Tony Cummings charts the history of one of contemporary gospel's most successful collaborations, DONALD LAWRENCE and THE TRI-CITY SINGERS.
If you're going to call it a day, go out with a bang. The recent release of the EMI Gospel double CD/DVD 'Donald Lawrence Presents The Tri-City Singers: Finale Act I & Act II' (sold separately and as a boxed set) has created a major impact Stateside. These, the farewell releases by Donald and choir ended up making six separate Billboard charts, unprecedented for a gospel act. In addition the song "The Blessing Of Abraham" from the albums shot to number one on the Billboard Hot Gospel Tracks chart. The albums were recorded live over two memorable nights at The Tabernacle in Atlanta. Donald has fond memories of those nights. Remembered Donald, "They were incredible. We got a lot of support from radio and industry. A lot of artists showed up on both nights. It was actually one of our best recordings. The energy was definitely there. All of our recordings have been incredible though - every single one of them. But this one was certainly one of our best. People left the recording feeling good, not just because of the music, but because of what was spoken in people's lives."
'Finale: Act I & Act II' are studded with special guests. Recounted Donald, "We did 10 new songs and a 45-minute medley of old songs. LaShun Pace, Walter Hawkins, Daryl Coley, Karen Clark Sheard, Vanessa Bell Armstrong and Darwin Hobbs were guest artists. Deitrick and Damita Haddon did a cameo one night. It was really incredible. The overall theme was The Blessing Of Abraham. I'm so proud of that message. The theme was inspired by my pastor, Pastor Bill Winston. It's really a message of inheritance. Because we are in the body of Christ, we have inherited the material blessings of Abraham and the spiritual blessings of Jesus Christ. God promised Abraham that his seed would possess the land. I'm telling everyone that with every dream they have, they are supposed to be successful. You just have to go get it. When someone puts you in their will, you collect your inheritance. The song 'The Blessing Of Abraham' tells everyone to go get their inheritance. If you want to start a business, the time is now because God promised you success. It's not about anything you did; it's about the promise and God cannot go back on his word. He promised that you would be in good health and he promised that you would live and not die."
The tale of how Donald Lawrence, a native of Charlotte, North Carolina and the Tri-City Singers, a choir hailing from Greenville, Spartanburg and Wellford, South Carolina - the tri-cities of their moniker - came together is a fascinating one. Donald told his tale of the early years to Gospel Today magazine in 1995. "As a child, I wanted to make music and write plays. In fact, I did. I grew up in Mills Chapel, FBH (Fire Baptized Holiness) Church in Gastonia, North Carolina. (He was born in Charlotte, but raised in nearby Gastonia.) I sang in the choir, played organ and piano and started writing music at 16. It was a gift."
Upon graduating from high school, Lawrence auditioned for and was accepted to the Cincinnati Conservatory. While there, he discovered that he had a flair for acting. One more talent to add to those of writing, singing and playing musical instruments. Lawrence graduated with a Bachelor's of Fine Arts Degree in musical theatre. After doing several shows in Cincinnatti, he headed for Florida, where he worked at Burt Reynolds' Dinner Theater. After a few months, when that job was over, he came home. "Of course, I didn't sit around doing nothing," he said. "I'm a go-getter. Right in Charlotte, Jim and Tammy Bakker's PTL operation was in full force. I went over there with a friend, Robin Rose Stewart, to audition. Robin and I worked together as a team at PTL. I also produced shows. Although I had very long days, this experience was invaluable. I sang in groups, taught songs to the group and did many other things."
After a year with the now notorious PTL (Jim Baaker fell publicly into sin and was subsequently jailed), Lawrence worked with Stephanie Mills, the one-time Motown recording artist who had hit the big time starring in the Broadway musical, The Wiz. Donald joined Stephanie as her musical director, writing her musical arrangements and conducting her band. For awhile he straddled the R&B and gospel worlds. In R&B he was the vocal coach for the hitmaking En Vogue and the producer of a play starring Peabo Bryson. In gospel Donald wrote songs for the Clark Sisters, the GMWA Choir and wrote several gospel plays with Sing Hallelujah! playing at New York City's Village Gate for more than a year.
The connection between Donald and The Tri-City Singers came about through Stephanie Mills' all-male backing group The Company. A member of The Company was Richard Odom. Donald gave Richard some of his songs to try out with the community choir in South Carolina Richard was a member of. That choir was The Tri-City Singers. Vanessa Glenn-Durrah, the choir's manager and a founding member, commented, "We used to wonder where Richard got all of those songs. We hadn't heard them before."
The original Singers consisted of members and friends of the Dawkins family. When the group first began singing in 1981, they were named after their director, Isaac Anderson. A year later, each member of the group suggested a new name and dropped it in a hat. The winning pick was Tri-City Singers. Perhaps not the best selection technique, but the name stuck and has served the choir well for 13 years. When Anderson left the group, Faith Davis came on board and shaped the group into an even better ensemble.
Trying to hold a 25-member ensemble together is a formidable challenge. The group performed locally without great financial rewards. On out of town engagements, members paid out of their own pockets to perform. Director and musicians came and went. Things were so bleak the choir were making plans to disband. Then, Lawrence arrived. He wanted the choir to showcase his work. The marriage worked. Their first collaboration was the album 'A Songwriter's Point Of View'.
The release by Gospo Centric Records in 1993 of 'A Songwriter's Point Of View' changed everything for both choir and songwriter/producer. The choir, after 12 years of existence, were suddenly catapulted to the gospel big time with the album reaching number two on the US Gospel Charts pushed by the radio singles "Personal Friend Of Mine", "Shut De Do" (a surprising cover of an old Randy Stonehill song) and "I Walk With The King". If 'A Songwriter's Point Of View' was a hit, its follow up, 1995's 'Bible Stories', now credited Donald Lawrence & The Tri-City Singers, was a stone smash, making number one on the Gospel Charts and being nominated for a Grammy. Lawrence then scored a Top 30 R&B hit with "Don't Give Up" - a song featuring Karen Clark Sheard, Hezekiah Walker and Kirk Franklin. Donald Lawrence & The Tri-City Singers continued to enjoy successful albums. 1997's 'Hello Christmas' earned them a performance on NBC's prestigious Today Show while 'Tri-City4.com' (2000) sold over a quarter of a million and produced an exhilarating crossover Dance Chart hit "Testify". The Tri-City Singers had developed a scorching on-stage act, but one with a clearly focused ministry purpose. Said Vanessa Glenn-Durrah around the time of the release of the choir's 'Go Get Your Life Back' (2002), "We've always loved to entertain an audience, but that by itself is not nearly enough. We want to be known as more than a group with cool stage moves and CDs full of great songs. We want to touch and change people's very lives through the power of God moving in what we do. All the success the last decade has brought us has been exciting, but Tri-City's greatest calling is - and will always be - first and foremost for ministry. We never could have lasted this long if it was for any reasons other than loving to sing and serve the Lord."
In 2004 Donald Lawrence signed with Verity Records (the Tri-City Singers were inked with EMI Gospel) launched the imprint Quiet Water Entertainment and released his first solo album. 'I Speak Life' bounded into the US gospel charts. He told Billboard magazine about his decision to join Verity. "They knew what my vision was and what I wanted to do business-wise. They really stepped up to the plate, giving me an imprint, allowing me to sign artists. It's a multifaceted deal, not just an artist deal. Lawrence signed two acts, family group the Murrills and soloist DeWayne Woods. Donald told Billboard about his signing of the Murrills, "We've known each other since I was six and we've always planned on doing a family record." Of Woods he said, "DeWayne is somebody I'll send out to teach choirs. He learned under me and with me getting ready to retire the Tri-City Singers, it's a way to keep that feel and sound around."
'I Speak Life' found Lawrence teaming with a variety of special guests including Faith Evans, Donnie McClurkin, Vanessa Bell Armstrong, Lalah Hathaway, Carl Thomas, Ramsey Lewis and Hezekiah Walker. "I wrote the songs with these people in mind," Lawrence explained to Billboard. He hoped the album would encourage people to "speak life" to those who are hurting. "I always wanted my music to be therapeutic because life is so hard. When things come to scar you, you can either let it kill you or you can use it to become stronger. I'm just trying to encourage everybody to use anything negative that happens to you and make it a positive in your life."
Now, with the release of 'Act I' and 'Act II' Donald feels that the Tri-City Singers era has finally drawn to a close. He said, "I felt it was time for us to transition. There are a few acts inside the choir that are getting ready to do their own thing. We've been fortunate that our group hasn't really had a big turnover. I think that's what makes Tri-City great, but if that's not going to be the case any longer, it's not the group. I felt like this was the time to transition well - to put a period there instead of disassembling."
As a soloist, songwriter and record producer things are continuing to be very busy for Donald. He said, "There are so many opportunities for me. I'm going to be going in the studio with my new act, the Murrills. They're a family from Tri-City and consist of five brothers and one sister. Their record is going to be about the healing of the family and is based around the theme of families. I'm also working on DeWayne Woods. His project will centre around worship. I'm still going to be recording as Donald Lawrence & Company. The 'Speak Life' album introduced me as an artist; it was set up for me to be able to write and record as an artist. There are other things that I'm planning as well."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.