Tony Cummings reports on the Texas-born diva TAMELA MANN
The rise of Tamela Mann has been one of gospel music's major success stories of the last few years. In 2007's Tamela's debut solo album 'Gotta Keep Movin'' made number three on the US gospel charts, in 2009 her 'The Master Plan' went to number two on those charts and in 2012 Tamela's 'Best Days' reached the number one slot on Billboard's gospel rundown. Prior to her solo career Tamela was a member of Kirk Franklin And The Family. But in truth it has been the singer's career as an actress in several Tyler Perry productions on the stage, in feature films and on hugely popular TV programmes which have elevated the 46 year old to stardom.
Tamela's role as Cora in such Perry plays as I Can Do Bad All By Myself, Diary Of A Mad Black Woman, Madea's Family Reunion, Madea's Class Reunion, Meet The Browns and What's Done In The Dark have brought the singer-turned-actress fame. It has to be said that Perry, who in 2011 was named by Forbes as the highest paid man in entertainment (earning 130 million dollars between May 2010 and May 2011), has attracted considerable criticism despite his immense popularity with critics suggesting that his output reinforces black stereotypes. However one views Perry's black culture dramas few will argue that in Tamela Mann he has helped a phenomenal singing talent find a mass audience.
Mann was born Tamela Jean Johnson on 9th June 1966 in Fort Worth, Texas. She was the youngest of 14 children. Mann and her siblings grew up in a very spiritual home which was grounded in the Church Of God in Christ (COGIC). They were properly reared by their mother whom they called "Mother Eppe". Mother Eppe believed in and exercised solid biblical principles. Mother Eppe was a psalmist in her own right. By the age of 12, Tamela was singing in the church's adult choir and often selected to sing solos. Although she was bashful, she blossomed in the local church and high school choirs.
Tamela spoke to journalist Clayton Perry about her early church experiences. "You know, you kind of fight it when you're young. It's like, 'Why do I have to go to church all the time?' But I think by her encouraging me - well, it wasn't encouragement. It was like, 'You just gotta go. You gotta go.' [laughing] When I saw her in the choir and leading songs, it was just such an encouragement. I really didn't see it then, but I thank God for it now. At the time, I didn't see it as an influence. I was thinking: 'Wow, she making me go and she's not making anybody else go.' But it turned out that that's really how I fell in love and saw that singing was my passion."
In 1993 Tamela got her big break when she joined Kirk Franklin And The Family. The songwriter/group leader's album became a number one gospel hit and Tamela toured with Franklin. She also went on join the gospel musical cast of David E Talbert as he directed the stage play He Say.She Say.But What Does God Say?
In 1999 Mann got the opportunity to act as well as sing. Discovered by Tyler Perry, she debuted in the stage play I Can Do Bad All By Myself. She has appeared on television shows including The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, BET Soundstage, 1999 Grammy Awards, Dove Awards, the United States of America World Olympics and Tyler Perry's House Of Payne, as well as Tyler Perry's Meet The Browns (television show), where she portrayed Mr Brown's (David Mann) daughter. Mann has appeared in movies, including the 2001 comedy Kingdom Come, Diary Of A Mad Black Woman and Meet The Browns. She also had a role in 2009's Tyler Perry movie Madea Goes To Jail. In 2005, Tamela and her husband David Mann created their own label Tillymann Music. The outfit released several projects including Tamela's 'Gotta Keep Movin'' debut. Two years later Tillymann released her first live album 'The Live Experience'. Mann's explosive songs "Father Can You Hear Me" and "Take It To Jesus" can be heard in the movie and on the soundtrack album of Diary Of A Mad Black Woman.
In 2009 Mann's second studio album 'The Master Plan' was released. One of the outstanding tracks on the project was the powerhouse "You Deserve My Praise" penned by Demarcus Williams. Tamela recounted how she first heard the song. "I asked Demarcus if he had anything, and so he submitted that song and another one. When I first heard it, it was just a little rough draft with the music, so you can remember what it is - the lyrics and the harmonies. My husband and the album producer - Myron Butler - heard it and they were like, 'I don't know.' But I was like, 'Y'all! You have to hear beyond what's here right now.' And it has really become one of my favourite songs. I just fell in love with it and I asked Demarcus if I could tweak it and make a few little changes. And he was like, 'Sure. Sure.' It's really one of my favourite songs, because the lyrics really taught me that God deserves the praise. No matter what. He protects us, in all things, from dangers seen and unseen, and he keeps us in the midst of the good and the bad, even when we want to just do whatever we want to do and think it's right. For God covers us in so many different areas: of where our parents, our grandparents, pray for you and even just other people just praying for you and you're not even knowing it, how God still gets the praise. He deserves the praise, and we should give it to him because of who he is. And that's just kind of how that song came about."
Another standout on the album was "I Trust In You" penned by Tamela herself. She said, "We were out on the road for What's Done In The Dark, and things had kind of got a little rough. So we had a big meeting. It wasn't a blowup, necessarily, for me. You know how things happen in our lives? I just didn't like how a few things were going. And while I was getting ready to go on stage, the words came to me. "I trust you, Lord. When friends are few, bills are due." It sounds so singsongy, but it was truly how I felt. I had tears in my eyes, and I was standing backstage getting ready, listening for my cue to walk out on stage, and the Lord just kept bringing it back to me, more and more. At the time, I hadn't shared the song with anybody. I had just been singing it to myself. And then something happened with my son, where a guy had pulled a gun on him. After that happened with him, it made me go ahead and just finish the song. When I sang it to him, he started weeping and he was like, 'Mama, I really needed that.' His response just kind of led me to use it on the album, and I hope that it will be a blessing to somebody, especially in this day and time that we're in now.
"This is a trying period for so many people - with the economy and everything. Right now, all we have to rely on is the Lord, because so many other things are not going like we think they should go. Thank God for the President and all that; but, it's really not all in his hands. You know, we tend to forget that he's human and that God has the last say-so. I guess it's just because of my belief, because of my faith. But I believe that God is just and I really trust him to see me through all of this. So many people are in need and I'm just really trusting God to just see us through this. 'In Him', the other song, came to me while I was flying! [laughing] It's a really fun song, and it gives you that old-time, hand-clappin', foot-stompin' kind of vibe. Bobby Sparks produced it with me and put a little spin on it."
Now Tamela's 'Best Days' is turning out to be her most successful album so far. The first single from the project, "Take It To The King", was written and produced by Kirk Franklin. Working with the gospel superstar was a happy experience for the singer. She told the gospelguru website, "It was like a reunion. . . We all grew up in the same area in Dallas-Fort Worth and we've been together for over 20 years. It was a great reunion. The background singers came in and Kirk had me come in at a different time, we were doing shifts. It was wonderful being with Kirk, he kinda did it where it was just me and him in the studio. . . he even put David (my husband) out. He was like 'I want her to myself' . . . lol. We had fun and we had our serious moments. He told me, 'Tam, I didn't realise how much I missed your voice.' It was the same thing with him working with me. I was like. . . I missed it.I would trip out how Kirk would snip a song and put two vocalists on the same and make it so smooth. . . the transition was so smooth. It was a joy."
One of Tamela's favourite songs on 'Best Days' is "All To Thee". She commented, "It says 'All the glory, And all the honour, And all the praise belongs to only thee/. . . Take none for me but all for thee.' I've got a couple [of favourites' but it's more like in the worship vein. Another favourite is 'Lord We're Waiting' ('Lord we're waiting. . . anticipating, we're waiting on your glory and your presence'). That's kinda where the Lord has me right now. And of course 'Take Me To The King'."
Despite her success as an actress nothing can take the place of music in Tamela's life. She enthused, "Singing is my first love. You know how you have that one thing that you're comfortable with, you feel like that is your best area? I feel like singing is it. I thank God that he stirred up the gifts in me. I kinda turned and went into the acting portion of it. . . I don't think I'm too bad. But I think in anything you can always work on improvement. But I prefer singing over acting."
Tamela was recently featured in the Whitney Houston film Sparkle playing Whitney's best friend. She told essence.com how she landed the part. "I actually got a phone call for the part. I was shocked, but happy at the same time. I made myself look a little older on my audition tape, like I was from the 1950s, and David sent it in. I was so happy when I got it."
Working with the tragic pop star was, for Tamela, a wonderful experience. She recounted, "I had such a good time. We talked about the Lord; we talked about family and about singing. She actually got to hear the first two songs that I recorded, 'All To Thee' and 'I'll Hold On'. She was like, 'I can't wait to hear the rest of it. You're gonna get 'em with this, baby.' I was very hurt when I got the call about her passing."
Looking back over her phenomenal career Tamela admitted that she is somewhat stunned. She told the gospelguru, "I never dreamed that I would have met the people I've met and work with the people I've worked with to this day. When I drive up to my house it's like 'wow,' I'm just so grateful for God trusting me with my gift. When I do sing, I sing as if it is my last time. My eyes are actually tearing up because I'm really grateful and thankful to God for the opportunity. And I don't take that for granted because when you think about it there are so many other people that he could use. But it's like God chose me for this hour, such a time as this to bless his people. I don't ever want to get caught up into that it's about me. . . It's hard for me to watch myself on TV and sit up and listen to myself. It's kinda hard for me because I try to push myself back from it. I want to stay humble because if I do he said he'll exalt me."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.