Richard Smallwood

As a child, Richard Smallwood thrived on rich and diverse musical fare, including gospel, classical, R&B, and pop. He began picking out melodies by ear on the family piano at age five, and by age seven began formal instruction and performed as the regular pianist in his father’s churches. When his mother gave him a recording of a Rachmaninoff piano concerto and began taking him to symphony concerts, Smallwood developed a love for classical music that would profoundly influence his life and music.

Smallwood’s talents became well-known as his profile grew in his years as an undergraduate student at Howard University. He was a founding member of the Howard Gospel Choir, and a featured member of a contemporary gospel group, the Celestial Singers, taking the place of its previous keyboardist Donnie Hathaway, who went on to become one of the great R&B and pop stars of the 1970s.

Smallwood did not pursue his formal classical studies further, although his years of classical training had a profound effect on the derivation of what the world today knows as the “Smallwood Sound”—a fusion of the gospel, classical, pop and R&B styles Smallwood grew up on.

Upon his graduation from Howard, Smallwood taught music at the University of Maryland and privately to support himself, as he began to focus more and more on gospel music as a life’s work. Forming the Smallwood Singers in 1977, Smallwood began the arduous process of creating demo recordings and trying to get a hearing in the music industry. He got that hearing, and a major-label recording contract followed in 1982, leading to an almost-unparalleled string of what is now—with his 25th-anniversary recording Journey! Live in New York—15 consecutive Top Ten albums.

Smallwood completed his master’s degree at Howard University’s prestigious School of Divinity in 2004, graduating with honors. Ordained in June of that year, Smallwood now serves as a minister and artist-in-residence at Metropolitan Baptist Church in Washington, DC.

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Jessye Norman