by contributing writer Michael P. Coleman
5 time Grammy winner Larnelle Harris almost singlehandedly broke the color barrier with contemporary Christian radio stations in the 1980s, long before artists like BeBe & CeCe Winans, Take 6 and others found acceptance there. What was to have been a brief chat about his new album and DVD, “Larnelle Live In Nashville”, wound up being an exclusive, in-depth conversation that offered more than a glimpse of the man behind the legend. Harris touches on facing racism as a Christian artist, his experiences as a father and grandfather, the government shutdown, the role of elders in our community, and why, after 42 years with his wife, he won’t be writing a book on marriage!
THE HUB: This new album is your first recording since 2005. Why the long break?
LARNELLE: Well, I do something when I have something to say. The truth is, I didn’t know it had been that long! I don’t keep up with it that way. We’ve been praising the Lord, traveling and doing concerts all over the world. My prayer hasn’t changed over the years. It’s “Lord, put something in my heart, and then teach me how to give it away.” And He’s been doing that.
THE HUB: How did this new project come to be?
LARNELLE: It’s a culmination of all of the stuff we’ve been doing over the years…along with some good friends: Steve Green, Steve Amerson, and of course Sandi (Patty). We did this one because we wanted to give a taste of what a Larnelle Harris concert is about. I’ve got to tell you, once we got going, we forgot we were recording! (Laughs). We were just trying to put together a worship service that people could watch on a Saturday night or any time except Sunday morning, when they should be in church!
THE HUB: Do you have a favorite song on the new album?
LARNELLE: I do my best never to pick a song that doesn’t move my heart. But there is nothing like the word of God. There’s a song on [the new project] called “The Greatest Of These”, and it is I Corinthians 13, the “love” chapter. When God gives me the opportunity to sing that, and people hear it, they don’t know what to do! They don’t know whether to stand, or sit, or lay, or scream, or shout. To watch what happens when people hear the unadulterated word of God is marvelous! And the kicker to that is I thought I was memorizing those passages to share them with the world, but I’ve got two little granddaughters that the world is already pouncing on, trying to tell them what love is. You know what? I’ve got that scripture, that song in my heart, so when that garbage comes along, I can say “No, that’s not it! Scripture tells us what love IS, and it also tells us what love is NOT. And what it is NOT is what you’re being bombarded with by the world, that the only way you can find love is to dress skimpily or to be promiscuous.
THE HUB: I think “The Greatest Of These” is one of the standouts from your entire career.
LARNELLE: If I want to be known for anything, it’s following and sharing God’s word and principles, so I appreciate that.
THE HUB: I want to ask you about some earlier touchstones in your career.
LARNELLE: Sure…I might remember! (Laughs)
THE HUB: I discovered you through your classic collaboration with Sandi Patty, “More Than Wonderful”. Tell me about how that project came to be.
LARNELLE: We both got a call from a producer, Don Marsh, telling us that Lani Wolf had written this little song, and it had been recorded on a Christmas album. In listening to it, they thought it might make a great duet. Don asked me if I’d like to try that, and I said sure. Sandi and I had met, but we didn’t know each other very well. “More Than Wonderful” was a catalyst for a relationship between us that has lasted a long, long time. After that, Sandi and I started talking about doing another song, and found one that Bill and Gloria Gaither wrote called “I’ve Just Seen Jesus”. There was a line in there…”All that I’ve done before, just doesn’t matter any more…I’ve seen Him and He’s alive!” This STUFF just doesn’t matter, you know? I’ve tried to be justified through works, and the sins of commission and omission, but when I’ve got the grace of God in my heart, none of that matters! We went into the studio and recorded that song, and put that one on my album, where “More Than Wonderful” was featured on Sandi’s album.
THE HUB: Given the great artists you’ve worked with, is there anyone that you haven’t yet worked with that you’d like to?
LARNELLE: God makes opportunities, you know…it would be fun to [sing] with a lot of people, but in my case I think God has sort of mandated those things. Whenever I do a duet, I make sure that we are all a part of spreading the gospel. There are people out there who are just hurting. The government shutdown, for crying out loud. I can’t tell you how many skirmishes, how many wars are going on around the country, the world. God continually tells us He is in control. It doesn’t look like it sometimes, but He tells us to look behind what we see, remember what we’ve read and what He’s put in our hearts.
THE HUB: If I had to pick one Larnelle album as my favorite, I’d have to pick “I Can Begin Again”. I was in my early 20s when I heard the title track. I liked the sound of the song but I really didn’t understand what you were trying to tell me. Now I’m in my late 40s, and I get it…
LARNELLE: (LAUGHS) Yeah!
THE HUB: It’s a beautiful song. What was the inspiration for it?
LARNELLE: “I Can Begin Again” actually started with my dad. He’d had some health issues, he went to the doctor and was asked to do something in maintenance of his own health that he really didn’t feel like he could do. He thought it was over, but it really wasn’t if he would have just applied himself. But he was getting older and he just didn’t feel that he could do it. The doctors did a demonstration of what he had to do, and my dad said “Oh! Is this all there is to it?” And I saw the light come back to his eyes, and that title came to me. “I can begin again with the passion of a child. For my heart has caught a vision of a life that’s still worthwhile.” God doesn’t want us to give up. He’s always got work for us to do. Our elderly folks can sometimes feel disenfranchised because our culture in many cases disowns the elderly. Listen, that’s crazy! Because that’s where the wisdom is!
THE HUB: Tell me about “Mighty Spirit” from that same album.
LARNELLE: When I recorded it, I envisioned the exodus, as the Holy Spirit covered the folks as Moses instructed the people to put the blood over the doors as the Holy Spirit passed by. I could just see the Spirit moving from house to house, door to door, passing through the children of Israel. Not even an animal was slain. That’s what I envisioned when I sang that. And still do.
THE HUB: Sandi Patty has said that you have a way of interpreting a lyric…that you can transform a lyric into a literal description, giving an impression that you are actually recalling events described in scripture.
LARNELLE: Well, I appreciate that and appreciate her saying that, and the feeling is certainly reciprocal. I’ve had an opportunity to sing with a lot of people, but I know who Sandi is, and she knows who I am…there’s a lot of special stuff going on up on the stage with the two of us. But yeah…it’s God’s word, and He wants people to hear it, and I want to do anything I can to communicate that. I’m so thankful that he has taught me that we do our thing with Him and to Him, and he takes care of the rest.
THE HUB: What is behind that signature sound and style of yours? I was surprised to hear that you came from a pentecostal background, because you never pursued that style of music. It almost sounds as if you have a classical music background.
LARNELLE: Well, I do. I was a voice major in school, coming up singing french show songs and italian art songs. I was on scholarship in college, and was the student conductor of the concert choir, did some musicals and a lot of things like that. But I grew up in a pentecostal holiness church. When I got to be 12 years old or so, I started going to some of the events at a local Baptist church, as our home church didn’t have much of a variety of youth-oriented activities. As a kid, I was a boy soprano, and man you haven’t lived until you’ve been a boy soprano! (Laughs). The ladies in the choir would just cry when they’d hear me sing the hymns, and the kids my age would just laugh and throw things! You know, that was not cool! I started playing basketball, and that kind of helped with the “cool” thing, but man it was a tough beginning! But I loved that training, learning how to use my instrument. That’s why I seem to be staying around, and maybe even getting a little stronger, which I just thank the Lord for. I’m still doing some of those songs in the same keys! It’s a gift from the Lord, and he brought that gift through training. I hope that folks who sing won’t think it’s odd or crazy to go out and get a voice lesson or two. You just might learn something that will keep you singing for awhile! A lot of people that I hear…well, I know that’s not going to happen.
THE HUB: You were one of the first African American artists to be played on contemporary Christian radio stations. What was it like to be a trailblazer?
LARNELLE: A lady told me once that she and her husband were listening to the radio one night and heard my “Friends In High Places”. She said they listened until the end of the song, then turned to her husband and said “My, my, my…that white boy sure can sing!” (Laughs) But you know…if there was a trail being blazed, I didn’t know it. It wasn’t something that we were trying to do. I’ve always gone wherever I was invited, to “black churches” and “white churches”. I always believed that God was as colorblind as He could be…I just went and sang, and went out there to do the very best that I could to share Christ, not just musically but personally. I’ve had some experiences of not being welcomed in certain places, in certain churches. I was in a group called The Spurlows, and we had four black kids in the group. We travelled all over the country doing driver’s education trainings and the like in schools, and in the evenings we’d go to local churches and do a show called “Splendor of Sacred Songs”. Some of those local churches wouldn’t let us in the door because we had black kids in our group. And I’ve gotta tell you, that hurt. Once I remember a guy started spouting off, and we had to have the FBI come watch our hotel that night. I looked at the guy, and the hatred in his eyes was so venomous that I felt sorry for him. Then I knew that God was working in my heart, because there was a time when I would have wanted to smack him across his face. When you hear my music, I want you to know that whether you’re black, white, green or whatever, we’re in this thing together, trying to live this Christian life.
THE HUB: How’re your wife and children?
LARNELLE: Well, Mitzy and I are doing very well and getting elderly together. This December 19th we’ll celebrate 42 years of marriage.
THE HUB: Congratulations!
LARNELLE: Thank you! We’re very proud of two young people that we’ve loosed on this world through the Lord. We’ve been through those teenage years when I’ve had to look my son and my daughter in the face and say “Listen…you make a very nice, lovely kid, but you don’t know how to run a house. So your mom and I are going to take that responsibility off of you, and you just do as you’re told!” (Laughs) And then we began to loosen those reins and let them make decisions, because we wanted them to know they were capable of it. We have a great relationship with both of them. They both now live less than five miles away from us, so we can throw a party at the drop of a hat! My son has a masters in electrical engineering and works in that field, and my daughter works for one of the banks here in town.
THE HUB: In this very disposable society of ours, what’s the secret to a 42 year marriage?
LARNELLE: I’m not going to write any books on marriage, ok? (Laughs) The secret…I think being painfully honest with each other. If I told you “Oh, everything’s great. We never argue,” that’s just garbage. We live in this house, and every once in while, we need space. I’ll go to the basement, and Mitsy’s on the top floor. And we’ve allowed each other to do that. When we got married, we decided that we weren’t going to give each other any options. And when we took all of the options off of the table, then the first argument didn’t do very much — we just had to work it out. We weren’t going to get divorced, no matter how heated the discussion became. Have I gone to bed angry sometimes? Yes I have! (Laughs) And you know what? She has too! But we’ve developed this thing where we can discuss an issue and allow life to go on. And out of that honesty has come a relationship that has lasted.
For more information on Larnelle, including his newest album and DVD “Larnelle Live In Nashville”, go to larnelle.com
Email Michael P. Coleman at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter: @ColemanMichaelP