“I’m not worried about the church being mad at me.”
by Michael P Coleman
Gospel legend BeBe Winans has never cared what people — including the church — thought about him, his artistry, or his ministry.
“I was never afraid — and to this day, I’m never afraid to try something new or to go where I believe I need to go,” Winans told me when I sat down with him recently. “I’ve never been afraid of what people thought. I’ve never been driven by success. I enjoy it, but that’s not my driving force. I need to tell the story of where I am.”
Winans’ story is quite the page-turner. His family is a gospel music dynasty. Four of his older brothers formed the legendary group The Winans and quickly moved from the Detroit music scene to the national stage with 1981’s landmark “The Question Is”. BeBe followed a few years later, with a cover of a song from the soundtrack of the feature film An Officer And A Gentleman, “Up Where We Belong” by Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes. Winans and his sister CeCe transformed the pop romantic ballad into an inspirational anthem with Jim and Tammy Fay Baker’s PTL Singers.
A couple of years later, BeBe & CeCe released the first of a series of slickly produced, genre-defying albums that topped both the gospel and R & B charts, at a time when that type of cross-over success was frowned upon by the church.
The duo enjoyed hits like “I.O.U. Me”, “Heaven”, “Lost Without You”, “Addictive Love”, and “I’ll Take You There”, and Winans collaborated with “secular” artists like Whitney Houston, Luther Vandross, Mavis Staples, and MC Hammer. Winans seemingly thumbed his nose at those who judged him for being “unequally yoked” with his “worldly” collaborators.
I was not one of those people. At a time when I didn’t want to hear anything that traditional gospel singers like Shirley Caesar or the late James Cleveland had to sing, Winans’ early music gently led me to a closer relationship with God by pairing a new inspirational message with the R & B grooves to which I was accustomed.
Having just seen the BMI Trailblazers tribute to BeBe & Cece on TVOne, I started my conversation with Winans by thanking him for music that had helped me through some very difficult times.
“That means a lot,” the 53 year old legend warmly shared. “People ask why I do what I do, and what you just said is the reason why I do what I do. What you heard on your end is the same thing I experienced on my end before it came to you. I learned early on to not be afraid to let people know me through my songwriting.”
The six-time Grammy winner recalled a particular song, “Don’t Cry For Me”, and the impact that it had on him years after he wrote it for his 1987 Heaven album.
“When my brother Ronald passed, it was one of the most devastating moments that has happened to me. The day after he passed, I was to the point where I was so devastated I couldn’t even cry. I was driving, and what comes on the radio? “Don’t Cry For Me”. I had to pull the car over. It was as if my brother was saying ‘don’t cry for me, don’t shed a tear…’. All of those songs are my life. [They are] my journey, and the journey continues.”
Winans’ road ahead includes a song related to the “Black Lives Matter” movement. The legend told me that his son inspired him to write it.
“When my son turned 17, it hit me like a brick: my son was a candidate for catastrophe, and I could go through what other parents had gone through and experienced. I went back into the piano room and I wrote this song entitled ‘Black Lives Matter.’ And man, I wept. If it doesn’t come from the heart, don’t expect it to go to the heart of people Songwriting for me has been that. You could take singing from me, but I would never want songwriting to be taken from me.”
I’ve always admired Winans’ willingness to go into uncharted territory. For example, just when you thought that BeBe had settled in permanently with R & B-steeped gospel songs, he released a straight up, live praise & worship album, and followed that up with an album of patriotic songs! I asked Winans about how he dealt with the backlash he has received throughout his career, particularly from the Christian community.
“It was confusing in the beginning,” he reflected. “CeCe and I would be talking to magazines, and the secular magazine would say “These gospel artists are incredible.” and the gospel magazine would say “These demons…” I felt a little lost, but I heard God say ‘Don’t be upset when people misunderstand you. They should misunderstand you, because I didn’t give this to them. I gave it to you.’ From that moment on, I wasn’t worried about what people thought. I’m doing what I’ve been called to do and what I’ve been given to do. I’d meet people who said ‘I was going to commit suicide, and I put ‘Heaven’ on, and it changed my mind.’ No preacher from the pulpit can tell me anything.”
“it’s not easy being misunderstood,” Winans continued, “but it’s ok when you know you’re in good company. God was misunderstood, and He did no wrong. I’m ok with that. I’m not worried about the church being mad at me, because they’ve been mad at me ever since I’ve been on the scene!”
One of Winans upcoming projects is almost sure to ruffle feathers in the church. He’s finishing an album of standards from the Great American Songbook, including “My Way”, “Moon River”, and “Mona Lisa”. The latter song is one of my all-time favorites, made famous by the legendary Nat “King” Cole. I asked Winans whether he was intimidated by covering one of Cole’s signature songs.
“Just a few months before Natalie Cole passed,” Winans remembered, “she found out I did “Mona Lisa” and she said ‘You know what? You’re probably one of the only people who could do my dad’s song. I can’t wait to hear it. You’ve gonna nail that’.”
Cole was correct. Winans let me listen to his renditions of “Mona Lisa” and “Moon River”, and they are absolutely stunning.
With all of Winans successes, he confided that he’s nervous all over again, this time about the opening of a musical he wrote about his life and that of his famous family, entitled Born For This: The BeBe Winans Story. It’s the type of uncharted territory that Winans has thrived in, so I know he’ll be fine. The play opens on April 13 in Atlanta, and is also scheduled to run in DC in July.
“There’s a song in the musical called ‘Applause’, Winans shared. “The song is about our journey. It says ‘the same hands that greet you with love may be the same hands that draw your blood. Never live for what people say. Guard your heart with these few words I pray. Don’t live for applause’. It’s simply saying — and it’s not just [for] people on stage — do it because it’s your passion and what you’re called to do, whether it’s recognized or not, do it to the best of your ability and be happy with that.
“A lot of great things are happening, and my approach is still the same,” Winans concluded. “My father used to always tell us “know who you are and what you’re all about, because when you get out there, people are going to tell you who you are if you don’t know.”
I know one thing: after over 30 years in show business, BeBe Winans isn’t finished surprising us yet!
Keep updated with BeBe Winans, including information on Born For This: The BeBe Winans Story, on bebewinans.net.
This article was written by freelancer Michael P Coleman, who earned a Bachelor of Arts with High Honors and Distinction in Communication from the University of Michigan.
BeBe Winans calls Coleman his “stalker fan”, and Coleman is OK with that!
Follow him on Twitter: @ColemanMichaelP