Before Mary Mary, before Kirk Franklin, before Commissioned and Fred Hammond, there were Marvin, Carvin, Michael and Ronald Winans. By any account, the most important group of the last 30 years in pushing the crossover of Gospel into both Soul and Pop radio, the Winans are now considered to be Gospel royalty. But it wasn't always like that. When the group first released their Introducing the Winans album in 1981, many eyebrows were raised in the Gospel community about what was perceived as the secularization of Gospel music.

    Years earlier, when Gospel singers such as Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin moved to secular music, they found themselves in an uncomfortable balancing act as they transitioned the Gospel sound to earthly themes. But the Winans flipped it around: they were actually singing praise using a very nontraditional style of music. There was no wailing organ or backup choir, but instead there were pulsating R&B rhythms and vocals that sounded a lot like what the O'Jays or Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes may have been doing at the time. However, the message was pure Gospel, and rather than diluting the power of the message, the Winans were helping create a new genre to reach young listeners that is now called Contemporary Gospel, a musical style that has continued to grow and spread to this day with popular crossover artists such as Smokie Norful, Yolanda Adams and Tonex.

    Born and raised in Detroit in a large and musical family, the four Winans brothers were singing fixtures in the local community when they were introduced to Gospel legend Andre Crouch, who signed them to the Light Records label and produced their debut album. Featuring the breathtaking, nearly-a cappella hit, "The Question Is" (which became the group's signature song), the album shot to the upper end of the Gospel charts and even received some play on secular R&B radio. If, as Ray Charles said when he switched from Gospel singing to secular music, the difference between Gospel and Soul was that, in the latter, you just substituted a woman for God in the lyrics, then the Winans proved the opposite true 25 years later. They were taking modern Soul music arrangements and putting God back into the lyrics. And with great harmonies, solid material and Marvin Winans' ferocious lead vocals, the Winans were creating a sound that had even non-believers dancing and singing praise.

    Introducing the Winans was followed by Long Time Coming, an even more popular album. Their third album (and last for Light Records), Tomorrow, went to number 3 on the Gospel charts and the title track became one of the top Gospel songs of the year. The group left Light in 1985 to sign with Quincy Jones' fledgling Qwest label, with the hopes of increasing their crossover audience. It worked, as Let My People Go hit the R&B charts and topped the Gospel charts, fueled by the great duet with Vanessa Bell Armstrong, "Choose Ye." The Winans continued their rise in 1987 with Decisions, which featured their first duets with secular stars, singing "Ain't No Need to Worry" with the newly hot Anita Baker (which became the group's first crossover hit) and "Love Has No Color" with Michael McDonald. Decisions became their first album to also hit the pop charts.

    They hit their commercial peak three years later with Return, an excellent album that featured two Teddy Riley gems, "A Friend" and "It's Time," both of which became top 10 Soul hits. It was a great introduction of this group to the "new jack" generation. They followed it up in 1993 with All Out, a less successful album that included nice collaborations with R. Kelly ("That Extra Mile") and Kenny Loggins ("Love Will Never Die"), but was not as strong or focused as its predecessor. Outside activities of group members, including Marvin's role as pastor of Detroit's Perfecting Church, made it increasingly difficult for the group to tour and record. They joined together again in 1995 for Heart and Soul, a conscious step back to more of a Gospel sound, before going their separate ways.

    It would be a mistake to look purely at their discography in measuring the importance of the Winans. In addition to helping open the door that stood between Gospel radio and Soul radio (which later artists such as Kirk Franklin would bust open), they also bridged the less talked about black/white gap between Gospel and Contemporary Christian Music genres, a bridge that sister CeCe would later walk over. Through their collaborations, they also provided an outlet for secular artists such as McDonald, Baker, Riley and Loggins to express their faith. Finally, on a more personal level, they created the foundation for what would become the undoubted #1 family of Gospel, with siblings BeBe and CeCe (together and separately), Angie & Debbie, and Daniel, as well as parents Mom & Pops Winans, kids Winans Phase 2 and wife Vicki all becoming significant Gospel artists.

    The Winans group came together with the entire Winans family in 2002 for a national tour of the U.S., treating fans to hours of hits and family Gospel and a chance to see perhaps the greatest Gospel/Soul group together one last time. Sadly, brother Ronald died in 2005 after a long battle with a heart ailment. The remaining members reunited briefly for the Gospel concert at Super Bowl 40 in Detroit, but generally have worked separately in their continued ministry and music. And they continue to cast a long and glorious shadow over the world of Gospel more than three decades after their arrival.

    By Chris Rizik

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