Photo courtesy of Facebook / Keith Thomas

EXCLUSIVE! Meet Keith Thomas, The Affable White Guy Behind BeBe & CeCe Winans

By Michael P Coleman

There have been a fairly small group of music producers whose work elevated both the material and the artists they worked with. Among them were Quincy Jones, Holland-Dozier-Holland, Michael Masser, Ashford & Simpson, Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, Thom Bell, and Narada Michael Walden. Those names, and perhaps a a few I’ve missed, roll off of the tongues of anyone discussing the greatest pop music of the last 50 years.

Keith Thomas’ name should be on anyone’s such list.

Thomas’ body of work is, frankly, stellar. Vanessa Williams has released a series of stunning singles and albums during her 30+ year career, but most agree that nothing she’s recorded was more gorgeous, or has been more enduring, than “Save The Best For Last.”

A couple of years later, Regina Belle never sang better than she did on her highly underrated “Reachin’ Back” covers album.

Both projects were produced and arranged by Thomas.

And as popular as Amy Grant was in Contemporary Christian music circles, she shot into the stratosphere with her Thomas-produced “Baby Baby” “Every Heartbeat,” “That’s What Love Is For” and other chart-topping singles from her multi-platinum certified Hearts In Motion album, which became the best selling Contemporary Christian album in history.

Thomas pioneered the strategy that Grant employed to shift from religious to secular music charts with two of Detroit’s legendary Winans gospel music dynasty, Benjamin and Priscilla, who were affectionately known as BeBe & CeCe.

A trio of Thomas-helmed albums, including the duo’s eponymous 1987 project, their landmark 1988 Heaven album, and 1991’s platinum-certified Different Lifestyles disc took BeBe & CeCe Winans from the Motor City to stages all over the world, propelled by catchy radio singles that paired the era’s slickest urban production values with some of the best gospel vocals ever recorded outside of the confines of a Sunday morning church service.

Quite a feat for an affable, soft-spoken white guy from Nashville, Tennessee.

“My dad was a Baptist preacher,” Thomas recalled by phone, “so we weren’t allowed to listen to anything except country and gospel. But I rebelled, and I would bring The Stylistics and The Hurricanes into the house. That was what appealed to me the most, and I started to learn to play that stuff. It just kind of got ingrained into who I was.”

Photo courtesy of Facebook / Keith Thomas

With a classic R & B sound having set up shop in his heart, and a longing to create the type of music that he’d grown up loving, Thomas set his sights on joining the list of great vocal music producers.

“I had gone to PTL to meet a friend of mine, Howard McCrary, who was the music director there,” Thomas said. “That’s where I met BeBe & CeCe, and got the idea to do a song with BeBe, ‘It’s Only Natural,’ that I included on my second solo album. Through that song, we were able to get them signed to Sparrow and Capital.”

Thomas’ second solo album, Kaleidoscope.

“When we started out on that first record, I remember BeBe being very nervous about where I was taking them, stylistically. He thought that everyone was going to disown them from the church, but I felt confident that he and CeCe could play in both the secular market as well as the Christian market. And it worked — everyone embraced it.”

We certainly did: BeBe & CeCe’s 1987 album, featuring the hit “I.O.U. Me,” did well on both the gospel and R & B charts. The album’s “For Always” earned CeCe the first of 15 Grammy awards and established her as a force on gospel, Contemporary Christian, and R &
B radio stations. Even today, she’s still charting hit singles and racking up Grammy awards.

1987’s first Thomas-helmed project for BeBe & CeCe

But even after that success, BeBe & CeCe’s mainstream label, Capitol Records, wanted to ditch Thomas in favor of a more established, “urban” producer for the follow-up project.

“They basically didn’t figure that a white guy had enough swag to do the next record,” Thomas laughed. “But BeBe, who was the group’s spokesperson at the time, stood up for me. He told them ‘No Keith Thomas, no BeBe & CeCe.’ That was huge to me, and I’ve never forgotten that.”

Keith Thomas with BeBe Winans, left, at last year’s premiere of “I Wanna Dance With Somebody.” Photo courtesy of Facebook / Keith Thomas.

Neither has BeBe.

“Me and CeCe went down to meet the president of Capitol Records about the second album, BeBe recalled, “and he told us that he had already picked our producers and arrangers for it. I told him that we already had a producer and arranger in Keith. He said ‘No, this is Capitol. This is big time now.’ “

“CeCe pinched me under the table because she knew my father’s side was about to come out,” Winans laughed. “I said ‘Make no mistake: you don’t hold my future. God holds my future. We’re going to work with Keith Thomas, or me and CeCe are going to walk out of that door and thank you for the opportunity that you’re giving us, but I’ll leave it right here.”

Needless to say, Capitol Records backed off.

With that settled, Thomas and BeBe & CeCe went to work, producing the flawless Heaven album that featured the hit title track, “Lost Without You,” and “Hold Up The Light,” a duet with a newfound friend of theirs, a fledgling singer who had just released the best selling debut album in history in 1985 and 1987’s best selling album.

She was just a young thing from New Jersey named Whitney Houston.

1988’s Heaven album, produced by Keith Thomas. It featured Whitney Houston on “Hold Up The Light” and “Celebrate New Life.”

“She’s obviously an icon,” Thomas said of Houston, “and I respect her for everything that she accomplished. We had a blast working together. One night, we were in a limo with Whitney, and BeBe was doing this little thing that he would do, sing a line and then I’d try to do it and match his run.”

“But BeBe is one of the most stone cold singers that I’ve ever worked with in my life,” Thomas continued. “And I’m trying to do the run and Whitney just looked at me and said ‘Keith, don’t sing.’ It was so funny! Being able to work with Whitney Houston was one of the highlights of my career.”

After the success of that Heaven album, Capitol didn’t balk about BeBe & CeCe working with Thomas on a third project, and they delivered Different Lifestyles, which along with the multi-format smashes “Addictive Love” and “It’s OK” included a collaboration with soul legend Mavis Staples of The Staple Singers: a cover of her family’s “I’ll Take You There.”

BeBe & CeCe’s 1991 Thomas-helmed Different Lifestyles album

“When you work with great people like BeBe & CeCe, they attract other great people,” Thomas reflected. “We wanted to cover that song, so I said ‘Hey, why don’t we get Mavis.’ BeBe knew her, so we went to LA with the track. [Mavis] was a joy to work with.”

“It was amazing because she was probably 10 feet from the mic and [her voice was] still distorted because she’s so loud,” Thomas exclaimed. “I put that song together in a little bit of a different way than the way I would record a vocal. Samples were kinda new at the time. I recorded BeBe & CeCe’s vocal, recording their lines in just segments, and I put Mavis on there, and put BeBe & CeCe around Mavis’ vocals. It’s kinda interesting how all of that came together. That was such a fun experience.”

In addition to the aforementioned songs and the title track, Different Lifestyles also includes what this writer believes to be the best vocal that CeCe recorded while singing with her brother, the ethereal “Supposed To Be.” As the song was shockingly never issued as a single, I was unsure whether Thomas would revere it as this writer has for over three decades.

As it turns out, the white boy from Nashville and this black boy from Detroit have very similar tastes in music!

“Buddy, I’ll tell you: people ask me all of the time what’s the favorite thing I’ve ever done, and I point to that track,” Thomas said. “
Something happened magically in the studio with that song that I can’t put my finger on, but I love that one!”

[I’m still not quite over Keith Thomas calling me “buddy,” but I digress.]

“I wrote ‘Supposed To Be’ for BeBe, and he just didn’t get it, so I decided to put CeCe on it,” Thomas told me. “There was something about that track. It’s one of the only times when I’ve gotten sideways with my engineer in the studio. He mixed that song, and I didn’t like it. I was a little frustrated in having to go back and back again and remix that, but there was something special about that track that I wanted to hear. We finally got it.”

After the Different Lifestyles album, Thomas went on to work with Grant, Williams, Belle and a host of other artists. But his collaborations with BeBe & CeCe, and the time he spent establishing himself as a R & B songwriter, arranger, and producer, comprise a set of very fond memories for the multiple Grammy-winning producer and arranger.

“For about seven years, I served on the R & B committee on the Grammys. I remember going to a meeting once, and sitting down at the huge, long conference table with maybe 25 or 30 guys around it,” Thomas remembered. “Everybody had to introduce themselves, and after I said ‘Hey, I’m Keith Thomas,’ the guy to my right and the guy across from me both got up, got on their knees and said ‘Oh, my God! THIS IS KEITH THOMAS! He did all of that BeBe & CeCe Winans shit,’ and the room erupted with laughter! I was the only white guy in the room!”

Photo courtesy of Facebook / Keith Thomas

“That was like a badge of honor to me,” Thomas added, “because I love that music, and I loved the people I worked with, from BeBe & CeCe to Luther Vandross to Whitney…the list goes on.”

This feature was first published with the Sac Cultural Hub. Look to The Hub this summer for part two of my feature with Keith Thomas. He shared the behind the scenes details of his projects with Vanessa Williams, Regina Belle, Luther Vandross, Amy Grant, and others.

Catch up with Thomas at

Catch up with freelance writer Michael P Coleman at

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