RECAP: BMI Gospel Trailblazer's Salute (2009)

Hundreds of gospel music industry aficionados, artists, special guests, supporters and fans gathered with anticipation inside Nashville's Rockettown venue to experience a very special moment at the 10th Annual BMI Trailblazers of Gospel Music Awards Luncheon, held Friday, Jan. 16, 2009. (See the performing rights group's website).

PhotosThis year's invitation-only salute and live taping was a total blessing for those who witnessed first hand the magic of the legendary music we all have come to know and love from three of gospel music's biggest stars: CeCe Winans, Elbernita "Twinkie" Clark and Donald Lawrence.

The annual ceremony and luncheon, which is scheduled to air in its entirety on the Gospel Music Channel in March 2009, began with an introduction by Catherine Brewton, BMI Vice President, Writer/Publisher Relations of co-host Dorinda Clark-Cole of the legendary Clark Sisters who proceeded to bless the event with prayer before passing the stage to this year's lively co-host and equally talented recording artist— Kirk Franklin.

With an all-star ensemble of background vocalists and musicians, including Tommy Sims, Joe Wilson, Marvin McQuitty, Stanley Brown, Kevin Stancil, Daniel Weatherspoon, Tobbi White, San Franklin, Blanche McAllister and Sheri Jones-Moffett among others all orchestrated by DeWayne Woods, the stage was set for one of the most memorable celebrations of three highly respected gospel music recording artists and songwriters ever seen.

The first award was given to Marvin Sapp for "Never Would Have Made It," 2009's Most Performed Song of the Year from his 2007 release, Thirsty (Verity Records/Zomba Label Group). The colossal hit single quickly became the No. 1 single on the Urban AC charts and sat atop the Billboard Gospel charts for a record 46 consecutive weeks in 2008. Before Sapp's heartfelt acceptance speech, special guest Donnie McClurkin performed his own rendition of the song enlisting help from vocalists in the audience such as Kim Burrell, Darwin Hobbs and finally Marvin Sapp himself.

"I never imagined that my pain would help so many," said Sapp after receiving an official plaque and commemorative inscription alongside his co-writer Matthew Brownie. "It's so much more than just a song to me now because I had to live it in order to get what it really means." Sapp tearfully spoke of the series of life-altering experiences that compelled him to pen the lyrics of the song and closed his acceptance speech with a prayer. "My prayer is that the rest of your days will be the best of your days."

Photo Gallery
Photos See the numerous photos from BMI Gospel Trailblazer's Luncheon. Check out the full gallery (photo credits: Arnold Turner, Jeff Cross, Gerard Bonner).

Photo Gallery of BMI Gospel Trailblazer's Luncheon

2009's first recipient of the BMI Trailblazer Award, CeCe Winans, is known primarily for her work with her brother in duo BeBe & CeCe Winans, but she has also garnered a signature presence as a solo artist. As a BMI songwriter for more than 20 years, Winans was appropriately serenaded with special presentations of some her most memorable songs including an acoustic version of "I Am" from Everlasting Love (1998, Sparrow Records) performed by praise and worship pioneer Israel Houghton and world renowned guitarist, bassist and producer, Tommy Sims.

Sims, a legend in his own right, later sang his own version of the album's title track "Everlasting Love", and the very first song CeCe Winans ever recorded for the album.

Kirk Franklin introduced a special surprise guest BeBe Winans who quickly took the stage to sing "Don't Cry for Me," a track lifted from the duo's 1988 release Heaven (Capitol Records), in honor of his baby sister. He playfully interjected his memory of how the song became a hit for her.

"I'm going to be honest," said Winans. "CeCe stole this one from me y'all. I wrote this one for myself, but CeCe begged me for it and I couldn't say no after I heard her sing it."

Next came a stunning rendition of CeCe Winans' "Alabaster Box" (1999, Wellspring) performed by '90s Christian music recording artist Crystal Lewis. Afterwards, Winans joined the band on stage to finish the worship number on her own.

"God is so good," said Winans graciously. "It feels so strange to be honored for worship, for doing something I do all the time. I'm so grateful, I can't thank Him enough for blessing me to do this and for being counted among these other great artists in the room."

The magical celebration continued with a tribute to the second 2009 BMI Trailblazer honoree Elbernita "Twinkie" Clark who has enthralled avid gospel music listeners and inspired countless others with her acclaimed solo projects and her leadership of the gospel music dynasty The Clark Sisters. A trip down memory lane ensued as the band and singers performed a medley of Twinkie Clark's signature singles beginning with 1981's "Ye Shall Receive Power" (Sound of Gospel Records) followed by "Cast Your Cares" featuring Donald Lawrence, Arnetta Murrill-Crooms and LeJeune Thompson on lead vocals.

Next up was Clark's niece Kierra Sheard, an extension of the now famous 'Clark sound,' singing an immaculate interpretation of her aunt's classic 1986 tune "Jesus Is A Love Song" (Heart & Soul, Word Records).

Sheard quickly stole the show, borrowing her aunt's signature squalls and vocal acrobatics and infusing that with her own progressive tone and vocal creativity. Joining Sheard on the vamp was another Detroit-native and one of 2008's honorees, the incomparable Vanessa Bell-Armstrong. Stretching her signature vocals through two of Clark's hits, "Nothing Too Hard" and the energetic praise number "Hallelujah," Armstrong danced across the stage bringing the audience to their feet before ending her set which concluded with a rare organ solo from the "Queen of the B3 Hammond Organ," Twinkie Clark herself, just before her acceptance speech.

Photos"This is truly one of the most rewarding experiences of my life," said Clark from backstage. "This feels amazing and I'm honored that God has allowed me to see this day."

The afternoon's third recipient of the Trailblazer award was, of course, Donald Lawrence, a BMI songwriter, choir director and singer who normally serves as the annual show's producer and musical director. "Someone who was close to him was needed to pull this off," said this year's musical director and vocal arranger DeWayne Woods, another artist pushed to the forefront by Lawrence. "I'm honored that he gave me the cue to fill his shoes for just a moment as he's honored this year. I think we did a great job and I hope he's proud."

Setting the tone for Lawrence's tribute was none other than soul heiress Lalah Hathaway. Singing an extended version of Lawrence's smoldering hit "Don't Forget to Remember," Hathaway bewildered the audience with her rich, jazz-inspired vocals which are also featured on the updated version of the song on Lawrence's 2004 release I Speak Life (Zomba Label Group). Audience members and host Kirk Franklin begged for a reprise and even coerced Hathaway into singing a requested a cappella version of "When Your Life is Low" for Lawrence.

Afterwards, Karen Clark Sheard, one of the many artists whose career Lawrence has helped catapult into stratospheric heights, took the stage to sing "Couldn't Tell It If I Tried," a song penned by Lawrence on Sheard's 1997 Island Def Jam Records debut Finally Karen. Sheard passed the mic to other sensational artists in the room including Lowell Pye, Blanche McAllister and Sheri Jones-Moffett before concluding her set.

Gospel music's rare gem, Kim Burrell, began her tribute with her prophetic rendition of "Bless Me (Prayer of Jabez)" taken from 2002's Go Get Your Life Back (EMI Gospel) on which she spoke of increase and 2009 being the year of manifest for the kingdom of God. Burrell was later joined on stage by LeJeune Thompson and Sheri Jones-Moffett for an inspiring version of Lawrence's "God's Favor" from Tri-City4.com (2000, EMI Gospel).

At the end of the ceremony, Donald Lawrence thanked his fellow honorees for their respective catalogs and musical repertoires and admonished aspiring singers, songwriters and musicians to continue dreaming big and holding onto their vision. "There is a mechanism in the world that will ignite the glory of God within you," said Lawrence. "Don't give up even when you feel like I do, like you're not really ready yet for this kind of thing. I feel like there's still so much left for me to do. There really are no words for how I feel right now, but just know I'm thankful. I praise God for this moment and for each and every one of you."

Experience this magical salute to gospel music's leading artists and songwriters and the entire celebration when it airs on the Gospel Music Channel in March, 2009. Check your local listings for airdates and times.

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— reviewed by Terron D. Austin (contributring writer)

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