Bayou City

Kim Burrell, Houston's Pastor and Gospel Singer to the Stars

Kim Burrell is the singer the stars call on when they're looking for some real gospel. When she was in her mid-twenties, Stevie Wonder told her, “When I hear you sing, I hear God.” As a last-minute Jazz at Lincoln Center replacement for Dianne Reeves a few years ago, Wynton Marsalis said, “You’re the only gospel person that I really like.” And when Harry Connick Jr. assembled a symphony orchestra for Pope Benedict XVI's appearance at Yankee Stadium in 2008, he wanted Burrell on vocals.

“Right before we walked out to sing, Harry looked at me and I looked back at him and I said, ‘Why did you ask me, really? Why me?’” recalls Burrell, who grew up in Humble. “He says, ‘Kim, because [of] what your voice does or what your soul does to music.' He says, ‘I feel like I’m the Jeep to go out there just to till the ground for the Cadillac.’”

Someone else who reached out was the late Whitney Houston, who asked Burrell to sing at her father's funeral in 2003. The two women became close friends, and Houston appeared at the very first service at Burrell's Love and Liberty Fellowship, the church she founded in 2010 near Houston's Acres Homes neighborhood. Burrell says she visited Houston often at her home near Atlanta, sometimes joining her on tour as well. And during Houston's funeral in February 2012, Burrell's personalized version of Sam Cooke's “A Change Is Gonna Come” was one of the highlights of the lengthy ceremony.

“The last time we were able to be on the road together was when she did a European tour in 2010,” reflects Burrell, who has been a mentor on BET's popular gospel program Sunday Best for several years. “I went to Germany and hung out with her for a few days, just to encourage her and all that.”

Houston's death is one of several losses Burrell endured while making her latest record, A Different Place (Shanachie). Since the release of her previous album, 2011's The Love Album, Burrell also lost her mother, stepfather, brother and Houston's daughter, Bobbi Kristina. The “different place” of the title refers to her newfound inability to hide the pain of what she was going through with her audience, Burrell explains.

“I’ve always thought, ‘Why should I impose on them what I’m dealing with? The world is already going through enough; just let me give them happy music,’ says Burrell, who performs tomorrow night at Fallbrook Church alongside fellow gospel stars Fred Hammond, Donnie McLurkin and Hezekiah Walker. “Not knowing that I was suppressing so much and that I wasn’t giving them my full self. And this record pretty much reveals the inevitable, that I couldn’t hide, that I couldn’t suppress, that was oozing from my very being. A pain that was indescribable — one that I had to deal with and still deal with every day.”

Nevertheless, A Different Place is largely upbeat, incorporating quite a bit of jazz, R&B, urban pop and even hip-hop into Burrell's songs of praise and strength. Her resilient and dynamic vocals — a sound that was “not easily embraced” by some members of the congregation as she grew up in the church, Burrell recalls — are full of joy much more often than grief, even through testimonial lyrics like “sometimes we don't know that God is all we need until God is all we have.” Burrell's gifts would obviously create plenty of work for her in the realm of secular music, should she have chosen that route, so it makes sense that she has an interesting take on the word “crossover.”

“I believe in soul music, and I’m not referencing the Otis Reddings or the Sam Cookes,” she says. “I’m saying use songs that are sung from the depths of your soul. And 'crossing over,' I don’t know what that means, because I’ve always sang gospel and it made it to people of other genres that embraced it and then invited me to record with them. So that’s my interpretation: Sing from your heart, and it’ll meet somebody.”

Similarly, Burrell says the side of herself she reveals as a pastor is somewhat different from the concert singer.

“I give them what comes natural in the form of a performer, but my projection is that of a pastor’s nature,” she explains. “I want them to ‘get it’; I don’t want them to just enjoy my voice. My projection and energy is that of the mind-set of a leader, someone who is responsible for them.

“And I know there’s a lot to take on, that people are not necessarily signing up to be your member in the middle of your concert,” she continues, “but that has changed my perception as an entertainer for the religious community, that when I step onstage, I want them to 'get' the God of the music and not just the sound.”

The “Festival of Praise” tour, featuring Kim Burrell, Fred Hammond, Donnie McLurkin and Hezekiah Walker, kicks off 7 p.m. Wednesday night at Fallbrook Church, 12512 Walters Road in North Houston.
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Chris Gray has been Music Editor for the Houston Press since 2008. He is the proud father of a Beatles-loving toddler named Oliver.
Contact: Chris Gray