Phil Thornton on WOW Gospel 2017: “A Source of Hope and Inspiration”

Phil Thornton. Photo Credit: Derek Blanks

By Bob Marovich

What does it take to compile an annual survey of the Best of the Best in gospel music?

Phil Thornton knows.

As Senior Vice President and General Manager for RCA Inspiration, which just released WOW Gospel 2017, the latest in a twenty-year string of two-CD samplings of the finest in African American gospel music, Thornton is now an integral part of the process.

“I remember purchasing the collections years ago,” he told the Journal of Gospel Music. “Actually being part of the process feels like I’ve come full circle. It’s an honor to be involved with a project that will stand the test of time.”

Given WOW Gospel’s consistent presence on the Billboard Top Gospel Albums Chart—eighteen consecutive years hitting number one, including this year—and its history of sales (WOW Gospel 1998 holds the top spot, with 542,331 units sold to date), it would be an understatement to suggest that there is pressure to get it right every time.

“With every release I feel pressure,” Thornton said. “WOW is such a staple within the Gospel and Christian community. It’s important to make sure we continue to create awareness and maintain success for the WOW brand.”

In preparation for a January release date, Thornton and his RCA Inspiration and Provident Label Group colleagues begin meeting the prior spring. They talk with label partners such as Motown Gospel, Word Entertainment, as well as the companies’ A&R teams. They maintain a list of what appear to be the year’s must-have gospel selections. Eventually compiling a group of 60 prospective selections, the team whittles the list down to the 30 that appear on the two-CD set, and the dozen or so that comprise the companion DVD.

“It’s a fun and collaborative effort,” Thornton said.

While it was important to include the most popular radio singles, Thornton explained it was equally critical that WOW Gospel 2017 feature a wide range of gospel styles and even some “hidden gems.” He pointed to Erica Campbell’s “The Question” as an example. “It was an album cut,” he said, “but it’s a great song.”

WOW Gospel 2017 promotes all the artists on the collection, but Thornton believes the high-charting independents, such as Bri Babineaux and Travis Greene, stand to benefit the most. And when an artist goes on social media to promote his or her involvement in the collection, it benefits all parties. “We are very intentional in encouraging artist engagement,” he said.

Thornton added that he and his team are exploring ways to expand the WOW Gospel franchise. But first and foremost, he said, each compilation needs to be “a source of hope and inspiration.”

The two-CD and eleven-track DVD of WOW Gospel 2017 are available at retailers such as Walmart, Amazon, iTunes, and Google Play.

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.