The Backbone of Gospel Music

Singer Fred Hammond discusses the How Sweet The Sound choir competition coming to Detroit Saturday, Sept. 15

It’s been a while since singer, songwriter and Detroit native Fred Hammond left the D for a new one-Dallas-to join Bishop T.D. Jakes’ congregation. But on Saturday, Sept. 15, he will return to his hometown as a judge for Verizon’s How Sweet the Sound at Joe Louis Arena.

The event is a celebration of gospel music and provides a platform for local choirs to showcase their talent and compete for the title of “The Best Gospel Choir in America.”

This will be Hammond’s third year as a judge for the event, which is now in its fifth year.
Joining him on the panel will be fellow Detroit native Cece Winans, Erica Campbell of Mary Mary and Hezekiah Walker. Grammy winners Donald Lawrence and Yolanda Adams will serve as hosts.

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Hammond recently spoke with BLAC about how the tour is the “American Idol” of choir competitions, his advice to upcoming gospel singers and his recent break from the genre to produce an honest work about relationships between men and women.

What can people expect from the tour this year?

This year, the gloves are off for the judges. The last two years, we were told to, you know, “be constructive, but kind” and “no Simon Cowells.” This year-not that we won't be nice-but this year, they're like, “Now, be constructive and say what you say, say what you feel.” We’re trying to implement ways to get them ready before they sing and let them know that the judging is going to step up a notch.

That’s what this year's going to be and the panel of the judges we have, everybody’s cool-nobody's mean or anything-but everybody up on that panel is a consummate professional in gospel music. Now, barring the fact that most of us want to be liked, we're just going to have to say it because the audience is saying it and they know when the choir’s not up to par. So, they’re going to say it.

We’re just going to say exactly what the audience is thinking and be constructive at the same time, try to help, so that when they leave, they can still have something.

How would you describe your judging style?

I'm pretty much more comedic. First of all, to break the ice and have fun with the audience, but other than that, style-wise, I'm looking for connections. I think that would the biggest thing for me; did the choir connect with their audience? Did they get it? Did the audience get it? Did they translate the vision of what they were trying to do and did the audience get it?

If that happens, most of the time, all the other stuff, the technical stuff: the moves, the dancing, the singing, the pitch, the energy-usually, that’s all included in that. But then, sometimes, you just have a choir that’s maybe smaller and they don’t have all of the greatest singers in the world or they don't do the greatest dance moves, but they connect with the audience bigger than anybody else because they just have that thing. Call it anointing, or whatever, it’s just-they have it. They’ll connect and people will get into it and be like, “Wow!”

What are you looking forward to this year?

This time, I'm going over all the dates, from Los Angeles to the East Coast. Last year, I only did two dates; the year before, I did four dates. This year, I’m looking forward to going to see what the other cities have to offer.

I'm just looking forward to coming out. I think this is a great event. Choirs are the backbone of gospel music. It’s something that we hear every Sunday and it’s the unsung hero of gospel music.

Back in the day, in the 70s, choirs were really heavy in the scene, but nowadays, choirs can’t travel as much. It’s quite expensive to take a hundred people across country and get back in church on time.

This event celebrates the choir. The last ones have been very exciting and these choirs know how to bring it. So, I'm glad for them.

What kind of advice would you offer people looking to break into gospel music?

Number one, I would say, start off in your church. Start off serving in your church, in some capacity, be it on the praise team or in the choir or any music department. That's pretty much where you have to start.

There are not a lot of, say, contracts being given out by big record companies because there aren't that many record companies any more. So, there are a lot of independent music labels. I would say take advantage of YouTube  and Facebook-social media, Twitter. Get your stuff seen and figure out how to get it distributed.

You recently put out something different from what you usually do: an album about relationships. Would you be interested in doing that again?

Right now, it's not in the plan for the next three albums. It was definitely in the plan that over the period of the last five, this album would show up. It was needed.

I didn't do it for style or to do it for any kind of, “I just want to sing this kind of music.” I was very careful of how I produced it, the style of it; I didn't make it too slick or too current, but I took it back musically, stylistically because I knew what I was up against. I knew I would face some controversy.

But the songs are real and they’re transparent and mostly anybody’s thinking about them anyway. No gospel artist really wanted to challenge that because we knew if we talked about love, in relationship to a man and a woman, then we would be ostracized and people would walk away and say, “He's trying to go secular,” or “He's trying to do this.”

It didn’t really bother me none. I’ve had 32 years (in the music business) and people who know me now know that I'm not getting to end of my rope, getting crazy. But this is a very important subject to God and this is an important subject to the people. We’re just running away from it, sometimes as Christians.

We run away from that subject of love and relationships and we don’t mind talking about it from a pulpit experience, like, “This is what you do: a man should always love his wife; man should love his wife as Christ loved the church.” We like saying that and we’re safe, but not just really getting down and transparent about how we feel about love.

Most of us are looking for it-we’re all looking for it. We try to make our relationships better, we want better marriages, but most of our stuff is jacked up. I just refuse to look the other way on it, but I'm not the relationship doctor, so that was probably is it for this cycle on the label.

I already have the next two projects, two to three projects in mind, and they were there, everything was kind of lined up before. So, that’s probably it, but there probably will be television or movies or something of that magnitude that I'm going to stick with.

Do you have any collaborations with T.D. Jakes planned?

That's my pastor, so I’m always kind of keeping in touch with him, about us working together and it's not a rush. It's one of those things that I want to stand back and let it happen organically because I didn’t come down here to just bombard him with my stuff. So, at the right time it will happen. I'm looking forward to it.

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