“I think my best song is still in front of me.”
Marvin L. Winans, Pastor of Detroit’s Perfecting Church and founding member of the legendary gospel quartet The Winans, is the recipient of multiple heavenly gifts. In addition to being one of the best singers in his family (which is saying quite a lot) and of his generation, he’s a prolific songwriter.
During our recent phone chat, Winans told me that he wrote his first song, “God Is A Miracle Worker,” when he was just 13 years old. He went on to write songs for most of his nine musical siblings.
I joked that Winans didn’t have enough siblings to sing all of the songs that he’d written.
“Yes, there were enough of them,” Winans warmly laughed. “They just didn’t want my songs!”
Whether Winans’s famous brothers and sisters rejected songs from the man who penned classics like “Straighten My Life Out” and “Millions” or not, the singer / songwriter went on to collaborate with a dizzying list of artists from a variety of different genres. One of them, Anita Baker, is from his Detroit hometown.
“I met Anita in the airport,” Winans remembered. “A week earlier, I’d seen her on the cover of Ebony Magazine. I had never seen her before, but I’d heard her song on the radio. In fact, my cousin, Gary Glenn, had written ‘Caught Up In The Rapture’ for her.”
Winans told me that his introduction to Baker was fairly nondescript, and I assumed that the pair had trotted off to the recording studio to cut the classic “Ain’t No Need To Worry,” for The Winans’ 1987 Decisions album.
As it turns out, another 80s diva had her sights on the song before Baker ever got ahold of it: “The Voice” herself, Whitney Houston!
“The first person who sang that song was Whitney,” Winans shared. “I had just written it, and The Winans were in concert in New Jersey. I called Whitney up and told her to come on and sing this with me, and I taught it to her, and she tore that song completely up!”
“We kept asking Whitney “Are you gonna do it,” but for whatever reason, it didn’t happen. And so I went and got Anita.”
“The song Anita wanted to sing was “Give Me You.” But if she would have taken that, we wouldn’t have been gospel singers any more,” Winans laughed.
The Winans became almost as well known for their high profile duet partners, like Baker, as they did for their anointed gospel songs. Over the course of almost 15 years, the group shared a mic with artists like rock’s Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins, gospel’s Vanessa Bell Armstrong, new jack swing’s Aaron Hall, jazz’s Kenny G, country’s Ricky Van Shelton, and the King Of Pop himself, Michael Jackson.
But despite the dabbles in different styles of music, The Winans’ lyrics remained true, and they remained committed to spreading the gospel via song.
“My brother Ronald and I said ‘We’re going to sing gospel music, and that’s all we’re going to sing’ But we said we would love to [sing with] Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, and Donnie Hathaway,” Winans said. “Well, unfortunately Donnie Hathaway died, and Marvin Gaye died, but we were able to do “It’s Not Heaven If You’re Not There” with Lalah Hathaway.”
As Winans and I were both born in Detroit — although he gave me a hard time about having grown up in the suburbs! — I had to ask the legend about working with another musical titan, Stevie Wonder, who duetted with The Winans on “Everyday The Same,” from 1990’s Return album.
“Stevie was amazing,” Winans said. “We grew up in Motown, when Motown was in Motown. We were coming off the freeway one day, heading home from church, and we saw Little Stevie Wonder in the back seat of a station wagon. We lived on Woodingham, and Stevie lived on Greenlawn, which was the street behind us. So having a chance to work with him years later was all joy.”
Of all of Winans’s musical collaborations, my favorite may be their stunning version of “Leaning On The Everlasting Arm,” a duet with Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Winans remembered the duet like it was yesterday.
“I’ve never forgotten that project, to this day,” Winans said. “They called me and asked if I would produce something on their record. I was done!”
“My great grandfather was from Mississippi, and he was born in 1875, so most of the folks I grew up with were born in the late 1800s / early 1900s,” Winans continued. “We had upstairs church and downstairs church, and I could often hear them in the basement of my grandfather’s church. They’d be ooo-ing and humming, even while the preacher was preaching or someone was testifying. They had this hum, this sound, that just came out.”
“Years later, I’m in the studio with Ladysmith, and I’m where the console was with their manager and their engineer, working out parts and stuff. At one point I went into the studio with the rest of the folk. They were just sitting there, just quietly talking to one another.”
“And then, all of a sudden, one of them broke out with ‘Hey!’ and the group ‘Huuuummmmmed’ and it sounded just like those old people in my great grandfather’s church! There was such a connectivity with them! I can’t TELL you what I felt in that moment!”
Winans’s recollection of hearing Ladysmith Black Mambazo reminded me of when he and three of his brothers first blew me away with “The Question Is,” in 1981. Over a decade later, the group rerecorded the classic for their final album, Heart & Soul. As slick as the newer production was, the original’s on a whole different level.
I asked Winans which version he favored. He told me that he prefers to look forward, not back.
“I didn’t want to do the remake of ‘The Question Is,’ Winans shared. “I never want to live in the past, musically. I think my best song is still in front of me.”
For all of the tea in China, I would not question Marvin L. Winans’s sincerity or sanity. But seriously? Given the songs that the man has already written, THAT is quite a statement!
“But get ready,” Winans continued. “BeBe [Winans’s youngest brother] has a group called Korean Soul, and they just recorded ‘The Question Is.’ I was in Nashville with them a couple of weeks ago, and I did my part on their record. I love it! You’re gonna love the arrangement.”
Undoubtedly, gospel music fans will be thrilled to hear Winans on some new music. And as it turns out, BeBe’s cover of his brother’s “The Question Is” isn’t ALL that we have to look forward to!
“Something’s getting ready to come out,” Winans teased. “I ain’t gonna unleash it now, but when I do, I’ll give you a call.”
So the REAL question is: when will we hear this new music from Marvin L. Winans? Can we dream, as promised in the final refrain of “The Question Is,” that it will be soon?
“We’re gonna try to finish it up in a couple of weeks,” Winans said. “That’s all I’m saying!”