Sweet inspiration: Camden's gospel star Tye Tribbett

Posted: August 25, 2013

Anyone paying attention to this summer's local gospel music scene knows that gospel, nationally and in this city, is on the upswing.

The Spirit of Philadelphia has been hosting packed Gospel Lunch Cruises on selected Saturdays, with local gospel singers the Disciples and the Pearls serenading passengers. One sails this weekend, and there are additional dates in the fall.

Last week, the Crazy Praise Dance Showcase at Baptist Worship Center on James Street welcomed Mary Mary, one of gospel's premier duos, who sang to 2,000 attendees.

And on Saturday, there's Sounds of Gospel, the free festival on Penn's Landing. Sponsored by WPPZ-FM (103.9), it features standout acts such as Hezekiah Walker, Isaac Carree, Kurt Carr, Erica Campbell of Mary Mary, Jekalyn Carr, Wess Morgan, and Camden's own sudden gospel megastar, Tye Tribbett.

The music has gained new popularity thanks, in part, to a rebranding: the relatively recent new moniker of inspirational.

"Gospel music has been emotionally powerful for decades, but the term inspiration has made it more acceptable to the mainstream," says Elroy R.C. Smith, operations manager of WPPZ, the area's leading gospel music station, which brands itself Praise 103.9. "Secular listeners are more comfortable with this format because the presentation of the music is not too churchy, but is melodic and inspiring."

No one, it seems, is more melodic, inspirational, or mainstream, all at once, than the epically soulful Tribbett. On Aug. 14, Greater Than, his first album for his new label, Motown Gospel (itself a new entity), entered Billboard's Gospel Albums chart at No. 1.

How did Tribbett, 37, react when he found out? He says it for us: " 'Whhuuuuut?' "

Greater Than is Tribbett's fifth album. He has sold out shows across the globe - singing the word, leaping across the stage, signature braids flying. But he wasn't prepared for such success.

"Disbelief, numbness, shock, excitement, humility," he says with a laugh. "I felt all that, all at once."

His pastor father, Tye Tribbett II, played organ at the small El Bethel Church of Christ in Camden before Tye III was born. Gospel music was in the young Tribbett's blood, organ and piano both, but he had different plans for a music career. "My original goal was to play on an album that went Top Ten," he says. "I knew that if I honed my skills as a player, somebody was going to give me that chance."

Although he wanted to contribute to the gospel industry ("that's where my convictions lie"), he promised himself he'd remain open to all forms. In his teens, he started a garage gospel act, Greater Anointing, with musician friends and church choir members. "I just put them together to do my compositions casually, for demo purposes. Until I went, 'Whoa, this sounds bigger than I thought.' "

His original dream of backing up top-charting acts live and in the studio came true starting in the early 2000s, when Tribbett and his choir backed stars such as Faith Hill and Eagles front man Don Henley in concert. "I didn't know who Henley was," Tribbett says with a loud laugh. "But once he got us, he didn't ever want to let us go."

By 2002, Tribbett was appearing on albums from Common, Vivian Green, and Justin Timberlake (most prominently on "Cry Me a River"), with Patti LaBelle, Jessica Simpson, and Will Smith to follow. Sandwiched in between that work-for-hire was his contribution to DreamWorks' animated The Prince of Egypt ("Let Go, Let God") as well as Life, his 2004 solo debut album for Sony.

There was much to get used to. Not all the response was positive. "I'd hear these criticisms that I was a little too much," he says. "All I'd known was acceptance" from the nurturing church community. Having grown up geeky ("I wasn't the hot kid or quarterback"), he was also startled by the somewhat too-pronounced interest in him from some female fans. It tested him and his marriage.

Tribbett and his wife Shanté overcame such hurdles. "That survival has led me to even greater success," Tribbett says.  

Tribbett "maxed out at Sony," so he signed with EMI, and the blessings continued. EMI was sold to Universal, which happens to own Motown, which, in turn, was creating its own gospel imprint.

Looking for fresh ideas, Tribbett cut his signature braids. "Really," he jokes, "they made it impossible for swimming." He found in new musicians to wake up his arrangements and bring more variety to his tunes and more focus to the complex melodies that fill Greater Than.

He credits "If He Did It Before . . . Same God" with bridging the old and new Tribbetts. But there's also "Stayed on You," an unlikely cover of "Got My Mind Set on You," the Rudy Clark tune that George Harrison made into a No. 1 hit in 1987. Where'd that come from?

"Before I started recording, I shut everything down," Tribbett says. "I told the Lord, 'I've got my mind set on you.' . . . It was a sign."

As for gospel music's power at present, Tribbett sees it as light battling the forces of darkness. "Stars only shine when it's blackest outside," he says. "The darker things get - racism, recession - the more inspiring the light is, the more relevant we become."

Sounds of Gospel

2:30 to 9 p.m. Saturday at the Great Plaza at Penn's Landing, Columbus Boulevard at Chestnut Street. Free. Information: 215-922-2386, or www.delawareriverwaterfront.com.


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