In between recording and touring with her elder brother BeBe, bringing up two children and doing the odd soundtrack recording with close friend Whitney Houston, CECE WINANS has found time to launch her solo career. Tony Cummings reports.
Over the years every kind of Christian artist has attempted albums of the old hymns. But few have produced an album as classy and as broad based in its appeal as the solo debut of CeCe Winans, 'Alone In His Presence'. The Grammy Award-winning vocalist said about the album, "The hymns are such an important part of my life -that's what I grew up on. So this album is really special to me. 'Alone In His Presence' lets people in on my quiet time, because I'm singing the songs that minister to me when I'm down or discouraged. This album is about my relationship with the Lord and I hope it will encourage others to fall in love with him."
'Alone In His Presence' pays tribute to CeCe's most valued possessions: her family and her faith. Although somewhat more traditional than a BeBe And CeCe recording, CeCe's trademark vocals are still unmistakable on the album. Among her favourites is "His Strength Is Perfect", written by Sparrow label-mate and friend Steven Curtis Chapman. "That song just brings tears to my eyes," CeCe reflects. "I told Steven years ago, 'I have to sing that song.'"
One of her favourite moments on the album is "Great Is Thy Faithfulness", sung as an inspiring duet with her mother, the matriarch of the Winans family and CeCe's musical role model since childhood. "I can't talk about my mom without crying!" CeCe admits. "I am blessed and blessed again to have her as a mom - besides being an incredible vocalist. It's because of her faithfulness that I am who I am today."
'Alone In His Presence' emanates with CeCe's warm and spontaneous personality. But CeCe's definition of being in God's presence doesn't always translate into being "religious" - sometimes it's about having fun. When producers Victor Caldwell (CeCe's brother-in-law) and Cedric Caldwell (Victor's brother) called her in to listen to their production of "Blessed Assurance" she was surprised to find they had arranged it in a big band style! At first she hesitated at this adventurous approach, but she quickly submitted when she heard the joyful rendition. "It's still 'Blessed Assurance' -it's just wrapped up a little differently," CeCe explains. "This song is especially great because we are having fun in his presence. I think that's what the Lord wanted me to stress: when we are in his presence we're not always solemn. He wants us to laugh. He wants us to enjoy.
It's all about being true and respecting that we are in his presence at all times."
CeCe hopes 'Alone In His Presence' will have a universal appeal, crossing the lines of race, colour and denomination. "I just hope that everybody will be reached," she says. "There shouldn't be any boundaries, because worship is worship."
CeCe has recorded a duet with pop star Whitney Houston for inclusion on Whitney's new movie. The two have become close personal friends. She first met Whitney at an awards ceremony seven years ago. "I told her, 'You have an incredible voice.' 'I like you guys' stuff,' she fired back. 'Are you singing anywhere tonight?' When she discovered we were, she showed up - and BeBe and I invited her to come up on stage and sing with us. I think Whitney and I were surprised by each other. There's so much jealousy, competition and anxiety in the music industry -everyone is worried that someone else will sound better than they do. But neither of us care about that, so we became friends rather than competitors. I know God put us in each other's life and we're like sisters. We talk often and I pray for her."
The lifestyles of a pop and movie star and a gospel singer would appear to be poles apart yet there are no tensions in the relationship. "We respect each other. Since she knows what I stand for she won't even ask me to do certain things -like playing a part in what I'd consider a questionable video. I'd heard all sorts of rumours about Whitney before we met but I'd been a public figure long enough myself to know I had to filter rumours carefully. It's so easy for us to look at people who have success or money as 'celebrities' and miss the real person.
"Actually, Whitney is one of the nicest, real people you'll ever meet. She's so humble (unlike her character in the movie The Bodyguard) that I actually forget how famous she is until I see her on television, winning her 20 thousandth award! After we'd been friends for several years, I told her, 'I don't know if we can be friends anymore because you're too famous. I don't want to be in the tabloids!' Whitney laughed and retorted, 'Don't even try it. We're staying friends!' But I realise there's a cost to being 'famous'. Someone is always recognising her, following her. I'm such a private person that I would have a hard time with that."
An event still vivid in CeCe's mind is her performance with Houston on the VH-1 Honors Awards show. Their powerful interpretation of "Bridge Over Troubled Water" prompted tears in the audience and a stir in the media that vaulted her (until now) low-profile friendship with the pop music diva into the headlines. CeCe describes how her evening at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles came to an emotional close: "When we finished the song, Whitney and I were crying and hugging each other. Everyone was crying! Then she saw that her make up was running and said 'I look horrible!' And I told her, 'When the Spirit falls, it doesn't worry about what we look like!' It wasn't until I got home and watched the tape that I really saw the impact that had happened that night. But I can't take credit for any of that. God was just there."
CeCe never planned a music career. She comments, "My interest was more in styling hair and owning my own hair salon. After singing with our family and in the church choir throughout my childhood, BeBe and I joined our older brother Daniel and my sister-in-law Vicki, to become The Winans, Part 2 in the late 70s.
"When I was 17 a music director from the PTL Club called and asked if I was interested in moving to Charlotte, North Carolina and singing for them. Because my father was very protective and wouldn't let me spend a night away from home, I was sure he wouldn't even let me audition. So I almost fell over when he said, 'Okay. As long as your brother BeBe goes with you.' BeBe and I lived in Charlotte for two years, singing background and leading songs. Then churches invited us to sing and record companies called. God made it clear what he wanted us to do."
The success of BeBe and CeCe has been spectacular. Their 1987 debut album on Sparrow, 'BeBe And CeCe Winans', featured two Christian radio number one singles, "I.O.U. Me" and "For Always" and went on to garner the duo the Gospel Music Association's Best New Artist, as well as a Grammy Award for "For Always". But BeBe And CeCe's momentum soared to new heights in 1988 with the release of 'Heaven'. The album became the first gospel recording to reach the Top 10 on Billboard's Urban chart and the second gospel project to be certified gold since Aretha Franklin's 'Amazing Grace' in 1972. Beginning BeBe And CeCe's warm relationship with mainstream radio, the title track became an Urban Contemporary Top 10 hit, as well as a number one at Christian radio. The gold certified album brought BeBe And CeCe two more Grammy Awards, four Dove Awards, an NAACP Image Award and four Stellar Awards.
Their 1991 release 'Different Lifestyles' positioned BeBe and CeCe as one of the premier artists in both Christian and mainstream music. The album quickly made history when it became the first gospel project to top Billboard's R&B and gospel album sales charts. The platinum-plus seller's first two singles "Addictive Love" and "I'll Take You There" both charged to the top of Billboard's R&B singles chart, as well as national Christian radio charts. The disc also generated a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Soul Gospel Album, Dove Awards for Group Of The Year and Contemporary Black Gospel Recorded Song Of The Year, as well as an NAACP Image Award.
With the demands of all the touring and recording how did CeCe manage her time to be a successful wife and mother? "With all the travelling we do, we've had to be flexible. It's been a big help that, as a sales engineer for Xerox, Alvin (CeCe's husband) doesn't have to have regular hours. As long as he gets his sales quota, he's available to travel with me.
"When Alvin Jr and Ashley were little and I was on tour, I cried a lot. I missed them and was afraid I wasn't being a good mom. But the Lord always quietly said, Trust me. I called you to do this. Your kids will be okay.' And they are! They love people and they love God. When I'm home, I make sure they have my full attention. I work hard at getting to know them as they grow and change. Now that they're in school, they only go 'on the road' with me some weekends and in the summer. And many times I fly home in the middle of a tour just to see them.
"Currently we're praying about their schooling. I'm sensing Alvin Jr and Ashley want me to be with them more, so we're considering home schooling in order to travel together as a family. Many times, as I tour, I'm still lonely and I don't want to be where I am. But I can see all the ways God has orchestrated the events of my life. For instance, he provided me with a wonderful husband I never could have picked on my own, and a loving mom and mother-in-law who have given of their time to care for our children when I've had ministry commitments."
Immersed in a church filled with family and friends since early childhood, finding a 'home church' was an important consideration when CeCe and family relocated to Nashville five years ago from Detroit. She felt it was imperative to establish her family in a church that would provide a solid, nurturing environment. "The whole concept of the home church is just so important," CeCe explains. "People don't think it's important nowadays, but that's where you really learn how to be a child of God in every situation. You need the accountability. I need somebody to know that I am nothing without God. My church family is always praying for me; they are always there for me."
CeCe smiles, "I needed a place where I could go and cry all my make up off with no one looking at me like, 'What is wrong with you?'" At first, being 'CeCe Winans' got in the way, until people began to see she was just another church member, there to worship God. She is happy to say she is now just known as 'Sister Love'. Thankful to find a place for her children to grow up learning the ways of the Lord, CeCe states, "It was so important to me that my kids had the chance to have what I did growing up. It is because of that foundation I can remain strong in my calling when I go into 'all the world'. I wanted my kids to have that foundation."
To CeCe, the home church provides the tools and the community to keep her children strong in the face of adversity. "It's important to remember that there is power in family and the Devil knows that. We have to fight back with the only thing that works, and that's God's word. . . the blood of Jesus Christ."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.