A conversation with Richard Smallwood

Rachel IshikawaBlog, Home Row 1, Watch

Despite his Grammy and world recognized sound, Richard Smallwood can’t seem to wrap his mind around his success. Smallwood sees his music as larger than himself. His music has the ability to unify people from all over the world, and for Smallwood, that is his calling. He traces his roots to the gospel and classical records he lapped up as young person.

Gospel Roots of Rock and Soul Senior Producer, Alex Lewis, spoke with Richard Smallwood on September 4, 2018. This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Alex Lewis: Did you grow up listening to mostly gospel music?

Richard Smallwood: I grew up listening to basically only gospel music. My stepfather was one of those strict Baptist preachers who didn’t believe you should listen to anything but gospel music. [T]he first gospel record [my mother] brought me was by the Davis Sisters. The song called “Get Right with God” and on the B side of that was “Tired My Soul Needs Resting” on the Gotham label.

I began to get interested in classical music. So [my mother] would bring me classical recordings at home. She brought me home Rachmaninoff’s “Piano Concerto Number Two.” So I would listen to classical and I would listen to gospel. [W]hen I was probably 14, I began to sneak in the Motown records – The Supremes and The Temptations and The Four Tops and Martha Reeves and the Vandellas and the Marvelettes. I mean you name them.

Alex Lewis: I read your beautiful memory that you wrote on Facebook about your first time listening to Aretha’s “Chain of Fools.” When did you first listen to Aretha Franklin?

Richard Smallwood: When I got to Howard University my freshman year. “Respect” had just hit and I was like, “Who is this singing like this?” It’s one of the most amazing voices that I that I’ve heard. I remember we sat in the dorm and listened to it over and over and over again. And I was a super fan immediately. Whenever she would come to the DC-VA area we get our little pennies together and get the closest seats that we could at the concert because going to see Aretha live – especially in those days – was like a Revival meeting. I mean she would go right from, “I Never Loved a Man” into how good Jesus is. So it was a quite an experience that emotional powerful anointed experience that I had never ever experienced before and that’s how I really became the super fan.

AL:  It’s beautiful hearing about people’s remembrances of Aretha. You mentioned that her shows were like a Revival meeting. People say even in her secular music, it was like church.

RS: She never left the church and I heard her father say that on her “Amazing Grace” recording, you know. Aretha never left the church because it was so much a part of her regardless of what she was singing, regardless of the genre. Even “Nessun Dorma” was was gospel.

AL: I understand you mentored under Donny Hathaway when you were at Howard University?

RS: Yes, when I first came to Howard, Donny was a senior. And one thing about Howard is at the time, even though it’s an incredible and well-known HBCU, gospel and jazz was not really allowed there. It was just basically classical music and of course the Negro Spiritual. So we used to sneak in the basement and play all other forms of other genres of music other than classical. [W]e would have a look out, you know, and somebody would say, “Over here comes the dean.” So I would go to Chopin, a Bach or whoever until the dean passed the practice area door. Then we would go back into Roberta Martin. I remember one day in the practice area going down the room and one of my friends says, “Hey there’s somebody I want you to meet.” I walked into the room and it was this guy, who had the most incredible voice I had ever heard, playing all these wonderful progressions that I had never heard in my life. And he said, “This is Donny Hathaway.” Donny would come in my room sometimes if he saw me playing. He would come in and show me chords. And I was like, “Can you play that in church?!” Because you know back then it was like don’t make it too jazzy because, you know, the older folk will get you. And he said, “Sure you can,” you know. He began to really influence me in terms of the kinds of progressions that I would play.

AL: The Edwin Hawkins Singers were a group that infused the mainstream contemporary sound into gospel. Can you talk about how “Oh Happy Day” influenced you? Do you remember when you first heard the song?

RS: I remember it very well. It was my sophomore year I believe at Howard University and they got blown up on the radio. I mean, everybody was playing it – secular stations were playing it. But it wasn’t really “Oh Happy Day” that caught my ear. I was like, “Well, that’s nice,” you know. But I remember one day one of my best friends, who I sung with and who managed me actually for years and years after Howard, he said, “The Hawkins Singers are coming to DC to Temple Church of God in Christ Bishop Kelsey’s Church. You want to go see him?” I was like, “Sure.” And I remember a whole bunch of us, maybe five or six of us maybe, got together and we went up to Temple Church of God in Christ. The thing that blew me away was not – We all knew it the whole “Oh Happy Day” song, but the other songs where they were singing progressions that were just not known in traditional gospel. I was glad when they sang “Unto Me” and you know songs with all these close harmonies. I was like, “God that’s what I want to do. I want to do this.” And I remember we went downtown and bought the record and took it up to the Howard’s music library and put on the earphones and listened to it over and over again. You did not hear it at eleven o’clock on Sunday mornings in the church. You just did not hear that. I remember at 15 or 14, I was playing for this church and I got a little too jazzy and the pastor stopped and said, “This is not a club, son. You can’t play that in here,” you know. So there was strict rules in terms of what you could play and what was considered secular or worldly.

But Edwin changed that. He changed that. He was the father, he was the author, he was the inventor of contemporary gospel music as we know it now because he changed the whole thought process of what you can play in terms of chords. Edwin and the singers would come at least four or five times a year to the area. And we just became these little groupies that would just follow them around like little puppies, just trying to absorb everything that they did. My little group, the Celestials, they sang every song that the Hawkins Singers sang. I tried to make every lead. I tried to make somebody Tramaine. I tried to make somebody Elaine Kelly, whoever my favorite leader was of that ensemble, you know. And we became close. When they would come, our parents would fix them dinner and they go over, you know, my house for one of my mother’s famous fried chicken dinners, and we would host barbecues for them. And so we just, you know, became very very good friends over the years. So it was not only an influence, but he became like my mentor. He’s like my big brother. He was very encouraging to me. I remember one time I told him, I said, “I want to do what you do.” He said, “There’s no reason why you can’t. You got all the talent in the world.” You know, that’s why I’m so particular [with] what I tell young people who come to me because, you know, certain things that you could tell them can either discourage them or it can encourage them into being their heart’s desire.

AL: Did Edwin ever talk to you about the tension with more conservative churchgoers?

RS: He did because I mean there was some people who would not invite them to their church. There were some pastors who would not let you sing “Oh Happy Day” in service. [W]hen you listen to “Oh Happy Day” now, you’ll be like, “What was the problem?” Because it’s so tame [compared] to some of the stuff that you hear now, but for the late 60s [to] early to mid 70s, it was just something that was so different. I know they sang in nightclubs in Las Vegas. And of course when they begin to do stuff like that the church basically said, “Well, you know, you guys are of the world now.” So they basically just disowned them and that’s how Walter – Edwin’s brother – really started Love Center because they needed somewhere to go in fellowship in a Christian environment because the churches really, you know, pushed him away and said you know, they were all going to hell. Edwin had the low-cut shirts and they had leather pants and they had the boots – all those things that were so wonderful in the 60s and 70s – the afros. [T]o the traditional church, that was something very wrong to them. And you add the music onto that, they were ostracized and called all kinds of names.

They were singing the message of the gospel. They were singing a message of love, loving each other regardless of what your your culture was, what your race was, what your background was. He really really did and change the face of what music was to become.

AL: He really he brought gospel music to –

RS: To the masses.

AL: What’s your take on the divide in gospel music?

RS:  You know, it is always angered me. I remember the very early days of when I started, there were some places that they wouldn’t allow our drums in the church. I mean in the Black church, especially. I mean it was said you could not go to the movies. Women could not wear pants. You couldn’t listen to secular music. [B]efore “American Bandstand” – Dick Clark – became integrated, DC had something called “Teenarama” which was the same kind of setup as “American Bandstand.” Teens would come and dance to whatever the latest Motown songs or whatever the latest Aretha songs or whoever, you know, was hot at the time. [M]y stepfather wasn’t home and me and some of my friends were in the in the room just dancing with “Teenarama” on and he walked in the room and told my friends to get out. “We don’t do that in my house.” I was so furious with him because I was like, “What is wrong with it?” Because it’s music. I can understand now with some of the lyrics that we hear now in 2018. But this was, you know, basically they were love songs. They were happy songs. [T]hey would let me listen to classical music, which the majority of classical music is secular. The majority of Opera is secular. But that was different. If it had a beat to it and a drum to it then that meant it was some kind of way, some kind of the way wrong.

I was always the one to push the button. [I]t was so amazing because it seemed to me that the people who were placed in my pathway were people who push the buttons as well. You know when I think of of Donny, when I think of Edwin, when I think of Aretha, all of these are people who I got to know, who supported my pushing, they were pushing the buttons long before I was. So I always had that same kind of probably radical kind of ideas when it came to music.

AL: We look back at gospel music history and see people like Sam Cooke and Rosetta Tharpe, who faced this tension in their time.

RS: Thomas Dorsey faced it. [H]e played for Ma Rainey and other, you know, blues singers of that nature to make money. And so when he started playing that kind of style in the church, the folk was like, “You can’t bring that up in here. That’s from the barrel houses.” When Mahalia started singing in the church, she would walk or she would move too much. Edwin came along and had it. Kirk Franklin came along and had it. So it’s been historical. That’s been going on for I guess as long as music has been going on.

AL: Do you think that it’s important for gospel musicians to keep pushing forward?

RS: I think it’s very important. I think a lot of gospel musicians are doing actually that because that’s how they make their money. You know on Friday and Saturday nights playing for secular groups or playing for clubs. And so they bring the feel of some of that stuff into the church now, but I think the church for the most part now is more open than they were when I was coming up or when Edwin was coming up.

AL: During your eulogy at Edwin Hawkins’s funeral, you mentioned his role in the Civil Rights Movement. In particular the songs, “Every Man Wants to be Free” and “Trouble the World is in.” You’re in high school around the peak of the Civil Rights Movement –

RS: [B]y the time Edwin started writing stuff like, you know “Every Man Wants to be Free,” I was in college then. So I began to write what we called protest songs for my church choir. So Edwin, you know, inspired me to do that. [T]he music has always reflected the political climate.

I remember I wanted to go to the March on Washington and my mother wouldn’t let me because she was afraid that – well she was afraid that some kind of riot was going to break out. [A] lot of people were afraid because there were young people who were standing up who were getting hosed, who were getting attacked by dogs, who are getting killed, who were getting taken to jail simply because they were trying to say, “we got to find a better way.” I think the musicians of that time began to do the same thing in their writings.

AL: How important was gospel music during the Civil Rights Movement?

RS: It’s very important. There’s something about gospel music that transcends culture. It transcends political beliefs. I’ve been to Europe and have sung and the response that I’ve gotten in Russia and other places – people come up with tears in their eyes. Even though they can’t understand the exact lyrics, they were like, “Why are we crying? Why do we feel like this?” It’s something about the spirit of gospel music that unifies. [I]n terms of the Civil Rights Movement anything like that – gospel music is a main vehicle to bring people and to unify people together. I think it always has been that way and I think it I think it still is. I think Dr. King recognized that very much. So that’s why he had Aretha and the Staple Singers and Mahalia and other people, you know, to come together and sing at those rallies. Because when we can sing together and we can hold hands and sing “We Shall Overcome” and things of that nature there’s some kind of way that unifies us and makes us feel that no one is different than the other. We are all the same. We are all made up of the same molecules. We are all human beings.

AL: Can you tell me the story behind “Total Praise?”

RS: “Total Praise” is one of the ones that came when I was going through a very difficult time. I most of my life have suffered with depression. It was not diagnosed until around 2001 / 2002 but as far back as I can remember even as a child, I was dealing with anxiety and depression and of course, we didn’t know what it was then. My grandfather – my mother’s father – committed suicide. We believe that he had depression as well. So I think part of it is inherited in terms of that disease, depression. But I used to get really down and especially when things were going on in this particular time. My mother was very ill. And my mother went into foster care when I was probably about 19 and she raised – I don’t know how many kids – from little kids to adults. They’re all now, like, adults with children of their own and their children have children of their own. One of my little foster brothers was mentally ill and I was going from the hospital back and forth to see him. I was going back to the hospital to see my mother. And one of my best friends had AIDS and I didn’t know it. Had no idea until he tried to take his life and when I called him in the hospital and I said, “Are you serious? [Why] are you trying to take your life?” And he said, “Richard, I have AIDS.” And back then there was nothing in terms of drugs, in terms of treatment but AZT which basically killed you off anyway. And he took a whole bottle of his AZT pills to try to kill himself.

I felt so helpless that I can’t do anything and I just remember sitting at the piano just you know, almost in tears and “Total Praise” just came to me and I remember thinking of the psalm that says, you know, “Lord, I will lift my eyes to the Hills From whence cometh my help. My Help Cometh From The Lord who made Heaven and Earth.” I was trying to make a pity party song. So I was trying to do a song that says something like, you know, “Lord, I will lift my eyes to the hills, but I know I need you to come down from the hills and comfort me and dry my tears and help my mother and help my god brother and help my friends.” This is a mess and I’m in the middle of it. I feel like I’m this caregiver running from one person to the other and I can’t make the illnesses go away. I can’t do anything but be present which is probably the most important thing but the time I just felt like I wasn’t doing enough. And “Total Praise” just came to me. This praise song came out of this deep deep well of despair and I remember I wrote it in such a short time. It came so fast. It was like –  the only way I can explain is like the music already being there on the spiritual realm. And the composer being a conduit for the music just sort of flows through so it can get here where we are now.

When I finished it, I just broke down and started crying. And I had no idea of what it would become, like almost an anthem, you know years later. And that people would be singing [it] in Japan in the native languages. I heard somebody singing in Samoan which blew me away. I just think that God gives us songs for certain purposes to help lift people’s spirit. I think music is what unifies us. I think music is what lifts our spirits and I think every now and then God’s gives us one of those songs that just it helps you feel good. Whatever is going wrong, it lifts your spirit. It gives you hope. And I think that was one of those songs that did that.

AL: Your music has become a cultural touchstone – especially in Black communities. Do you feel the awareness of how much this music has come to score?

RS: I don’t think you ever get used to it. I think BET did an article about how Bill Clinton knew all the words to “Total Praise.” They had the camera on him and he knew every last word, they said, “And we are here for it.” I think it makes me realize the purpose of music, the purpose of a musician. It’s much bigger than, “Oh, I think I’ll just write a pretty song.” It’s really to give that hope. I think all of us pray that music will live long after we do and my prayers always been that it will help people, that it will encourage people, that it will give, you know, people hope. I mean I wrote “I Love the Lord” when I was in grad school sitting in the fine arts building in 1975. I didn’t know who Whitney Houston was then. No one knew she was. I mean, so I think you’re a lot of things that are preordained.

I was born out of wedlock. I guess I’m – I would be a bastard, but I know I’m not a mistake because of what God has done in terms of the music that he’s giving me and how it’s helping people. So I know that’s my purpose here. Other people may be here to be president, they may be here to be, you know, kings and rulers and doctors and because we need all of those, but I know I’m here to make a difference in people’s lives through my music. I never get used to it.

[I]n the world that we live in, we need everything – especially now – everything that we can get our hands on that is going to make a positive difference in our lives, to give us hope in the face of darkness, in the face of disparity and in the face of depression. I feel blessed that in some way God has used me to do that.

This interview was produced for WXPN’S GOSPEL ROOTS OF ROCK AND SOUL. GOSPEL ROOTS OF ROCK AND SOUL has been supported by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage.