Thomas Whitfield (singer)

Last updated
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

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.



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.

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".

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.

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.

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.

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".




Related Research Articles

Aretha Franklin American singer, songwriter, and pianist (1942–2018)

Aretha Louise Franklin was an American singer, songwriter and pianist. Referred to as the "Queen of Soul", she has twice been placed ninth in Rolling Stone's "100 Greatest Artists of All Time". With global sales of over 75 million records, Franklin is one of the world's best-selling music artists.

Andraé Crouch American musician

Andraé Edward Crouch was an American gospel singer, songwriter, arranger, record producer and pastor. Referred to as "the father of modern gospel music" by contemporary Christian and gospel music professionals, Crouch was known for his compositions "The Blood Will Never Lose Its Power", "My Tribute " and "Soon and Very Soon". He collaborated on some of his recordings with famous and popular artists such as Stevie Wonder, El DeBarge, Philip Bailey, Chaka Khan, and Sheila E., as well as the vocal group Take 6, and many popular artists covered his material, including Bob Dylan, Barbara Mandrell, Paul Simon, Elvis Presley and Little Richard. In the 1980s and 1990s, he was known as the "go-to" producer for superstars who sought a gospel choir sound in their recordings; he appeared on a number of recordings, including Michael Jackson's "Man In the Mirror", Madonna's "Like a Prayer", and "The Power", a duet between Elton John and Little Richard. Crouch was noted for his talent of incorporating contemporary secular music styles into the gospel music he grew up with. His efforts in this area helped pave the way for early American contemporary Christian music during the 1960s and 1970s.

James Cleveland American musician

James Edward Cleveland was an American gospel singer, musician, and composer. Known as the King of Gospel, Cleveland was a driving force behind the creation of the modern gospel sound by incorporating traditional black gospel, soul, pop, and jazz in arrangements for mass choirs. Throughout his career, Cleveland appeared on hundreds of recordings and earned four Grammy Awards. He was the first gospel musician to earn a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He was inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 1984. For his trailblazing accomplishments, he is regarded by many as one of the greatest gospel singers who ever lived. He is best known for his gospel classics "Lord, Help Me to Hold Out", "Peace Be Still", "I Don't Feel No Ways Tired", “Where Is Your Faith", "The Love of God", "God Has Smiled on Me", and his rendition of Gladys Knight & The Pips' "You're the Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me."

The Clark Sisters are an American gospel vocal group consisting of five sisters: Jacky Clark Chisholm, Denise "Niecy" Clark-Bradford, Elbernita "Twinkie" Clark, Dorinda Clark-Cole, and Karen Clark Sheard. The Clark Sisters are the daughters of gospel musician and choral director Dr. Mattie Moss Clark. They are credited for helping to bring gospel music to the mainstream and are considered pioneers of contemporary gospel.

Yolanda Adams American gospel music singer

Yolanda Yvette Adams is an American gospel singer, actress, and host of her own nationally syndicated morning gospel show. She is one of the best-selling gospel artists of all time, having sold nearly 10 million albums worldwide. In addition to achieving multi-platinum status, she has won four Grammy Awards, four Dove Awards, five BET Awards, six NAACP Image Awards, six Soul Train Music Awards, two BMI Awards and sixteen Stellar Awards. She was the first Gospel artist to be awarded an American Music Award.

Elbernita "Twinkie" Clark is an American gospel singer, songwriter, composer, record producer, musician, and evangelist. Clark is best known as a member of the American gospel singing group the Clark Sisters. Clark is known as the "Mother of Contemporary Gospel Music". In addition to singing, Clark is a heralded musician. Known as the "Queen of the B3 Hammond Organ", she is a member of the Hammond organ Hall of Fame Class of 2014. In 2012, Clark was honored by Dr. Judith Christie McAllister and the International Music Department of the Church of God in Christ, as a living legend and influencer during the 105th International Holy Convocation, where Clark also received an honorary doctorate of sacred music from Dr. Tony Lewis and the Christian Bible Institute and Seminary (CBIS).

<i>Amazing Grace</i> (Aretha Franklin album) 1972 live album by Aretha Franklin

Amazing Grace is a live album by American singer Aretha Franklin. It was recorded in January 1972 at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles, with Reverend James Cleveland and the Southern California Community Choir accompanying Franklin in performance. The recording was originally released as a double album on June 1, 1972, by Atlantic Records.

Vanessa Bell Armstrong is an American gospel singer who released her debut album Peace Be Still in 1983. Armstrong is an 7x Grammy Award Nominee, Stellar Award Winner, and a Soul Train Award winner. She has worked with many in the industry such as, Mattie Moss Clark, Darryl Coley, The Clark Sisters, Rance Allen, James Cleveland, and a host of others. The Detroit Native also has an honorary doctorate degree in theology from Next Dimension University at the West Angeles Cathedral in Los Angeles on Saturday, August 20, 2017.

Oh Happy Day Song by Edwin Hawkins Singers

"Oh Happy Day" is a 1967 gospel music arrangement of the 1755 hymn by clergyman Philip Doddridge. Recorded by the Edwin Hawkins Singers, it became an international hit in 1969, reaching No. 4 on the US Singles Chart, No. 1 in France, Germany, and the Netherlands and No. 2 on the Canadian Singles Chart, UK Singles Chart, and Irish Singles Chart. It has since become a gospel music standard.

Richard Smallwood (musician) American gospel artist (born 1948)

Richard Smallwood is an American gospel artist who formed The Richard Smallwood Singers in 1977 in Washington, DC.

<i>Just as I Am</i> (Yolanda Adams album) 1987 studio album by Yolanda Adams

Just as I Am is the debut studio album by American gospel singer Yolanda Adams. It was released by the Sound of Gospel on September 22, 1987 in the United States. Production was helmed by Thomas Whitfield, who also worked with singer Vanessa Bell Armstrong on early 1980s gospel releases. Though original pressings of the vinyl and cassette release are difficult to find, the album has since been re-released on CD along with another catalog album from Sound of Gospel by Wanda Nero Butler entitled New Born Soul.

Daryl Coley American musician

Daryl Lynn Coley was an American Christian singer. At 14, Coley was a member of the ensemble "Helen Stephens and the Voices of Christ". He began performing with Edwin Hawkins in the Edwin Hawkins Singers and then worked with James Cleveland, Tramaine Hawkins, Sylvester, Pete Escovedo and others. Albums of his include Just Daryl, He's Right On Time: Live From Los Angeles, When The Music Stops and others.

<i>Chosen</i> (album) 1984 studio album by Vanessa Bell Armstrong

Chosen is the second album by gospel singer Vanessa Bell Armstrong. This album hit number one on the US Billboard Top Gospel Albums chart. The track "Nobody But Jesus" became a signature hit for the artist. Bell Armstrong joined R&B singer Kelly Price for a re-make of the song on the latter's debut gospel album This Is Who I Am for GospoCentric Records in 2006.

WOW Gospel 1999 is a gospel music compilation album in the WOW series. Released February 23, 1999, it features thirty-three songs on two CDs. It reached 94 on the Billboard 200 chart, and second place on the Top Gospel Albums chart in 1999.

<i>Something on the Inside</i> 1993 studio album by Vanessa Bell Armstrong

Something on the Inside is the seventh overall album of gospel singer Vanessa Bell Armstrong, and fourth for major label Jive Records. The title track was released as a single. Something On The Inside also reunites her with longtime collaborator and pacesetting gospel producer Thomas Whitfield. This would be Armstrong's last release for the Jive label before being shifted to its gospel sister label Verity Records for 1995's more traditional gospel release The Secret Is Out.

<i>Songs of Faith</i> (Aretha Franklin album) 1965 live album by Aretha Franklin

Songs of Faith is the first live album by American singer Aretha Franklin. It was released in 1965 by Checker Records. The album was recorded in 1956 by J-V-B Records at New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit, Michigan, when Franklin was aged 14.

<i>One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism</i> 1987 live album by Aretha Franklin

One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism is a 1987 gospel album recorded by Aretha Franklin, for Arista Records. Recorded at New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit, Michigan, over the course of three nights, One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism became an album that combined the gospel talents of Aretha, her sisters Erma and Carolyn, and fellow gospel singer Mavis Staples.

Sound of Gospel Records was founded in Detroit, Michigan, United States in 1969 by Armen Boladian. It is a gospel subsidiary record label of Westbound Records, where Boladian was also its former president.

Gentry McCreary, Sr. is a gospel music executive who has blazed a path for legions of Gospel music artists during his decades-long career. He's most noted as the First African-American Executive to be employed by Word Records, Light Records and Benson Records. With a 45-year industry and award-winning track record, McCreary's achievements also include the development of his own labels, Luminar and Onyx International Records.

Bishop Hezekiah Walker is a popular American gospel music artist and pastor of prominent Brooklyn New York Pentecostal megachurch, Love Fellowship Tabernacle. Walker has released several albums on Benson Records and Verity Records as Hezekiah Walker & The Love Fellowship Crusade Choir.