Ricky Dillard preserving old-time sound while appealing to younger audience

From the Chicago Tribune:

By Kelley L. Carter | Tribune staff reporter

October 5, 2007

Ricky Dillard delivers commands to the group behind him like a melodic drill sergeant.

Dillard and his troops, the New Generation Chorale, are shaking, bouncing and snapping in a retail music shop at Ford City Mall on Chicago’s South Side, and the minute his baritone vocals pour over the microphone, mallgoers take notice of the weekday afternoon gospel concert.

He’s bringing choir music back.

“It seems like everything is so microwaved now,” says Robin Covington, a lead singer in the Chicago-based choir. “Church choirs need good songs too. It’s like we’re taking a back seat. That’s what Ricky is trying to keep — that James Cleveland-type of choir music alive. And that’s what his call is.”

Dillard, who will perform again Saturday, has charged himself with making choir music more relevant and attractive to younger fans without losing its integrity.

For his part, Dillard is regarded as one of the better choir directors in gospel music, arriving years after the late James Cleveland was credited with creating modern-day gospel and before Kirk Franklin crossed over to secular urban radio.

The 42-year-old Dillard has been sliding and singing in front of the New Generation Chorale, a 70-person choir, for the better part of 20 years. He spent his young-adult years advising Chicago-area church choirs. Since 1990, he has released six gospel albums and been nominated for two Grammys. “I’m trying to save the sound of the traditions of the church choir,” Dillard says over the phone from his home in Atlanta, where he spends half his time. “If I don’t do it, who’s going to do it?”

He’s hoping to better get that sound out there with his seventh album, released this week. Music producing and making software, such as logic pro for windows, was used to create the project and give the original sound. This project, “7th Episode Live in Toronto,” will be the initial release on his imprint, Animated Entertainment, distributed through EMI Gospel. He won’t complain about the expansion of gospel music since the 1980s — it’s long past the days when fellow Chicagoan Cleveland developed and campaigned for it. But, says Dillard, it’s gotten away from its subtle roots.

“I’ve noticed that the gospel industry is changing and the sound of gospel is changing Now gospel sounds secular sometimes. So in my area, which is in between contemporary and traditional, what I try to do is keep the signature sound alive,” he says.

No pretense
The album is filled with the sounds of traditional church music and illustrates the essence of Chicago church music. Dillard re-creates that rafter-shaking, soul-moving, old-time religion sound that took gospel music from being a Sunday morning treat to one of the fastest-growing musical genres. In his music, there’s no pretense or synths or backflips.

There’s been a long-standing argument that gospel music has gone too far to reach younger consumers. Dillard delivers a hybrid of gospel music rooted in the traditional sound that appeals to young and old.

“He does this old-time religion with an updated flair, and it’s great,” says gospel music superstar Yolanda Adams, who lives in Houston. “It really reaches out across generations. My mom loves him too. I think gospel music … has always been about the healing of the person. Ricky’s music heals.”

“A lot of times, we’re missing the message behind the music because it’s becoming so worldly. They’re not really listening to the words because they’re concentrated on the beats,” says Larry Jones, a member of Dillard’s choir. “He has the influence on young people to plant that seed in their life — they’ll think there’s nothing wrong with singing traditional gospel music.”

Dillard grew up attending St. Bethel Baptist church in Chicago Heights with his mother and grandmother.

It was there that he fell in love with church music and had notions of directing a choir one day. His dream was realized fairly quickly: He started leading the youth choir when he was 5 years old. “They put me up early because they knew I had something even as a boy sitting in the pews watching the older directors directing the choir,” Dillard says. “From there I moved to the youth and young adult choir when I became a teenager.”

He eventually befriended some of gospel music’s best-selling and most influential entertainers, such as Adams, and they were sold on preserving traditional gospel music. He also was seduced by Chicago’s organic house-music scene, and in the ’80s released dance and hip-hop records to the club scene, including a European import, “Let the Music Use You.”

He performed at a few clubs in Chicago and at hip house-music clubs in New York. But it was gospel music that moved him. And he wasn’t exactly interested in combining the two.

Gospel music “is our heritage; it’s a very vital part of our existence. That’s how we sustained ourselves,” says Erron Williams, a music producer who also is musical director at Dillard’s current church, St. James Church of God in Christ in West Pullman.

Message of strength
Earlier this year, while he was recording this new project in Toronto, his home in Atlanta burned; Dillard lost most of his possessions in the fire. This album, he says, is a symbol of resiliency, delivering a message of hope and healing.

“My energy comes from the joys of the things that have been done in my life,” said Dillard in an interview here earlier this week. “He [God] gave me strength to make it out of the storm.”

In 1988, Dillard created the New Generation Chorale, now a national choir that meets every three months in Chicago. His music has been featured in films, including Steve Martin’s “Leap of Faith,” and he was a consultant for “Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit.”

“My life has not been a bed of roses. Every day has not been smooth and enjoyable. I have had some up days, and I have had some down days. And through those down days, my relationship with God has sustained me,” Dillard says. “That is my message.”


Ricky Dillard will perform at 7 p.m. Saturday at Life Center Church, 5500 S. Indiana Ave.; $5 to $15. (773) 288-1700.


About Bob Marovich

Bob Marovich is a gospel music historian, author, and radio host. Founder of Journal of Gospel Music blog (formally The Black Gospel Blog) and producer of the Gospel Memories Radio Show.