A REASON TO SMILE: (from left) Co-host Dorinda Clark-Cole, Kirk Franklin, and co-host Marvin Sapp rejoice and dance at the 2012 Stellar Awards. (Photo: Rick Diamond/Central City Productions & The FrontPage Firm)
Despite how battles often rage between the traditional music of hymns and choir-based anthems versus the upbeat, secular-sounding groove of contemporary worship songs, artists from all facets of gospel music declared it a truce last week as they gathered for the 27th Annual Stellar Awards.
Newcomer VaShawn Mitchell took home the most awards, including Artist, Male Vocalist, and Contemporary Male of the Year. His 2011 album, Triumphant, won for Praise and Worship CD of the Year.
“It’s a great feeling when you know it’s God who stamped his approval on your turn,” he said soon after the show’s taping. Mitchell, who has worked with several heavy hitters in the gospel industry prior to his more recent popularity, said he had come to previous Stellar Award shows as a seat filler, a person designated to sit in prominent seats that are temporarily empty. “It’s amazing to see the process from being the seat filler to winning six awards.” That’s not something a person can do by himself, Mitchell said. “Only God can do it.”
And only He gets the glory for what you accomplish, said another newcomer, Jessica Reedy. A season 2 finalist on BET’s Sunday Best, Reedy said the whole purpose of singing gospel music was God himself. “If you want self-gain and you think your talent is all that, you might not want to do this because God will humble you,” she said during the show. “And when He humbles you, it doesn’t feel good.”
In most cases, it was clear that most — though not all — of the artists exhibited humility despite their successes. Kirk Franklin, who has received 25 Stellars along with numerous other honors for his work, picked up four awards for CD of the Year, Contemporary CD of the Year, Producer of the Year, and Song of the Year. The latter award, though, he shared onstage with Darius Paulk, songwriter for the song that Mitchell made popular, “Nobody Greater.”
“Just at that moment, it just felt right because [“Nobody Greater”] had ministered to me so much,” Franklin said. “It was important to acknowledge just the great body of work that it is.”
Franklin said he was thankful to still be a part of the gospel music community and that his music, which won Song of the Year in 1993 for “Why We Sing,” has an impact today. “I’m just glad (the music is) still speaking to somebody dealing with something that somebody may be facing.”
GREAT HONOR: "Nobody Greater" singer VaShawn Mitchell receives the Artist of the Year trophy from CeCe Winans at the Stellar Awards. (Photo: Rick Diamond / Central City Productions & The FrontPage Firm)
Other winners included well-known pioneers of gospel music the Rance Allen Group, who received two Stellars for Traditional Group and Quartet of the Year. Traditional performances by Richard Smallwood and Issac Caree from Men of Standard, paying tribute to choirmaster John P. Kee, underscored the enduring popularity of choral gospel music. Smallwood, who later said he thought his gift for songwriting had dried up after his mother’s death in 2005, performed a song from his latest album, Promises.
Kee, who cried during renditions of his hit songs, including “Standing in the Need of Prayer” and “He’ll Welcome Me,” received the James Cleveland Lifetime Achievement Award for his three decades of contributions to the gospel music industry. “When we really realize what this music is about, tonight meant a whole lot,” Kee said. “It not only showed what we’ve accomplished, but that there’s more to accomplish.”
A variety of artists said they were working on new projects and music-related ventures due out this year. Among them were Mitchell, Karen Clark-Sheard, Kurt Carr, and Artist of the Year nominee Earnest Pugh. Marvin Sapp, who co-hosted the show with Dorinda Clark Cole, is working on a book entitled, I Win.
As host, Sapp said the show turned out well and he encouraged people to tune in in their respective markets. “I was very pleased with the looks of the show. Tell everybody and their mama they should watch it.”
Beginning January 21, the award show will air in more than 130 markets through February 26. The GMC network will broadcast the awards nationally on February 11. Check TheStellarAwards.com for airdates in your area.
2012 Stellar Award Winners
Artist of the Year
Song of the Year
“I Smile” | Kirk Franklin
Male Vocalist of the Year
Albertina Walker Female Vocalist of the Year
Group/Duo of the Year
New Artist of the Year
CD of the Year
Kirk Franklin | Hello Fear
Choir of the Year
Mississippi Mass Choir
Producer of the Year
Kirk Franklin for Hello Fear
Contemporary Group/Duo of the Year
Traditional Group/Duo of the Year
The Rance Allen Group
Contemporary Male of the Year
Traditional Male of the Year
Contemporary Female of the Year
Traditional Female of the Year
Contemporary CD of the Year
Kirk Franklin | Hello Fear
Traditional CD of the Year
Smokie Norful | How I Got Over: Songs that Carried Us
Urban Inspirational Single or Performance of the Year
VaShawn Mitchell | “Nobody Greater”
Music Video of the Year – Short Format
VaShawn Mitchell | “Nobody Greater” (VaShawn Mitchell)
Music Video of the Year – Long Format
Deitrick Haddon | Church on the Moon
Traditional Choir of the Year
Mississippi Mass Choir
Contemporary Choir of the Year
Shekinah Glory Ministry
Instrumental Gospel CD of the Year
Moses Tyson, Jr. | Music Remastered & Sacred Organ
Special Event CD of the Year
Bishop Paul Morton | Bishop Morton Celebrates 25 Years of Music
Rap, Hip Hop Gospel CD of the Year
Lecrae | Rehab: The Overdose
Children’s Project of the Year
Teen Pure N Heart | Pure N Heart Live
Quartet of the Year
The Rance Allen Group
Recorded Music Packaging of the Year
Martha Munizzi for Make It Loud (Martha Munizzi)
Praise and Worship CD of the Year
VaShawn Mitchell | Triumphant
Spoken Word CD of the Year
Selah | Look At You Loving Me
RADIO STATIONS OF THE YEAR
KJLH 102.3 FM – Los Angeles
WLOU 1350 AM – Louisville, Ken.
WHAL 95.7 FM/1460 AM – Memphis
KOKA 980 AM – Shreveport, La.
Internet Gospel Radio Station of the Year
GospelSynergy.com1radio.com, Chicago, IL
Gospel Announcer of the Year
John Hannah – WGRB, Inspiration 1390, Chicago, IL
Albertina Walker leaves behind an incomparable legacy of gospel music artistry and unselfishness.
One of my favorite ways to entertain myself involves a combination of music history and network theory (the field of study that introduced the idea of “six degrees of separation” into popular culture). Basically, I like to think about an artist or musician, then figure out how many degrees of connection it takes to connect that person to another of a different generation, genre or style.
For example, here’s one way of connecting praise and worship artist Mary Alessi with the Clark Sisters:
Mary Alessi’s twin sister Martha Munizzi . . .
. . . has co-written songs with Israel Houghton . . .
. . . who was a member of Fred Hammond’s Radical for Christ . . .
. . . which Hammond founded after Commissioned . . .
. . . whose sound was patterned after the Clark Sisters.
So it’s possible to connect these artists within five degrees of separation. (Bonus points if you knew that Karen Clark-Sheard recorded Munizzi’s “Glorious” on her 2003 album The Heavens Are Telling, which gets you there within four degrees.)
I like this parlor game because it’s a great way to push the limits of gospel geekery in the company of fellow gospel music lovers. It’s a reminder of the different relationships and influences that exist between seemingly disparate artists and sounds. But it’s also a great way to identify the figures who had a genre-shaping, cross-generational influence on a musical form. Those names are the ones that come up, time after time.
Albertina Walker will certainly be remembered as one of those key figures.
Walker, who died last Friday at the age of 81, was known as the “Queen of Gospel Music.” No doubt one reason is her lifelong commitment to the music. Walker started singing at her Chicago church, West Point Missionary Baptist, at the age of four. As a 17-year-old, she joined “the Gospel Caravan,” a group of female singers who provided backing vocals for gospel singer Robert Anderson. A few years later, Walker formed the Caravans, one of the most influential groups of gospel’s golden age.
“Robert was retiring, and . . . I didn’t want to record by myself,” Walker said in an interview taped for Malaco’s Gospel Legends DVD Collection. “I always wanted to sing with a group.” So she convinced her record label to allow her to record with a group of young women who she called “The Caravans.” James Cleveland, later to be known as “the King of Gospel Music,” accompanied the group for many years.
The Caravans’ “Tell Him What You Want,” “Lord, Keep Me Day by Day,” “You Can’t Hurry God,” “The Blood Will Never Lose its Power,” “No Coward Soldiers,” and “You Can’t Beat God Giving” are the kinds of songs that become deeply rooted in church life, whether or not members of a congregation are aware of their origins. (Gospel music historian and radio announcer Bob Marovich recently dedicated a special broadcast to Walker and the Caravans that is an excellent introduction to their discography.)
As a soloist recording after the Caravans disbanded, Walker brought her easy contralto to widely known songs like “Please Be Patient with Me,” (1979) “I Can Go to God in Prayer” (1981), and “I’m Still Here” (1997). A slew of honors, including a Grammy, 11 Grammy nominations, four Stellar Awards and multiple Hall of Fame inductions testify to her impact on the industry. And no one will forget her regal, rhinestone-studded sunglasses — emblematic of a distinctive level of church-lady fashion sense many will attempt, but few will attain.
While all of these honors make a strong case for Walker as gospel royalty, I’m most intrigued by something that leads back to network theory: Almost all of the biographical information I’ve read about her — and many of the obituaries that have been posted since Walker’s passing — note that she is known for developing others through the group. Indeed, in addition to Cleveland, Shirley Caesar, Inez Andrews, Dorothy Norwood and Delores Washington were all part of the Caravans before they disbanded in the late 1960s. One of gospel’s early “supergroups” came about because Walker was willing to step back, and let someone else shine. And those gospel stars made room for others, with the result that all of their musical legacies — built through webs of connection — have grown by degrees.
In his entry on the Caravans in his book Uncloudy Days: The Gospel Music Encyclopedia, Bil Carpenter writes that “Walker, a shrewd leader, recognized that her voice wasn’t always the best fit for every song and she routinely showcased the talents of others.” Historian Horace Clarence Boyer notes the distinctive way the Caravans employed the “swing lead” technique in an early performance of “Stand By Me”: While in most performances soloists might trade lead during each verse, in this one, the women of the group shared the lead role, switching between leads to complete a line.
It isn’t wise to idealize anyone, and Ms. Walker certainly wasn’t perfect. But I think there’s something instructive about her story.
She was a magnificent singer, but she felt no need to hog the spotlight or impose her considerable talent on a song the way some artists might these days. Her Albertina Walker Scholarship Foundation for the Creative and Performing Arts, with its annual benefit concerts, raised lots of money to help young people achieve their dreams. And though she battled asthma and emphysema, she continued performing until the end. “The Lord lets me sing,” she told the Chicago Tribune in 2004. “The only time I’ll stop is when the Lord says.”
Walker will be remembered as one of the greats, the “Queen” indeed. But she was much more than a gospel diva. She was a servant to her art, to her community, and to her God. She didn’t just sing “I’m Willing“; she was. She wasn’t just entertaining audiences when she declared, “You Can’t Beat God Giving“; she gave.