Chicago will always be considered one of the birthplaces of Gospel music. Mahalia Jackson, Albertina Walker and Thomas A. Dorsey all considered Chi-Town home during important stretches in their musical careers. The Thompson Community Singers, long considered one of the most storied community choirs in Gospel music history, was a product of West Side Chicago.
Today, Kenny Lewis, another Windy City native, is continuing the proud tradition of Gospel music his city made famous, by featuring towering vocalists and exceptional musicians. His unique contribution to Gospel music can be heard on his latest album – The Way Of Escape – which features original Praise & Worship, Contemporary and Traditional Gospel music compositions written by this self-proclaimed ‘church boy’. BlackGospel.com spoke with Kenny Lewis about his new album, his musical mentors and lessons learned in the music industry.
Christopher Heron: Kenny Lewis & One Voice was established back in ’99. A year later, you released your debut project, The Bridge. That’s a very ambitious undertaking…to release an album within 12 months of the group’s inception. In retrospect, did One Voice find its voice by the time the recording was captured?
Kenny Lewis: Definitely! Actually what had happened, we had been rehearsing for over half year, and I wouldn’t accept any engagement until I felt we were ready. The following year we got our first national record deal. This is a quick synopsis of how it actually happened. There was a showcase at the Gospel Announcers Guild of the GMWA, you got eight minutes to perform, so I told One Voice “you have to make this eight minutes work like its fifty minutes”, and there were record execs there and the rest is history. We did our first record with Marxaan Records, which was under the umbrella of Malaco Records at the time and that pretty much launched our career.
Christopher Heron: Many choir directors, song composers and artists I know, spent their developing years growing up in the church. Was this your experience? Were you a church boy? And when did your experience go from being a lover of Gospel music to wanting to minister full time, with your unique sound and message?
Kenny Lewis: I absolutely am a church boy. My mom unfortunately passed away seven years ago and there were ten of us brothers and sisters growing up. From that church experience, there are six preachers and three pastors in the family. I definitely grew up a church boy. I’ve always loved the Detroit sound believe or not, The Thomas Whitfield Company. Ministry actual came in my teen years. We were brought up in an apostolic church, so we really didn’t have choices, we had to be at church at least three to four times in the week. The Word of God was imbedded in our heart and mind. It became real to me as far as ministry was concerned and I could actually tell my own testimonies at a young age.
Christopher Heron: One Voice is in so many ways the essence of Chicago Gospel. Big voices, great musicianship, church music personified…but by your own admission, what is that distinction that distinguishes Kenny Lewis & One Voice from the long list of Chicago chorales directed by Ricky Dillard, Mark Hubbard, Vashawn Mitchell, Larry Trotter,Malcolm Williams and others?
Kenny Lewis: I think there are things that distinguishes us from others. I love Traditional Gospel. I love Contemporary Gospel. I love Praise & Worship music. I love all of that, believe or not. I was not a church choir type of kid. I wasn’t into choirs growing up. When I finally became a choir junky, sort of speak, I believed that choirs needed to be able to do Traditional, Contemporary and Praise & Worship music, as well. So, this project to me personifies who I am and who we are as artists.
It’s not just a choir project, there is Praise & Worship, there’s Contemporary. I think in this day and age in music ministry and in the music industry, you should be well versed. I’m excited about because that’s what we did in The Way Of Escape. I’ve noticed the division between choirs and the Praise & Worship team. I am praying that this will be one of the gaps or vehicles to merge the two music ministries together where everyone can just be accepting and tolerant of each other.
Christopher Heron: It’s been fifteen years since the inception of Kenny Lewis & One Voice. That’s a long time to sustain a chorale and music ministry. What is the biggest difference between One Voice fifteen years ago and today’s group?
Kenny Lewis: In the beginning, things happened so fast and I think we weren’t prepared mentally or spiritually, or just educated in the music industry enough. I wasn’t ready for some of the things I saw or the disappointments or perfecting my craft and continuing to push, but God allowed me to get under the guidance of some good people, who I could trust. It’s hard to trust people out there when they say “don’t do that”, or “do this.” I was young, things started for me at a very young age but I thank God that he showed me enough grace and covered us until we could get on a tour and move the ministry forward.
Christopher Heron: Your latest project is certainly your best work to date in terms of production, song composition, and overall ministry. How would you assess The Way of Escape when compared against former projects?
Kenny Lewis: Every aspect of The Way of Escape is totally what I exude on stage. It personifies the ministry of One Voice as a whole. Early on in my ministry, I had to conform. I’ve had to do some things that I didn’t want to do artistically or that really didn’t exhibit who we are as a ministry, but this project is totally Kenny Lewis & One Voice.
Christopher Heron: What is the lasting impression you hope to make with those who listen to this latest project?
Kenny Lewis: My Heart is actually in the title of the project – The Way Of Escape. It means a few things, but if you walk away with anything I hope that you walk away with some type of encouragement. Even back during slavery, when we could not escape our current situation, there was always a song that the slaves would conjure up that would take them spiritually to a place where currently they weren’t in.
My prayer is that no matter what situation you’re in, whatever you’re facing, whatever the obstacle, that a song on this project would be an encouraging song to help you make it through. No matter the style of the song is, you can tell a friend or family, this song is for you, that song is for you, it’s not just for one type of person, or one group of people, just a project of encouragement for anyone.