Richard Smallwood

Biography

The story of Richard Smallwood reads like the script to a great movie. It's a struggle for survival—leading to success beyond his wildest imaginings—set against the long odds of poverty and discrimination that were just a routine part of everyday life for most African-American families in the “Old South.” The cast of characters includes parents of often diametrically different dispositions: a stern taskmaster/pastor father, and a mother of a gentler, artistic disposition; and a little boy born into the world with prodigious gifts as well as a profound loneliness.

The scene could open with a baby in his crib, humming melodies to hymns before he'd even learned to articulate a word to go with them; and later, as a youngster in his robe, standing before a mirror, “conducting” a choir of Christmas-tree-ornament angels, to whatever music was playing on the radio at the time. Then, as a young man at Washington, D.C.'s renowned Howard University—living a life immersed in both the great classical music of the last several centuries, and the campus radicalism of the late-‘60s that raised a loud—and proud—voice, that would not be silenced, demanding that studies of African and black American history, music and all art forms be included in the school's curriculum.

Perhaps, more than anything, it's a love story: the love of a mother for her son, God Almighty's love for all His children, and Richard Smallwood's lifelong love affair with music. And while it's not a movie—at least, not yet—Richard takes a long and loving look over his career…past, present and future…on his new, 25th Anniversary release, aptly titled Journey! Live in New York. With 17 songs spanning the two-disk set, and a dazzling roster of superstar guest artists (including Chaka Khan, Kim Burrell, Kelly Price, The Hawkins Family, and the original Smallwood Singers), Journey! Live in New York plays like a veritable collection of favorites. Still several selections shine with a particular brilliance. “I'll Trust You” resounds with the power of a modern-day anthem. Richard delivers a soul-stirring vocal atop the heavenly harmonies of Vision—his 21-voice choir since the mid '90s—and gorgeous, evocative orchestration; all essential ingredients of the Gospel/classical synthesis known to the masses as the “Smallwood Sound.”

To help him celebrate his 25 years of recording, Richard invited both longtime friends and collaborators to join him on several of Journey's other stand-out tracks, as well as artists he's admired but only now found the perfect project on which to share a mike. An airtight, incendiary Vision stirs vocal sparks, which Gospel great Kim Burrell fans into full flame on the album's arresting title cut. Superstar Chaka Khan (who recently gave her life to Christ, and whose ‘70s and ‘80s smashes, “Tell Me Something Good,” and “I Feel for You” are still radio staples today), turns in a commanding take on the propulsive Gospel/funk of “Precious Is Your Name.” Reigning R&B diva, Kelly Price, literally soars on the devastatingly powerful ballad, “Morning's Breaking,” with Vision lending a perfectly polished, soul-deep counterpoint.

The Hawkins Family—Walter, Edwin, Lynette and Tramaine—career-long friends and contemporaries of Richard, exult in the dare-you-to-sit-still, straight-ahead, Sunday-morning Gospel of “We've Come Too Far,” written for the project by Walter and Richard; while Richard and his original, five-voice Smallwood Singers, have a joyful reunion on “He Won't Leave You,” a gentle ballad that locks into a smooth, percolating groove, and a delightfully righteous reinvention of “Holy, Holy.” Richard also introduces the awesome voice of classical singer Janice-Chandler Eteme with "We Worship You."

Journey! Live in New York closes on an appropriately somber, deeply moving note, with great personal significance for Richard. “I'd Rather Have Jesus,” was the only song Richard ever heard his mother play on the piano. The rock and foundation of her son's earthly existence, she passed away—after a protracted illness—in 2005. As a final and fitting tribute to her, Richard went into the studio and—seated solo at the grand piano—poured out his soul in love, honor and tribute to his mother, with a truly touching and virtuoso rendering of the beloved hymn.

That quiet-but-crowning moment on which Journey! Live in New York concludes, and the album in its entirety, all stand as hallmarks of the diversity that has been the one absolute constant in body of work that has been Richard Smallwood's life. His music has never been confined to any single artistic genre, and the accolades accorded him have spanned the range of contemporary culture.

His song, “I Love the Lord,” crossed into the mass market when Whitney Houston sang it on the multi-million-selling soundtrack to the hit film, The Preacher's Wife, co-starring Denzel Washington; and his work has been recorded by a star-studded array of artists, including Destiny's Child, Yolanda Adams, Boyz II Men, and Karen Clark-Sheard.

Prominent in a trophy case filled with an abundance of awards and citations are numerous Stellar and Dove Awards (Gospel music's highest honor), and a Grammy Award for his production on the Quincy Jones Gospel project, Handel's Soulful Messiah.

Richard's gifts have made room for him to minister to presidents and dignitaries all over the globe, as well as the numerous, world-renowned performance centers in his native D.C. - among them, Constitution Hall, the Kennedy Center, the Smithsonian Institution—which honored him for his singular cultural contributions—and the White House, where he accompanied legendary opera diva Leontyne Price during the Reagan administration.

Richard completed work on his Masters of Divinity at Howard University's prestigious School of Divinity in 2004, graduating with honors. Ordained in June of that year, Richard serves as a minister and Artist-in-Residence at his home church, Metropolitan Baptist Church in Washington.

On November 14, 2006, Richard joined the ranks of a select few when he was inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame by the prestigious Gospel Music Association (GMA), placing him in the company of some of the greatest artists ever to perform sacred music, among them Elvis Presley, Mahalia Jackson, Andraé Crouch, and Thomas A. Dorsey.

As a child, Richard had thrived on rich and diverse musical fare, including not only Gospel, but classical, R&B and pop as well (though it was well into his adolescence before he worked up the nerve to share his penchant for “worldly” R&B and soul within the four walls of the family home). He had begun picking out melodies by ear on the family piano when he was only 5, and by age 7 he was receiving formal instruction and performing as the regular pianist in his father's churches. When his mother gave him a recording of a Rachmaninoff piano concerto and began taking him to symphony concerts, Richard was enchanted, and developed a love for classical music that would later profoundly influence his life and his own music.

The elder Smallwood's profession—as a Baptist pastor who “seeded” new churches, on an almost-yearly basis before moving on...family-in-tow…to new,” untilled turf”—rendered Richard always the “new kid in class,” in school-after-school. Until, at his mother's insistence, the family settled in Washington, when Richard was 11. As an 8th grader, Richard would be taught by a brilliant, fresh-out-of-college music teacher named Roberta Flack.

Not long after settling in D.C., Richard—already known for his amazing instrumental and vocal skills, formed his first Gospel group, which he now refers to jokingly as “The Baby Smallwood Singers.” The boys' talents were no joke at all, however, as they built a following and found themselves in great demand in the Washington, D.C., area where Richard would meet Roberta Flack as his 8th grade music teacher. Three years later, Richard was accepted into a program for musically gifted children at Howard University); which he later attended full-time, graduating with a degree in classical piano and voice.

Richard's talents became well-known as his profile grew in his years as an undergraduate student at Howard. He became a founding member of the Howard Gospel Choir, and a featured member of a contemporary Gospel group, the Celestial Singers; taking the place of its previous keyboardist, Donnie Hathaway, who went on to become one of the great R&B/pop stars of the ‘70s.

Richard's abundant gifts quickly carried him to the forefront of the group, which gained special prominence in 1973 when it became the first Gospel act ever to perform at the internationally renowned Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland. That group was the forerunner to the original Richard Smallwood Singers, which, among a long list of firsts in its nearly two-decade tenure, was the first black Gospel group ever to tour the Soviet Union.

Richard never pursued his formal classical studies any further, although his years of classical training had a profound effect on the derivation of what the world today knows as the “Smallwood Sound”—a fusion of the Gospel, classical, pop and R&B styles he'd grown up on, and that has been the hallmark of his music throughout his illustrious career.

Upon his graduation from Howard, Richard taught music privately and at the University of Maryland to support himself, as he began to focus more and more on Gospel music as a life's work. Forming the Smallwood Singers in 1977, Richard set about the arduous process of doing demo recordings and trying to get a hearing in the music industry. He got that hearing, and a major-label recording contract followed in 1982, leading to an almost-unparalleled string of what is now, with Journey! Live in New York, 15 consecutive Top-10 albums.

“I never try to make my music sound any particular way,” Richard explains. “It's just all my musical exposure and influences filtering through my own creativity. I'm known for Gospel with a classical touch, but traditional Gospel has also been very much of an influence. It's what I cut my teeth on. I grew up with it. I emulated it as a child. It's been both a tremendous inspiration—spirit, heart and soul—as well as a strong musical foundation. I believe that's one reason my songs seems to transcend age barriers. They are contemporary without losing that traditional feel.”

As Richard—with Journey! Live in New York—looks back, as well as forward, on one of the great stories of contemporary music, it's clear that this “script” is very much a work-still-in-progress. “There are some tangible musical things I still want to do,” he says, “but to continue to grow—creatively and spiritually—has always been my heart. I hope and pray to increase this ministry in a way that will do supernatural work in the hearts and lives of the listeners. We're here for a certain season and a certain reason, and it is a journey. And when you've done all you can do— then God takes you home.

“I want to make music that will linger and have a lasting effect—one that will lift burdens and change lives…and heal—long after I've gone on.”

 


"Bitch Perfect" · RuPaul's Drag Race · TV Review Drag Race gets “Bitch Perfect” with a demanding performance challenge · TV Club · The A.V. Club pre bonded hairConfidence and commitment are the key elements to success on RuPaul’s Drag Race, and these two words that are repeated throughout “Bitch Perfect,” an episode that puts the queens through a performance gauntlet that tests how well they can stand out in a crowd. You don’t really get a solid idea of just how much these queens have to learn until you see the final “Bitch Perfect” product, an elaborate stage show that has the queens performing a significant amount of choreography while lip syncing to a cappella arrangements of RuPaul’s greatest hits, but most of the queens rise to the challenge. Drag Race is known for over-the-top writing, and the script for this episode is especially cartoonish thanks to the “Bitch Perfect” concept. From RuPaul’s initial descriptions of the two teams—The Lady Bitches are “the sweethearts of dragappella from the Lace Front Institute Of Technology,” The Shady Bitches are “bad girls from the Lake Titicaca Academy of Braids, Weaves, and Waffles”—to the voiceover narration and dialogue of the “Bitch Perfect” show, the writers have a ball using drag lingo to create hilarious dialogue. RuPaul is also clearly delighted with the challenge this week, and I especially love how she puts a twist on her catchphrases by playing with the pitch of her voice. The contestants’ performance skills are immediately tested with the minichallenge, which welcomes musician AB Soto to help Ru judge the queens’ dancing and lip of syncing his song “Cha Cha Bitch.” Cynthia Lee Fontaine and Chi Chi DeVayne are the stand-outs thanks to their fancy footwork and sharp sense of rhythm, but Acid Betty also does good work starting the challenge off with energy and Thorgy makes sure she’s noticed by spasming in time to the music, a move she returns to later in the episode. Derrick Berry is surprisingly lackluster given her experience as a Vegas showgirl, but she makes a wise decision not a wear a blonde wig, making her move away from the Britney Spears persona that defines her.

Bob isn’t much of a dancer, but she makes up for it with an evocative character choice, and she passes this knowledge along to Kim Chi later in the episode when Kim worries about her lack of dance skills. She’s easily the worst performer of the group, but after winning last week, this is the exact kind of narrative turn that will benefit Kim in the long run. At this point, she has the most dimensions of all the contestants this season, and the amount of time the show is dedicating to her backstory suggests she’ll be here for a while. After confessing last week that her mother doesn’t know she does drag, Kim reveals this week that she used to weigh 350 pounds and always felt like an outsider because she was the “weird fat art kid with a strong lisp and accent,” and while Acid Betty and Dax ExclamationPoint follow that up by showing pictures of themselves as overweight kids, their stories don’t have the emotional punch of Kim’s. I don’t know how aware Kim is of how well she’s playing the Drag Race game, but she absolutely kills it in this episode despite being one of the bottom queens. After surprising the group with her backstory, she shocks them further by revealing she’s still a virgin, which brings her lots of attention from the cameras, but also the rest of the queens, who rally behind her to show support and affection. Kim is also the only queen to take advantage of the new Shade Tree confessional room (at least in any sort of meaningful way that the show’s editors choose to include in the episode), and she shows a level of vulnerability in that scene that highlights the value of a confession room. Having a place for the queens to express their thoughts in the moment allows for more honest emotion than the talking heads that are filmed afterward, and Kim Chi uses the Shade Tree to bring even more depth to her story. She’s getting a lot of attention, and if Kim can continue to work the cameras while nailing the runway challenges (she looks incredible this week in her cherry blossom nymph drag), she may be able to avoid lip synching for her life, which would surely be her undoing. Split into two teams led by Cynthia (The Lady Bitches) and Chi Chi (The Shady Bitches), the contestants start to turn up the drama as they vie for screen time, with Acid Betty leading the charge by immediately undermining Chi Chi’s authority. Thorgy has known Betty for 10 years, and she’s very familiar with Betty’s attitude. “Because she’s so artistic, she gets away with being a fucking asshole,” Thorgy says, and surely enough, Betty is a fucking asshole for most of the episode. Betty’s behavior might be acceptable if Chi Chi wasn’t on the right track as a leader, but Chi Chi has a firm grip on being leader. Chi Chi has choreographed for the girls back home, and she knows her process works, but Betty wants to be in charge so she becomes aggressive and antagonistic very fast. remy hair extensionsBetty always needs to do what she wants to do while making the current agenda seem pointless, which makes her look selfish and needlessly rude. She wants to start doing choreography before Chi Chi and the rest of the group understand the basics of the performance, but Chi Chi is in the right here. It’s good to have some choreography, but it’s most important that they know what they’re doing before they jump into action or else it will be even sloppier. Betty continues to condescend when the group is talking about shoes and makes their concerns sound trivial, but when you’re going to perform in heels, you need to talk about the kinds of shoes that work best and will be the most comfortable. Chi Chi isn’t wasting time, she’s addressing the issues that a choreographer has to deal with because she’s done it before, and she knows that it’s not all about having dance steps planned out. They have a professional choreographer, Jamal Sims, who will help them put the dance together, and the rehearsal brings out even more of Betty’s bitchiness as she talks about how she’ll gladly throw Chi Chi under the bus if that’s what it comes to on the runway. She’s the opposite of a team player, which makes everyone surprised when Sims says he admires how much Betty cares about the group and making everyone look good. Betty turns it out on the runway, although I whole-heartedly agree with criticisms of the train and butt on her couture gown, but her nastiness makes it hard to root for her and it’s a relief when Chi Chi is named the winner of this challenge. Her runway look is a bit simple, but her performance in “Bitch Perfect” is stellar and she also has a compelling backstory in her gang member past, showing an intriguing new side of this season’s dim country queen. Thorgy and Naomi also have strong showings on the runway, with Thorgy grabbing the judges’ attention with a sequined jumpsuit and Naomi continuing to show that modeling is what she does best. As a performer, Naomi Smalls is still trying to figure out how to work her gangly body in motion, but at least she tries to be ambitious. She delivers one of the show’s most pitiful death drops during the minichallenge, but the effort is admirable and she steps it up during the main challenge, hitting all the choreography and playing a defined character. All of The Shady Bitches but Dax bring a strong personality to the stage, which makes her fade even further into the background. So much of what Dax says this week involves what she doesn’t do (not a gown queen, not a disco queen, not a classically trained dancer), and her lack of versatility combined with her lack of confidence makes her a completely forgettable queen. Laila McQueen is also fighting her forgetability, but she doesn’t know how to make herself memorable. She says she’s going to stand out when Ru visits the workroom, but Ru reminds her that there’s more strategy involved than just saying the words, and Laila isn’t a very good Drag Race strategist. She lets herself get cast as a character who is supposed to be a poor imitation of Derrick Berry, which puts her in a position where her role is working against her, and she’s not able to give that vague character a vivid personality. Laila needs to speak up during the assignment of roles and give herself a stronger character, but she stays silent and allows herself to be doomed.

Disappointing performances in “Bitch Perfect” and bland looks on the runway land Dax and Laila in the bottom two, and the judges’ expectations are very high for the queens’ lip syncs of Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive,” the quintessential Gay Lip Sync Song. The editing builds up the lip sync by showing the judges talking about what a seminal track this is, and setting the expectations so high makes it all the more disastrous when both queens fail to impress. Dax looks bored for most of the number and has no connection to the emotional core of the song, and while Laila is putting a lot more energy into her performance, it’s not focused energy, giving her lip sync a frantic sense of desperation that only intensifies once she removes her shoes and dress. Laila doesn’t have the feminine body needed to sell stripping down to her underwear, and once she loses the dress, she stops looking like a drag queen and starts looking like a man in a wig. It’s also not an organic reveal, feeling like a planned last-ditch attempt to grab attention rather than a liberating moment that comes from a genuine emotional place. It’s a shameful lip sync, and RuPaul responds appropriately by eliminating both queens. perruques cheveux naturelsFor Dax, this outcome is the result of a string of excuses, and instead of shutting up and showing up when the judges need her, she gives them sorry reasons for why she’s not performing to their standard. Laila’s story is a bit more tragic, and while RuPaul recognizes that Laila has a fire inside her, it’s a campfire that can’t be seen through the burning buildings of this season’s huge personalities. This is a season full of confident queens that are fully committed to their characters, and tonight’s double elimination establishes that RuPaul has lost her patience with mediocre queens. The stakes have just been risen, and it will be exciting to see how the drama builds now that the queens are feeling even more pressure to be bigger and bolder. Stray observations Who’s Ru talking to on her phone? Maybe she’s inviting a queen from last season back to the competition? If it takes losing Laila and Dax to get Katya back, I’m fine with that. Robbie Turner didn’t impress me much last week with her sour attitude and underwhelming looks, but she’s much more endearing and engaging this week thanks to her strong personality during “Bitch Perfect” and the stunning strawberry red Vera Wang wedding dress she wears on the runway. She’s also not as bitchy, and I think her low showing last week has humbled her and forced her to look at the competition from another angle.

Like being able to sew a basic garment, being able to do basic dance steps is a skill these contestants should have before going on the show. Kim Chi should have taken a dance class (or 10) right after learning she was a Drag Race queen. I am all about the salt-and-pepper Lucian Piane. I’d let him arrange my a cappella covers any day. perruques cheveuxI would absolutely watch a short film about Chi Chi DeVayne’s weekend at an all-gay New England bed and breakfast. Ester Dean co-wrote “Firework,” “Super Bass,” and “S&M.” Dax and Laila would have performed better to any of those songs. “Take that, Donald Trump!” “Kim Chi has two left feet and vertigo.”

“That’s O.K. I wouldn’t want me either.” (Looks down sadly.) “Y’all look like flailing fishes.” “Kim Chi falls and just my heart drops out to my cucu.” lace front wigs“Once a year, two rival dragapella groups meet in the Boobs For Queens warehouse…” “Well look who’s here for an off-key kiki!” “I thought I smelled out of tune-a fishes.” “I’ve got great legs. I bought ‘em on eBay.”

“I know some bitch is gonna wanna buy it off me, but you know what: I sleep in this. This is my pajamas.” “I just want to smell you.” (Kim shows Jamal her back side.) cosplay wigsLucian: “I don’t really have anything negative to say about you.” Chi Chi: “Thank you.” “You can’t see this right now, but he’s got a fist full of Jergens lotion.” “She was doing her neck ghetto style, upside down, while twerking, and never losing a word. Honey, I’ll make a Louisiana purchase one mo’ time!” “I just hated the shoes! They looked like…ugly shoes!” “Thorgy is in an abusive relationship with her makeup.”