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Hired as an associate minister at Marvin Winans' Perfecting Church in 1989, with his vocals during a seminar, McClurkin endured a bout with leukemia that year. A friendship with a Warner Alliance executive resulted in his signing to the label for his 1996 self-titled LP, with producers Mark Kibble (of Take 6), Cedric and Victor Maxwell plus Andraé Crouch.
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Carr released an album of his compositions and arrangements entitled Together on Light Records in 1991. Starting his own record label, Gospo Centric, in 1992, the energetic musical director led his group, the Kurt Carr Singers, through several albums of contemporary music thoroughly steeped in the traditional sound of gospel including 1994's Serious About It!, 1997's No One Else, and Awesome Wonder in 2000. As well as his own recordings and serving as creative director for the L. A.-based West Angeles Church of God In Christ, Carr has been an active promoter of the acts on his Gospo Centric label, including such industry heavy hitters as Trin-i-tee 5:7, Gospel Gangstas, and Kirk Franklin and the Family.
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Craig Harris, Rovi
Franklin's road to the top, though quick, was far from smooth. Abandoned by his mother and never having known his father, Franklin was reared by his Aunt Gertrude, a deeply religious woman who raised him as a strict Baptist. When he was four, she paid for his piano lessons by collecting aluminum cans. The lessons were money well spent, for Franklin was a natural musician who could sight read and play by ear with equal facility. At age 11, he was leading the Mt. Rose Baptist Church adult choir near Dallas. Despite, or because of, his church background, Franklin began rebelling in his teens and getting into trouble until one of his friends was accidentally shot and killed at age 15.
Realizing that he had chosen a bad road, Franklin returned to the fold and began composing songs, recording, and conducting. Since 1991, he has been backed up by his 17-member choir, the Family, a group comprised of friends and associates from his younger days (interestingly, one member of the Family, Jon Drummond, made it to the semifinals of the 100-meter sprint at the 1996 Olympics). Support from his pastor, his wife Tammy, whom he married in early 1996, and the four children they brought to the marriage help keep Franklin close to his religious core, and he returned in 1998 with Nu Nation Project. The album topped the Billboard Top 200 charts (peaking at number seven) and remained on the Billboard Gospel Albums chart for 49 weeks, paving the way for Franklin's third Grammy (Best Contemporary Soul Gospel Album).
Over the course of the next few years, Franklin worked on the soundtrack of the movie "Kingdom Come" (contributing the single "Thank You") and released another album, 2002's The Rebirth of Kirk Franklin. Making good on the success of its predecessor, the disc soared to number four on the Billboard 200 chart and spent 29 weeks on the Gospel Albums chart. Two more chart-topping albums emerged out in the next four years, Hero (2005) and Songs for the Storm, Vol. 1 (2006), both of which topped the gospel charts at the time of their release. Hero went on to win two Grammys in late 2006.
The following year, he released The Fight of My Life, an all-star affair featuring contributions from Rance Allen, tobyMac, and Melvin Williams, among others. It topped the Gospel Albums chart and broke into the Top 40 of the Billboard 200. In 2010, following the tragic earthquake in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Franklin assembled an even bigger crowd of gospel all-stars in Nashville's Quad Studios to record the benefit single Are You Listening." His next studio album, 2011's Hello Fear, featured "I Smile," his first hit on the pop charts since 2005.
Sandra Brennan, Rovi
Those seven words eloquently capture the multifaceted essence of Donald Lawrence. Songwriter. Producer. Composer. Music/choir director. Recording artist. The guiding force behind such No. 1 hits as “Encourage Yourself,” “Back II Eden” and “The Blessing of Abraham.” Equally at home in both the inspirational and contemporary arenas, the multiple Grammy and Stellar Award winner has collaborated with a diverse roster, including such marquee names as Karen Clark Sheard, Donnie McClurkin, Kirk Franklin, En Vogue and Mary J. Blige.
“It’s said that the music you do is where you’ve lived,” says Lawrence of his creative journey. “What I do isn’t contrived. I don’t think in terms of genre or religious perspective. It comes from being honest. I just honor the gift and purpose I was given to touch the world and inspire. And people have paid attention to that.”
Indeed they have—to the tune of 20 years and counting. After scoring his second No. 1 gospel album with 2011’s YRM (Your Righteous Mind), Lawrence is preparing to commemorate his anniversary milestone with the first of two albums featuring live re-recordings of select songs from his vast catalog complemented by several new tracks. Due this fall, the first QWE/eOne volume, titled Best for Last, was recorded primarily in Chicago with longtime songwriting/production colleagues Daniel Weatherspoon and Percy Bady. The second volume, slated for 2014, will be recorded primarily in Charlotte, North Carolina, where Lawrence was born.
Also joining Lawrence for the two-volume series is a host of special guests, many of whom have played important roles in his career. The list includes Karen Clark Sheard, Kierra Sheard, Kelly Price, Lalah Hathaway, Hezekiah Walker, Stephanie Mills and Yolanda Adams. Adams’ bring-the-house-down vocals on volume one’s title track kick off a rousing celebration 20 years in the making. Yet its chorus also hints that Lawrence doesn’t plan to rest on his laurels anytime soon: “Although you may think that your time has passed \ God only saving the best for last \ Your future greater than the past.”
“I don’t know why it’s said that your best days are your youth,” explains Lawrence of the song’s message. “The Scripture talks about your latter being greater than the former. I wanted to speak to people who feel it’s a wrap. It’s never too late to dream.”
Additional standouts include “The Gift Looks Good on You” and “Hebrews 4:9.” Both are spirited lessons revolving around Lawrence’s central theme of grace. In this instance, he is talking about grace as talent; that people should stop looking across the fence at what others may possess and instead honor their own gifts. “Most people think grace is covering sins, but it’s also an area of divine enablement,” he says. “Some people have the grace to write or sing. I do music. Don’t covet someone else’s grace; honor yours. And if you honor it, God will allow you to take it to a broader arena.”
Lawrence began taking charge of his grace while growing up in Gastonia, NC. Raised by a gospel-loving aunt and influenced by gospel pioneer Andraé Crouch, he taught himself the piano at 15. From there, Lawrence put himself through the prestigious Cincinnati Conservatory of Music as a musical theater major. He and Worth Gardner, one of the school’s professors, later wrote the 1986 musical revue “Sing Hallelujah!,” which toured across the country and played off Broadway.
After a stint on the musical staff of the TV series “PTL Club,” Lawrence trained his sights on secular music when he was asked to become vocal coach for hit-making R&B/pop female group En Vogue. The early ‘90s found him integrating both worlds. That’s when he began an eight-year tenure as music director for Broadway/R&B star Stephanie Mills while also working as part of the urban inspirational group Company, a seven-man R&B group. Providing backing vocals for Stephanie Mills, Company was also signed to Irving Azoff’s Giant Records, and released its debut album, Devotion, in 1993.
Concurrently, Lawrence started sending songs to a North and South Carolina-area group called the Tri-City Singers. Stepped to succeed the act’s former musical director, he helped the group claim a No. 2 debut on Billboard’s Top Gospel Albums chart with 1993’s A Songwriter’s Point of View. The set, melding hip-hop and other contemporary rhythms, featured guest turns by Peabo Bryson and Mills. Over the next 12 years, Lawrence & the Tri-City Singers issued a string of top five gospel albums, including No. 1 Bible Stories, tri-city4.com and Go Get Your Life Back. These releases sported such memorable hits as “Testify,” “Message to the Saints” and “The Best Is Yet to Come.” The albums also boasted an array of guests, including Clark Sheard, Ann Nesby, Kelly Price and Kim Burrell.
Lawrence & the Tri-City Singers retired in 2006, culminating their run with a cross-country, sold-out tour and a live recording, Finale. The project spun off the hits “Encourage Yourself” and “The Blessing of Abraham” with the latter spending 18 weeks at No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot Gospel Songs chart.
Two years prior, Lawrence stepped out with his first solo album, the Donald Lawrence & Co.-headlined I Speak Life, with cameos by Donnie McClurkin, Hezekiah Walker, Faith Evans, Lalah Hathaway and jazz icon Ramsey Lewis. Featured hits included “You Covered Me” and the anthem “Healed.” He followed that with a second No. 2 album, 2009’s The Law of Confession, Part I, and the hit “Back II Eden.” He then scored his second No. 1 with YRM (Your Righteous Mind).
Lawrence’s musical passion continues to manifest itself through various pursuits. He has written and produced for the legendary Clark Sisters, Clark Sheard, Kirk Franklin and Hezekiah Walker (including No. 1 single “Souled Out”), among others. He has taught at Chicago’s Columbia College. And in September, he’ll celebrate his sixth anniversary as host of Verizon’s national gospel choir talent competition “How Sweet the Sound,” working alongside Walker, Yolanda Adams, Tamela Mann and other special guests. Future plans include expanding into TV, film and Broadway projects.
“New ideas and concepts for songs, new talent, more knowledge … the more creative I can be is what keeps me excited,” says the indefatigable Lawrence. “You reap what you sow.”
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Yolanda Adams' debut album, Just as I Am appeared in 1988 on Sounds of Gospel. Though she was initially criticized in the Christian community for embracing secular music and fashion to accompany her gospel-themed music, the growth of publicly popular gospel in the mid-'90s pushed her into the spotlight; Adams toured with Kirk Franklin & the Family, and her 1996 album Yolanda Live in Washington was nominated for a Grammy. Songs From the Heart followed in 1998, and a year later she returned with Mountain High Valley Low which topped her live album by winning a Grammy. In 2000 she ventured into new territory by issuing a Christmas album, A Yolanda Adams Christmas. Experience followed a year later.
John Bush, Rovi
Bishop Morton is a visionary leader, accomplished author, renowned pastor and popular recording artist. When talking about his album he said “In my music I refuse to get stuck, I could just do the oldies all the time but I challenge myself … you have to go to the next level [in my music, in my church]. If you are going to make a difference … the future belongs to those who are open to positive change.”
Living the truth of those words, Morton releases BEST DAYS YET his 10th solo album and it features a first time collaboration with Grammy Award winning producer Donald Lawrence.
BEST DAYS YET is diverse but not confused. The songs reflect Morton’s command of a variety of styles. “I love variety and I don’t want to get locked into one style,” said Morton. “It is all on here … the different styles I like to embrace ‘the churchy style, the contemporary style, ‘worshipping style’ so many different qualities that each of the songs have.” But the album’s strength comes in the flawless combination of Morton’s strong vocals and Lawrence’s masterful vocal arrangements and production.
Morton expertly threads a common theme throughout the different styles so there is a definite sense of cohesion when listening to BEST DAYS YET from beginning to end. Resounding with themes of encouragement, hope and transformation, BEST DAYS YET opens with a timeless song for the church, the title track, “Best Days Yet.” Though studio-recorded, the song’s powerful instrumentation gives it a live feel.
Continuing the themes throughout are album cuts “Times Like These,” and upbeat “It’s Over.” And the highlight tying the theme together is the Kurt Carr-penned “Something Happens (Jesus)” which is pure gospel music. The vocals come together beautifully on the powerful song.
Bishop Morton calls BEST DAYS YET a “prophetic project.” It speaks right to the heart of society’s current issues. “When you think about ‘you ain’t seen your best days yet,’ I’ve seen so many depressed people in this recession … people who are about to give up,” said Morton. “I want to lift their spirits. [Let people] know they can succeed. If people really know that their best days are ahead, that things are changing in their life … That something [does] happens when you call the name Jesus. That is what I want people to get out of this album – for people to know something IS going to happen … it’s not going to stay the same if you trust God. It’s going to get better.”
There are stellar guest artists on BEST DAYS YET including Marvin Winans on “Things Are Changing.” “I love the contemporary vibe of this song but it has such an important message,” said Morton. Winans’ smooth and rich vocals over the cool groove make the song a standout.
Also on the album is the incomparable Karen Clark Sheard. A nod to Thomas Whitfield, an early mentor to Morton, “The Grass Withereth” is an absolute modern take on a classic. “Thomas Whitfield produced one of my first national CD’s and he saw something in my music way back then,” said Morton. “He was really a genius before his time and for Donald Lawrence to come in and take it to the next level.”
Achieving a definitive release with BEST DAYS YET, Morton makes the album a family affair working with his son, PJ and daughter Jasmine Morton-Ross. PJ, well known for his amazing songwriting pens several songs on the album lending his signature sound. PJ’s hit “Go Through” and “The Promise” led by Jasmine are high points. “I am so proud of her [Jasmine]” said Morton. “I really want to see her do her own project, she’s so gifted and I love her voice that I think it’s time for her to go to the next level in music.”
Morton went on to explain, “working with my children is very key to helping keep relevant … [my son] who produced several songs … gave me one of the greatest compliment saying ‘hey Dad you still got it’ I tried to hang on in there … of course it was a different experience for me for him to produce some of my songs.”
“I love singing and am so excited about what I do, Morton continued. “I just believe there so much more in helping others … like my daughter and son who are carrying on the mantle for me.”
BEST DAYS YET is well rounded, powerful and encouraging. As he does in his role as pastor & Bishop, Morton lifts people’s spirits through this album them honest messages of hope. “There is so much in each of the songs,” he said. “I want them to really minister to people [they] need hope in this day and time. The songs really center around that.”
Bishop Paul Morton is the International Presiding Bishop of the Full Gospel Baptist Church Fellowship and Sr. Pastor of Changing a Generation church in Atlanta, GA. With over 30 years of singing and recording, Morton has plans to start a new season in his life.
He announced recently his retirement from Presiding Bishop of FGBCF in 2015 as well as retire from pastoring in 2020. Morton won’t rest on his laurels. His legacy is pass on his vast knowledge. “I want to share with people the experience I’ve had in life … I want to be able to teach in school … show people how to be successful,” Morton said. “I have the experience of longevity and know how to make success last.”
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