It’s not surprising that someone with Kim Burrell’s musical background would take popular jazz and R&B ballads and rework them as gospel songs. The Houston native sang with James Cleveland’s GMWA Youth Mass Choir. That means Burrell was probably aware of one of Cleveland’s most famous records – his gospel version of the song “You’re the Best Thing That Ever Happened To Me.” The Gladys Knight and the Pips version is the one that is best known and loved by R&B fans. However, Cleveland’s live cover of this song was all over soul and gospel radio in the 1970s. These kind of gospel rearrangements of secular songs have had periodic runs of popularity since Cleveland made “Jesus is the Best Thing” in the 1970s, and Burrell has re-imagined pop and jazz standards before, including a gospel version of the Gershwin tune “Someone To Watch Over Me.”
Two covers can be found on her latest recording, The Love Album. Like Cleveland, Burrell has a strong voice that exudes honesty and spirituality, so that anything she sings sounds like a plea or praise. Of course, adding a few spiritual references won’t be enough to make any secular song fit for the gospel realm. The song’s original subject matter has to lend itself to that kind of transformation. In addition, it’s all about context. Nobody’s going to accept a gospel version of “Sexual Healing.” Marvin Gaye infused that song with so much sensuality that it would be impossible for many listeners to suspend disbelief. However, when you listen to Cleveland’s rendition of “Jesus Is the Best Thing,” it’s plausible both as a love song to a man (in Knight’s case) and as anthem to thanks and praise to God for his transformative power.
That brings us to the two covers on The Love Album – the old Earth, Wind and Fire jam “Love’s Holiday” and DeBarge’s “Love Me In a Special Way.” The latter is the much stronger of the two in part because it’s clear that the changes give the cut a Biblical basis. Christianity is the story of God trying to persuade men to establish and maintain a relationship. In short, from Genesis to Revelation, God wants his people to love him in a special way.
Burrell is a gospel singer, but she is among the religious vocalists pushing the topical boundaries of the genre. Tracks such as “Let’s Make It To Love” address the topic of romantic love. The song looks at the insecurities that partners often have when they are involved in a relationship and how simple gestures can allay those concerns. The funky, mid-tempo number “A Lil’ More Time” encourages listeners to love themselves. Burrell sings about how the day can be all consuming from the time we wake up until we go to bed, and that people need to step back. The Love Album contains the R&B fused gospel that has been Burrell’s forte for that last decade and a half. The modern gospel/soul ballad finds Burrell singing about how a connection with God ensures that life remains sweet, and Burrell takes time to pay tribute to Albertina “Twinkie” Clark with a jazzy remake of “Jesus Is a Love Song.”
We say in church that God is love, and that we should love our brothers and sisters. A work such as Burrell’s The Love Album reminds listeners that love has three elements – agape, philios and Eros. Recommended.
By Howard Dukes