GMWA 2016: Gospel Mix Tour Brings Mix of Big Names, Light Comedy and Drama Teases

Posted July 25, 2016 by J Matthew Cobb in Features

James Fortune, Ricky Dillard, the Canton Spirituals and others take the Magic City to church with excellent gospel showcase

Photography by J Matthew Cobb


On the Sunday evening of the Gospel Music Workshop of America (GMWA) held in Birmingham, Alabama, hundreds of fans packed the Sheraton Hotel ballroom for a Gospel Mix showcase offering up some of the best in contemporary and traditional gospel music. On the menu were performances by Ricky Dillard, James FortuneZacardi Cortez, Damon Little, the Canton Spirituals and Kathy Taylor Brown. Earnest Pugh was a no-show. Gospel luminary Kurt Carr was also in attendance, although he was not on the schedule of listed performers. The event was organized by gospel promoter Kerry Douglas and hosted by comedienne Sister Cantaloupe (Trina Jeffrie) and GMWA treasurer Kevin Bond.

Using the cool control of a well-paced award show, the evening’s hosts offered the perfect icebreakers to all the intermissions in between. Cantaloupe’s jokes were extremely ad-libbed, hit and miss throughout the evening. She probably got the most laughter from the room after Harvey Watkins and the Canton Spirituals finished their set by walking off the stage in mid-song. “That’s a pimp move right there,” she proclaimed. Bond offered a more reverential tone to the occasion, but found any opportunity he could to get kick out a maddening praise break where he usually bucked like a rodeo bull.

Douglas, who introduced his “main man” James Fortune, tried his hand at comedy, even if it did fall flat. “Hey if [Donald] Drumpf can do it, I can do it,” he said while trying to plug his companion Gospel Mix compilation album.

With Prince Yelder, music supervisor over Birmingham’s Birmingham GMWA Chapter, directing a strong, dexterous choir in the background, many of the scheduled artists championed their radio hits with gusto. Kathy Taylor-Brown led a ten-minute revival-toned version of Myrna Summers’ classic hit “Oh How Precious” with an elongated foot-stomping praise break immediately following. Byron Cage’s set combined live instrumentation and Yelder’s backing choir with pre-recorded musical tracks, despite a malfunction on his opening medley (“I Will Bless the Lord/The Presence of the Lord”) stunned by a few nerving skips. His performance was enriched with a “Broken But I’m Healed,” which allowed him to enter full-Richard Smallwood mode by providing piano trinkets. Often dubbed as the Prince of Praise, Cage looked confident, sharp and sung with matchless conviction.

gospelmix-03With the convention being held in Birmingham, in the heart of the Bible Belt, many of the performers called to attention the heart and soul of traditional gospel. Before going into his catalog, Baltimore’s Damon Little pulled out the revered hymn “I Have Decided to Make Jesus My Choice,” trimmed with modest R&B seasoning. Harvey Watkins, Jr., lead singer of the Canton Spirituals, made an effort to reintroduce himself as a quartet singer, noting the decaying structure of the subgenre. He also brought up the politics of gospel in the mainstream and how popular shows like the gospel talent competition Sunday Best often exclude quartet singing.

The Cantons may have been the highlight of the night, flowing comfortably through more of their songs than any other artist. The average performer spent ten minutes on each of their songs. The Mississippi quartet spent 2-4 minutes on theirs, allowing them to showcase gems like “Morning Dove,” “Heavenly Choir,” Glad I’ve Got Jesus,” “Clean Up” and “Searching.”

Watkins was also in rare form, extending his set with warm dialogue and comic relief. “I know a few of y’all are worried about me ‘cause I got so little,” he said, mocking his extra 30 pound weight gain.

James Fortune, a gospel artist who has been beleaguered in the media with damaging scandals involving his wife and children, supplied his usual praise and worship narration-themed shtick on gospel favorites like “Live Through It,” “Show Me Your Glory” and “Let Your Power Fall” while Cortez serenaded the crowd with Stevie Wonder-blessed melisma. As a bonus, Fortune opened up about his past mistakes, admitting guilt and testified about his absence from the annual workshop over the last two years.

“I didn’t want to talk about it because so many professional people were saying ‘Don’t talk about it; just leave it alone. If you don’t talk about it, they’ll forget about it,’” Fortune told the curious audience. “But God told me something. He said ‘I want you to talk about what they don’t want you to talk about.”

Backed by a smaller ensemble, Ricky Dillard, the presumptive headliner, sung three of his more recent radio hits, particularly the Stellar Award-winning “Amazing.” No “New G” robust selections were presented, which left many feeling duped.

This is the first time in its history that the Gospel Music Workshop of America, founded by the late Rev. James Cleveland, has been hosted in Birmingham, Alabama. For years, the census was that Birmingham, Alabama’s largest city, was considered too small to host the annual convention. In the last four years, Birmingham has been experiencing a major economic boom and population growth in the city’s center. With expansions to the host hotel Sheraton and nearby Westin, Uptown entertainment district, additional lodging options, the city was able to lure the 49-year old, 30,000-member convention, along with other upcoming big events like the World Games slated for 2021. The week-long event, held at the Birmingham Jefferson Convention Complex and Sheraton, is expected to draw over 10,000 people.

About the Author

J Matthew Cobb

Managing editor of HiFi Magazine


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