When the official almanac on Gospel music is finally published, a huge chapter will be meticulously dedicated to one of the most prolific and respected recording artists of this genre, Richard Smallwood, affectionately known as “The Maestro”. His immortal compositions such as The Resurrection, Calvary, Center Of My Joy, and Total Praise resonate with a new generation of artists, a multitude of skilled musicians and millions of adoring fans around the globe.
Maintaining a relevant recording career in the age of social media and a disintegrating music industry is a challenging proposition for any artist in any genre but Smallwood has defied the odds, recording at least 17 albums over 40-plus years, including his latest release, Anthology, a collection of marvelously crafted compositions that span the gamut of Gospel music and his notable chapters with both The Richard Smallwood Singers and Vision. In a recent conversation for BlackGospel.com, Richard Smallwood reflects his acclaimed recording career that has contributed so richly to the legacy of the Lord’s music.
Christopher Heron: Thanks again, Minister Smallwood. I’m just going to ask a few questions in regards to the album Anthology. I’ll get started right away. This is a wonderful project. I am very intrigued by the artists that you had featured on this particular album, particularly Angela Winbush, the Roberta Martin Singers and of course, Edwin Hawkins. Tell me a little about why these particular artists and these particular veterans of the industry were very important to feature on this album.
Richard Smallwood: Well, starting with the Roberta Martin Singers, they were probably one of my biggest musical influences as a child. My mom would take me to hear them sing. We would buy their recordings. My very first groups that I put together, even as a child, were based on their style and harmony. Lucy Smith was probably is my biggest pianistic influence. You know when I went to hear her, I would go home and try to emulate everything that she did on the piano. Probably one of the biggest thrills of my life was at the booth in 1981. The Smithsonian Institution did a symposium of Roberta Martin’s music.
They got all of the existing Roberta Martin Singers together from all over the country. They came together and started their music during the day and they would even do concerts. But at that time, Lucy had suffered a stroke and her right hand was paralyzed. They knew, through a link with Pearl Williams Jones, who was a mentor of mine, of my love for them. She got me to play for the reunion which was better for me than a Grammy. When I was doing Anthology, I went to see my influencers. They are one of my earliest influences so I really wanted to sound like them and to take that vision back to the time machine to try to recreate the sound of the Martin Singers. I wanted to do it in the exact same way that I remember Lucy used to play.
Of course, Edwin Hawkins is probably my biggest influence as a writer. I was in college when I first started seriously trying to write and I always credited him with being the one that helped me to start seriously writing so I definitely want to honor him. Angela Winbush was in the original Richard Smallwood Singers group in 1977. She was a singer at Howard University. I had just graduated. She came in right behind me and we became very good friends and travelled all over. She was together in my church choir and the Smallwood Singers until she moved to LA after she graduated from Howard. With the three of them there was a natural progression because they were all such a part of my anthology, journey and history.
Christopher Heron: Speaking of journey, this album in some respects reminds me of that album, The Journey. How would you distinguish or qualify the distinction of this particular album, The Anthology, from some of your earlier works?
Richard Smallwood: I think this album is a musical historical perspective of what I have done the past few years. I wanted to trace my influences and my beginnings as well as to revisit some of the songs. It includes some of the smallest things that you are known for, and the vision you are known for. This is tracing my history so this is my first autobiographical album. They tell my story through the music. The Journey has many of my favorite artists who I always loved and always wanted to work with. This is a more historical perspective of what I have done.
Christopher Heron: Many people are acquainted with your history as an artist who was trained and schooled at Howard University. Since many of your works are featured on Music & Arts Seminar albums, there is certainly a quality of classical training to your sound that is part of your DNA. Has that continued? Do you believe that it has evolved over the years?
Richard Smallwood: I think that when writing you evolve, the more that you do it. The very first Richard Smallwood Singers album had songs that were 10 years old from songs that I had done when I was a student at Howard U. The solos have never been recorded. It’s an evolution, I think. The more you write, the more you understand musically and the more that you understand from the scripture. I think that your music definitely evolves because of change or because of the sound or the style but it certainly evolves as you mature.
There was also the whole classical thing since I was brought up on gospel and classical music. My mother used to bring gospel recordings home to me. When I was nine years old, she brought home a classical recording. I had been to classical concerts so I fell in love with it when I heard it. Saturday night I may have been at a Roberta Martin Singers concert and Sunday afternoon I may be listening to the Philadelphia Orchestra. I had all of the Broadway albums: Sound of Music, Camelot — the whole nine yards. My music is very rich because of my mother. She exposed me to many different genres. When I started writing, it all just sort of came out. I didn’t plan it that way, it just happened.
Christopher Heron: Of course, some of the beautiful songs you’ve written that are timeless and staples in the church are Center of my Joy and Total Praise. Are there one or two particular selections that really stand out for you on Anthology and that you hope will resonate with the public? For me, it’s Hebrews 11.
Richard Smallwood: Hebrews 11 is probably my favorite. I have always loved that particular scripture. It is the way that it is written. It’s just wonderful. I also grew up on biblical movies such as King of Kings, Ten Commandments etc. I really wanted to put in that music but I wanted it to sound like a biblical movie. I am really excited about the way that it came out. Same God is a great church choir song so that is one of my favorites as well.
Christopher Heron: You are also credited with introducing some wonderful singers over the years. I think of Dottie Jones, Maurette Brown Clarke and Vanessa Williams. Who are some of the Richard Smallwood Singers that you enjoy listening to?
Richard Smallwood: Well, if you go back to the beginning, Dottie Jones is just an amazing singer. She is very unique very anointed with a beautiful instrument. I love Dottie. She is like one of my dear, dear friends. I still get the chills. Of course Maurette Brown-Clark. I love Maurette. She does a song on the current project. She did an incredible job on that acapella thing she does on the beginning. Vanessa Williams who is another excellent singer. Charisse Nelson- McIntosh, who is an amazing singer. Darlene Simmons, who visits me probably 30 years later just to see the Smallwood Singers.
A favorite is Ted Winn who is another great singer. He is actually working on his greatest solo project. I am so blessed. Maurette told me a number of years ago, “I am doing the solo thing but the only way you’re going to be able to keep me from visiting is to kick me out of Vision. I am not going anywhere.” I feel so grateful for the allegiance of these people. I am so happy to see them spread their wings and do their thing. However, they come back home and I think that’s when we get together and they bring all of their individual anointing and talents and gifts and uniqueness to make this what it is.
Christopher Heron: I have friends in the DMV and everybody there unanimously acknowledges you as the godfather of gospel music in your area. Do you acknowledge the contribution that you made to that area of the country in terms of gospel music and are you still committed and loyal to the DC area?
Richard Smallwood: I love the DC area. This is home. We moved to DC when I was 10 years old. After being a little vagabond and moving from state to state and city to city for the first 10 years of my life, we finally settled in Washington DC. I think that before then as a child, I didn’t feel like I had any roots because we’d be somewhere a year or two years and then we’d move to another city and another church. DC is a place where I have roots, friends and extended family. The DMV people have been the most supportive people since day one.
The same is true for the Smallwood Singers. From the time that I started getting out there and trying my wings, the DMV has had the most incredible supporters of anywhere, which is unusual because a lot of people say, “a profit is not without honor save in his own land” (Mark 6:4) but I can’t say that about the DMV they have always honored me and they still do. They are very, very supportive. I think I am absolutely amazed at what people say I have done and then when I look at it, it’s like well gosh, thank you. I don’t think I will really get used to it. You know this is not the point where I say yeah I did this. I think I am always evolving and trying to look at how can I be different and what can I bring that is new and fresh to what I do. I think it’s an ongoing kind of experience.
Christopher Heron: Finally, what is the lasting impression you hope people will take away once the last song is played on Anthology?
Richard Smallwood: I just hope that the music somehow will encourage people, make a positive difference in people’s lives when they hear it. Whether it’s healing or encouragement, whether someone gets into a financial crisis or a personal crisis—whatever it is they are going through, I hope that there is something on this record in totality that will help to make a difference. I hope that it is not just about the music but something more that will make a difference in people’s lives.