Gospel superstars team up as King’s Men

San Francisco Chronicle - September 12, 2012
Lee Hildebrand
Updated 3:06 a.m., Sunday, September 9, 2012

“To worship you I live,” gospel music star Israel Houghton wails in soaring Marvin Gaye-like tenor tones while accompanying himself on piano during a concert at Calvary Christian Center in Sacramento. Wearing a black beret, white shirt, black button-up sweater and blue jeans, he repeats the line frequently during the simple, sweetly reverent ode.

Houghton, one of the leading figures in the “praise and worship” subgenre of African American gospel music, begins the down-tempo song without additional accompaniment before his five-man band and five backup vocalists, collectively known as New Breed, join in to create a crescendo. The volume suddenly drops as he invites the multiracial audience of some 1,500 for a sing-along of the wordless line “oh, oh, oh, oh.” Heads and hands are raised as they sing it over and over. Tears flow down the faces of many.

“Jesus,” Houghton at one point interjects in a whisper.

Unlike most traditional African American gospel concerts, which often end in fast-paced numbers with one-chord vamps and incessant “shout” rhythms that induce dancing in the aisles and verbal delirium believed to be the manifestation of Holy Ghost possession, Houghton reverses the process. His performance begins with up-tempo tunes, some spiced with hip-hop and Caribbean beats, then shifts to slow numbers that lead to a more subdued though no less spiritual response from the crowd.

Houghton, who works two weeks a month as a worship leader at prominent televangelist Jeff Osteen‘s Lakewood Church in Houston and tours with New Breed during the remainder, considers “shouting” to be “Pavlovian.”

“It rings a chord of your childhood,” Houghton, 41, says in a church conference room before the concert. “It reminds you of Big Mama shoutin’ and testifyin’. It reminds you of moments you had that were authentic and genuine with God.”

“Most people would define ‘praise’ as up-tempo songs about God, and ‘worship’ would be slower-tempo songs to God,” he adds. “I don’t subscribe to that because I don’t think worship has anything to do with tempo. I think it has to do with the placement of your heart.”

The reaction to his music may be different from that of traditional gospel, but Houghton feels the source of the inspiration is the same. “People who have never been to church in their life find themselves weeping and feeling something going on,” he says. “It supersedes the song and supersedes the music. This is the presence of the holy God.”

Houghton – along with Kirk FranklinMarvin Sapp and Donnie McClurkin – is featured in “The King’s Men,” a monthlong cross-country tour that kicks off next Sunday in Phoenix and stops Sept. 22 at the Sleep Train Pavilion in Concord. The tour is being produced by Live Nation Entertainment, the world’s largest concert-promoting company, and is the first major venture into gospel music for the Beverly Hills firm, best known for its rock concerts.

Franklin, arguably the most successful African American gospel artist since Mahalia Jackson a half century ago, came up with the idea for the tour. It is perhaps the most ambitious in the history of the musical genre, where concerts have more often than not been marred by late starts, shoddy sound and no outreach to the mainstream media. In contrast, Live Nation hired an independent publicist who began e-mailing press releases to television, radio, magazines and newspapers four months ago.

A little TLC

“I thought that gospel had an opportunity to be on a much bigger platform if just given the chance,” Franklin, 42, says by phone from his home in Arlington, Texas. “I’ve always felt that what gospel needs is just a little TLC.”

Franklin had approached another national promoter last year about taking on the tour. “They didn’t see it as that big of a genre, and so they backed out,” he says. Then, in January, he invited Kevin Morrow, Live Nation’s senior vice president of touring, to the Stellar Awards, black gospel music’s answer to the Grammys, at the Grand Ole Opry House in Nashville to meet Sapp, McClurkin and Houghton and see them perform.

“When I got back to the Live Nation offices, I brought it up,” says Morrow, whose only previous business experience with gospel music was managing the Blind Boys of Alabama during the 1980s. “I said, ‘Guys, I think the timing is right with the country, the music is inspirational, and getting these four guys to play together is a story in itself.’ Kirk Franklin is the biggest gospel star probably in history. You figure he’s got five platinum records and five gold. I said, ‘If we’re gonna take a shot, he’s the right partner to have.’ ”

“We’ve taken every single trick we know about promoting and production and marketing, and we’ve combined it with the knowledge the four main participants have with the churches,” he adds.

Although the four singers were featured performing and plugging the tour in July on the popular daytime television show “The View,” Franklin feels that many other secular media outlets have disinterest in, if not antipathy toward, gospel music.

“We can hardly get any opportunities in mainstream press,” the usually upbeat singer complains. “Here we are – four black artists – and we don’t have the cover of Jet or Ebony or Essence going into this tour. This is the biggest gospel tour that has come out in, like, 10 years, but it’s not something that’s important to people. You get to the point where you get very discouraged.”

More positive

Houghton, however, is feeling much more positive about the tour.

“I’ve been to enough shows where you just go, ‘This should be better,’ ” he says. “Live Nation has shown how it could and should be done. When Live Nation says they believe in this genre and we believe in the loyal fan base that our gospel music has, we ought to get behind it. It has the potential to be historic.” {sbox}


The King’s Men: 7:30 p.m. Sept. 22. $32-$165. Sleep Train Pavilion, 2000 Kirker Pass Road, Concord. (925) 676-8742. www.livenation.com

Lee Hildebrand is a freelance writer. E-mail: sadolphson@sfchronicle.com

Read more: http://www.sfgate.com/music/article/Gospel-superstars-team-up-as-King-s-Men-3848226.php#ixzz26HCSR38i