Whether you measure success in gospel music by the Billboard charts, prestigious awards, or good works, Pastor John P. Kee is one of the titans of the field. The influential gospel pianist, singer, and songwriter returns to his native Durham with his New Life Community Choir for two concerts at the Hayti Heritage Center on September 14 and 15, fresh off the release of new record Life & Favor, which is streaming at the bottom of this post. A delightful raconteur with a raspy voice and a ready laugh, Pastor Kee generously answered our questions about his fascinating life story by telephone. Read on to get acquainted with one of contemporary gospel’s most ardent fishers of men—and also, it turns out, of fish.
The Thread: Can you tell us about the path from growing up in Durham to being a gospel star and minister?
John P. Kee: I was really influenced by my brothers, Al and Wayne, who were very accomplished musicians. I started a little choir in Durham around 1975 called Revelational Experience. We would travel to Winston-Salem and Greensboro; we thought that was big time. That was like going to New York! I think it all came from my dad, who had a choir called the Southland Gospel Singers in the ‘40s. Because of the prejudice in the South, they were not allowed there, and for me, [touring in the South] was almost like something he didn’t get to accomplish.
So he has 16 children, 6 boys, and he names me, the last one, after him: John Jr. I picked up that mantle and started the choir going forth. I use the word “divine” kind of often, but it’s like it was touched, something given to me. Even playing the piano—it was purchased for my older siblings. I was just passing by it every day, sitting down and figuring out a few chords here and there, and before you know it, I’m the musician of the house. Everything fell in line almost like a storybook.
My talents were noticed by a lady named Helen Edwards, who was the music teacher at Rogers-Herr middle school. She said, “How would you like to be in a play?” And it was The ToyMaker, a musical. I was like, “No, I’m a football player!” But low-key, I had a love for opera, and I could not tell anybody that. She convinced me to be the toymaker for this Christmas musical, and the [football team] gave me their blessing. And before you know it, here I am off to the North Carolina School of the Arts.
After Winston-Salem, you studied in California for some time.
Yuba College. This is an amazing story: In 1992 or so, I got the chance to have one-on-one studies with Charles Ashworth, the renowned producer in Nashville that goes by the name Charlie Peacock. I’m really number one on the Billborad Charts then; we’re selling mega CDs; and I see my picture and this guy’s picture in an article and say, “I know him! That’s Charlie Peacock!” I knew him as a piano player; everybody else knew him as a big time producer in Nashville. This is something I have in my archive and I’ll release it in years to come: a project called The Interpretation of Kee. I’ve got everybody on that project from George Duke and Billy Preston to Charlie Peacock. With just acoustic piano, no accompaniment, they all played one of John P. Kee’s songs, and it’s amazing.
So that’s a project that’s been coming together for some time?
Let me tell you about both of the groups: Richard was such a dynamic force of structuring my attitude for sound. Richard was always one of the cleanest producers in gospel music; you could always hear his harmonies. As far as Mighty Clouds of Joy, I did another project called The Legacy Project where I took all the pioneers—Joe Ligon from Mighty Clouds of Joy, Harvey Watkins, Fred Hammond, Anthony Hamilton, the Williams Brothers—and we really went back and grabbed some music from my childhood. Right now I’ve got my sons studying the Dixie Hummingbirds and they hate it, but I want them to understand where harmonies in music came from, how daddy taught me.
How did you get from California back to North Carolina?
I started working with the Black Universe Pageant, training voices. I moved back here and got a little sidetracked. I started working at a small grocery store in the Double Oaks community of Charlotte. I started to sell illegal drugs and got way out of whack. I’m talking 1979, ‘80, ‘81. Dad died in July of ‘81 and it kind of opened my eyes. It was around that time that I surrendered my life to the Lord and turned it around.
What’s amazing now is that I pastor in that same community that I poisoned. I get a chance to make it right. I’ve got the New Life Christian Academy School of the Arts for the children of the inner city, and of course the church is here, which houses almost 60 wonderful outreach programs: everything from Adopt-a-Family to Project Renovate, where we go into seniors’ homes. This past week we put a garage on a brother’s house who was an amputee. I’ll tell you, I love how it all—well, I don’t want to say ended; I’ve got a few more years to go.
Is gospel music’s focus on redemption what gives your music its power, since you’ve lived it?
More than just redemption, I think it also has to do with stability. We always thought if you came to church and gave, you got more stuff, looking at the televangelist on the TV. I moved away from “more stuff” to “Lord, sustain where I am,” and I think that’s been the premise and strength of my teaching. Instead of begging for more, what happens when we learn to appreciate what we already have?
That’s a quite different message than the so-called prosperity gospel that’s popular in many quarters.
You know what, I think we blew it with that. So many people got so into gaining that they weren’t sustaining. I still have a faith message that you can get, but first, stop and appreciate what you already have.
How do you find the right balance in your time between the music industry and ministry?
And I love to fish! And I’m an artist on the side, I’ve got my paintings. It all comes together. I think it’s because I have a family that appreciates me and I don’t take it for granted. I know this evening, I promised my baby girl we’ll go out on the lake—she’s a fisherwoman, if you will; she’s patient and so she catches the bigger fish. I’ve also got a great infrastructure and staff. The church is one of the largest churches here, and I don’t care if I’m in China; I’m trying to find a way to get back in that pulpit on Sunday.
Who all do you have singing and playing on the new record, Life & Favor?
Wow, are you ready? I’ve got Lalah Hathaway, Frank McComb, Fred Hammond, Kirk Franklin, Leandria Johnson, Kim Burrell, Glenn Jones, and of course the New Life Community Choir—it’s actually their project. In this time of the recession that nobody wants to admit, people are having it pretty hard, and it’s just songs to encourage them. So far, from the noise we’re gaining on Twitter and Facebook, people are enjoying it. It’s all original songs.
So you’re bringing to the New Life Community Choir to the Hayti Heritage Center.
That’ll be not only special, that’s almost like full circle. I received the James Cleveland Lifetime Achievement Award from Stellar this year, and that was special because James Cleveland gave me my start. To be in Durham is almost like that circle touching again, because that’s where we all wanted to sing, get in that little auditorium and do something, back in the day. So to be invited back to do a concert is a wonderful thing. I’ve got something great planned for that concert. We’re going to take them down memory lane, and we might even open up the request line and let them tell us what to sing.
We’ll let people know to have requests ready! Anything else you’d like to share about this concert?
My grandmother, Mrs. Ethel G. Shannon, who’s a 100 years old, speaks volume about the music as far as the way I think we’ve been able to maintain over the years. I would do contemporary numbers, but I would always do one traditional song that would really excite grandma, and I’ve kept that tradition over 30 years. That makes it so there’s something for everyone on a John P. Kee CD. The last song on the new CD says “he’s making a way” and that came from her. She said that one day, and I sat down and bam, there it was. She’s going to be at this concert too.
STREAM LIFE & FAVOR: