(RNS) — For decades, Richard Smallwood has been on stages from Carnegie Hall to churches, at the piano or at the microphone, performing music that features his distinctive genre-bending blend of gospel and classical.

Now, as a way to mark both his 75th birthday and Juneteenth, Smallwood is getting the Kennedy Center treatment: The Grammy nominee and Stellar and Dove awardee will get a special seat in the premiere concert hall in the nation’s capital as other gospel luminaries such as Dorinda Clark-Cole and Marvin Winans join choir members to perform in his honor.

Smallwood, who celebrated his birthday in November, launched the Richard Smallwood Singers in 1977 and then, in the 1990s, created and began touring with the ensemble Vision, which will be part of the performances on Tuesday (June 18) and Wednesday, the Juneteenth holiday that marks the effective end of slavery in America.

Smallwood is known for such hits as “I Love the Lord,” which was later recorded by Whitney Houston, and “The Center of My Joy,” which he co-wrote with Bill and Gloria Gaither.

Though Smallwood describes himself as “semiretired” and said he’s now more of a baritone than a tenor — “The notes I can hit at 28 and 27, I can’t hit anymore” — he is as devoted to supporting all kinds of music as he was decades ago when he said, “I have no problem with crossover music, as long as you carry the cross over with you.”

In an interview days before the Kennedy Center events, he said: “I think any music that preaches Jesus and him crucified is a kind of music that is appropriate in the church setting.”

Smallwood, who was raised by a stepfather who was a Baptist pastor, talked with Religion News service about his enduring music, post-COVID choir music and influences on his songwriting.

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The interview was edited for length and clarity.

Richard Smallwood. (Courtesy photo)

Richard Smallwood. (Courtesy photo)

What does it mean to you to be able to mark this milestone in your life with a celebration of Juneteenth at the Kennedy Center?

First of all, the date of the celebration means a lot to me personally. I was thinking earlier that when I was a little boy my mother used to take me to hear the National Symphony Orchestra. Never would I think one day, they’d be playing my music. That’s amazing. And I’m so grateful.

Does Juneteenth have a personal meaning for you?

Yes, it is, because it’s for our culture. It’s a huge landmark, which signifies freedom, and so to be a part of that is a great honor and such a great opportunity.

Your music has been sung at funerals of victims of police and school shootings, accompanied liturgical dancers at church services and greeted the pope at the White House. Have you been surprised by the range of your work?

I’m always surprised. When you write a particular piece, you have no idea what’s going to become of it — will people like it, or will people sing it. And so to see the years of people embracing it really means a lot to me as a composer. It means a lot that something I wrote can make a difference in people’s lives.

At Metropolitan Baptist Church, a D.C.-area church where you have been a music minister, you’ve done a version of Handel’s “Messiah” called “Handel’s Messiah: A Soulful Celebration,” which included your arrangement of “Rejoice Greatly, O Daughter of Zion.” 

I love the “Messiah.” I’m in love with classical music. I was trained classically at Howard University. So I have a love of gospel. I have a love of classical. I love all genres, so it’s always been an honor, and such great excitement to be a part of it.

You were diagnosed with clinical depression a number of years ago. What difference has it made in your ability to write music and the kind of music you have written?

First of all, music is something that reaches all kinds of situations and issues. People say it soothes the savage breast or the savage beast — however you want to say it —and it does. With depression, music is something that helps me with that. And it makes a difference. Music just tends to turn off the craziness, if you will, and brings a light of love and a feeling of peace. Most of my music that I’ve done has come from personal situations from my life, things I’ve gone through, things that I’ve written about, things that I’m feeling, things that I’ve tried to convey to other people who may be hurting. Music has the tendency to heal hurt, and it certainly has healed mine in a lot of ways.

How has music, including gospel music in Black churches, changed as congregations and choirs regrouped after the COVID-19 pandemic?

Most of our churches were closed unless they were via Zoom. And so it’s refreshing to start getting these back. Music is so much a part of who we as a culture are, starting with the Negro spirituals until now. It’s music that has brought us over through slavery, through all kinds of hard trials and tribulations.

Have the choirs come back, in your sense, or are they smaller?

I think it depends upon the size of the church. Smaller churches are still recuperating because some people have gotten used to having their pajamas on and listening to service as opposed to getting up and going out to the actual service. But I think it’s starting to pick up and especially larger churches are back doing what they’ve always done.

Some of your songs have been sung in Jewish settings. Have you had the chance to witness that yourself?

I have. I used to do a thing at Carnegie Hall in New York City and several of those performances, we had a cantor come and sing “Total Praise.” It was absolutely amazing. It shows how connected we all are and so it was just a blessing to hear that.

Who has been your greatest musical influence?

Oh, wow. There’s so many. My favorite classical composer on the planet is Johann Sebastian Bach. Anything Baroque I love. My favorite gospel composers are people like Edwin Hawkins; he wrote “Oh Happy Day,” the gospel version. Or Walter Hawkins. I grew up on the Roberta Martin Singers, a group out of the ‘40s or ‘50s.

That answer fits the way people describe you, as having blended classical and gospel.

My mother started buying me gospel albums — I’m dating myself, albums — when I was no more than 6 years old, and while we were living in Philly, she would take me to the Philadelphia Orchestra featuring Eugene Ormandy. And so I was getting all of these genres in my ear and in my head and in my being. When I started to write professionally, I just think a combination of the things that I love began to take root in terms of what I was trying to convey in terms of the style. And when I turned around it was a hybrid, I guess, of both of them.

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