*BeBe Winans has never cared what people — including the church — thought about him or his artistry.
“I was never afraid — and to this day, I’m never afraid to try something new or to go where I believe I need to go,” Winans told me when I sat down with him recently. “I’ve never been afraid of what people thought. I’ve never been driven by success. I enjoy it, but that’s not my driving force. I need to tell the story of where I am.”
Winans’ story is quite the page-turner. His family is a dynasty of sorts within the gospel music community. Four of his older brothers formed the legendary group The Winans and quickly moved from the Detroit music scene to the national stage with 1981’s landmark “The Question Is.”
BeBe followed a few years later, with a cover of a song from the soundtrack of the feature film An Officer And A Gentleman, “Up Where We Belong” by Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes. Winans and his sister CeCe transformed the pop romantic ballad into a stirring plea to our Father that foretold their amazing musical ministry.
A couple of years later, BeBe & CeCe released the first of a series of slickly produced, genre-defying albums — BeBe & CeCe Winans, Heaven, Different Lifestyles, First Christmas, and Relationships — that featured singles that topped both the gospel and R & B charts, at a time when that type of cross-over success was frowned upon by the church.
The duo enjoyed massive R & B, Christian, and Gospel radio hits like “I.O.U. Me”, “Heaven”, “Lost Without You”, “Addictive Love”, and “I’ll Take You There”, and Winans collaborated with “secular” artists like Whitney Houston, Aretha Franklin, and Luther Vandross. Winans seemingly thumbed his nose at those who judged him for being “unequally yoked” with his “worldly” collaborators.
Let me be very clear here: I was not one of those people. At a time when I didn’t want to hear anything that traditional gospel singers like Shirley Caesar or Yolanda Adams had to sing, Winans’ early music gently led me to a closer relationship with God by pairing a new inspirational message with the R & B grooves I was used to.
I started my conversation with Winans by thanking him for music that had helped me through some very difficult times.
“That means a lot,” the 53-year old legend warmly shared. “People ask why I do what I do, and what you just said is the reason why I do what I do. What you heard on your end is the same thing I experienced on my end before it came to you. I learned early on to not be afraid to let people know me through my songwriting.”
The six-time Grammy winner recalled a particular song, “Don’t Cry For Me”, and the impact that it had on him years after he wrote it for his 1988 Heaven album.
“When my brother Ronald passed, it was one of the most devastating moments that has happened to me. The day after he passed, I was to the point where I was so devastated I couldn’t even cry. I was driving, and what comes on the radio? “Don’t Cry For Me”. I had to pull the car over. It was as if my brother was saying ‘don’t cry for me, don’t shed a tear…’. All of those songs are my life. [They are] my journey, and the journey continues.”
Winans’ road ahead includes a song related to the “Black Lives Matter” movement. The legend told me that his son inspired him to write it.
“When my son turned 17, it hit me like a brick: my son was a candidate for catastrophe, and I could go through what other parents had gone through and experienced. I went back into the piano room and I wrote this song entitled ‘Black Lives Matter.’ And man, I wept.”
“If it doesn’t come from the heart, don’t expect it to go to the heart of people,” Winans continued. “Songwriting for me has been that. You could take singing from me, but I would never want songwriting to be taken from me.”
I’ve always admired Winans’ willingness to go into uncharted territory. For example, just when you thought that BeBe had settled in permanently with R & B-steeped gospel songs, he released a straight up, live praise & worship album, Cherch, and followed that up with an album of patriotic songs, America, America! I asked Winans about how he dealt with the backlash he has received throughout his career, particularly from the Christian community.
“It was confusing in the beginning,” he reflected. “CeCe and I would be talking to magazines, and the secular magazine would say ‘These gospel artists are incredible’ and the gospel magazine would say ‘These demons…’.”
“I felt a little lost,” Winans shared, “but I heard God say ‘Don’t be upset when people misunderstand you. They should misunderstand you, because I didn’t give this to them. I gave it to you.’ From that moment on, I wasn’t worried about what people thought. I’m doing what I’ve been called to do and what I’ve been given to do. I’d meet people who said ‘I was going to commit suicide, and I put ‘Heaven’ on, and it changed my mind.’ No preacher from the pulpit can tell me anything.”
“It’s not easy being misunderstood,” Winans continued, “but it’s ok when you know you’re in good company. God was misunderstood, and He did no wrong. I’m ok with that. I’m not worried about the church being mad at me, because they’ve been mad at me ever since I’ve been on the scene!”
One of Winans upcoming projects is almost sure to ruffle feathers in the church. He’s finishing an album of standards from the Great American Songbook, including “My Way”, “Moon River”, and “Mona Lisa”. The latter song is one of my all-time favorites, made famous by the legendary Nat “King” Cole. I asked Winans whether he was intimidated by covering one of Cole’s signature songs.
“Just a few months before Natalie Cole passed,” Winans remembered, “she found out I did “Mona Lisa” and she said ‘You know what? You’re probably one of the only people who could do my dad’s song. I can’t wait to hear it. You’ve gonna nail that’.”
Cole was correct. Winans let me listen to his renditions of “Mona Lisa” and “Moon River”, and they are absolutely stunning.
Winans made a rather remarkable physical transformation over 20 years ago, losing 75 pounds and keeping it off. I had to ask him not HOW he lost the weight, but WHY — what motivated him to make a lifelong change?
“CeCe and I were in Los Angeles, recording the Relationships album,” Winans remembered. “I was staying at a hotel, and I got out of the shower, and there was a mirror right in front of the shower, and the words came out of my mouth ‘Who are these people getting out of the shower?” because I looked like four people getting out of that shower! So I saw myself. I got dressed, went downstairs, asked the concierge where the nearest gym was, went there, and joined.”
“I came back to the gym the next day,” Winans continued, “and saw one of the trainers, a guy named Kurt Christian. He put me on the treadmill. I walked for 1.5 minutes and I couldn’t breathe. After the workout, I gave him all my goals. I weighed 255 pounds, but I wanted to weigh 180 pounds. I was a 38 waist, but I want to be a 32 waist. I was 33 years old.”
“He told me ’It took you 33 years to get where you’re at right now. Give yourself more than 3 days to get to where you want to go.” THAT changed my life.”
With all of Winans successes, he confided that he’s nervous all over again, this time about the opening of a musical he wrote about his life and that of his famous family, entitled Born For This: The BeBe Winans Story. It’s the type of uncharted territory that Winans has thrived in, so I know he’ll be fine. The play opens on April 13 in Atlanta, and is also scheduled to run in DC in July.
“There’s a song in the musical called ‘Applause’, Winans shared. “The song is about our journey. It says ‘the same hands that greet you with love may be the same hands that draw your blood. Never live for what people say. Guard your heart with these few words I pray. Don’t live for applause’.”
“It’s simply saying — and it’s not just [for] people on stage — do it because it’s your passion and what you’re called to do, whether it’s recognized or not, do it to the best of your ability and be happy with that,” Winans said.
“A lot of great things are happening, and my approach is still the same,” the legend concluded. “My father used to always tell us “know who you are and what you’re all about, because when you get out there, people are going to tell you who you are if you don’t know.”
I know one thing: after over 30 years in show business, BeBe Winans isn’t finished surprising us yet!
Keep updated with BeBe Winans, including information on Born For This: The BeBe Winans Story, on bebewinans.net.
This article was written by freelancer Michael P Coleman, who earned a Bachelor of Arts with High Honors and Distinction in Communication from the University of Michigan. BeBe Winans calls Coleman his “stalker fan”, and Coleman’s OK with that! Follow him on Twitter.