JOHN P KEE is one of the gospel scene's most exciting voices. Tony Cummings reports.
John P Kee is quite simply the gospel artist everyone wants to see and hear. Here is a singer with a voice of such soulful magnificence that few would contest his claim to the billing of America's 'Prince Of Gospel' while his albums clog the Billboard Gospel Charts with monotonous regularity. Yet behind the plaudits and awards (his latest is an excellence Award for Producer Of The Year from the Gospel Music Workshop of America) is a telling testimony of dark sin and dazzling deliverance. John P Kee originally came from Durham, North Carolina and grew up in Baptist and Holiness churches. John's family was a profoundly musical one. His brother Al Kee was guitarist with seminal jazz team Weather Report and musical director of soul stars the Staple Singers. John himself was a musical protégé and by the age of eleven had landed a place at the North Carolina School Of The Arts. But John's resemblance to the storyline of 'Fame' stops here. At the age of 14, while playing with various secular bands, John slipped into regular drug use.
When he and his family moved to Yuba City in Northern California John, though going to church, was a 15-year-old drug dealer. John played in jazz and soul bands at Beale Air Force Base in Maryville, California. Discovered by famed jazzman Donald Byrd, John Kee undertook a tour for the United Negro College Fund. This in turn led to a lot of studio work for John. The young keyboards protégé should have been enjoying the relative fame and fortune, recognition of his prodigious talents was bringing him, he got to go on the road with pop star James Taylor and soul band Cameo. But instead John P Kee was a mess: "I was a user and a seller of cocaine" John admits. "I was working mainly to support my drug habit."
Still with strong church connections, John moved back to the Carolinas where he began performing regularly on one of the most infamous and morally lax TV. evangelism ministries. As he remembers: "I was playing for the PTL Club worship service but was living a double life. On Saturday night, I left a party with a friend to meet a guy for a drug deal. The fella had stolen 40 dollars from his suppliers. They rolled up in a car and killed him right before my eyes, shot him dead. I learned later that he had already paid back the money, but the hit had already been ordered. I started to praise God right there on that street corner, thankful to be alive. I promised Him that there would be no more playing around. That was the beginning of what you see today."
Turning his back on his spiritual-schizophrenia of old, John repented, was delivered from drug addiction and committed his music exclusively to the Lord's service In 1985 the 'King of Gospel' the legendary James Cleveland gave John a break, allowing him to sing one song at the Gospel Music Workshop of America. Rodina Preston heard it and liked it and offered to put him on at a high-profile gospel programme at Maddison Square Garden. At the urging of Gospel star Daryl Coley, John submitted a song "Jesus Lives In Me" to Edwin Hawkins and in 1986 ended up recording it himself at the Hawkins Music And Arts seminar in Houston, in 1986 when the intended lead singer backed out.
Meanwhile, the Charlotte-based vocal group John had assembled around him grew from a small ensemble to a fully-fledged choir. The New Life Community Choir with their dazzling collection of top rate lead singers were to play a key role in John's rise in popularity. The recording breakthrough came about in 1987. John was in Houston for a friend's recording when he got a phone call from Derek Dirksen. "He told me that he had heard my tape but doesn't know how he had gotten it." recalls John "Within an hour we were on the 'phone with Dr. Leonard Scott of Tyscot Records. And soon I recorded my first album for them".
Today, a gospel music giant, John has not forgotten his narrow escape from drug addiction and death. He has a burden for America's youth. "Over 80 per cent of our musical audience is young people" says Kee, "We have to get out of the four walls and go out to minister. I've been criticised for it by some but I'll put on a T-shirt and go to the kids on the streets at night when they're just out there looking for something, won't back up either. This is the work that Jesus did. The word of God is what makes me tick. The message is what makes my music happen and I'm grateful to God for all that success but those who have been delivered need to need to come down off our high horses and take the message to the street to those who aren't in touch instead of sitting on our testimony." John P Kee has no intention of sitting on his testimony.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.