GMWA 2016: Recap, Highlights & Lowlights
Gospel organization’s 49th convention arrives in Birmingham, brings all-stars and a sense of revival
Over the last couple of years, gospel music as a genre has been going through growing pains. It no longer has the glow of crossover that it had in its urban contemporary heyday of the ‘90’s. Although most genres are reeling from woeful industry changes, the obstructive downsizing of prominent record labels and the invasion of streaming content against physical product, small genres like gospel and jazz are feeling the blunt of the pain. Also factor the implosion of the genre: The choirs, once a dominating factor in the best assembly-line gospel product, are all but gone from major labels. The quartets are also fizzling out, being reduced to the quieter underground spaces inside the Bible Belt. Bobby Jones, the towering Don Cornelius of gospel, decided to bow out from his thirty-year run on BET as the presenter of Bobby Jones Gospel, the longest running show featured on the cable network. With very few super giants holding up the genre, all of these signs are undoubtedly clouding up its future. No wonder so many congregate annually to the Gospel Music Workshop of America, one of the last great bastions of the genre.
Founded by Reverend James Cleveland in 1968, the Gospel Music Workshop of America – in its heyday – easily attracted the best of the business: the finest directors, songwriters, musicians and superstars. Attending “workshop,” as it is often referred as for short, has always been considered the Mecca of gospel. It’s where you go to sharpen up skill and to be rejuvenated with the love of the music. And with the passing of its forty-ninth convention, only months away from its golden jubilee, the Gospel Music Workshop of America seems to be the last great hope for gospel.
Hope is something the GMWA desperately needs, for which its chairman unveiled a bit of good news last week. With the announcement of the 49th edition of the GMWA being in Birmingham, things originally looked bleak. “It was the Lord’s doing for us to come to Birmingham because nobody wanted to come here originally,” chairman Albert Jamison said. “They would say, ‘Birmingham? After New Orleans and Atlanta, who wants to go there?’ I said, ‘They gave us a good proposal.’ All of a sudden, we left Las Vegas at the board meeting, we had no more rooms. ‘It must be a problem,’ I said. ‘All the rooms couldn’t have gone like this.’ But it was. And the rest is history.”
Jamison ultimately felt Birmingham was a healthy choice for the convention. “This week has been phenomenal,” he says. “It feels like an old convention spirit here. Everywhere we go. I was amazed Tuesday night the quartets were in service; jammed. Youth were in service; jammed. They had another kind of form of R&B with hip-hop singing; jammed. And we were jamming at the service set; it was amazing.”
During one of the evening services, one of the guest speakers reiterated Jamison’s positive observations of the Birmingham move. “I don’t know if you’ve been [to this convention] several years ago,” Brian Moore said. “I want you to look around; every seat in this place is full. I could remember a few years ago you could throw a beach ball in here and miss everybody.”
Over the years, the rumor mill declared that attendance at GMWA conventions were low, that many of its 30,000 delegates skipped the annual event. Even an earlier scheduling in July, accommodating many of the youth and young adults “back to school” dates, tried to resuscitate some of the hype, but it still hasn’t put a stop much of the convention’s minimizing consequences. But evidence of its arrival in Birmingham shows it still is a dominant force on gospel music’s itinerary. It still attracts gospel’s heaviest talent, even if they are just there to show off their own hits and not exactly participating in the daily seminars and workshops. Byron Cage, Ricky Dillard, Kurt Carr, Melvin Willaims, Bruce Parham, gospel stalwart Dorothy Norwood and COGIC music department president Judith Christie-McAllister were in attendance. GMWA legends like Quincy Fielding, V. Michael McKay and Craig Hayes were all in earshot of any person’s presence. Next-gen gospel gems Malcolm Williams and Patrick Riddick were stretched across the convention, while a host of workshop chapters worldwide stretching from California to Japan came to show off their appreciation for soul-stirring gospel, the stuff that made Aretha Franklin and Al Green unique and the sound that made James Cleveland a king. In Birmingham, that sound resonated and proved to be alive and well. Time will tell if it all pays off.
7 Best (And Not So Great) Moments of GMWA 2016
Under Craig Hayes’s illustrious direction, the GMWA youth and young adult department looked poised and sounded spectacular. They completely wowed the more mature audience during the Wednesday nightly service by putting their spin on gospel choir classics like “I Can’t Feel at Home.” Possibly the finest moment of the convention, hands-down, was their trip into Walter Hawkins’ power ballad “God Will Open Doors.” They were equally as impressive when they returned to the Sheraton Birmingham ballroom to show off all-new material during their live recording showcase. Melvin Crispell III, who just recently lost his mom Tunesha to cancer, delivered a foot-stomping “It’s Already Alright” set to Pentecostal-spiked hand clapping. Their original material, like “It Belongs to You,” proved to be wise choices and with nary a dry or patchy area.
GMWA Contemporary Adult Division Wows
This year celebrated the first year anniversary of the GMWA Contemporary Adult division, a new auxiliary aimed at adults from the ages of 28 and 40. Feeling a bit too young to hang with the kids and too sophisticated to hang with the matured Mass Choir, this aggregation poured out more of the popular East Coast vibrato-heavy deliveries and slick urban contemporary compositions. Patrick Riddick acted like an explosive Ricky Dillard, showing off his strongest material (“Clap Your Hands,” “There Is No Other Name”) while other presenters like Tony Jones and Trini Massie continued high-caliber performances. Along with their dapper black uniform, the large group also sported their own red carpet selfie-heavy teaser in the lobby.
Men of Promise
Hearing a male chorus isn’t exactly soothing to my ears, but the Walter Scrutchings-led Men of Promise – dressed in black and white attire – may have had the best selection of new songs to debut this year. A generous acapella anthem “Miracle Worker” opened their live recording set while neatly-packaged worship and solid traditional power ballads (“Jesus Is the Answer,” “(With All Your Heart, Mind and Soul) Give Him Praise”) filled the rest of their repertoire. They also sounded refined and polished. Of all the different auxiliaries that presented new material, the Men of Promise came out on top.
The renowned worship leader performed for an entire ten minutes (and some change), longer than the usual special artist or chapter choir. Some grumbled over the lengthiness of Christie-McAllister’s set, but there was no mistaken the fact that she was on woman on a mission. With her sing-a-long gems (“Oh Give Thanks,” “High Praise”), Michael Bereal’s synths and a robust praise team in the background, Christie-McAllister made a point to leave a glorious impression. By the time she made a grand leap into the above-the-rafter “I’m Gonna Praise Him,” no one seriously dared to follow her.
Birmingham was the host city, which meant that the chapter choir needed to bring their A-game. It wasn’t that hard to do. As the Birmingham Community Choir, the 50-plus aggregation usually pulls out a medley of songs dedicated to a fierce gospel legend. This year was no different. On Monday, they revealed a very powerful ten-minute medley dedicated to the music of the late Daryl Coley. It covered many of Coley’s best material, especially works he performed at previous GMWA gatherings. Other chapter choirs that mesmerized including Steven Roberts’ Nor Cal Chapter (wowing with Walter Hawkins’ “Jesus Christ Is the Way”), a 60-member-deep Los Angeles Chapter (packed with a three-song tribute to the late Rickey Grundy), Philadelphia Chapter and a large robust East Coast Mass Choir going down memory lane with tunes by Timothy Wright, Benny Cummings and James Hall.
Merdean Fielding-Gales Likes To Gab
There are masters of ceremonies, and then there’s Merdean. The former co-host of Bobby Jones Gospel spilled a few tantrums that produced a few awkward laughs and curious thinking. “Some of y’all tippin out to do something other than praise and worship,” Gales said. “We are a family. We tolerate everybody. There’s some folks in your family that you will never forget, but there’s some you wish you could forget.” She probably was trying to come off like a deep cosmopolitan preacher, but she ended up sounded like an irritating field trip chaperone over a crowd of teenagers.
GMWA Women of Worship Slips a Little
It was obvious after their first song during their live recording that the Women of Worship this year were in a haze. Music director Prince Yelder approached the mic and asked the crowd what they thought of the engineer’s audio mix and if the band was too loud. A dry package of new material also couldn’t complete with the sturdy men’s chorus that came before them. By the time the sound improved during the concert, half of the almost-full room had cleared. Maybe they were on their way to the other side of the convention complex to hear the youth and young adult’s second half of their final program.