Tony Cummings reports on the groundbreaking R&B gospel duo BEBE & CECE WINANS
The appearance of BeBe and CeCe Winans at the Oraclez Gospel Festival at Wembley Arena on 31st May brings back into the spotlight the Detroit-born brother and sister who have taken their brand of smooth R&B gospel music to levels of popularity and sales success utterly unprecedented in gospel music history. Their return to singing together after a 15 year break has resulted in a gospel chart topping album 'Still' in the US (though bizarrely it has still to gain a UK release). Now Benjamin 'BeBe' Winans (born 17th September 1962) and Priscilla 'CeCe' Winans (born 8th October 1964) have begun live performances which once had the Encyclopedia Of Contemporary Christian Music referring to the duo as "the Luther Vandross and Whitney Houston of Christian music."
In an interview with Christianity Today, the brother and sister spoke about their comeback album. Said BeBe, "We've been working on it for awhile. With solo careers and families and everything, you live separate lives." CeCe continued, "And you blink and 15 years go by. It's not like we planned to say, 'We're coming back in 15 years' or 'Let's do this for the 15th year reunion.' By the time we finished getting the schedules, the different producers, zeroing in all the songs, it had been 15 years. Wow!"
The duo were asked how things looked different for BeBe & CeCe after 15 years. Responded CeCe, "I hope it's looking better. With time, you become wiser. When you go through things and you're still standing, you're better off than you were before. In [the last 15 years], we've lost one of my brothers as well as my father. God has proven to be faithful, to carry us through the rough times. Knowing that they're both smiling down on us, they're both in a much better place and we'll see them both again, we bring that to the table. We bring more wisdom to the table than ever before - all of our triumphs, all of our failures." BeBe added his thoughts, "15 years ago I was thinking differently. I wasn't a father. Life has changed. The world has changed. We have an African-American president. With all those experiences, you put it into song and you sing from a different place of maturity."
BeBe and CeCe were one of the first groups to bridge black and white audiences. The duo were asked whether this had always been part of their strategy. Said CeCe, "We just went in doing what we do. The message is the message and it shouldn't matter what colour you are. You have different variety and styles of music. If that's the style you like, you embrace it, not caring what colour or if it's labelled 'gospel' or 'Christian'. We're happy that our music did tear down some barriers and hopefully it will continue to do the same thing."
BeBe and CeCe got their first break in 1982 when they became the only black members of The PTL Singers, the vapid MOR choir associated with Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker's notorious TV ministry PTL (Praise The Lord) which ended in scandal, bankruptcy and a prison sentence for Jim Bakker. Back in 1982 though PTL were Christian media movers and shakers. One day Tammy Faye Bakker was in a record store and heard Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warne's love song smash "Up Where We Belong" and thought it would be a good song for BeBe & CeCe to record. After she presented the idea to them, BeBe met with Larnelle Harris and began to change the lyrics to fit the Christian perspective. Then BeBe & CeCe recorded it that same week. The subsequent LP, 'Lord, Lift Us Up', ended up being nominated for a Grammy. The album also included "I'm Gonna Miss You", a song written by BeBe for his sister's wedding, and was reported to have sold a million copies to PTL donors though that has never been confirmed. But it did begin to open doors for the duo. Along with the PTL work, BeBe also did background vocals on Keith Green's 'Jesus Commands Us To Go' LP for Sparrow Records.
In 1987 Sparrow Records and Capitol Records created a unique partnership where they would jointly promote BeBe & CeCe. Sparrow would promote them in the Christian market and Capitol would promote them in the urban/mainstream market. They were a hit straight away with their self-titled 1987 album. Intriguingly, white singer/songwriter Billy Sprague worked with them on the project and co-wrote some of the songs, including the love song to God "For Always" and the Christian radio hit "I.O.U. Me", a creative expression of self-denial and commitment to God. The latter song was the duo's first crossover hit, reaching number 25 on Billboard's mainstream adult contemporary chart and making the Hot 100 R&B singles chart. "Love Said Not So" was another adult contemporary ballad sung by BeBe in a style very similar to Peabo Bryson. "Change Your Nature", according to BeBe (the composer), offers a generic promise to "dope addicts or alcoholics" or anyone else who needs God's help in being transformed. The mainstream press made much ado about the duo, who were bringing gospel into the new age with slick R&B grooves and inspirational messages. Later in 1987, BeBe co-starred with Chip Fields, Glynn Turman and Vanessa Bell Armstrong in the touring musical Don't Get God Started, composed by his brother Marvin.
The next album, 1988's 'Heaven', was significant in that the group capitalised on these connections to bridge the gap between church and mainstream markets. Whitney Houston sang with the duo on the standout track "Hold Up The Light" and on "Celebrate New Life". "Trust Him" was decidedly funky, the delicious soul-shuffle title track spoke of a longing for paradise. The album also included an ethereal cover of Simon & Garfunkle's "Bridge Over Troubled Water". 'Heaven' reached the Top 10 on Billboard's general market R&B chart, the first gospel album to do so since 1972 (Aretha Franklin's 'Amazing Grace). Certified gold (with sales of over 500,000), it also won Grammys and Doves, in addition to a Soul Train Music Award, an NAACP Image Award and six Stellar Awards.
The really big BeBe & CeCe album would arrive next. 'Different Lifestyles' has been described by the Encyclopedia Of Contemporary Christian Music as "BeBe and CeCe's 'Rumours' or 'The Joshua Tree'. 'Different Lifestyles' went platinum (over 1 million copies sold) and won the group another NAACP Image Award (plus more Grammys, Doves and Stellars). In 2001 a poll of critics sponsored by CCM magazine chose the album as number 10 on their list of The 100 Greatest Albums In Christian Music (they also put 'Heaven' at number 37 and CeCe's 'Everlasting Love' at number 51). 'Different Lifestyles' itself became the number one R&B record in the country and scored two number one hits on Billboard's general market R&B chart. The first of these would be "I'll Take You There", a remake of the oldie which many soul music connoisseurs were convinced wasn't as good as the Staple Singers' Stax Records original from 1972 even though Mavis Staples guested on BeBe & CeCe's version. The second smash hit was "Addictive Love", a strong track featuring call-and-response vocals between the two stars, providing the duo with their biggest hit on Christian radio. In 2001, BeBe & CeCe Winans' "Addictive Love" was included on a list of "the 365 most significant songs of the 20th century" prepared by the Recording Industry Association of America.
When 'Different Lifestyles' first appeared, however, the most noted song was "The Blood", primarily because it featured a guest rap performance by MC Hammer, then at the height of his career. The song was significant because it represented a move away from the by-now formulaic adult contemporary ballads that had filled previous projects. Likewise, "Searching For Love (It's Real)" featured a more gritty, passionate R&B vocal track than BeBe had often allowed himself to deliver. As the duo's urban profile increased, they toured as the opening act with Al Green one year and then toured as the headliner with Sounds Of Blackness.
'BeBe & CeCe Winans', 'Heaven' and 'Different Lifestyles' were all produced by keyboard maestro Keith Thomas, who also co-wrote many of the songs. Thomas also made Amy Grant a household name with her 'Heart In Motion' album the same year that 'Different Lifestyles' was released. Still, after this string of successes, BeBe and CeCe recorded an album without Thomas, 1994's 'Relationships', working with several different producers on various tracks. The album was noticeably more subdued than its predecessor and featured no celebrity guests. The standout track was "Count It All Joy", a swingbeat dance number built on James 1:2. "Right Away" is also bouncy, hearkening back to '70s disco. As the album title suggested, the overall theme of the album was relationships, human and divine.
In 1995 the brother and sister began pursuing separate careers. CeCe's first project was to record the duet "Count On Me" with Whitney Houston for the Waiting To Exhale movie. The song became a Top 10 hit and she performed it with Houston during the 1996 Grammy telecast. CeCe's solo albums 'Alone In His Presence' (1995), 'Everlasting Love' (1998), 'His Gift' (1998), 'Alabaster Box' (1999), 'CeCe Winans' (2001), 'Throne Room' (2003), 'Purified' (2005), 'Thy Kingdom Come' (2008) and 'Songs For Worship' (2008) have won the singer a shoal of Grammys, Doves and Stellars though more than one critic has suggested that though she has found the growing audience for gospel worship music her recordings are less adventurous than the best work with her brother.
BeBe's solo recordings have been a mixed bag too. As far as the critics go, his 'BeBe Winans' debut for Atlantic Records was his best. His subsequent CDs, 'Love & Freedom' (2000), 'Live And Up Close' (2002), 'My Christmas Prayer' (2003), 'Dream' (2005) and 'Cherch' (2007), are rather uneven. In recent times BeBe has had his share of troubles including an accusation of assault (subsequently dismissed) from his divorced wife. In the Christianity Today interview BeBe was asked whether he felt the Church put unrealistic expectations on artists' personal lives because "gospel" or "Christian" was part of their professional titles. Responded BeBe, "You don't allow pressures from people to be placed on you. We are human. We make mistakes. One of the things that surprises me the most is what people forget, and that is, 'While we were yet in sin, God died for us' [Rom. 5:8]. Grace is not a gift you can earn, but a wonderful gift he gave to us all." CeCe added, "You're always going to have people who are critical. That's their problem. As believers we have a responsibility to be pleasing unto the Father. So I'm never pressured by what people expect from me. God sees me in the dark, wherever I am, so I try to live a life that is pleasing to him. As the Bible says, 'Let your light so shine so that men will see it and glorify God in heaven' [Matt. 5:16]. If I'm pleasing him and blessing him, I'll be a blessing to others. And when you're forgiven much, you are willing to forgive much. There have been numerous times that we disappointed the Father, and yet he's been there to love us and forgive us. It's a joy to love other people right where they are."
Despite all their crossover success BeBe and CeCe still remain committed to gospel music and the message of God's grace. Said CeCe, "This is what we're created to do. We've been blessed to do other things outside of gospel music, but we are gospel artists. That's where our heart is, that's where our calling is, and that's our foundation."The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.