While other music genres are seeing some sales decline, gospel sales are solid and more radio stations and labels are bending an ear to the next generation of the multi-million dollar industry while older performers continue to sell out venues with live performances.
Blackberry Records started in 1991 in Jackson after Grammy-nominated gospel trio The Williams Brothers decided to start their own label after spending years with legendary Malaco Records. At its launch, Blackberry Records became the first African-American owned music label in Mississippi with national distribution in gospel.
Today, Blackberry president Doug Williams still keeps a packed schedule of performances and recording dates, working alongside stars like CeCe Winans, Yolanda Adams, Amy Grant, Stevie Wonder and Patti LaBelle and local groups like the Mississippi Mass Choir and The Canton Spirituals.
Kamel King serves as the Williams Brothers road attorney and practices with Frascogna & Courtney Entertainment Law Firm in Jackson. King has also helped produce five Grammy Legacy events for Mississippi and is the operations manager for Terminal Studios in Ridgeland which has recorded music for Blackberry Records, Stevie Wonder and the Grammy-winning soundtrack to “O Brother Where Art Thou.”
Williams and King spoke with the Mississippi Business Journal last week about Blackberry, Terminal Studios and the future of gospel music.
Tell me a little about some of your Blackberry and Terminal Studio projects.
King: Its really a traditional gospel label as what’s known in the industry and right now we’re trying to shift the ship so it can diversify its sound a little more and be open to secular artists or more contemporary gospel. Terminal Studios is The Williams Brothers studio and I would very much argue the best studio in the state just from its sound and the engineers. We’ve had everybody here from Brian Courtney Wilson to the Canton Spirituals, Tim Rogers & the Fellas. Stan Jones (which has produced for everybody- Yolanda Adams, John P. Kee, Marvin Sapp, Trin-i-tee 5:7, Mary Mary) he produces out of here.
Williams: (The Williams Brothers) had an opportunity to do a live project at the Hard Rock Casino in Biloxi and we were the first gospel artists to ever headline a concert at any Hard Rock in the world. We had a CD and DVD come out for part one and are releasing part two this year. We’re trying to expand, especially on the Internet, and broadening that. We’re going to do a podcast.
What are the differences between old gospel and new gospel?
Williams: Gospel music as a whole has definitely grown tremendously by leaps and bounds as the years progressed. It is more mainstream now. It’s getting a lot more exposure than it did years ago because of the Internet and television. You see more gospel artists on television now than you ever did. It has become a lot more lucrative for certain artists, some of the more contemporary artists have done really well and become multi-millionaires, which was unheard of back in the past.
I was born and raised in a little town called Smithdale, which is about 20 miles west of McComb and everybody in my family had something to do with music. They sang and played or something. It was a family tradition. My father had a group called The Big Four Gospel Singers and my older brothers organized a group called the Southern Gospel Singers. After that came the Little Williams Brothers in 1960. That’s where we started. I was a big fan of Mahalia Jackson growing up as a kid, Shirley Caesar, the Mighty Clouds of Joy and the Hawkins Family.
King: The older feet-stomping, knee-slapping, hymn type gospel merged into what’s known as traditional gospel and what is known as quartet gospel. Quartet gospel is more of a live band feel. It can be cutting edge, too. What is happening in the last five to 10 years is gospel is going more contemporary and really blending the secular, commercial sound. Where gospel used to have more of its identity- when you heard it just from the sound you knew it was a gospel song- now gospel is evolving to where it is sounding a lot like the music outside gospel.
Do the younger generations understand the roots of gospel and the message behind the tune?
Williams: Some do and some don’t. Some like the rhythm or the new sound. They like what they hear. Some are getting the message. We still have an opportunity to present our music to people that have never enjoyed this type of music before. We’ve gone overseas to places like England or Sweden. One town in Sweden that I can’t even remember the name of it, we did a performance there and they’d never seen black people before. (Laughs) We were the first blacks to enter that city. We had a great time.
King: You have such a wide market and audience that wants to hear the stuff that’s on the radio and new production and hard, slamming bass. They want it to be modern-sounding but they still want that positive message and that message from the Lord and they don’t want it to be corny. The artists at Blackberry realize you’re not only singing to entertain, you’re singing to save souls. The pimps, players and hustlers, the people who have never been in church have to want to hear it, not just the pastors and the congregation.