Thomas Whitfield (singer)

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Thomas Whitfield
Born(1954-04-30)April 30, 1954
Origin Detroit, Michigan, U.S.
DiedJune 20, 1992(1992-06-20) (aged 38)
Genres Gospel
Instruments Vocals, piano, organ, keyboards
Years active1971–1992
Labels Sound Of Gospel
Associated acts Thomas Whitfield Company, Derrick Starks

Thomas Anthony Whitfield (April 30, 1954 – June 20, 1992) was an American gospel singer, songwriter, arranger, pianist, choir director and producer best known for helping to shape the fabric of contemporary gospel music with his elaborate choral arrangements and the merging of musical styles ranging from jazz to classical into traditional gospel foundations. This style earned him the respectable title of "Maestro" by many of his colleagues and supporters. He was best known for organizing one of the popular contemporary gospel choirs of all time, the Thomas Whitfield Company, and for producing best-selling records for Vanessa Bell Armstrong, Shirley Caesar, Yolanda Adams, Douglas Miller, Keith Pringle, Paul Morton and for Aretha Franklin.

United States federal republic in North America

The United States of America (USA), commonly known as the United States or America, is a country composed of 50 states, a federal district, five major self-governing territories, and various possessions. At 3.8 million square miles, the United States is the world's third or fourth largest country by total area and is slightly smaller than the entire continent of Europe's 3.9 million square miles. With a population of over 327 million people, the U.S. is the third most populous country. The capital is Washington, D.C., and the largest city by population is New York City. Forty-eight states and the capital's federal district are contiguous in North America between Canada and Mexico. The State of Alaska is in the northwest corner of North America, bordered by Canada to the east and across the Bering Strait from Russia to the west. The State of Hawaii is an archipelago in the mid-Pacific Ocean. The U.S. territories are scattered about the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, stretching across nine official time zones. The extremely diverse geography, climate, and wildlife of the United States make it one of the world's 17 megadiverse countries.

Gospel music is a genre of Christian music. The creation, performance, significance, and even the definition of gospel music varies according to culture and social context. Gospel music is composed and performed for many purposes, including aesthetic pleasure, religious or ceremonial purposes, and as an entertainment product for the marketplace. Gospel music usually has dominant vocals with Christian lyrics. Gospel music can be traced to the early 17th century, with roots in the black oral tradition. Hymns and sacred songs were often repeated in a call and response fashion. Most of the churches relied on hand clapping and foot stomping as rhythmic accompaniment. Most of the singing was done a cappella. The first published use of the term "gospel song" probably appeared in 1874. The original gospel songs were written and composed by authors such as George F. Root, Philip Bliss, Charles H. Gabriel, William Howard Doane, and Fanny Crosby. Gospel music publishing houses emerged. The advent of radio in the 1920s greatly increased the audience for gospel music. Following World War II, gospel music moved into major auditoriums, and gospel music concerts became quite elaborate.

Shirley Caesar American gospel singer, evangelist

Shirley Ann Caesar-Williams, known professionally as Shirley Caesar, is an American Gospel music singer, songwriter and recording artist whose career has spanned over six decades. A multi-award-winning artist, with twelve Grammy Awards along with Dove Awards and Stellar Awards to her credit, she is known as the "First Lady of Gospel Music" and "The Queen of Gospel Music." She began recording at the age of 12 in 1951 on the Federal recording label



Early years and career

Thomas Whitfield, the eldest of five boys, was born in Detroit, Michigan to Thomas and Jacqueline Whitfield. He took to music at a very early age and was inspired by his great-grandmother to take piano lessons at the age of five and would advance to playing the organ by the age of ten. His influences remained some of Detroit's greatest musicians including renowned organist Herbert Pickard and Timothy Beard. After graduating from Detroit's Central High School, he attended the Detroit Conservatory of Music and ended up sharing his expertise and knowledge as a music instructor at Finney High School. While teaching, Whitfield continued to gain recognition in the area for his unique style of musicianship and would eventually work with the Beverly Glenn Chorale, the Craig Brothers and Rev. James Cleveland.

Detroit Largest city in Michigan

Detroit is the largest and most populous city in the U.S. state of Michigan, the largest United States city on the United States–Canada border, and the seat of Wayne County. The municipality of Detroit had a 2017 estimated population of 673,104, making it the 23rd-most populous city in the United States. The metropolitan area, known as Metro Detroit, is home to 4.3 million people, making it the second-largest in the Midwest after the Chicago metropolitan area. Regarded as a major cultural center, Detroit is known for its contributions to music and as a repository for art, architecture and design.

Michigan State of the United States of America

Michigan is a state in the Great Lakes and Midwestern regions of the United States. The state's name, Michigan, originates from the Ojibwe word mishigamaa, meaning "large water" or "large lake". With a population of about 10 million, Michigan is the tenth most populous of the 50 United States, with the 11th most extensive total area, and is the largest state by total area east of the Mississippi River. Its capital is Lansing, and its largest city is Detroit. Metro Detroit is among the nation's most populous and largest metropolitan economies.

In 1977, Whitfield, along with his good friend Tyrone Hemphill, felt led in establishing The Thomas Whitfield Company (The Whitfield Company for short); a local music ministry featuring some of Detroit's finest singers and musicians. This remarkable institution remained the apparent incubator for most of Whitfield's most popular creations and would forever be attached to his musical legacy and recording career. Amazingly, it didn't take long for Whitfield to get the attention and overdue recognition he deserved. Sound of Gospel, a local Detroit gospel music subsidiary of Westbound Records operated by music guru Armen Boladian, took notice in Whitfield's fresh sound and approach to gospel music and signed him and the group thereafter; resulting in the debut release of "Brand New" in 1978. Detroit's sophisticated brand of traditional gospel crafted by artists such as Dr. Mattie Moss Clark, Donald Vails, Rev. Charles Nicks and Rev. James Cleveland remained the prominent and popular style from the area and was usually the formula the majority of the country expected from the region. Whitfield, on the other hand, merged traditional gospel with stylish piano performances, riveting rhythmic sections, melodic choral harmonies and musical arrangements. This style is heard on "Repeat The Sounding Joy", a funk-disco melding which ended up being one of his early hits, and other works including "The Lord Is Blessing Me", "I'm His Today" and "That's How The Lord Works".

Westbound Records is a Detroit-based record label founded by Armen Boladian in 1968. It had a distribution deal with Janus Records from 1970 to 1975, but then it switched distribution to 20th Century Records during 1975 and 1976, but again switched distribution to Atlantic Records from 1976 to 1979.

The big break: Hallelujah Anyhow

After getting local attention with the releases of "Brand New" and "Things That We Believe, Vol. I" and "Things That We Believe, Vol. II" during the years of 1978–1980, Whitfield recorded his first live recording session (a popular trend in modern gospel music) with the Company at the St. Paul Church of God In Christ in Detroit. The album was finally released in 1983. At the same time, Whitfield began his association with Onyx International Records (a black gospel subsidiary of Benson Records) and also released "Hold Me"; a solo project that seemed to be threatening towards SOG's current contract with the Whitfield Company. While "Hold Me" was released on a more recognized label and was by far one of Whitfield's state-of-the-art productions to date, it also help increased the popularity and exposure of "Hallelujah Anyhow" and kept the album on Billboard's Gospel Music charts for over a year.

Benson Records

Benson Records was founded by Bob Benson and John T. Benson, beginning as the John T. Benson Music Publishing Company in 1902. The record label started out as Heart Warming Records and would come to house labels such as Impact Records, Greentree Records, RiverSong, StarSong and Home Sweet Home. In the 1970s Impact became the top label with artists such as Sandi Patty, The Imperials, J.D. Sumner & The Stamps Quartet, The Rambos, Dottie Rambo, The Archers, The Bill Gaither Trio, and the Speer Family. Heart Warming Records became The Benson Co.

<i>Billboard</i> (magazine) American music magazine

Billboard is an American entertainment media brand owned by the Billboard-Hollywood Reporter Media Group, a division of Eldridge Industries. It publishes pieces involving news, video, opinion, reviews, events, and style, and is also known for its music charts, including the Hot 100 and Billboard 200, tracking the most popular songs and albums in different genres. It also hosts events, owns a publishing firm, and operates several TV shows.

The understanding of the agreement with both music labels was that Whitfield recorded "Hold Me" as a solo entry while SOG was mainly interested in Whitfield being attached to the choir; feeling that his choir was the "selling card". SOG continued to record them as: Min. Thomas Whitfield & the Thomas Whitfield Company. Whitfield wrote most of the songs (except for "Soon As I Get Home" and "There's Not A Friend" – written by Roscoe Corner) and produced both projects. Songs like "God Wants Our Praises", "There's Not A Friend", "Walk In The Light", the infectious arrangement of "Oh, How I Love Jesus" and the brilliant ballad "Hallelujah Anyhow" were standouts.

Whitfield began a line of notable achievements in producing for both established and fresh talent. In 1984, Whitfield produced the historic debut project Peace Be Still , for a virtual unknown singer at the time by the name of Vanessa Bell Armstrong; earning him his first of three GRAMMY nominations. That year, he also wrote "Time To Come Back Home" for Shirley Caesar's GRAMMY and Dove Award winning "Sailin" album. Whitfield's popularity and demand continued to escalate – possibly pointing that he may have reached the beginning of his recording zenith. Production on projects from the Soul Children of New Orleans, Keith Pringle, Douglas Miller, the Winans, the Michael Fletcher Chorale and Paul S. Morton followed. In 1986, "I'm Encouraged" was released; a live recording session held at the Civic Auditorium in Cleveland, Ohio. The project climbed to the #1 spot on Billboard's Top Gospel Album charts.

<i>Peace Be Still</i> (Vanessa Bell Armstrong album) 1983 studio album by Vanessa Bell Armstrong

Peace Be Still is the debut album from Detroit gospel singer Vanessa Bell Armstrong. The title track became a signature song for Armstrong.

Vanessa Bell Armstrong is a gospel singer who released her debut album Peace Be Still in 1983.

The Winans are an American Gospel music quartet from Detroit, Michigan consisting of brothers Marvin, Carvin, Michael and Ronald Winans.

During Whitfield's final years with Sound of Gospel, Whitfield discovered Texas native Yolanda Adams and produced her first project Just As I Am for the Detroit label in 1988 which skyrocketed up Billboard's Gospel charts.

Yolanda Adams American gospel singer and actress

Yolanda Yvette Adams is an American gospel singer, record producer, actress, and former radio host of her own nationally syndicated morning gospel show. As of September 2009, she had sold 4.5 million albums since 1991 in the United States, and nearly 8 million albums worldwide according to SoundScan. Adams is known as the "Queen of Contemporary Gospel Music" and the "First Lady of Modern Gospel". Variety dubbed Adams as the "Reigning Queen of Urban Gospel".

An opportunity of a lifetime was awarded to Whitfield when the Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin confronted him with the task to head the musical direction for her upcoming live recording – a project that the media labeled the sequel to her best-selling and award-winning "Amazing Grace" LP. In 1989, Aretha Franklin took home a GRAMMY Award for Best Soul Gospel Performance, Female for "One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism" and a Dove Award for Traditional Gospel Album of the Year – an album that featured musical and choral arrangements from Thomas A. Whitfield. Some of the album's serious highlights include the moving opener of "Walk In The Light" and Aretha Franklin being serenaded by Whitfield's entrancing piano accompaniment on "Ave Maria".

Later years

In 1989, Teresa Hairston (head of Benson Music Group's black gospel department) contacted Whitfield and expressed interest in signing him, along with the Whitfield Company to her label. SOG released two successful projects ("The Annual Christmas Services", "...And They Sang A Hymn") in 1990, while Whitfield went into the studio to record "My Faith" for Benson. The project contained the Edwin Hawkins' composition "Glorify The Lord" and featured musical appearances from Vanessa Bell Armstrong and Karen Clark-Sheard (from the renowned Clark Sisters). In 1992, Benson released what would be Whitfield's last recording, "Alive And Satisfied". The album, to so many gospel music historians, felt like a prophecy and a "love letter" to Whitfield's presence in the gospel music industry. The album featured the moving praise-and-worship ballad "Precious Jesus", "Let Everything Praise Him" (which features the popular sampled vamp used in a number of recent gospel selections) and the reflective "We Remember (Medley)". The medley featured some of Whitfield's most treasured classics strung together in one song. By this time, Whitfield had already been contacted by Paramount Pictures to appear in the motion picture Leap of Faith , starring Steve Martin. He eventually turned down the offer; feeling that even though the visibility was good yet he felt it might diminish the dignity of his ministry. He also began work with music mogul Quincy Jones' "Handel's Messiah: A Soulful Celebration" – a powerful display of modern musical arrangements mostly handled by Mervyn Warren.


On June 20, 1992, after a lengthy choir rehearsal, Whitfield went with four of the choir members to Elias Brother's Big Boy; a popular local restaurant on Telegraph Road. At the table, he started to clutch his chest and began to gasp for air. After being administered CPR by his dinner companions and arriving at Garden City Hospital, Whitfield died on June 21, 1992 from a heart attack


Whitfield's musical brilliance and influence has left a tremendous impact on today's leading contemporary gospel artists. Musicians such as protégé' Rudolph Stanfield, Donald Lawrence, Fred Hammond, John P. Kee, Byron Cage, Ricky Dillard, J.J. Hairston & Youthful Praise, Walter Hawkins, Richard Smallwood, Big Jim Wright, Edward Dawson and many others. He is still highly regarded for his numerous innovations during the eighties and early nineties and being one of the pioneers to master the usage of the MIDI-sequencing and synthesizers in gospel music; all helping to earn him his own style: the "Whitfield" sound.

In 1993, Benson Records released a tribute album dedicated to the memory and musical excellence of Thomas Whitfield. It featured new arrangements from Whitfield hits and featured a list of musical guests and musicians including Donald Lawrence, the Clark Sisters, Fred Hammond, Kevin Bond, Larry & David Whitfield and the Whitfield Company.

Thomas Whitfield was honored posthumously with the 1999 James Cleveland Award at the 14th Annual Stellar Music Awards held in Atlanta, Georgia.

The Thomas Whitfield Company has continued to perform and record since their founder passed and are ensuring to keep Whitfield's legacy alive. They have recorded "Still", a Top Ten gospel album, and featured new and rare selections from Whitfield, along with music from former Whitfield musician Rudolph Stanfield. The song, "Don't Give Up On Jesus", sung by Daryl Coley and Vanessa Bell Armstrong also appeared on the best-selling WOW Gospel 1999 compilation.

Larry and David Whitfield, brothers of the "Maestro", decided to organize the Whitfield Group (not to be confused with the Whitfield Company) in January 1994. Since their inception, the music troupe has recorded one project and have opened for artists including Yolanda Adams, Vanessa Bell Armstrong, Men of Standard and Kim Burrell.

There have been a number of artists that have sung Whitfield's praises and have re-recorded his music. Some of the most memorable tributes include:

Benson Records released a rare VHS "Alive And Satisfied" video of Thomas Whitfield and the Whitfield Company. The video also features an award presentation to Whitfield for his record going gold and also an emotional tribute from Fred Hammond. BMG Heritage Records has also re-released a double-CD of Aretha Franklin's "One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism" (1987) in 2003. The album featured four new bonus cuts including a previously unreleased version of Walter Hawkins' classic "Be Grateful".




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