When award-winning gospel recording artist Mr. Richard Smallwood next Tuesday hits the stage in Philadelphia as apart of the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts’ ‘Soulful Christmas,’ a musical tradition that brings together hundreds of local church and choral members, he’ll be reconnecting with singers whom he, as a child, directed at his stepfather’s small place of worship. Indeed, it’s a relatively obscure fact that Mr. Smallwood, a celebrated man nearing 70 years old who today resides outside of Washington, D.C., lived in Philadelphia on three separate occasions prior to his teenage years.
It was in Philadelphia where Mr. Smallwood told me he began to cut his teeth at music: as a kid, it was in the big city where he saw the Clara Ward Singers and Mr. Euguene Ormandy, a Hungarian violinist who achieved international fame as the decades-long music director and conductor for the Philadelphia Orchestra. Known today for his distinct sound which blends classical and soulful gospel music, Mr. Smallwood obtained his first classical recording from his mother, who also purchased him a toy piano at a very early age, while living in Philadelphia.
“Some of my biggest inspirations and musical foundations are in Philly,” Mr. Smallwood, who gave a nod to the late Mr. Gabriel Hardeman for his daring use of live horns in gospel music during the 20th Century, said.
Philadelphia’s biggest draw, in terms of (gospel) music, is, according to Mr. Smallwood, the diversity in sound. That diversity, for sure, will be on display next week when multiple choirs, including those from Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church, Deliverance Evangelistic Church and Bright Hope Baptist Church, render holiday spirituals and gospel favorites.
Mr. Smallwood – whose most memorable Christmas memory is of his poor mother, unable to afford a tree, shaping one on a wall out of holiday cards and still somehow managing to provide a toy or two – told Techbook Online exclusively that his contribution to the sold-out festive program will be, at the very least, a piano solo of ‘The Lord’s Prayer.’
During my brief interview with Mr. Smallwood, it was the subject of Philadelphia that appeared to excite him the most. He easily and enthusiastically recalled the names of the streets he grew up on, and the even recited name of his elementary school: James Rhoads, at 4901 Parrish Street.
But nothing elicited a response from the Grammy-Award-winner like when we talked about the diverse sound of Philadelphia gospel music. For as well-traveled as the maestro is, the City of his youth remains close to heart and regarded as, in many ways, incomparable; a place where music traditionally conformed to no singular identity yet almost all of it resembled a form of excellence.
“Philly, for as long as I can remember, has been a musical city,” said Mr. Smallwood.
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Photo courtesy of the author.