longer-lasting.
"He would put things together in a certain way and I always listened and learned from what he was doing. That helped me to take [my own production] to another level," she says. "I didn't even know I had the skills to do that! He's a musical genius, so the things I pulled from him I was able to intertwine into my production and my writing."
Production can be of utmost importance to the direction an artist's project takes. Take Darwin Hobbs for example.
"My music has been heavily influenced by the people who have produced it, which is not always congruent with where I am," Hobbs says. "This new record is more exactly who I am for the first time. I produced it so it's definitely an accurate depiction."
Hobbs has a natural inclination to mix other styles with his traditional gospel upbringing, and he says that is reflected on this latest albumFree more than any other, though dabbling in other genres is something that's always interested him.
"I started out doing black gospel music, but my professional career began in 1996 when I moved to Nashville and was a background singer for Michael Card," Hobbs explains. Card, the Christian artist who penned "El Shaddai" is, according to Hobbs, "about as high-church as you can get."
During his four years in Nashville, Hobbs sang on over 700 sessions, including background vocals for Card, Clay Cross, Michael W. Smith and Jars of Clay.
But probably the most unexpected collaboration came in 2000 with the release of Vertical, his most successful album to date. Michael McDonald of the Doobie Brothers came into the studio to sing background vocals and ended up singing a duet with Hobbs on "Everyday." On the same project, Hobbs recorded "When I Look Up," a duet with Donna Summer.
"Two legends in their own right on the same album," notes Hobbs. "It was a door that God opened and one I was willing to walk through. I'd always asked God to open doors that were beyond my normal culture, which is definitely church and gospel.
"I wanted my artistry and my career to coincide with that. I think I'm called to more than just the four walls of church, so in keeping with that, and maintaining some presence in the mainstream – that's why I pinpoint those duets as probably the most noteworthy in my career so far."
Other interesting (even bizarre) collaborations include the veteran gospel singer Dottie Peoples performing and recording with none other than Widespread Panic. The southern rock/jam band out of Athens, Ga. is probably the last group on earth you'd expect a traditional gospel artist to sing with, especially one who counts Mahalia Jackson, Pastor Shirley Caesar (her mentor and friend), and others among her greatest influences. Yet the blend worked, and brought gospel to a crowd that wouldn't normally have been exposed to it. Incidentally, Widespread Panic will be inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame on September 20.
"When they came to Philips arena for New Year's Eve they invited me," says Peoples. "And it was all these thousands of people and when I came out they made me feel like I was Aretha Franklin or somebody! The crowd just welcomed me so much."
It was the second time Dottie and her band played with the group. (The first was Bonaroo in 2002.)
"[At Bonaroo] my band was able to see the show, and they couldn't believe how great these guys are. And my musicians can play, but they were mind-blown as far as how professional and how tight they were and it blew their mind that they were playing my songs. Widespread was playing my songs their way and it was just really cool!"
Dottie began her accomplished career touring with Dorothy Norwood whose song lyrics – gotta be some rain in your life to appreciate the sunshine – caught the attention of Mick Jagger.
"He invited us to open for [The Rolling Stones] and so a gospel group opened up for a huge mainstream concert," recalls Peoples. "Back in the '60s that was unheard of. It was like a dream come true, and to be on stage with The Rolling Stones and Stevie Wonder...my mind was blown."
It seems the idea of gospel music as "the universal language" has been intensifying in recent years. Israel Houghton regularly works with other artists; he sang duets with both Chris Tomlin and the mainstream-turned-gospel artist Jonny Lang on the recently released A Deeper Level.
Even artists who haven't had the chance to collaborate with artists of other genres still point to a wide and varied bunch when asked about their influences. "My influences are all over the place," says Anthony Evans, who released The Bridge in September 2007. "I grew up listening to everybody from…my mom had Sandi Patty andLarnelle Harris records, but they also had Tramaine Hawkins and The Winans and Andrae Crouch."
Christopher Lewis, whose Crisis: Change is Required released in May 2008, has a style that's influenced by gospel, urban, R&B, rap, contemporary, quartet, worship, jazz and classical.
"My focus is never really on trying to find a particular type of song," Lewis says. "It's just being well-versed and well-rounded in music, so whatever it needs at the time, you go with that and you don't seem like a knock-off."
These gospel artists make it sound so easy. They are bringing gospel to new heights while never forgetting to look to the greats of the past for inspiration. Through creative collaborations they're bringing gospel to new audiences; together they are writing a new chapter in the history book of gospel music.
Tell us what you think! What are your favorite gospel/mainstream genre-busting duets (live or on disc) and why? Who would your dream duet be?
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