Gospel’s Keith Staten Prepares To Release His First Album In Over 10 Years — An Exclusive Conversation with one of the Legendary Founders of Commissioned
by contributing writer Michael P. Coleman
No conversation about gospel music groups would be complete without a mention of Commissioned, one of Detroit’s best musical exports. Most gospel aficionados could name superstars Fred Hammond and Marvin Sapp as alumni of the group. Fewer would recall Keith Staten, who helped found the group in the mid-1980s. Influenced by groups like The Winans and The Clark Sisters, Commissioned released six successful albums, including the Grammy-nominated “Will You Be Ready?”, before Staten left the group and released his debut solo album, “From The Heart”. A decade and three solo albums later, Staten all but vanished from the public eye.
Keith has been married for over 25 years, and is the proud father of a 23-year-old son, Anthony. He exclusively and candidly talked with The Hub about his abrupt departure from Commissioned and his current relationship with his former bandmates. He also talks about his diverse musical influences (Kenny Rogers? Barbra Streisand??), his time away from the recording studio — including time pastoring a church — and what we can look forward to from this brilliant vocalist and songwriter.
THE HUB: It’s an honor to talk with you. Where have you been, and what have you been up to?
STATEN: Well, it’s been awhile! My last solo project was back in 2002, and we did the Commissioned Reunion project back in ’07. Last year, I sang on Donald Lawrence’s project. Although I haven’t been recording, I’ve been ministering and traveling all over the country. I’ve dedicated most of my time away from recording to pastoring a church, having moved to Arizona in 2003. I lived there until 2010, and my wife and I were senior pastors of a church there. Now, I’m really longing to get back on the road more consistently, and getting the new project out. But you know, man…God is smart! (Laughs) He’s brilliant! I never planned to stop recording, but God in His wisdom and goodness had His own plan. He’s been preparing me for this, and I’m really excited about everything He’s doing with this project.
THE HUB: Describe your music for someone who’s not familiar with Keith Staten.
STATEN: I’d say my style varies between the urban contemporary, the R & B flavor from my Commissioned days, and my background with hymns & spirituals. That’s what I grew up singing. But this new project is very contemporary. To be honest, since way back when I was with Commissioned and people would ask where I trained vocally, I’d have to tell them that even then, I was praying to God “Lord, teach me how to sing.” And God did it. I haven’t had one day of vocal training. God did it.
THE HUB: Have you thought about doing an album of hymns? You’ve got the voice for it!
STATEN: I’ve noticed that a lot of today’s contemporary singers are PHENOMENAL but they can’t cover a hymn, because they came up in a different day. I grew up singing them. I’d like to do an album of hymns down the road.
THE HUB: You were one of the few singers who could hang with Fred Hammond, and that’s saying something!
STATEN: Thank you! A lot of people don’t remember that I was the “vamp man” in the group. Fred was our bass player as well, so they used me to vamp vocally at the end of songs because Fred was busy tearing up that bass. On some of those projects, some listeners couldn’t distinguish me from Fred.
THE HUB: Who were your early musical influences?
STATEN: Very early, like most tenors I’d have to say Stevie Wonder, Donny Hathaway…and then, well, I’m kind of a different cat, man. I loved Kenny Rogers, Barbra Streisand, Ray Charles as a little kid…the older stuff, mixed with the newer. Most of the music that came into my house was through my brother, and that’s where I was exposed to the Clark Sisters, Edwin Hawkins, James Cleveland, Andrae Crouch. The very first project that I went and spent my money on was “Introducing The Winans” with “The Question Is”. That song blew up everywhere, but in Detroit it was huge! You could be gangsta on the corner, but you were singing “No no no no no no…” from that record! It blew up! We were heavily influenced by The Winans. That was the first group that I couldn’t get enough of.
THE HUB: Tell me how Commissioned came together.
STATEN: We were singing and playing in individual groups. Mitchell Jones was singing in another group, and we’d sit in on each other’s rehearsals. Then Mitch joins my group [with Karl Reid] and Mitch kept telling us “Wait until you meet my boy Fred Hammond.” Fred was playing bass for The Winans at the time, and after he heard us sing, he suggested that it was time for all of us to start our own group. We decided to be a self-contained band, and added Michael Brooks and Michael Williams. We came up with the name, and there it is. I remember our first rehearsal, practicing “The City” [from Commissioned’s debut album, “I’m Going On”]. I remember the first time we sang harmony in that basement, we knew we were on to something! We decided not to wait for a label, and instead raise money ourselves and start recording. Our manager shopped the project, Light Records decided to pick it up, and the rest is history.
THE HUB: It was always amazing to me that you guys sounded so good together, and to hear that you met as young adults. The Winans, the Clarks…they all started singing together as kids, so they had years to perfect their harmonies.
STATEN: We used to hear that a lot. It had to have been God who put us together.
THE HUB: If you had to pick one, what’s your favorite Commissioned song?
STATEN: Ever? That’s hard! (Laughs) If I had to pick one, it would end up being four! “Ordinary Just Won’t Do”, “Victory”, “Will You Be Ready?”, “Go Tell Somebody”…there are so many. When we first came out, the industry dictated that groups put out an album with, say, nine songs on it. You’d have one hit song which drove the whole album. You MAY have seen a group that had four or five songs at best, and the rest of the album was a mess. Some groups had ONE hot song, and the rest of the album was a mess. We tried to put out whole albums of great songs. We wanted albums with nine, ten hits per album!
THE HUB: Well, your albums certainly have stood the test of time. You can put one on today and be ministered to. Are you still in touch with Fred, Michael and the rest of the guys?
STATEN: Yeah, not on a daily basis, but yeah. Mike Brooks and I talk on social media. Karl and I grew up together, so we talk every month or so, same with Mitch. The last time I talked to Fred was probably a few months ago, now. This December, we’re doing a project together in the Baltimore area. They do any annual event there, and have had Tye Tribbett, Donnie McClurkin and others there. This year, it’s going to feature the original Commissioned guys, along with Marvin Sapp.
THE HUB: That will be incredible! It’s good to hear you guys keep in touch. You recorded six albums together before you went solo. Why’d you leave the group?
STATEN: Well, that’s a whole other big ol’ story. To be honest, I didn’t leave the group. You’re probably one of three people who’ve heard this story. When I did my first solo project, I had the blessing of the whole group. Fred was planning to do the same thing, and we had a provision in our new contract [with Benson Records] that each of us could do solo projects. I wasn’t really thinking about doing a solo project for a number of years, but I was approached by Polygram Records with an offer, and I went to the group for advice, and they all thought it would be good for me and for the group. We were hiring a new manager at the time, and I hired the same guy to manage me personally. Without getting into too much detail, things went wrong, things got confusing, things got complicated between management and the label. One night, Michael Brooks and I were given an ultimatum that wasn’t going to work…neither of us could fulfill the request that was made of us. And we were both relieved from the group that night. Our new manager didn’t stay with the group for probably six months after it all happened. He told me to my face that he wasn’t representing me as a solo artist with Polygram, because he had fallen out with the president of the label. There was a lot of stuff going on that just didn’t make sense. I walked out of the meeting asking “What just happened?” We’ve all worked through it and are cool now, but for years people thought I jumped ship when we were successful to start a solo project, but that’s not how it happened.
THE HUB: I’m glad you’ve all worked through it, and today’s a new day. Congratulations on the new record deal. Tell me about the new album. When will it be out, and will you tour in support of it?
STATEN: The single is called “Almighty God” and it will hit in January, with the album following in the spring, probably April. The single’s uptempo.
THE HUB: You’ve signed to Riverflo, a relatively new label. What’s being with them been like so far?
STATEN: Riverflo’s a powerful, upcoming label. They believe every artist plays a part — they’re building a Bentley, instead of being on an assembly line and cranking out projects that aren’t differentiated one from the other. They want a reputation of only producing masterpieces. Their first release was Andrae Crouch’s “Journey”, so that says it all right there.
THE HUB: Well, we’re looking forward to the next “masterpiece” from you, Keith. Again, welcome back!
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