'At This Age, This Is Who I Am': The Gospel According To CeCe Winans

Feb 2, 2017
Originally published on February 2, 2017 9:19 am

When CeCe Winans, her husband Alvin Love II and their two children moved into their gated community in the Nashville suburb of Brentwood in the mid-'90s, the house rule was the same one she'd grown up with in Detroit, on Motown turf: They listened to gospel, and only gospel. The conviction ran deep: Her singer father David Winans, known as Pop, had often told of how he'd refused to follow his friend Sam Cooke from churches into nightclubs in the 1950s.

"Now, as strict as that was," says now-52-year-old CeCe, after answering the door of her contemporary mansion with a hug and leading the way into the dining room, "it wasn't like we were in trouble if they heard that we heard a Stevie Wonder song. ... We lived down the street from the Four Tops, so we were very aware of all the other music. But it's not what was allowed in our home. So we heard it on the radio, or we heard it in school. You weren't going to dodge that. And all of us being music lovers, we knew good music when we heard it."

Winans emphasizes that she didn't experience her parents' all-gospel edict as deprivation. For every traditional-sounding mass choir or Southern quartet, there were innovators who incorporated current soul, pop and rock flavors into their arrangements and instrumentation.

"People think of gospel as one way, but we found all the different styles of gospel and Christian music and don't really feel like we missed anything," she says. "Andraé Crouch, I mean, he was definitely on the same level as any Motown artist," she says. "When you listened to him, he had all the sounds, contemporary sounds. A lot of people don't know who Rance Allen is, but if you were to pick up his CDs even now, you're gonna say, 'Oh my God.'"

At this point in her career, Winans has accumulated a great deal of perspective on her formative environment and familial ties, on paths taken, on priorities preserved. She's remained devoted to gospel even though her stylistic adaptability brought her popularity well beyond the gospel world. She even started a nondenominational church with her husband. Her new album, Let Them Fall In Love, weaves together the disparate threads of her experience — in Detroit, in the Winans lineage, in an ever-evolving musical tradition. And it bears the fingerprints of a new generation, thanks to the contributions of her son, Alvin Love III.

CeCe Winans, born Priscilla Marie, was one of 10 Winans children, and their parents dedicated themselves to nurturing the musical gifts of their progeny at family concerts and their Holiness-Pentecostal church. At her parents' insistence, CeCe sang her first solo at age 8. "I was crying in the middle of it," she recalls. "It was called 'Fill My Cup, Lord.' And my parents were like, 'OK, you'll do better next time.' ... They saw something in me that I didn't see in myself."

A quartet of her brothers landed a recording deal after being discovered by Crouch. "That just started the ball rolling," she says. "They were like, 'Wait a minute. More kids sing?' 'Yeah, the whole family sings.' 'What?' If you look at it on a bigger scale, it was like the Jacksons, Jackson 5."

CeCe gravitated toward singing with the sibling to whom she was closest in age, her slightly older brother BeBe. She was just 19 when they released their first duo album through the music division of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker's televangelism empire, The PTL Club, in 1984. After that, BeBe and CeCe recorded for larger labels with deeper pockets, enabling the 20-something sibling duo to achieve the popular sounds they wanted in the studio—pearlescent synthesizer pads, misty effects and the sleekly synchronized syncopation of drum programming and synth bass. "Just because we're labeled gospel music, if anything we should definitely have the budgets and the production that can be played before anything or after anything [pop or R&B] and you're not gonna see a drop in quality," CeCe says of her mindset. "Quality had to be there. And we felt like our message deserved the quality."

BeBe did a good bit of the songwriting and had a hand in arranging and production, too. There was an artful slipperiness to compositions like "Addictive Love," "Lost Without You" and "Feels Like Heaven (With You)"; the lyrics employed pop's straightforward, lightly sensual language of romantic yearning, but implied that their subject was divine. As CeCe puts it, "A lot of our songs were love songs that could be sung in a prayer or also sung to a spouse or to a loved one."

Their songs and sound translated into a then-unprecedented degree of crossover success for an African-American gospel duo. "When we went in the studio, we just produced and put out what we liked, what appealed to us," says CeCe. "And to us it wasn't something that was really new and different [for a pop-savvy approach] to be labeled 'gospel.' ... Then we realized the rest of the world thought, 'Ooh, wow. This is gospel?'" They became favorites in the strikingly white Christian contemporary music world, frequent singing partners of Whitney Houston and bona fide R&B chart-toppers.

CeCe Winans ventured out as a solo act in 1995, and continued to lean toward contemporary styles on her own albums. One hip-hop-influenced project featured production by Lauryn Hill. Later efforts drifted toward modern, meditative praise and worship ballads. Winans took a bit of a break from recording and, five years ago, started Nashville Life Church with her husband. "That wasn't in our plans," she chuckles, "but it was clearly in God's plans. So I couldn't really focus on a record." What finally drew her back into the studio was the pointed pestering of her 32-year-old son Alvin Love III. "He said, 'Mom, I wanna create something that's relevant, that's totally you, but yet something that's totally different than anything you've ever done before.'"

As a kid, Alvin III would try to weasel his way onto the stage at BeBe and CeCe shows, and he eventually started singing backup for his mom on tour. He'd heard her make use of the "regal, amazing quality of her voice" night after night, and he missed it. "A lot of times with the music that she's been doing recently, I feel like it's more of a serene-type, almost like a gospel Enya, if you will," he offers, likely referring to gomsammery tranquility that characterized his mom's albums Throne Room and Songs of Emotional Healing.

The description draws a playful grimace from Winans. "I'm a big fan of mom and her voice," her son reassures. "Before I knew the actual style that I wanted [for the new album], I knew it was important that she would really sing on this. ... So I was like, 'What kind of music would really lend itself to long phrases and really good melodies and songs where she can really belt out more?'"

He decided that she needed to do something very unlike her: make a throwback album mining gospel, pop and R&B styles from before her peak, including those that were off-limits during her childhood. It wasn't an easy sell. "I was trying to tell her that we're in a time right now where a lot of throwback things kind of come across a lot more current, in a weird way," Alvin III says. "And I think a lot of the things that maybe were considered old-fashioned to her generation are actually really kind of fresh now. ... I mean, it's funny because I did this for my generation, kind of late 20s, early 30s, but yet when she let her mom hear it, who's 80, [her mom] was like, 'Now, this is my kind of record.' What is cool to my grandma is actually what's cool to your average hipster today. [My mom]'s in the middle of that. She's not my generation, but she's not my grandmother's either. So I think that was probably a little bit of the discomfort in the beginning."

Says Winans, "His favorite [saying] is, 'Just trust me. Just trust me.'"

"That's what it took," her son shoots back. "I knew that when she heard it, she would love it. ... And it really wasn't until she heard the full orchestra with the band and the backup singers that she went, 'Oh, I love this!' But not a second before."

Winans is obviously accustomed to working with family members, having done it to great success throughout her career, but entrusting an entire album into her son's hands was a first, for her and him both. For that reason, she asked her friend Tommy Sims, a heavyweight in gospel, R&B, country and pop recording scenes, to co-produce with Alvin III. Sims' connections were essential when it came to securing A-list players, arrangers and engineers from Nashville to New York. Still, Let Them Fall in Love was profoundly shaped by the intergenerational dynamic between Winans and her son.

Other than "Why Me Lord," the penitent Kris Kristofferson country classic, and "Marvelous," a stately praise chorus penned by Dwan Hill, the leader of Nashville Life Church's worship band, all of the songs were written by Alvin III. "Run to Him" echoes the tried-and-true BeBe and CeCe approach; the "he" in the lyrics could almost be a loyal lover to whom she's running. The sentiment is delivered Diana Ross & the Supremes-style. ("It is so Motown-sounding," CeCe concurs.) But many other compositions, including "He's Never Failed Me Yet," "Peace From God" and "Lowly," are occasions for bold-faced testifying to God's faithfulness. The horn-heated "Hey Devil!", which features the peppery backup of Detroit gospel veterans The Clark Sisters, and the funky "Dancing in the Spirit," lifted by the robust unison singing of Hezekiah Walker's mass choir, even launch Winans into flamboyant charismatic mode.

Though Alvin III assembled options and made suggestions, his mom had the final say on the material. "I'm a firm believer that it has to touch my heart before I feel like I can really touch somebody else's," she says. But there were times when she deferred to her son too. "We're a lot alike in some ways that we probably shouldn't be," she says. "When one feels like they're right, that is it. But once I got to the studio, I think — I'll let him tell me — but I think I was a good submissive artist."

"Submissive," her son scoffs.

"I mean, it was kind of weird for me," Winans goes on. "I was like, 'OK, I'm in the studio and I actually have to do what he tells me to do.' ... He was really hard on me. He was a real producer. Where some producers can hear me sing and be like, 'Oh, that was so good on that take,' Alvin was like, 'No, that's not. Do it again.' ... After he tortured me maybe on a song [or two], I realized he's got some ears."

She turns an affectionate gaze on her son. "I would say it was peaceful. I mean, except for the times you were just gonna push me to no end. But I still stayed in there, right? I worked hard."

"Yeah, she worked," he affirms, his mouth melting into a grin. "There were several takes where I would be happy with it and she was like, 'I got another one [in me]. I wanna do it again.'"

Winans is in very fine voice throughout Let Them Fall in Love — supple, expressive, queenly at times. But taking her new music on the road has become a more complicated proposition than it used to be. She's making every effort to schedule her shows so that she can be back in Nashville for weekly church services, which start at 2 p.m. since Nashville Life Church rents space from a larger congregation that meets in the morning. At a gospel brunch during the Americana Music Festival last September, she dashed in from an appearance in another city, sang an acoustic version of a number from the album, then hurried off to church. "I'm dropping the microphone in a lot of places," she says. "Everybody who's working on the team is aware of who I am and what I do and what my life looks like now. ... So we're gonna see how it's gonna work."

The interracial crowd at Nashville Life Church is primarily made up of millenials who dress casually in hoodies and denim jackets, leggings and jeans. Winans would love to add that same demographic to her longtime listening audience. Her son convinced her that pressing the album on vinyl could help, as could releasing it with indie-minded partner Thirty Tigers. But it's been forever since Winans had to win over uninitiated live crowds like the one at her recent Austin City Limits taping. "I think that audience was, if not 100 percent, 90 percent new ears," she says. "I think they'd maybe heard my name, but maybe not. But they had a good time."

So is she, clearly. "Earlier on in my career, or when I was a lot younger, maybe it would've made me nervous, because at that time you're still figuring out who you are," she reflects. "At this age, this is who I am. Either you're gonna really like me or you're not. And I'm gonna be totally free in who I am."

Winans inhabits the role of "Pastor CeCe" in a way that sidesteps her gospel megastardom. Before church services, she's more likely to be found dispensing hugs in the lobby than soundchecking with the vocalists and musicians in the sanctuary. (She tried participating in the worship band, but her touring schedule made it all but impossible to make their rehearsals, so she stepped down.)

On a recent Sunday, Winans swayed and clapped next to her husband in the front pew through half an hour of praise and worship choruses that ebbed and flowed with anthemic soft rock energy. At the appointed moment, she walked up the carpeted steps to the stage and joined the band, which included Alvin III, vamping at the end of a song. She started off intoning soft "hallelujahs" and gradually swelled into full-voiced declarations of love for Jesus. Then she began to pray aloud. "Because of your love, Lord, we are set free," she called out. "Do I have any free people here this afternoon?" After welcoming first-time visitors and collecting the offering, she took her seat again.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The Winans family is the dynasty of modern gospel music, and CeCe Winans has been one of its brightest stars for three decades. On her own or with her brother BeBe, she has sung with Whitney Houston and entertained presidents and at least one pope. But working with family took CeCe into unfamiliar territory on her new album. It's called "Let Them Fall In Love." Jewly Hight of member station WPLN got to sit down and talk with the singer.

CECE WINANS: I hated singing in front of people (laughter).

JEWLY HIGHT, BYLINE: CeCe Winans is reminiscing at the dining table in her modern mansion in the Nashville suburbs.

WINANS: I think my first solo, I was about 8 years old, and my parents made me sing. So my first solo, I end up crying.

HIGHT: She and her husband, Alvin Love, raised their two kids here under the same rule that her parents enforced when she was growing up in Detroit - gospel music only - not that they'd get in trouble if they happened to hear a Stevie Wonder song.

WINANS: Because back then, you know, Motown, all the different incredible artists were - you know, we lived down the street from The Four Tops, so we were very aware of all the other music, but it's not what was allowed in our home.

HIGHT: All 10 Winans kids made music, and they devoured every flavor of gospel, from traditional Southern quartets to the soul innovations of Andrae Crouch. CeCe's duo with her older brother BeBe took pop savvy gospel to a new level. They sang of spiritual devotion over synthesizers and drum machines.

(SOUNDBITE OF CECE WINANS AND BEBE WINANS SONG "HEAVEN")

WINANS: Even though it was a Christian record, Capital said, you know what? We want to push it onto mainstream radio. We believe we have an R&B hit here, and we can go pop here. Then we realized the rest of the world thought it was, oh, wow, this is gospel?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEAVEN")

WINANS: (Singing) There are instructions that we must follow to a T in order to reach there...

HIGHT: With CeCe Winans went solo in the mid-'90s, she continued to try different styles, hip-hop here, stately ballads there. The one constant was that her music always sounded contemporary. Then she took a break from recording five years ago to start a church with her husband. When she finally went back into the studio, she did something very unlike her. She went retro.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEY DEVIL!")

WINANS: (Singing) The Bible said it. I believe it's true. I no longer have to listen to you. I'm holy now. My spirit's free. And you goin' have to quit bothering me. Born again. On the count of three, leave. One, two, three, go.

THE CLARK SISTERS: (Singing) Hey, devil, get behind me.

HIGHT: Winans credits the throwback sound of her new album to her son Alvin Love III. She summons him to the table to explain how he pitched the concept.

ALVIN LOVE III: I was trying to tell her that we're in a time right now where a lot of the things that maybe were considered old-fashioned to her generation are actually really kind of fresh now.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RUN TO HIM")

WINANS: (Singing) Just when the party's over, the thrill is gone, I hear a new voice saying he's only begun. He says that he wants to guide me to brighter days. He says he would walk beside me and open up a way. So I will run to him.

HIGHT: Winans had collaborated with family members throughout her career, but she was slightly leery of being the guinea pig for her son's first shot at co-producing an album.

WINANS: His favorite word is just trust me.

LOVE: That's what it took.

WINANS: Just trust me.

LOVE: I knew that once she heard it she would love it. And it really wasn't until she heard the full orchestra with the band and the backup singers that she went, oh, I love this but not a second before.

WINANS: Alvin, now wait a minute (laughter). I loved it before I heard all of it.

LOVE: No, I don't know about that.

(SOUNDBITE OF CECE WINANS SONG)

WINANS: (Singing) I can hear a voice that beg all for us to take their faith to plains (ph). I, too, have had the choice to break and serve the world instead.

HIGHT: When CeCe Winans takes her new music on the road, she schedules her shows so that she can be back for weekly services at Nashville Life Church. But she's not the center of attention here. On a recent Sunday, she stayed in her pew until it was time for her to lead the congregation out of a praise chorus and into a prayer.

WINANS: Because of your love, Lord, we are set free. Do I have any free people here this afternoon?

HIGHT: The church draws an interracial crowd mostly made up of millennials in hoodies, denim jackets, leggings and jeans. CeCe Winans the artist hopes to add this new generation to her longtime audience. But it's been a while since the 52-year-old singer performed for people who don't know her music.

WINANS: When I was a lot younger, maybe it would have made me nervous because, at that time, you're still figuring out who you are. You know, at this age, this is who I am. Either you're going to really like me or you're not (laughter) and I'm going to be totally free and who I am.

HIGHT: Free enough that she let her son persuade her to press the new album on vinyl even though she doesn't have a turntable in her house. For NPR News, I'm Jewly Hight in Nashville.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LET THEM FALL IN LOVE")

WINANS: (Singing) When the night is dark, fire you had has lost its... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.