The Winans: The R&B gospel pioneers

Sunday 1st December 1996

Detroit's favourite singing family the Winans were recently in the UK. Mike Rimmer spoke to Michael Winans.

The Winans
The Winans

It had been touted as their farewell concert tour, the end of the road to the Winans. But in reality, it's not the end, merely a curtailing of live work to let the brothers move on and give time to other projects. Even then, the Winans will perform again in this country because Ronald Winans couldn't make the trip due to illness so Marvin promised us that they'd have to come back to say goodbye properly.

In the backstage melee, I managed to grab hold of Michael Winans to ask for his reflections on their career so far and for details of possible future projects. We began at the beginning: I wondered whether it was inevitable that he would spend his life singing, after all, there's something special about this most musical of families. "They say it's in the water but it's definitely in the genes and Mom and Pop trained us as little children. It became second nature, just like eating or sleeping. My Dad played guitar and we used to harmonise around the guitar and he would give us our parts. If you didn't nail your part you'd stay up longer than anyone else in the house!"

Pop Winans may have encouraged his children to sing but he also wanted them to learn what it was to work. Detroit is Motor City and the home of huge car plants and it was here that the brothers went out to work. Michael remembers, "We all worked in the factory. We built cars until the release of the first album in 1980 and then we got serious. I was happy to give that up because it was the same thing every day. With being creative, it's something different every day, especially when it comes from the Spirit."

But weren't there valuable experiences to"* be learnt even when stuck in a job he didn't really enjoy? "I learnt how to be disciplined," Michael responds, "and how to be true to what I was doing. When I worked on the line I did my best but it just wasn't for me! You do what you can do. They used to talk about working there 30 years and then out and I remember saying to the Lord, 'That sounds like prison.

You've got to break me out of this place!'" He laughs! "There were good things. I had a chance to witness to the people. I remember we were allowed to bring our radios to the factory and when we recorded the first album, I was working one day and the local radio played 'The Question Is' and everybody was like, 'Hey Mikey, your song is on!' And I was saying, 'Yeah! But I'm still on this line.'" Again he laughs at the memory.

From that very first album "The Question Is" was one of the songs that has made a lasting impact on Winans fans and it has been revisited on 'Heart And Soul', the latest Winans release. The history of the song is interesting because it very nearly didn't get recorded. There were no plans at all for the song to be on the album. "That was very strange! We visited Andrae Crouch's father's church in California and he had us sing two songs including 'The Question Is' and the people really liked it and Andrae came up to us afterwards and said that's definitely going on the album." A classic was born!

Detroit has a strong musical history. As well as the car factory, it had a hit factory. Berry Gordy's Motown label was based there in the '60s and '70s and a lot of Detroit musical talent went on to national prominence as the label churned out hit after hit. Down the road another musical family, the Jacksons, had successfully been fronted by a group of brothers followed by solo success for other siblings. I've often mused about the similarities between the families. Was Michael Winans aware of the Jacksons? "We weren't really allowed to watch much TV or listen to secular music when we were growing up but with school friends we used to watch or hear the Jacksons and it was our desire to witness to them and eventually it happened because we were able to do some backing on Michael Jackson's 'Bad' album and sit down and talk with him and he told us that we reminded him of his own family with the closeness and the harmonies." I observe that Jackson seems to enjoy surrounding himself with Christian musicians having employed Louis Johnson, the Seawind Horns, the Winans and the Andrae Crouch Singers on various projects. "Slowly but surely we're just drawing him in. Every opportunity we get to drop the bomb we do!" Michael laughs at the thought.

The success of the Winans has been phenomenal, so I wonder why the band wanted to close things down now. "We've been doing this for 15 years and it is getting close to the end," Michael explains. "Marvin is the leader and he pastors the church where we all go and it's growing so fast and it's getting busy and he needs to be there. Carvin is doing television videos and hosting a Gospel video show. I'm doing Gospel musical plays. I travelled a lot in the States this year doing a gospel play Which Way Do I Turn. Ronald is working with a choir. I plan to record an album with my wife. When I first met her 16 years ago, she was singing in a church and I always promised her that we would record together and so that's planned for spring of '97." I tease him that he is still keeping it in the family and he responds, "When you've got the talent around, you have to use it."

There is definitely not a shortage of talent in the Winans family. Earlier in the evening on stage when Marvin told the Birmingham audience that Ronald Winans couldn't make it because he was ill, he joked, "But Ma and Pa kept on having children so there's no shortage of Winans to fill the gap," before introducing his little brother Be Be as the man filling in, much to the abundant delight of the crowd who holler and encourage every contribution from the 'new boy'. Michael was quick to point out that the addition of Be Be changed the chemistry of the band because all of the Winans have different singing styles. Certainly on stage, Marvin was quick to tease and impersonate the singing styles of both Be Be and Ce Ce. In retaliation, there was a wonderful moment where Be Be persuaded his brothers to sing in his style with very soulful consequences!

As for the future, there will be more albums on the way from the brothers. Michael elaborates, "We will still be recording because we're still in contract to do three more albums for Qwest Records. We just won't be travelling so much." I tease him by asking whether they're just too old to go on the road and he chuckles and responds, "Oh you feel it! The wear and tear is definitely there but I figure I've got a couple more years."

I suggest that perhaps it will be easier to go on the road with his wife after their project and he agrees. "It'll be much easier. With the Winans it isn't just the four brothers because we carry a live band so there's 10 of us." And what a band! Anchoring the tightest of sounds sadly often lost in the booming acoustic nightmare of the notoriously vacuous Aston Villa Leisure Centre is the legendary rhythm section of drummer/producer Bill Maxwell and bass player Abe Laboriel making a rare British appearance.

When the definitive history of Gospel music is comprehensively written, there is no doubt that the Winans will have their own long chapter because the influence of the family has made such an impact on the sound and development of Gospel. Michael considers again their roots: "In the early years on radio stations, there was no chart for contemporary gospel music. You had quartet, old time gospel or inspiration and so at times it was rough because we didn't fit in." Contemplating the current Contemporary Gospel charts, it's hard to take in that the music is still only a fairly recent phenomenon. I asked Michael who he rates most among the plethora of artists who have followed the trail that the Winans have blazed. After much deliberation, he chooses Kirk Franklin.

As well as pioneering the development of the sound of contemporary gospel, the Winans boldly worked in the mainstream arena of music without compromising the message. They chose to sign to Quincy Jones' smallish label Qwest Records because they didn't want to get lost in the roster of artists of a big label. That's not to say the biggies weren't interested. Michael still gasps when he considers what they were offered from some of the majors -"MCA offered us the world!" He laughs at the recollection.

Michael reflects that the band's signing to Qwest Records was a very significant step. "It was an immediate plus to sign because everybody and anybody can hear your music. The 'Return' album had a mainstream production from Teddy Riley and we had to adjust because we had to think what is this guy bringing to the table? We weren't crazy about his music but we wanted to look past that because he had a sound that young people were going crazy for and by golly, it was the biggest album that the Winans ever did!"

If you thought that working with a mainstream label has been the key to the Winans working with some of the finest musicians and singers, it isn't always so! One of the classiest moments of their career is the soulful "Ain't No Need To Worry" which featured a duet with Anita Baker. It's a beautiful song of security in God. The connection came with a chance meeting at an airport. A hassled Baker was running late but bumped into Marvin Winans. They recognised each other and Marvin invited her to sing with the band. Phone numbers were exchanged, a few weeks later phone calls were made and before you could say Bob's yer uncle she was in the studio. If only all of life was this simple, eh?

With the growing success of the band, I wondered whether Michael could identify the changes in the band's ministry. "The ministry has changed because it's become more static. These days we're able to spend more time working in the local area for example in high schools with the I Care rally. We actually returned to the high school where we studied." I reflect that it seems like a return to grass roots which can only be a healthy thing. Isn't it possible for a band to become so big that they lose touch because there are too many business associates between them and ordinary people. Michael agrees. "I believe it's important to keep in touch because you notice things and it's important to make a connection."

Five Grammy awards, truckloads of critical acclaim, musical liaisons with superstars, the band has changed the face of gospel music. In the blur of all that work in the last 16 years, I ended my chat with Michael by asking whether he could pick out his favourite moment in the roller coaster of achievement. His response demonstrates that despite all the success, the Winans haven't lost sight of their ministry in all the fuss about their music. "You would actually think that someone would say the awards that you won but it's not! It's actually hearing someone say that they've been touched by the music. I remember this lady in Seattle, she called to say she was going to commit suicide and then she heard the song 'Tomorrow' and that stopped everything and she gave her life to God. It's those kind of things that are important where the music saved or changed someone's life." CR

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.

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