Tony Cummings chronicles the fascinating personal and musical journey of gospel star VICKIE WINANS.
The huge critical acclaim and big sales that have followed the release of 'Woman To Woman: Songs Of Life' is the latest in a long line of achievements for Vickie Winans, arguably the most popular female singer on today's contemporary gospel scene. But the songs on 'Woman To Woman' with their recurrent theme of trusting in God in the tough times are particularly pertinent for a singer who has had two failed marriages, a miscarriage, a parent's sudden death, losing her voice and subsequent surgery, even fluctuating weight issues. As Winans has put it, she has been "possessed, repossessed, fat, thin, underweight, sick, divorced - I don't think there is nothing, nothing, that my poor body and mind has not gone through."
The 2CD 'Woman To Woman' shows off her twin musical personas - purveyor of sassy urban gospel and, particularly on the second live album, her trad gospel, church-wrecking style. It's also chockablock with special guests including rapper PreZence, her platinum selling R&B star son Mario, her brother Tim Bowman who plays guitar on several tracks and even her husband, businessman Joe McLemore who makes his recording debut. The inclusion on the project of Mario Winans, who alienated many in the church community with his sexually explicit mainstream album, raised some eyebrows and Vickie told Washington Post reporter Richard Harrington that she had admonished Mario "a little" for his album's explicit language. Vickie commented, "You want to be able to teach young people in your music, regardless of what kind of music." Having said that, gospel's long time exponent of funky rhythms had, understandably, no problem with funk jams and hip-hop beats. "It's not what you're playing, it's what you're saying," she pointed out. 'Woman To Woman' is an album very dear to Vickie Winans' heart. It was originally planned for a 1999 release but, as we'll recount later, got stymied by record company problems. Now the album is finally recorded and released through Verity and is touching the lives of thousands of women. Said Vickie, "This is a project I've wanted to do for so long. I started this album because I was looking for songs that could help me get through the things I was going through. When I had a hard time finding music to address my needs and soothe my spirit, I said that one day I would make a record that would help other women going through as I was."
Vickie was born Viviane Bowman, the seventh of 10 children, on 18th October 1953, in Detroit. Her mother was a housewife and her father sometimes worked as many as four jobs as a labourer, contractor, carpenter and mason. But the whole family were committed Christians. She first sang in the bathtub with her sisters. One day they were harmonising when Vickie's voice rose above the others. She once told the Detroit Free Press, "One of my sisters jumped out of the tub and ran and told my mother, 'Mama, Vickie can sing for real.'" Vickie was eight years old when she first began singing outside of the tub, at the International Gospel Center. After high school, Vickie had an early marriage to Bishop Ronald E Brown of Faith Tabernacle Deliverance Temple in Orangeburg, South Carolina, a union that produced a son, Mario "Skeeter" Winans (he later took on the last name of Vickie's second husband).
It was her marriage to Marvin Winans in June 1978 that Vicki first began to think about a career in gospel music. With Marvin's group The Winans beginning to make national waves, Vickie was asked to join Winans Part II, a group which, it was planned, would give the amazing Winans family another string to their bow. And certainly Winans Part II, including as it did in its ranks BeBe, CeCe and Daniel Winans, COULD have been big. But BeBe and CeCe left to join Christian TV's PTL Club in the early '80s, the group broke up and Vickie decided to go solo. For a few years it was tough going, Vickie playing every kind of church gig she could get. But with her husband's The Winans becoming the best selling act on Light Records' roster, Marvin was able to secure a record deal for his talented wife. Her debut album 'Be Encouraged' - released by Light in 1985 - became a major gospel hit in the USA, reaching number three on Billboard's Gospel Chart. Her remake of Gladys Knight & The Pips' "Midnight Train To Georgia" as "First Trumpet Call", a Marvin-penned ballad "Sweeter Than The Honeycomb" and a full throttle cover of Dottie Rambo's "We Shall Behold Him" were all much heard on US gospel radio. In fact the latter song made a bit of a meal ticket for the singer. As Bil Carpenter wrote in Uncloudy Days: The Gospel Music Encyclopedia, "Vickie's pure, young voice soared and reached melismatic ecstasy on the rousing orchestral piece. It was such a show-stopping, tour de force performance that listeners' memories of it kept Winans' concert dates coming in even when she didn't have a new hit record." Which was just as well as Vickie's follow up, 'Total Victory', didn't sell anything like as well, possibly due to the fact that by then Light Records were floundering financially, The Winans having already quit the company to join Quincy Jones' Qwest Records.
By the '90s "crossover" was the word on everybody's lips in the gospel community and Vickie signed, not to a gospel company but to the major Geffen Records. However, it soon got corporately complicated. Geffen was bought by Universal Records and Vickie's contract was shifted to sister label MCA Records. Vickie found herself dealing with record company suits who hadn't signed the singer. They subtly pushed Winans to tone down the Christian message in her music. "They don't tell you, but you get the vibe," she told Gospel Today magazine in 1999. "I don't ever, ever, ever want to be in that predicament again. It's one thing when you just sing a song where you don't use the actual name of Jesus, but it's a whole 'nother thing when you TRY not to use the name. For me, the name of Jesus will never be distasteful in my mouth. He's always the answer."
The name Jesus was missing from nine-song 'The Lady' (MCA, 1991) and though it contained a snappy R&B song "Don't Throw Your Life Away", written with her son Mario, it also contained a rendition of West Side Story's "Somewhere" which was steeped in Barbra Streisand-style melodrama. To alienate the gospel community further MCA sent Vickie to perform on the Stellar Awards TV broadcast with dancers. Predictably many conservative elements in the Church were shocked by the "worldly" dancing and the Stellar Awards office was awash with letters from Christians complaining about the performance. Years after the debacle Vickie told Gospel Today, "I was contemporary when I went down, but they slapped me so hard, when I got up I was traditional." Days after the Stellar taping, Winans went into a recording booth and recorded a heartfelt apology to anyone who was offended and promised to never make such a spectacle of the gospel again. She then sent the tape out to 1,500 radio stations at her own expense. Some people forgave her and it would take a while before others did. It didn't matter to MCA executives, who found the tiff silly and unfounded. Since the gospel community didn't support the album and they could not break the record on R&B radio, MCA dropped Winans and it was three years before she'd find another recording home.
Former Word Records executive James Bullard signed Vickie to Atlanta-based Intersound Records, a classical recording label where he was launching a black gospel music division. He matched Winans with legendary R&B producer/songwriter Jerry Peters, who had become a Christian. They produced her label debut, 'Vickie Winans', which rose to number 10 on the gospel chart in 1994. But the album also clearly demonstrated new problems for Vickie. The singer had developed nodes on her vocal chords and not all the notes she hit on a re-recording of her signature hit "We Shall Behold Him" were the right ones. Also, although Vickie was still valiantly trying to connect with the R&B audience and 'Vickie Winans' contained a searing piece of gospel dance, "Work It Out", she had written with Clark Sisters sideman Antun Foster, Intersound were ill equipped to promote such music in the mainstream. Vickie reportedly spent $50,000 of her own money to shoot a video. But "Work It Out" didn't cross over while 'Vickie Winans' renditions of traditional numbers like "Precious Lord" created little excitement amongst gospel radio programmers.
But worse was to follow for the singer. It's one of those strange and rather sad parallels between the twin worlds of CCM and gospel music that both genres saw their "first couples" fail in the marriage stakes. While in CCM Amy Grant's marriage to songwriter Gary Chapman ended in divorce, the same sad situation occurred with Vickie's marriage to singer, songwriter and pastor Marvin Winans Sr. She was so stressed that she had ulcers on her oesophagus and developed diabetes. Vickie began to eat excessively to soothe the pain and she and Marvin finally divorced circa 1995. "It was a very hurting experience," she later told the Detroit Free Press. "Both of us took it for granted that everything was okay. But, you know, after a while, it doesn't even matter whose fault it was. We are still friends and I still love him." During that depressing period in her life when Winans packed on weight and mourned the loss of her fairy-tale marriage, she was preparing songs for her first live album. She picked songs that helped her deal with the emotions she was feeling at the time. "Until you've experienced something, you don't have anything to talk about," she told the Detroit Free Press. "A child can't sing about being hurt. He just got in this world the day before yesterday." Winans was sure that once the marriage was over that her career would be too. "I knew I was going to have to be a secretary at a bank or something," she told Gospel Today. Instead, out of the blue, Bishop T D Jakes invited her to perform at one of his convocations and new doors opened for her. Vickie had had managers in the past but never felt she was handled correctly. Now she began to manage herself and book her own concerts.
'Live In Detroit' was released by CGI in 1997. Recorded live at Bishop Andrew Merritt's Straight Gate Church, Winans went all the way traditional to give the gospel programmers exactly what they said they wanted from her. She gave them faithful, simple arrangements of "Great Is Thy Faithfulness", Bill Gaither's "Because He Lives" and Candi Staton's "The Blood Rushes". However, the megahits were Rev James Cleveland's "No Cross, No Crown" and "Long As I Got King Jesus", which both featured the Straight Gate Mass Choir. The album did so well so quickly that CGI (the Polygram-owned company that bought Intersound circa 1996) invested in a music video of "Long As I Got King Jesus", which certainly helped sales. The album eventually sold 200,000 units, a staggering success for a project with no crossover single.
CGI realised they had a bona fide star on their roster and announced a hugely ambitious plan to release THREE Vickie Winans albums in 1999 - a May release of 'Live In Detroit II', followed by the 'Share The Laughter' comedy album in July and capping the year with an October release called 'Woman To Woman: Songs Of Survival'. CGI rolled out the big guns. They launched their most expensive marketing campaign ever to promote the project. They bought full page colour ads in magazines, shot a concept video for the song "Already Been To The Water" and hired Capital Entertainment (which handled CeCe Winans and Bishop T D Jakes at the time) to handle Winans' press coverage. They were able to book Vickie on Queen Latifah, various BET shows and Jenny Jones, among other high profile television programmes and got her the most press coverage she'd had since she toured with the Winans Family Tour in 1992.
The first instalment of the trilogy, 'Live In Detroit II', crested to number three on the US Gospel Chart and was only stopped from hitting number one by Kirk Franklin projects that were receiving mainstream radio play. 'Share The Laughter' did less well, but in retrospect a gospel comedy album was always going to struggle. And in truth, Vickie was a far better singer than stand up comedian. Then CGI began experiencing financial problems and Vickie, for a season, pulled out of the 'Woman To Woman' album.
Vickie's record label dealings continued to be difficult. Signed to Tommy Boy Gospel in 2001, the gospel division of the R&B hitmakers closed before Vickie got an album out. But then in 2002 the singer signed with Verity and enjoyed the biggest hit of her career with 'Bringing It All Together'. It spawned huge radio hits like the funky "Shake Yourself Loose" and the CD stayed on the Billboard best sellers for well over a year. Part of the reason for its huge success was Vickie's phenomenal work rate which has earned her the title "the hardest-working woman in gospel music." "I take product to every show, and after, I sign autographs, hug the babies, kiss the mamas and sell the product my absolute self," she told the Washington Post. "I want people to not only listen to my music but I want them to love Vickie Winans the person."
In 2005 the gospel world was shocked when Elder Ron Winans died. But when journalist Jeff Cross asked what favourite memory of Elder Winans Vickie would like to share, he could have hardly expected the response. "I had the family rolling, because I told them that I know that Ron was saved and had asked the Lord to forgive him for everything, and that I sure hope he had asked [God] to forgive us for that time me and him stole first class to Hawaii. (laughter) I told Ronald, 'This is what we gonna do, we gonna mill around and mill around until everybody gets on the plane, and then when we go in, if there are any open seats (laughter), we'll just sit down.' That's exactly what we did. He was scared to death. We rode 11 hours in first class. They fed us; we had lobster, and all the things. I don't know what they had in the back, but baby, I had to ask the Lord to forgive me, 'cause we sho' stole first class.... But we were in coach on the way back! (laughing) It's a wonder we didn't go to jail behind that. Lord help!"
At the end of 2003 Vickie married businessman Joe McLemore and had turned down an offer to star in a Broadway production of The Color Purple. In spring 2004, she launched a musical play that she wrote and starred in called Torn Between Two Loves. The play had a successful run and Winans then decided to open her own online record label, Destiny Joy Records. In the future, the comedic and charismatic singer hopes to branch off into film and television work.
One of the people Vickie most admires on the gospel scene is the man Time magazine have proclaimed "the best preacher in America," Bishop T D Jakes. In fact, Bishop Jakes was on stage at Chicago's House Of Hope church to introduce the singer when Vickie recorded the live portion of 'Woman To Woman'. About Jakes she said, "He's an unbelievable brother. I'm in awe of him and it takes quite a bit to awe me. I've been in church for 53 years and I've heard preaching every single Sunday of my life, so when you COME with preaching, you have to come with it. He mesmerizes me, not only in his preaching but in his whole business persona. When I called I didn't really think I was ever going to get him, but you know, the Bible says ask, so I did," she added with a laugh. "When he told me he was going to do it, I thought I was going to die. When he did it, I was standing down by the orchestra, thinking who in the name of God is he talking about [when he called her 'charismatic and anointed']? He told me later, 'Vickie, that's who you are to me, from the days I heard 'We Shall Behold Him' 20 years ago!"