John P Kee vs Hezekiah Walker: Cheat Sheet & What to Expect

Posted April 26, 2020 by J Matthew Cobb in Features

After the quarantine success of the Insta-battles powered by ‘Verzuz’, two gospel heavyweights go head-to-head in a spirit-filled virtual song battle


Source: Facebook

Source: Facebook

Move over R&B. With the Verzuz-powered, 500K-maxed Teddy Riley/Babyface online battle now behind us, gospel stans are priming for their own online versus contest.

Hezekiah Walker and John P. Kee are considered legends in the contemporary gospel category and cradling chunks of hits to the black church over the decades. Now the two will go head-to-head in a friendly online battle of pre-assembled playlists on Sunday, April 26. Wanna know who’s got the advantage and who’s the underdog in the match? Keep on reading ‘cause we’ve got a delicious outline for the saints.

What to Expect 

The rules of the #VERZUZ layout might not even be in place for the Heze/JPK battle, but we do expect some time of resemblance since the now-legendary formula is pretty much standard. Expect a coin toss and for each player to run through 15-20 of their favorites (playing only a minute of each song. The following player has the opportunity to deliver a rebuttal, pressing play on a song that they think might stand a chance against the previous blow. Deep cuts don’t necessarily help, even if it’s a critical favorite. It’s all about the fans. If the public ain’t eating it up, the other player gains points. Think of it as a musical boxing match. The winner is chosen only by social media (or even critics), but regardless of the strength of one another’s fan base, they both come out on the winning side. This is pretty much just a frenzied social media grabbag, a marketing stunt that’s cheap, gimmicky and deliciously rewarding to our quarantine schedules.

Although the Teddy Riley/Babyface battle didn’t end properly due to Instagram hijinks (and still with no final results as to who actually won), it was still a ravishing success. The headlines the next morning glowed in both of their favors. Both saw major increases from followers on Instagram and a doubling in streams of much of their catalog.  So, expect both of these gospel heroes to get some type of uptick in their social media status and on-demand streaming platforms.

And yes, the #VERZUZ battles are cradled by industry heavy hitters Swizz Beats and Timbaland. This gospel battle is not powered by that platform, which means it’s not going to appear as glossy and organized.  And it might not garner the same headlines. But don’t let that stop you from joining the praise party. Without a #VERZUZ battle programmed on today, it appears to be gospel’s moment to shine.

Battle of Songs. Featuring Mahalia Jackson vs Roberta Martin, 1945

Battle of Songs. Featuring Mahalia Jackson vs Roberta Martin, 1945

Oh, and don’t think it totally strange to be witnessing men of God going head-to-head in a gospel battle. They were popular programs in the golden era of gospel music. In August 1945, Mahalia Jackson (crowned Queen of Gospel) went up against famed songwriter and singer Roberta Martin (of the Roberta Martin Singers) in a staged battle at Tabernacle Baptist Church in Chicago (see right pic). The program was billed as the “Battle of Songs.”

Something in Common

Although Kee’s career starts almost a full decade before Walker, their rise to fame came about at the same time in the ‘90s. Both are pastors: Kee operates New Life Fellowship in Charlotte, North Carolina and Walker, a bishop, oversees two Love Fellowship Tabernacle churches in Brooklyn and New Jersey. Both were signed to the same label of Verity Records in the ’90’s and early 200s. Verity, the gospel division of Jive and RCA, shuttered his doors for a while, but re-emerged as a subsidiary for RCA Inspiration in 2013. Walker is signed to the label while Kee records independently.

A Closer Look at Hezekiah Walker

heze-01Although both are respected, Walker is in a different realm than Kee. Walker is best known for being a choir director and a smart collector of great songs. In his arsenal, Walker has whipped up a cluster of versatile songwriters (Melvin Crispell, David Frazier, Eric McDaniel, Jules Bartholomew, Butch Heyward, Joeworn Martin) that have contributed. And because of Walker’s reputation for putting out some of the strongest choir music, New York’s Finley entrusted him with their songs. And the results were usually quite rewarding. Walker won his first Grammy in 1994 for Live in Atlanta at Morehouse College (in the category of Best Gospel Album by Choir or Choruses). His next Grammy came from his church choir, the LFT Church Choir, in 2002 for Love Is Live!

So how many Grammy wins does Kee has? None, actually. And that’s just one of his advantages over Kee. Although Kee has been nominated eight times, Walker walked away with the gold…twice. Unless you want to count Kee’s guest appearance on the title cut of Shirley Caesar’s Grammy-winning Stand Still in 1994 as a win.

What differentiated Walker from his peers, even Kee, was the unique sound of his selected music. Walker’s sound merged the familiar contemporary gospel of Brooklyn — sounds already paved by titans like Timothy Wright, Benny Diggs (New York Community Choir), Isaac Douglas, Benny Cummings and the Institutional COGIC Choir — with the burgeoning street sounds of his own neighborhood. Slices of underground New York disco (Salsoul, Prelude), Teddy Riley’s innovative New Jack swing and the thunderous thuds coming out of East Coast rap were all being soaked into Walker’s creations. Actually, Aaron Hall, one of Walker’s earliest choir members, left the group to join Guy, Teddy Riley’s newest group signed to MCA. With a string of hits like “I Like,” “Teddy’s Jam,” and “Piece of My Love,” Hall’s voice was omnipresent on urban radio throughout the late 80s and early 90s. Hall would return to the group to render a reprise on “No Greater Love” in 1997.

Walker, also known as “Heze” or Bishop Hez for short, is often dubbed by many of his constituents as being the “Hip Hop Pastor.” Because of his flashy approach to ministry, Walker’s influence on younger audiences is worth noting. His church services have pulled in big-name celebrities like Sean “P. Diddy” Combs and Lil’ Kim.

Surprising fact: John P Kee actually collaborated with Walker back in 2002. While at the Radio City Music Hall recording of Family Affair II, Kee lends his voice to a cover of Walker’s “I Made It,” a song Walker originally recorded during his Sweet Rain (1987-1990) era.

But make no mistake about it, Walker is the underdog in this fight. Sure Walker has had more recent Billboard chart success than Kee, but he isn’t known for being a songwriter. The biggest song he wrote exclusively was “Clean Inside,” a two-minute ditty that featured only one repetitive phrase. Nevertheless, it was a cute headbanger for youth choirs.

The Ten Song Hezekiah Walker Strategy

What should expect Heze to drop on JPK in the 20-song battle royale? Expect these ten tracks to come forth.

Jesus Is the Light (1992)
Heard on Walker’s first album for Benson Records (Focus on Glory), this Butch Heyward-penned track still packs a punch. The layers of parts and the fun vamp is essential Heze.

Wonderful Is Your Name (1999)
All choir, no soloist. And an easy-breezy midtempo praise number. This is what energetic youth choirs scream for.

I Need You to Survive (2008)
Like Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” is to disco, this uplifting song is to urban churches. You’ll often hear this one, done entirely in unison, used at benedictions and altar calls on good Sundays across America.

Jesus Is My Help (1997)
The king of choir modulations. And one of Melvin Crispell’s finest. It was also featured on WOW Gospel 1998, the first installment in the best-selling annual compilation series.

I’ll Be Satisfied (1995)
Like “Jesus Is My Help,” but leaner and splashier.

Power Belongs to God (1999) 
Heze bears a songwriting credit on this one alongside well-known contributor David Frazier. This feisty percussion-heavy jam opens up Family Affair, probably Heze’s last great LP, and it’s almost impossible to follow it up. Hip-hop giant Kanye West uses the song heavily in his popular Sunday Services and you can hear it the vamp used on “That’s How the Good Lord Works” featured on his 2012 best-selling LP, Jesus Is Born.

Calling My Name (1994)
This rapturous power ballad showcases the might of vocalist Timiney Figueroa and is the glowing anchor found on Walker’s Grammy-winning Live in Atlanta

Every Praise (2013)
As much as I dread this song personally for being so bland, worshippy and harmonyless, it’s Walker’s most critical achievement. The song landed at number one on the Billboard’s Gospel charts and topped that chart for 26 weeks. It remained on the survey for an impressive 102 weeks. Billboard crowned it as the gospel song of the 2010’s decade.

Don’t Give Up (1995)
The Island Inspirational All-Stars only recorded once, for the motion picture soundtrack of the Wayans-powered Don’t Be A Menace While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood. But it was the gathering of contemporary gospel talents that spoke volumes: Kirk Franklin, Donald Lawrence & the Tri-City Singers, Karen Clark Sheard and yup, Hezekiah Walker. Kee wasn’t included on the session. The song was a decent crossover hit, peaking in the top 30 on the R&B charts. Proceeds from sales reaching $225,000 were donated to the rebuilding of black churches targeted by a nasty wave of arson that year.

How Much We Can Bear (1995)
Groovy synth-heavy R&B set to a fun tempo and an irresistible vamp featuring the aerobics of Walker’s familiar modulation regimen.

A Closer Look at John P. Kee

jpk-01Kee’s advantage comes in four big categories: Career length, producing, songwriting and vocals.

After leaving the post as a touring keyboardist for Cameo and Donald Byrd, Kee decided to jump in the lane of gospel music in the very early ’80s. With the Combination Choir, Kee stepped out with his first LP, Changed, in 1982. A string of self-produced albums with his group, the New Life Community Choir, immediately followed, starting with Brethren in Unity in 1984. It wasn’t until Dr. Leonard Scott, president of Tyscot Records, signed Kee and his group to his Indianapolis label in 1988.

His early years bear a few highlights speaking to the sudden rise of Kee’s career. The Florida Mass Choir recorded one of his compositions (“I Made It Over”) in 1988, a move that proved pivotal in making Kee an emerging resource with pop-up church music workshops. He also bears the honorable distinction of being the first and only songwriter in the history of James Cleveland’s Gospel Music Workshop of America to present two original songs to the mass choir in the same year. It was Cleveland’s institution, along with Edwin Hawkins Music & Arts Seminar (for which he contributed thrice), that inspired him to develop his own music and arts fortress for cultivating young talent, leading to the creation of the Victory In Praise Music and Arts Seminar in 1991.

Kee has also worked on projects and songs for a lion share of talent, including but not limited to, Vanessa Bell Armstrong, Shawn McLemore, Shirley Caesar (“Stand Still”), Teddy Pendergrass, Stephanie Mills, Fred Hammond, Kirk Franklin, Daryl Coley, Dorinda Clark Cole, Donnie McClurkin, JJ Hairston and Bruce Parham. Men of Standard’s Lowell Pye and Isaac Carree were also former members of New Life.

For songwriting, mostly all of Kee’s songs are entirely penned by him. Which means those monthly and quarterly royalty checks has gotta be a pretty penny.

Although Walker sings and often pulls through performances with vigor, Kee is a much more refined vocal presence. He merges the soul of Marvin Winans with the grit of James Cleveland, a combination that turned him into one of the essential singers in modern contemporary gospel music.

The Ten Song John P Kee Strategy

What should JPK roll out in his 20-song battle against Heze? Here are ten songs that are a guarantee.

Jesus Is Real (1991)
This song is what made JPK a star. Gospel radio ate it up. It is probably Kee’s most recognized song to date.

Show Up (1994)
With a splice of funk and spritey gospel, this gem “showed up” and showed out throughout much of Kee’s breakout LP, Show Up!. It felt like Andrae Crouch and the highly celebrated Hawkins sound marinated in the grooves of New Jack swing. Kee walked away with a trove of Stellar Awards the following year.

I Shall Do (1994)
Tucked neatly inside Show Up!, this beautiful ballad includes the vocal grace of Shelia Lakin, a mainstay on Kee’s projects.

Stand (1996)
How did Kee follow-up the paramount successes of Show Up!? Well, he did it masterfully with his seminar choir (Victory in Praise) using this poignant and pivotal reggae-tinged ballad. It was also featured on WOW Gospel 1998, the first installment in the best-selling annual compilation series.

Salt of the Earth (feat Rance Allen) (1994)
He might skip this entirely, just because it’s a solo record (Kee’s solo stuff just didn’t resonate like the choir material), but this one was a rare treat for gospel radio when originally released. Featuring a duet with contemporary gospel pioneer Rance Allen, the two are matched perfectly and deliver solid gold to this rewarding, upbeat and well-produced studio track.

He’ll Welcome Me (1994)
Kee loves traditional gospel, and often recorded in the quartet gospel style. “He’ll Welcome Me” raises to the roof as being one of the finest in that element.

Clap Your Hands (1997)
This surprise hit, fueled first by gospel disc jockeys hungry to find Kee’s next big hit, merges traditional gospel grooves with sweaty Southern blues and a sampled smidgen of Quincy Jones’ “Killer Joe.” His label, Verity Records, were blindsided by it. “Clap Your Hands” emerged as a popular favorite in Kee’s concerts and often include a string of modulations done in the style of Hezekiah Walker.

We Walk By Faith (1992)
To have Vanessa Bell Armstrong, while at the height of her vocal prowess, on your track is another advantage Kee has over Walker. This song, a precursor to “Jesus Is Real,” includes just one of those many unions.

Standing in the Need (1991)
Done in the soulful flair of James Cleveland and Milton Brunson’s slower ballads, “Standing in the Need” is simple, effective and soul-reaching.

God of Mercy (1996)
Produced and led vocally by Kee, this track recorded by Inner City Mass Choir proved to be a viable hit with young adult church choirs and community choirs across the nation. Kee reprised it several times on his own concert films and albums, often showcasing the drum skills of his own son, Prince Kee. It’s obvious this might be the one track that Kee wished he saved for himself.

heze-jpk-02The Instagram battle of Hezekiah Walker and John P. Kee can be viewed on Sunday, April 26 on either of their Instagram platforms at @keetwit  and @bishophez, starting at 7 pm (EST). At current standing, Kee has 298K followers and Walker has 293K followers.

UPDATE: Timbaland, one-half of Verzuz, posted a video on his Instagram acknowledging the Kee-Walker battle and is encouraging his followers to watch it. The Instagram account of Verzuz (@verzuztv) has not posted about it.

About the Author

J Matthew Cobb

Managing editor of HiFi Magazine


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