AWARDS & HONORS: 6 Grammy nominations, Grammy Award, 3 Stellar Awards, Dove Award, Gospel Music Hall of Fame inductee
OF NOTE: Richard’s song “I Love the Lord” was recorded by Whitney Houston and featured in her movie, The Preacher’s Wife
In the music industry, there are singers, and then there are "communicators". There are musicians, and then there are "creators". Richard Smallwood is all of the above. He is a supremely gifted piano player, singer and arranger. And he is an equally gifted songwriter who beautifully blends together the timeless truth of Jesus and the sophistication of classical music with sincere, heart-stirring delivery. He is a rare artist, indeed.
Before he was old enough to walk or talk, Richard came home from church humming the melodies of hymns he had heard that morning. He later began to play those melodies on a toy piano his parents gave him. Needless to say, it wasn’t too long before he graduated to a real piano.
He began singing with his dad in church at age 4 and wrote his first song, “Richard’s Lullaby,” at age 7. It’s no wonder that he has never once questioned his calling as a musician and never remembers a time when he didn’t know he would spend his life making music.
When he began taking piano lessons at 8 years old, he would ask the teacher to play each new piece for him, after which he could remember how to play it by ear. It took seven years of lessons before one piano teacher realized he was playing by ear and could not yet read music. Finally, at 15, he began the hard work of learning to read music rather than depending solely on his ear. He never regretted that decision, as it opened up new and better opportunities for him and enabled him to study piano in college.
He attended Howard University in Washington, D.C., and holds degrees in both vocal performance and piano, as well as a Master’s degree in Divinity which he completed in 2004. At the time he attended Howard University for his bachelor’s degrees, the school allowed only classical music to be played in their music department — a difficult reality for Richard, who lived and breathed gospel music all his life. However, during his years there, Richard became a member of the Celestials, the first gospel group on Howard University’s campus. The Celestials also became the first gospel group ever to appear at Switzerland’s Montreux Jazz Festival. Richard also became a founding member of Howard University’s first gospel choir.
Inspired by the musicianship and harmonies of Edwin Hawkins, Richard began to write more seriously during and after college. In 1977, he formed the Richard Smallwood Singers, and the group’s first album, featuring Smallwood-penned songs, released in 1982. That album remained on Billboard’s gospel charts for a stunning 87 weeks. The group’s sophomore release, Psalms, was nominated for a Grammy Award, as was their Textures album two years later. Richard’s first Grammy Award came in 1992, along with a Dove Award, for his production on the Quincy Jones gospel project Handel’s Messiah: A Soulful Celebration.
Bill Gaither recalls one very special songwriting session with Richard, when the song “Jesus, You’re the Center of My Joy” was born:
We spent maybe 30 minutes to an hour in the Word Publishing writing room. He asked if I had any ideas, and I mentioned the hook-line, “Jesus, You’re the center of my joy.” In almost no time, he was playing and singing the melody for a verse and a chorus, which I recorded on a small recording device and took home to Gloria. She finished writing the verses, and Richard put it all together, adding a brilliant coda at the end.
I never felt more honored than the day that song won the 1989 Stellar Award for Song of the Year. And I’ve never had a more spiritually or artistically productive hour than the one I spent with Richard that day.
Richard is still making music, and he is an ordained minister. His current group, Vision, has released numerous successful projects on the Verity record label, including his live recording, Journey: Live in New York, featuring Chaka Khan, Aretha Franklin, Kim Burrell, Kelly Price, Tramaine Hawkins and the Clarke Sisters.
He took a break from songwriting after the loss of his mother in 2005, not sure if he would write again. But he did — releasing Promises in 2011, an inspired collection of songs encouraging listeners with the reliability of God’s Word.
With his impressive history of success, awards and star-studded musical experiences, Richard has not strayed from the unchanging fact that he has been blessed with a gift that is meant to bless others. The music is not about him, but about the Giver of that gift.