Tony Cummings quizzed J J HAIRSTON of Youthful praise about his powerful gospel worship ministry
Ever since those groundbreaking '60s ensembles put together by James Cleveland and Edwin Hawkins modern black choir music has been one of the staples in Billboard's gospel charts. In the modern gospel scene one of the best choirs to emerge has been Connecticut's Youthful Praise featuring J J Hairston. They've been utilised on backing sessions for R&B pop luminaries Destiny's Child and SWV. And all their first four albums have registered on Billboard's Gospel Charts. The release by Light Records of their fifth album 'Resting On His Promise' all the elements of powerful gospel praise and worship have been brought into focus - the choir's impossibly tight East Coast sound, brilliant special guests like Shirley Caesar, Myron Butler and Dorinda Clark Cole and hook-laden melodies and God-centred lyrics from the talented songsmith J J that would make any saint want to get their praise on.
J J spoke about 'Resting On His Promise' and how he felt it compared with the ensembles' previous releases. "Stylistically I think it's a little more balanced than our previous albums. I think most of our albums have either been all praise and worship, or all choir music. This album is a mixture of both. I think spiritually it's just a little more mature than our previous projects. All of our songs are always based on the word of God, but this record has songs which not only quote the Scriptures, but also talk about how to apply the Scriptures to our every day lives."
J J spoke about the appearance of Shirley Caesar and Dorinda Clark Cole on the album. "Actually Pastor Shirley Caesar is our label mate. So I thought it was time to pull on that relationship to do a song together. I had a traditional song, 'High Praise', and who better to sing it than the reigning queen of traditional gospel. Dorinda Clark Cole has always been my favorite female gospel singer, and she's always been so supportive of us. So I knew going into the production of this record that I wanted her to be a part. She's the only person I know that can drive a song the way she does. Having her as a part of this project was a dream come true for me."
'Resting On His Promise' was recorded live at the choir's home church, the Cathedral Of Praise, Bridgeport, Connecticut. But as any reviewer of substandard gospel and worship albums will tell you, all the live atmosphere in the world doesn't count for much if the songs aren't memorable. In this album's case J J's compositions are top notch. He spoke about a couple of the album's standout tracks. "The title track 'Resting On His Promise' was inspired by the current economic climate. People are really nervous and concerned about what's going on, but that song was written to encourage the people of God to rest in him even during these uncertain times. Another song, 'Hear Me Lord', was actually inspired by a message I heard in London, England preached by Bishop John Francis."
J J Hairston grew up a child of the church. He was born in Brooklyn, New York where his grandfather was the pastor of Mt Sinai Cathedral. J J's mother was the choir director and the young J J grew up watching his mom work the choir. But by the time his family moved to Bridgeport, Connecticut, the teenage J J was rebelling against the influence of church and faith in his life. It wasn't until his friend Raheema Harrison was shot and killed that Hairston decided to make a change in his own life. He directed Central High School Gospel Choir and eventually joined Youthful Praise. After five years as a singer with the choir, he became co-director of Youthful Praise (otherwise known as YP) along with Shawn Brown. It was then that J J began to write and arrange the songs that YP performed. When Shawn Brown left to become a pastor in Norwalk, Connecticut, Hairston became the leader of Youthful Praise.
The 35-member (25 women and 10 men, ranging in ages from 19 to 40) choir has come a long way since they were founded around 1992 in the Cathedral Of Praise (formerly known as Turner's Faith Temple COGIC International). Youthful Praise featuring J J Hairston released their debut album 'Awesome God' on Evidence Gospel Records (a division of Gospelflava.com) in 2001. The bluesy title song became a hit with church choirs all over America and propelled the CD to number 13 on the Billboard gospel albums sales chart. In addition, it earned 2003 Stellar Award nominations for Choir Of The Year and Contemporary Choir Of The Year.
After such a successful debut more albums followed. 2004's 'Thank You For The Change' kept the momentum going with songs such as "Up There" (featuring Coko from SWV) and "He Rose" that was led by the crusty-voiced Kervy Brown. However, it was their 2005 'Live: The Praise, The Worship' that won them two Stellar Award nominations and made them a force to reckon with in the gospel industry. Their single "Incredible God, Incredible Praise" peaked at number six on Billboard's Gospel Singles chart.
The 2007 album 'Exalted. . .Live In Baltimore' was the choir's most diverse project. There were worship anthems like "Glory And Honor" (with special guest Judith Christine McAllister), the old school Pentecostal whoop-up "Satisfied" (led by Hairston's mother-in-law, Evangelist Gloria White, a former director and soloist of the legendary New York Institutional Radio Choir that hit with songs like "Stretch Out" in the '70s) and the retro soul groove of "Wonderful God" written and led by Ted Winn of the Stellar Award-winning duo Ted & Sheri. Now 'Resting On His Promise' hits the US record racks on 1st September. It's the powerful worship element that makes Youthful Praise stand out from most gospel aggregations, as J J observed, "There aren't many worship choirs out there. There are quite a few choirs, but not many sing worship music. I think that's one of the few things that set us apart from most choirs."
Intriguingly, J J believes that the division between white Christian music and African American Christian music is at long last beginning to crumble. He said, "For years our music was totally different which kept most of our church services and concerts separate. Now since our styles of music are becoming similar, our services and cultures don't seem as divided."
When asked to name a Scripture passage that had impacted this most gifted of choir directors and composers J J quoted Psalm 3: 1-3: "Lord, how are they increased that trouble me! Many are they that rise up against me. Many there be that say of my soul, there is no help for him in God. But thou, o Lord, art a shield for me; my glory, and the lifter up of mine head." Commented J J, "There have been times when I felt like I had more enemies or people who were against me, than people who were for me. But in those times God has always lifted my head."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.