A not-particularly-successful R&B singer turned praise-and-worship-leader has become one of the biggest recording phenomena in Christian music. George Luke spoke to RON KENOLY to discover how it happened.
He's today a praise and worship leader whose albums sell more, many more, than Graham Kendrick and whose current album 'God Is Able' has made number one on America's Christian music chart outselling DC Talk, Michael W Smith et al. He has almost single handedly brought the fire of R&B rhythm and the call and response fervour of black church into the polite, MOR world of white praise and worship. Ron Kenoly, making a lightning visit to London for a hastily arranged praise concert at the Kensington Temple, gave me a warm welcome when I met the singer/worship leader, his wife Tavita and a few of his record company execs. After exchanging pleasantries in the hotel lobby, we headed for the Ganges Indian restaurant, where, while waiting to be served and while eating, we discussed everything from the idiosyncrasies of the American CCM scene to how ridiculous Carl Lewis looks in high heeled shoes in those billboards. My first impression of him was that Ron Kenoly looked remarkably good for his age (he'll be 50 this year) and both he and Tavita were both warm and friendly.
Ron was born in Coffeyville, Kansas, the third of six sons, in what was, to all intents and purposes, a single parent family (as he tells the audience on his new album, "We had a non-resident father"). Their father, an Air Force sergeant, was hardly ever at home and their mother used to take the whole family to the Union Baptist Church every Sunday. It was in this church that Ron gave his life to Christ at a very early age and started singing. As he grew up, so did his musical aspirations and at 18, after graduating from high school, he left home, and headed for Oklahoma en route to California. However, his hopes of hitting the big time were not realised and he followed his father's footsteps into the Air Force. This was to be a life-changing step for him in more ways than one, as it was here that he met the pretty Puerto Rican lady who would later become his wife.
"I met Tavita through some mutual friends," Ron explained. "We were both in the Force at the time. It was the kind of thing where the first night I met her, I knew I wanted her to be my girl and I told her I was going to marry her. She didn't like me at first; she had a lot of preconceived ideas about me. I was in a nightclub band called the Mellow Fellows and was pretty popular around the base. She just thought I was another playboy, or something. But then she found I was nicer," added Ron, laughing.
Tavita, like Ron, also sang and so they toured together for a while, at the same time building up their relationship. A year later they married and in October of 1968 Ron left the service. Once again with his eyes on the show business big time, he, Tavita and their first son Tony moved to Los Angeles.
This time around, Ron met with more success than his previous attempt. He landed a contract with a company called Audio Arts, singing on demos of compositions by songwriter Jim Webb ("By The Time I Get To Phoenix"). This led to other recording deals with MCA, United Artists, Warner Bros and A&M. Although there were no major hits, Ron earned the respect of the music industry and made enough money to give his family a reasonably good lifestyle. But if career wise things were looking up, at home it was exactly the opposite. The marriage deteriorated over a seven year period, until one day in 1975, when Tavita, who, like Ron, had accepted Christ at a very early age but left it all behind as she grew up, went to a Foursquare church in LA and rededicated her life to Christ. Ron followed in November of that year, quit his lucrative nightclub act and moved his family to Oakland. "We've looked back a few times, but never did go back," Ron said of that crisis point in his marriage. "We've had some serious ups and downs in our marriage, but thank God, he's been able to heal our relationship. To stay married 26 years in California is quite a feat. We're not a model family, but we're a family that loves the Lord, and Christ is the centre of our home and has been the anchor of our relationship."
Ron and Tavita have THREE sons, and all three of the Kenoly boys have inherited their parents' musical talent. "They all write songs, play instruments and sing," said Ron. "At first I tried to push them into it, but since the younger two were in their mid teens, they've both started singing and they just don't stop. And I'm not just saying this because I'm their dad, but they're good! The younger ones are really into manic music; rap and hip hop. When I wrote the "God Is Able" rap, they said it was alright for a parent! They tell me that I'm their favourite singer, which means a lot to me. My two younger brothers are also in music - one in Christian music and one in secular - and my boys have learned a lot from Mark (the brother in Christian music) as well."
After giving up singing in nightclubs, Ron worked for a while as a locker room attendant at the College Of Alameda, where he attended evening classes, working towards a music degree. He had been doing this for 18 months when he was scheduled to have a review with the Dean of the college, who was surprised to learn about his previous recording career and track record. The Dean got him to prepare a full CV, which was presented to the board of Regents, and Ron was issued with the equivalent of a Masters' degree and a teaching license and hired by the college as a vocal tutor.
Singing professionally was still the desire of Ron's heart, only now he turned his attention to the CCM industry, who, to coin a phrase, didn't want to know. Several demos were sent out to the various Christian labels, without so much as a standard "Thanks, but no thanks" letter in return while offers from nightclubs and secular record companies were still coming in. Things reached a critical point in 1982 and one summer evening a distraught Ron sat at the piano in his local church and after playing and singing for a while, gave up his dream of being a professional singer. Almost immediately, the situation began to change.
A series of invitations to lead the worship at different crusades and other functions led to a full time appointment at the Jubilee Christian Centre in San Jose, California. Don Moen, vice president of Integrity Music, visited Jubilee one day, saw Ron in action and the rest is history - well, almost.
"For the first two recordings I did with Integrity, I didn't have a formal agreement at all," said Ron. "It was just an agreement to do another worship tape. We recorded 'Jesus Is Alive' in 1990. Then Don Moen came to Jubilee and decided to record the worship as we had it, which became 'Lift Him Up'. It was after the bonafide success of 'Lift Him Up' (which has spent a staggering 70 plus weeks on Billboard's Contemporary Christian chart) that we signed a formal recording contract." The first recording under that contract is the new album, 'God Is Able'.
Tom Brooks, senior producer for Integrity Music, is the man with the job of selecting the songs for Ron's albums, as well as the musicians who play on them. "Tom has been involved in at least 50 of the Integrity worship projects," Ron explained. "I think it's incredible the way he can recognise a flow as he's designing and arranging." The backing band members on Ron's albums all come with impeccable credentials, not only from the CCM scene but also the mainstream, with people such as drummer Chester Thompson (Genesis, the Bee Gees), bassist Abraham Laboriel (Koinonia and just about everyone you can think of), percussionist Alex Acuna (see 'Abraham Laboriel') and woodwind player Justo Almario (ditto). "I didn't choose them," said Ron, "but if it was up to me I would have." Indeed, they are responsible for some of the truly memorable bits of the recordings, like Abraham's unscripted bass solos, or the awesome drumming in "The Battle Is The Lord's" on the new album.
Of course, the success of 'Lift Him Up' has pushed Ron into the public eye now more than ever. Or, as he puts it, "now we live in a glass house. I'm comfortable with it, but it creates a lot more challenges. I don't think there's any artist - Christian or otherwise - who doesn't dream of success and this kind of response from the general public. I think it's good in that I'm realising the desire of my heart, to do what I feel I was put on this planet to do, which is to lead people into an awareness of the presence of God." And although he's now one of its hottest properties, Ron tends to shy away from the whole CCM scene ("I'm not into the Nashville thing," he said).
When asked who his favourite singers were, his reply was, "You might not know them - they don't have recording contracts or large followings, but I know them. I know their hearts and when they sing, it touches me because I know where they're coming from. People like Ferris Hill - he's a young man who goes around singing in schools across the US and he's almost like the Pied Piper. He draws the kids to a neutral place on weekends and leads hundreds of them to the Lord. Those are the kind of people who are my favourites.
My brother Mark is another. But I know what you were trying to get out of me. As I was growing up the two main people that I listened to were Nat King Cole and Sammy Davis Jr. When I was growing up - this was in the mid 50s - they were two black people who came on TV on a regular basis who weren't in some type of stereotypical role. They were talented and their gifts spoke for themselves. As a child I knew that was how I wanted to be."
One thing Ron does have in common with his boyhood heroes is the way his music, like theirs, crosses racial barriers. "I don't have an explanation for it," said Ron. "I guess it has a lot to do with the fact that in my whole career, I've never been a 'black only' singer. Even as a nightclub singer, it's always been a mixed audience. I've never tried to design it that way - no, I take that back. While I was a secular singer, just to keep working I kept an integrated band, because there were a lot of clubs in those days where an all black band just wouldn't be allowed to play, regardless of how good they were. But that was then. Now, this whole thing was born out of a multi-racial congregation. Jubilee is about 45 to 50 per cent Caucasian, probably about 25 per cent African American and the rest is Hispanic and Asian. Somehow, we're able to present ministry that touches the lives and hearts of all those people -currently about 7,000 - in the 12 years I've been there, lift Him Up' was recorded in a similar environment and through it, people have come to realise that worship has no colour, age, ethnic or cultural barriers. Just like video has broken down a lot of taboos in worship, which is good, because although we've done lots of things to break down barriers, Sunday mornings between 8 and 12 is still the most segregated time in America. This video has helped pull down a lot of barriers and break a lot of stereotypes."
Ron is BIG in Africa. 'God Is Able' hit Nigeria's bookstores a good two months before us Brits had even heard of it and when he performed there the attendance on a bad night was a measly 8,000 people. When he appeared in South Africa, unfortunate punters had to stand outside the venues and look through the windows. Over in Sierra Leone, pirate copies of the 'Lift Him Up' video are everywhere. "I have quite a passion for Africa, for a lot of different reasons," Ron enthused. "First of all, being an African American I have a desire to know more about the homeland of my ancestors. Then of course, there's the music. So much of the music that we do is borne out of West African rhythms, so I feel I can grow more if I learn more about them. Thirdly, Africans have a passion for praise and worship which I haven't seen in many other parts of the world. Over there, it's not difficult to lead praise and worship. All I do is start a song, and they take over. It's always a joy to go there. Sometimes it's a struggle, because most of the countries I go to there are either underdeveloped or going through some kind of political turmoil, but then you have to realise that none of the countries south of the Sahara are over 40 years old. They're young nations trying to find an identity politically, socially and economically. The good thing is that spiritually they don't have a lot of problems, because they've always had a belief system. Just like the Greeks in Paul's day, they know that there's a God ruling over everything and want to establish a relationship with him. There's revival going on all over Africa - not just a Christian revival, but an Islamic one too, which leads to a lot of conflict. I like being in Africa. I just love being where God is doing something."
So, where exactly does Ron see himself, and praise and worship, going in the future? "Well, for a start, I see musicians being challenged to go sharpen up an practise more!" Ron said, laughing. "I see singers and worship leaders being challenged to come out of a lot of pre set moulds and release themselves to be led by the Spirit of God in their worship, rather than just going through a set list. I see congregations in the same way. Personally I would like to develop an 'Academy Of Worship', because there weren't any schools that I could go to learn how to do this and I struggled. Now that praise and worship is such a big part of church life, there has to be somewhere where worship leaders can go through training so that they don't have to go through the same kind of trial and error as I did. Also, I've written several musicals on the life of Christ and I'd like to see some of them realised. In fact, 'Jesus Is Alive' was the title song from one of them. We went and saw les Miserables' the other night, and it was hard to just watch it; whenever I see a musical like that, I'm always looking out for ideas to steal!"
It was midnight when I got home, having thoroughly enjoyed the evening's conversation and the (very hot) Indian meal. For some strange reason, muzak has never sounded the same since then.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.