Glory Be

An atheist is someone who's never heard Yolanda Adams sing. Ten minutes of exposure to the voice of this native Houstonian could have Madalyn Murray O'Hair, that notorious opponent of Nativity scenes and school prayer, down on her knees begging forgiveness -- and another five minutes would have O'Hair shouting "Joy! Joy!" with the rest of the congregation.

Admittedly, that's the impression of a severely backslidden critic who was thoroughly charmed by the devoutly religious singer prior to Six Flags AstroWorld's "Gospel Night" promotion on Juneteenth weekend. It was a reaction that had been foretold.

A few nights earlier, on the sidewalk outside a Montrose nightclub, a security guard had been monitoring both the pedestrian flow and an "in-my-disc-player" conversation going on a few feet away when he heard the name of a rising star in the gospel world.

"Yolanda Adams is incredible." the guard said. "She's the best gospel singer I've ever heard. Tell you something else about Yolanda, man. I went to school with her, and there's nothing phony about her. She takes being a Christian real serious, and you'll never meet anybody with so much talent who's as sweet and humble as she is."

About the only thing the guard left out was that Adams is tall. When her road manager interrupts a laughing gabfest -- which bears more than a passing resemblance to an energetic church youth-group meeting -- to tell Adams she has a visitor, the smiling woman who responds to the summons looks more like a women's basketball coach's dream, or perhaps a teenage runway model, than an ex-schoolteacher whose CDs stay near the top of Billboard's gospel charts for months on end. A few minutes with the bubbling, laughing -- and, frankly, breathtakingly beautiful -- Adams is like a cool drink of water after a long day in the desert; it's everything her old UH classmate promised. When greetings from the security guard are passed on, the insincerity meter twitches not at all when Adams says that of course she remembers a casual friend from college that she hasn't seen in at least 12 years.

Yolanda Adams is that true rarity in music: a talent who seems less interested in herself than in others. In both conversation and the liner notes on her CDs, Adams spends little time talking about what she's up to. She'd much rather talk about God, her family, God, her friends and God. And in a time when an evangelical attitude is all too often a guise for dour, judgmental self-righteousness, Adams obviously prefers setting a joyful example. Or, as she shouts to an enthusiastic Juneteenth crowd from the stage at Six Flags' Southern Star Amphitheatre, "Sour-faced people never win any souls!"

Granted, she's preaching to the choir this particular evening -- several dozen choirs, in fact, with significant representations from Brentwood Baptist, Windsor Village Methodist, Wheeler Avenue Baptist and a host of other congregations noted for joyful noise and community activism. It's an audience that shows intimate familiarity with the songs from both of Adams' CDs for the Testament label -- 1991's Stellar Award- and Dove Award-winning Through the Storm and 1993's triple Stellar-winning and Grammy-nominated Save the World -- as well as the songs from her debut Just As I Am CD on the Sounds of Gospel label. Among black Christians from Houston, Yolanda Adams is more than a superstar; she's kinfolk who everybody in her multi-congregation extended family is real, real proud of.

There's good reason for that pride. Yolanda Adams is not only the most successful gospel singer to hail from Houston in recent memory, she's quite probably the best. Both of her CDs on Testament use a melange of jazz, hip-hop, blues, Brazilian and Caribbean influenced music that, behind different subject matter, would probably make Adams an urban-contemporary superstar. But when asked if she ever sings any secular songs, she simply flashes a million-watt smile and says, "No, just gospel."

It's impossible to separate Adam's music from her faith, although her music has evolved as far from a strict, traditional definition of "Old Rugged Cross"-style gospel as large, urban black churches have from one-room country chapels. Despite a devoutly religious upbringing in southeast Houston, Adams says, "I wasn't stuck in the kind of family where you could only listen to gospel. I listened to everybody from Beethoven, because my mom was studying classical piano at Texas Southern, to Nancy Wilson and Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles. We listened to a lot of Donnie Hathaway because my mom liked him; my dad was a James Cleburn fan .... We listened to everything."

Still, it's gospel that Adams has chosen to give her voice to. And there is a range and control to that voice that makes it obvious that any limitations are strictly self-imposed, and any comparisons to her ability to hit a high note and hold it for an impossibly long time must include such cliches as "a young Mahalia Jackson" or "the Ella Fitzgerald of gospel." And after Adams takes her own compositions, such as "My Everything" and "A Message to You," and her arrangements of songs written "by good writers who are good friends, people that have a sense of what your heart is," up to the sky and then drops them back down to earth for a passionate, frenzied vamp of a phrase like "Bless me, direct me" or "Let Thy will be done," any attempt at comparison is pointless. Adams is, simply, a major voice in modern American music -- and if you want to hear that voice, you're going to hear some preaching.

That's the way it's been since Adams was 13 and first showed up on Billboard's gospel charts as part of Houston's Southeast Inspirational Choir. "That was the first professional choir I was with," Adams remembers, indicating that, in her family, singing in church is just part of growing up. "We traveled all over during the summer months, because most of us were still in high school and college." College for Adams meant both the University of Houston and Texas Southern. After graduating from TSU, she went back to HISD -- this time as a teacher, which was in keeping with a family tradition that includes her mother's ongoing tenure as a teacher with the Catholic Diocese of Houston and Galveston school system, and a sister's labors toward a doctorate in child psychology. Seven years in HISD -- three at Patterson Elementary and four at Forrester Elementary -- is not an experience that many veterans recall fondly, but Adams passes on commenting on HISD as a whole and notes just that "I miss the kids. They need so much, but they give you so much in return. The kids are just so sweet."

During her years as a student and teacher, Adams graduated from member of the choir to featured soloist to solo artist. Her 1986 signing with the Sounds of Gospel label, and the two-year stay on the charts of her first solo recording, Just As I Am -- a stay that included eight months in Billboard's gospel Top Ten -- signaled a career change. Partnerships and friendships with keyboardist, vocalist and arranger Tyrone Dickerson; gospel-synthesizer phenom Ben Tankard; vocalist/songwriter Gregory Curtis -- whose "Slow and Easy" is a current urban-contemporary hit -- and a host of other well-known figures in the gospel, jazz and urban-contemporary worlds shaped a sound that merged passionate testifying and witnessing with tight, modern arrangements.

Adams, in front of a band that includes Tankard, Dickerson, guitarist Denny Jiosa, percussionist Eric Darkin, bassist Anthony Harmon and sax player MarQuis, has a nationwide, Thursday-through-Monday touring schedule that approaches day-job regularity. And when she has a chance to sing for -- and testify to -- a hometown crowd, a few rehearsals (and a pre-show group prayer backstage) with longtime friends such as Abundant Life bassist Craig Harris and Windsor Village organist Leon Lewis is all it takes for Adams to put together an all-Houston gospel supergroup.

To the delight of her host of friends in the black ministry, and the relief of thousands of concerned parents, Adams and friends have made gospel music into something eminently hip to listen to. At the AstroWorld show, there was obvious pride in the faces of many of the parents in attendance that their kids are into gospel with the same enthusiasm that many of their classmates have for gangsta rap. It's a scary time to be a parent, and when More Than a Melody debuts next month, it will be the parents who want their kids to keep thinking it's cool to be Christian who'll make Yolanda Adams' fourth album her fourth Top Ten hit. But to hear Adams tell it, it's all just God's will -- and, when she says that, the insincerity meter doesn't twitch a bit.

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Jim Sherman