Special Edition: J. Matthew Cobb, Prayzehymn Entertainment
Over ten years ago, John P. Kee stepped out on his own and released Colorblind; scaring some who believed he had called it quits with the New Life Community Choir. The Color Of Music
, his solo follow-up to 1994's Colorblind
was released in 2004 also causing a stir for Kee's fans. But this time around, the event proved to be understandable. This would be ten years since his last solo project and this time, in Kee's sense of fashion, he decided to create a "colorful" sequel to his last solo entry (both solo albums used the word "color" in its title). Since that project, a slew of projects from Kee's music label since 1994, Verity Records, has surfaced to the limelight. Music collections from the Victory In Praise Music and Arts Seminar, Lil' Rufus
(a cartoon character developed specifically for young kids) and The New Artist Showcase
have been released since then and revealed to many doubters that they were wrong regarding an early retirement for Kee's career. But even with all of the upcoming artists he has opened doors for, for all the secondary groups he has cultivated and developed, for all of the many faces that the Crowned Prince of Gospel attempts to wear or create throughout the years, he is best known for and will forever be recognized for establishing one of the most respected and well-rounded community choirs in modern contemporary gospel music.
ONE: The Thin Guy In The Yellow Suit
The 1980s were indeed trying times for most upcoming artists in the field of contemporary gospel music; a sub-genre of traditional gospel founded and accredited to Edwin Hawkins in 1969 for the crossover success of "Oh Happy Day". Many reasons for this struggle of contemporary gospel circulated around the non-acceptance of newer styles and the rejection towards pop music from conservative gospel listeners, which eventually seeped into the current gospel trends. While Thomas Whitfield, Rev. Milton Brunson's Thompson Community Singers, Keith Pringle, the Winans, Commissioned and Vanessa Bell Armstrong paraded the contemporary gospel circuits with their updated style of gospel while experiencing some forms of success during this time period, the more traditional gospel, which barely experienced an update since the mid-70s, continued to dominate the charts and sales of the industry. But times were indeed changing and the tough soil that many trampled upon during the mid-80s became fertile again. All thanks to a young man that decided to step beyond the walls of traditionalism and expected change. Amazingly, John Prince Kee was received well at the 1985 session of the Gospel Music Workshop of America as he recorded lead vocals on two tracks, in which he also composed, for the live recording session of the annual convention. Truly, this was a breakthrough for Kee and immediately made history; since he was the first artist to experience such an achievement in James Cleveland's gospel convention. This was the breakthrough Kee had been longing for and was the answered prayer to a new walk of life. Before this moment in time, John P. Kee endured many hardships and obstacles which included a hard-edged streetlife and a disturbing past lifestyle committed to drugs and gang violence. His wake-up call towards God followed after he witnessed his best friend brutally murdered during a horrific drug deal gone wrong. Since that moment, John knew that a mighty calling was upon his life and was willing to commit to fulfilling his divine mandate. During this time period, he decided to create his own singing aggregation and named them the New Life Community Choir. Creating such a group led him to the crowned achievement to record "Yes Lord"; his very first professional debut project. The project was recorded live at the Brethren In Unity Youth Convention and captured the attention of Dr. Leonard Scott, CEO of the Indianapolis-based Tyscot Records. He decided to release the album and the rest was history. Kee laughs at the project for many reasons nowadays. First and foremost, the album cover sports a very youthful, slim John P. Kee in a bright yellow suit jacket which also sums up the expired fashion statements of the eighties. The poor quality of the album's production will also create a few chuckles. Even after it was mastered years after, the product of the original analog tapes sounds like a muffled, cassette tape captured at a bit rate of 65 kpbs. But that's when the laughs from before begins to fade since the songs of this project reflected an end of an era of dominant traditionalism and the creative beginnings of innovative contemporary gospel. Songs like "Yes Lord", "I Worship Thee", "Choose Ye This Day" and "Happy" proved to be appealing to both young and old audiences, debuting at #35 on the Billboard Gospel Charts. When the nineties rolled around, Kee directed his musical attentions towards the musical company that reverberated a newness into gospel's tough infrastructures.
TWO: New Life Begins
The inescapable fires from contemporary gospel music during the main course of the 1990s where hard to quench. But it seemed as if no one cared to try to put those fires out anyway, especially since the majority of the contemporary gospel artists such as O'landa Draper, Hezekiah Walker, Kirk Franklin and Donald Lawrence successfully merged the modern sounds of R&B into the foundations of traditional gospel. But if one is to recite an individual for making these events possible for this decade of contemporary gospel progression, the honor should be accredited to John P. Kee. He used the same formula as his contemporaries, but what set him in a category of his own is how young and old audiences alike easily embraced his respected integrity, well-crafted lyrics and seasoned vocals. At times, his vocals almost sounded like a youthful version of the late Rev. James Cleveland, both gritty and gruff, but his unique vocal characteristics including his popular hiccup sound and the irresistible preachy groans transformed his personality into a modern character full of charm. When "Wait On Him" debuted in 1989 on Tyscot Records, that character full of charm literally exploded on each and every track and helped usher in Kee's mighty popularity with the new generation of gospel music lovers. The title cut was a brilliant mix of traditional moves and innovative spunk - something barely heard on a studio track during this time. "Pay Day" possessed a drive worthy of attention; a bouncy groove glazed with charismatic synthesizers and affirming words reminding us that "pay day is coming afterwhile". "The Storm Is Passing Over" also showcased a notorious bounce and choral challenges that would emerge in a good list of Kee's biggest hits. But it was the radio-friendly "It Will Be Alright", in which flowed like a Thursday night evangelistic service while incorporating personal testimonies in its verses, that is best remembered by Kee historians from this album. This literally was the prologue of his success; proving that more was sure to follow.
The New Life journey continued in 1991 with "Wash Me". This project, being a live recording, caught the attention of traditional gospel listeners, but for those that followed Kee's footsteps up to this point were not surprised. The energetic hype from "Wait On Him" leaped upon this historic collection. Almost every track from this collection made its way unto radio; making Kee and his powerhouse choir a household name. Songs like "I Must Tell Jesus", "Wash Me", "Sinner Man" and "Jesus Will Make A Way" continued the enriching formulas of kinetic songwriting, lushful harmonies and delicate musicianship. But it was a song entitled "Jesus Is Real" that pushed John P. Kee upon the face of modern gospel music; leaving an unforgettable impact that still rings with the same intensity as it did years ago. Modern hymns are hard to distinguish. Usually it takes an lengthy period to pinpoint a status on a gospel song becoming a hymn or popular chorus, but make no mistake about it - the popularity and the effects of "Jesus Is Real" provides enough factual evidence in validitating this gem into being a treasure in the vaults of modern hymns.
THREE: The Big Show
After releasing several creations including the female quartet Surrender, his Victory In Praise Music and Arts Seminar and a solo project built off the pillars of his successful projects, John P. Kee takes his radiant brand of energetic gospel music with the New Life Community Choir back to the masses. This time around Kee brings us "We Walk By Faith"; another studio collection. Up to this point, keynote NLCC vocalists have already been exposed to Kee's fan base including Lowell Pye and Issac Carree (in which later moved on to form the contemporary group Men of Standard). But Kee's association with the legendary Vanessa Bell Armstrong positioned Kee in a rare spotlight; placing him on a high-demand platform to produce and cultivate other artists. Armstrong can be heard on the title cut of this album along with the groovy, praise-and-worship, uptempo "We Glorify". Other notable highlights included "He's Able" (showcasing the glorious, virtuoso vocals of Shelia Lakin), "Wave It Away" and "Pressing My Way".
"Show Up", released in 1995, created greater acclaim for the Crowned Prince of Gospel. Even greater success. The album from beginning to end proved how much talent Kee possessed and became a groundbreaking achievement in record sales, video sales and also at the Stellar Awards; winning five in all. Unlike Kee's previous projects, this album became the essential project of Kee's illustrious career to this point and showcased a stronger dimension of his writing style and vast vision to make music for all Christian music markets. The title cut was the radio smash and opened the door for songs like "I Shall Do", "Made Up Mind", "He'll Welcome Me", "The Lord Is Able" and "Comfort Me" to become ambassadors for church choir repertoires. Jive Records, owned by Zomba Enterprises, was so moved by Kee's rapid popularity that they decided to make Kee and his community choir from Charlotte, NC their second gospel artist on their newly-formed Verity imprint. At this time, Montrell Darrett and DeWayne Woods were on board as members of New Life. For some odd and strange reason the tenors had a tendency to leave the choir, but the New Life sound never changed. Always clean, pure and radiant. To this day, "Show Up" remains the prized favorite of all of Kee's albums and there's no mistake about it.
FOUR: True Colors
The Victory In Praise Conference now had become a popular convention with young gospel audiences, gaining more momentum than other Gospel gatherings like Edwin Hawkins Music and Arts Seminar and the National Convention of Choirs and Choruses. Even though Kee had his attention on putting out credible material for VIP, he never lost focus from New Life. Proof of that appeared on "Strength"; released in 1998. Kee showed no signs of aging when this one dropped on the shelves and he never lost focus of his trademark sound. The glossy red and gold album cover may have caused a few conversation rumbles about Kee's attempts to revamp his image to remain in-style, but the message was clear. His true colors kept shining through to his listeners. Keep the music fresh and vibrant, continue spicing up old material at concerts and keep adrenaline pumping with increasing interactivity and professional musicianship - this was Kee's format. You can hear all of that on zesty tracks like "Turn Around", "Clap Your Hands" and "Mighty God" and you can feel the irresistable excitement of a live experience with John P. Kee on "I Do Worship", "We Made It" (featuring Daryl Coley) and the memorable title cut. And if you failed to believe, then capturing Kee on video was no problem. Kee revisited Atlanta to record the unforgettable VHS video at the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit. Just to witness Kee at the mega-church in front of a "standing-room only" audience breathing new life into this hype collection of gospel gems along with guest appearances from Dorinda Clark-Cole and comedian Broderick Rice was enough to cement his name, along with New Life, in Gospel Music's hall of fame. One listen to the opening choir rocker, "Mighty God", merged with the familiar chorus of the Gap Band's "Outstanding" and blazing horn segments from Mo' Horns, and you are bound to understand the full importance of Kee's enriching legacy.
Since that project, Kee has issued many projects to the public. Producing for Shawn McLemore, Erick Matthews, Inner City, Drea Randle, Victory In Praise, his church choir New Divine Destiny and a slew of others. But Kee's fans will forever identify his works with the New Life Community Choir as being the primary benefactors for his music career. That is why those same fans have demanded to see the manifestation of a return to the ol' skool foundation they have grown to appreciate. The man has had so many hits...so many songs that need that extra "remix"...so many former choir members that didn't sing enough songs in Kee's repertoire...so many years without an official tribute of recognition to a man that is well deserving of it. That dream was fulfilled months ago when John P. Kee decided to summon a family reunion reuniting the current New Life roster with a legendary alumni that consists of Lejuene Thompson (also known for her involvements with the Tri-City Singers, her solo project and being the wife of renowned music producer Cedric Thompson), Lowell Pye, Issac Carree and Curtis "Red" Caldwell. Also special musical guests Vanessa Bell Armstrong, Rhonda McLemore and Tye Tribbett jump along for the journey. Even Rickey Smiley shares a few laughs with us once again on this adventure. This double-CD project, set to be released on Verity Records and hitting shelves on December 6th, is sure to satisfy fanatics (including Brother Lou) for an abundance of years and is bound to introduce to yet another generation of gospel newcomers to a living legend worthy of this kind of reward.
Our final remarks to Pastor John P. Kee, our Crowned Prince of Gospel - keep the hits a-comin' and please try not to scare us with another early retirement...for let us not be weary in doing well, for in due season we shall reap a harvest of blessings; if we faint not.
J. Matthew Cobb is the Editor-in-Chief of PRAYZEHYMN.