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Richard Smallwood: Maestro's live recording a master class in musical excellence

Richard Smallwood presented his live recording at Evangel Cathedral in Upper Marlboro, MD on Saturday, Aug. 23 and it will be forever remembered in the annals of gospel music. The concert was a chance for fans and fellow artists to celebrate with a legend and for D.C. to support one of its own. That sentiment was apparent by the enormous crowd that gathered, despite the rain.

Richard Smallwood and members of Vision post backstage before recording his forthcoming album live at @ Evangel Cathedral in Upper Marlboro, MD on Saturday, August 23, 2014
Patrick D. McCoy (used with permission)
Richard Smallwood plays a Shadd piano during his live recording August 23, 2014
Sarah Hearn

They started coming as early as 3 p.m. to sit in the parking lot, eagerly awaiting the historic occasion. For some it would be the first time they had ever seen Richard Smallwood perform live. Others had followed his career from the beginning and dared not miss this opportunity to share in the revelry of song from an established genius. They came from far and wide, some traveling across the seas from distant lands like Paris and Guadalupe.

The living legend and Gospel Music Hall of Famer’s fifth live recording not only introduced new music, but also chronicled his storied career. Fittingly called “Anthology Live,” it was a musical tour de force and a master class in vocal dexterity and musical excellence.

The night was hosted by Cheryl Jackson of Praise 104.1. Dr. H. Beecher Hicks, Senior Pastor of Metropolitan Baptist Church and Smallwood's pastor delivered the invocation and incorporated many of the maestro’s songs into his prayer. The crowd was invigorated when Dr. Hicks said "Jesus, You are not just the center, You are the circumference of our joy.”

This was more than a concert, it was a gently tapestry woven with the fabric and colors of Richard Smallwood’s long career meticulouly wrapped in song. The opening video gave the audience a glimpse into his life throughout the years. The video was punctuated by scenes from across the world: Denmark, Sweden, Korea, Portugal and other countries singing “Total Praise” in their native tongues. If anyone ever wondered about this giant’s impact on the musical landscape it was quickly dispelled.

Vision was in great form and used their vocal instruments mightily. The ensemble consists of all original members except three who were added later. Vision member Carolene Hatchett did not perform due to health challenges but was in attendance. The performances were all buoyed by the musical prowess of long-time producer Steven Ford and Keys/Musical Director - Bryant Pugh, Keys - Anthony Walker, Guitar - Jonathan DuBose, Jr. Bass - Mark Walker, Lead Guitar - Michael Pugh and Drums - Jeff "Lo" Davis. Phillip Lassiter and the blistering horn section added another welcome dynamic to the rich tableau, as well as Pablo Batiste on the percussion.

Each performance was impeccable and demonstrated what true singing is all about. There were no vocal acrobatics, no grandstanding, just pure unadulterated singing birthed from spiritual encounters and well-honed skills. Richard Smallwood showcased not only the traditional soloists fans have come to love, but provided a platform for Steve Jones and other members as well. He shined the spotlight on the skills of the male members of Vision (Jones, Dayle Atterberry, Burl Binion, Byron Nichols, Vernon Love, Raymond Reeder and Ted Winn) with “When We All Get to Heaven” a tribute to one of his biggest influences, Edwin Hawkins and his early group, The Hebrew Boys.” Hawkins sat on the front row taking it all in.

“Lord You Reign in Glory” was beautifully led by Vanessa Williams. The maestro wrote the song years ago with Earth Wind and Fire soloist and fellow Christian Phillip Bailey. That was followed by “Same God,” a energetic, super-churchy, pulsating song that seems destined to be a solid hit. The song captivated everyone and praise breaks erupted. Even when it seemed the song would end, Richard Smallwood had no choice but to launch into a reprise as the anointing was so heavy in the sanctuary.

There were many opportunities for fans to reflect on the artist’s life as medleys of music from the Smallwood Singers and Vision were lovingly nestled among the newly minted treasure box of songs. Maurette Brown Clark sang the hauntingly beautiful worship song, “In His Presence,” beginning the song acapella and transporting it to a heavenly place.

There was also an appearance by music impresario Darin Atwater (Soulful Symphony) who played for Smallwood in his youth. In this full-circle moment, Atwater took to the piano for “Hebrews 11 (Faith).” As Vision sang, Richard Smallwood stepped to the mic and invoked scriptures, each verse climbing higher as the ordained minister drew in the assembled congregation whose enthusiasm seemed to endorsed this as another potential hit.

In addition to the tribute to Edwin Hawkins, the multiple-award winner also paid homage to the Roberta Martin Singers with “Only a Look at Jesus.” Smallwood credited the Martin Singers as one of his greatest influences during his youth.

Original Smallwood Singer and popular R&B singer A’ngela Winbush soulfully and passionately delivered “Look to Jesus and Live,” a song that Smallwood wrote for the then 17 year-old Winbush. Dottie Jones took to the stage and sand a medley of songs, which included “I Love the Lord” and left the audience mesmerized and hoping they would hear more from her in the not too distant future.

As he gave thanks to his family, friends and fans, Richard Smallwood took time out to recognize Warren Shadd. Always mentoring, always supporting, he shared that the piano he was playing was made by Shadd, the first African-American to manufacture a piano. Shadd, who was in the audience beamed with joy at the accolade.

The concert ended with another medley that included “Center of My Joy” and of course the church anthem, “Total Praise.

“Anthology Live” was also a great big musical reunion. So many artists that had been mentored by Richard Smallwood or who had long admired his musical excellence were there. Choirmasters Donald Lawrence and James Hall sat on the front rows supporting their friend.

Among those DC-based artists spotted in the crowd were Stephen Hurd, Anthony Brown, Mike McCoy, Robert E. Person, Stephen Key, Patrick Lundy, Y'Anna Crawley, Jimmy Russell, James Murphy and Sylver Logan Sharp. Earnest Pugh, Mark Hubbard, Jason Nelson, Jacquie Gales Webb, Shirley M.K. Berkeley, Kenny Taylor, Gospel industry insider Pastor Jerome Bell, entertainment lawyer James Walker, Kefia Rollerson and rising artist Tim Spady were also spotted.

Evangel Cathedral is to be commended for providing backdrops that illuminated each song giving the audience a seamless musical experience.

It is difficult to fully convey what took place during “Anthology Live.” It was certainly one of the instances where the phrase, “you had to be there,” rightly applies. The rich sounds, the musical artistry, the admiration, awe and sweet communion felt within the sanctuary are seldom experienced at that magnitude. Richard Smallwood continues to raise the standard in gospel music excellence.

"Anthology: Live" is slated for release in 2015.

© 2014 Sarah Hearn All rights reserved. Reproduction of this article in part or in its entirety on websites, newsletters, magazines, etc. without permission is expressly prohibited. DCMA rules will be applied.

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