march 2011

Richard Smallwood: ‘God spoke to my heart,’ and Promises emerged.

Setting God's Promises to Music

Richard Smallwood returns with renewed inspiration and a message

By Bob Marovich

Following his mother’s death in 2005, gospel legend Richard Smallwood found himself barren of musical ideas. But now the muse has returned, and on the occasion of a new album release, Promises, the multi-award winning artist spoke about the reasons for his hiatus from recording, reflected on his musical influences and hisinspiration for writing, and discussed some of the songs on his new long-player.

Talk about your recent hiatus from writing and recording.

My mother passed in 2005. After that, my world just sort of stood still, just dealing with the loss and getting through the grieving period. I guess for about a year, I really didn't do much of anything in terms of music. By the end of 2006, I had begun to perform again and do ministry, but the writing part didn’t return. Even when I would try to write, nothing would come. After about four years, I thought I had probably written my last song and whatever part of the gift that was, was no longer there. I basically resigned to do the songs that I’d been doing for the many years that I’ve been doing this.

What, then, inspired you to put together Promises?

In 2009, I was watching CNN and was bombarded by all the negative news coming out of the TV: the economy and the recession, and people losing their homes and their jobs. God spoke to my heart. He said, “I’ve given you certain promises that are still Yea and Amen. You can bank on my word that I’m going to do it. I promised you that I would never leave you or forsake you. What I want you to do is write a work where all the songs deal with my promises, that you may be living in a difficult time but I still have your back and am still in charge.”

That’s where the whole concept of Promises comes from. We need to stop focusing on what the naysayers say and start focusing on what God says. When I got that word, the music just began to flow: through dreams, when I was awake, nonstop, sometimes two or three songs at a time.

Richard Smallwood explains the social issues that inspired his new album Promises

What was the first song that came out of this experience?

The first song was “Praying for Peace.” I thought it was really appropriate because one of the things we need to remember is that if we seek God’s face, we will hear from Heaven and He will heal our land. That’s what kept going through my mind: a healing of the land, a bringing of peace, of love, of togetherness.

What is your process for writing?

It varies. I’m usually not even thinking about music and melodies just come. I have to stop everything to write them down when they are coming to me. This time, they came in all kinds of ways: in the car, at church, or I was sleeping and they came in a dream. I had a lot of dreams that music came out of. This didn’t happen a lot before, maybe once or twice in my life. Certainly not like this, and not in the amount that came out in the dreams.

Most musicians dream about music, but by the time you wake up, you either can’t remember the song or when you listen to it, it wasn’t as good as it sounded in the dream! But this time, I would wake up and the songs that I had been dreaming about were still in my head. I would run to my piano and put them down. I knew if I went back to sleep, I would forget them.

Richard Smallwood, ‘Trust Me,’ from the album Promises

“Trust Me” is the latest single and a song being learned and performed by choirs. What was the inspiration for this song?

This was one of the songs that God gave me while I was just around the house. I heard the hook, “If you would only trust me, trust me.” I got that first, that little hook that keeps repeating, and I ran to the piano and played it, put the hook down on my tape recorder and wrote the song backwards from the hook.

It was another of the songs that talks about God’s promises. I will never leave you: a promise. I will fight your battles: another promise. The key thing we need to learn as God’s people is to solely and completely trust Him. Of course, it’s easy to say this to others when they are going through stuff, but it’s not easy when something is happening to us. But God is God and we need to trust Him and let Him do it.

Did you always know that music is what you wanted to do?

Oh, yes! I’ve never known anything else. Even before I can recall it myself! My mom used to tell the story of how when I was really young--I don’t think I had even started talking yet--she would hear me hum. And she listened closely and heard melodies I’d heard at church. That sort of freaked her out! “This baby is humming hymns and songs from church!” My parents got me a baby piano and I would bang out the rhythms, because I couldn’t pick out melodies yet, and I would hum! When I was old enough, about five, I would climb up on my stepfather’s real piano and pick out melodies and harmonies. By the time I was seven, I was playing for his church.

Many artists cite you as an influence. Who are your influences?

I have so many influences because I grew up listening to so many different genres of music. In gospel music, probably my biggest influences, especially during my teenage to young adult years, were Andrae Crouch, Edwin Hawkins and Walter Hawkins. Of course, when I was a child, there were artists like the Roberta Martin Singers and the Davis Sisters and Clara Ward, who my mother used to take me to see when I was living in Philly as a child. I grew up listening to them live. And classically, there’s Bach, who is my favorite composer in all of creation, Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky. And also Rodgers and Hammerstein from the Broadway musical genre.

I understand you experienced some pretty heady times at Howard University with people like Donny Hathaway.

Donny Hathaway was a senior [at Howard] when I was a freshman, and for the little time he was there before he graduated and started to do what he did, he took me under his wing as a mentor. He taught me chords and musical ideas I had never heard of or thought of.

When I was in the eighth grade, my music teacher was Roberta Flack. So I always say God set me up because he put key people in my life to influence me in different ways. I have taken influences from all of them and put them into what I was to become musically.

On my radio show, I have played a single from the Howard University Gospel Chorus where you are leading one of the songs.

 “I Found God!” Oh my God! Where did you get that? I must have been like nineteen or twenty, or something like that!

Richard Smallwood & Vision, ‘Anthem of Praise (Psalms 150: 3-6, Psalms 34:3),’ from the 1990 album, The Praise & Worship Songs of Richard Smallwood

You have probably heard the story about how Handel said of the “Hallelujah Chorus” that he felt as if God Himself wrote it. Have you ever felt that way about any of your songs?

Oh yes. Certainly we are influenced by God and inspired by God, but there are certain works that I feel are already written on a spiritual level, and the songwriter is the conduit. We plug into the source where the music is, and God feeds us what already has been done. I believe that in my heart.

During the process of writing Promises, I had a vision that I was standing in front of this huge building. It looked like a church, but I never really looked up further than where my sightline was to see if there was a roof or windows. I just sat down on the steps of this big building and this music was coming out of it. The most incredible music I ever heard in my life.

My stepfather, who has been dead for years, was there. I turned to him and said, “Where are we?” He said, “I don’t know.” I said, “Is this a church?” He said, “I don’t know.” We started walking around, trying to find a sign or a billboard or something that said the name of the church or where we were. But this music just kept coming out. I sat there, almost in tears. When I came out of it, something spoke to my spirit. It said, “That’s where the music comes from.” It was the most real, authentic thing I ever experienced that wasn’t reality as we know it.

For more information about Richard Smallwood, go to

July 31, 2011 by Bob Marovich at The Black Gospel Blog

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