Gospel vocalist and choir leader
As a member of the award-winning contemporary gospel family quartet the Winans, Ronald Winans was a pioneer in the incorporation of modern pop sounds into the language of gospel music. As the leader of his own group, Ronald Winans Family & Friends, he brought contemporary sounds to a choral format and helped launch the careers of younger musicians. For some, though, the most important chapter of his life was the last. Given just hours to live by physicians after a 1997 heart attack, he recovered after a dramatic prayerful intervention by his brother, Pastor Marvin Winans, and other members of his famous family. Returning to a full-strength career, he became known for his warm spirit and for his enthusiastic affirmations of his faith.
Born in Detroit, Michigan, on June 30, 1956, Ronald Winans was the second of ten children born to David "Pops" Winans and Delores "Mom" Winans. The Winans children were allowed to listen only to gospel music at home, and Ronald grew up with the sound of the city's numerous gospel church choirs in his ears. Vibrant secular sounds were everywhere in 1960s Detroit, and the Winans children, most of whom had gospel-music careers and made recordings of national significance, gravitated toward progressive gospel sounds that mixed smooth pop sounds with the ecstatic style of older gospel choirs. In an Inside Gospel interview quoted in the Passaic, New Jersey, Herald News, Ronald Winans defended the family's approach against the complaints of traditionalists, pointing out that the Winans' sound attracted young people to churches. "Church is an escape to get away from the craziness of this world," he said. "Gospel music is fun to listen to, and church is the way to go to live a much fuller life and escape all of the madness."
Winans graduated from Detroit's Mumford High School and began performing gospel music with other family members. Even among a sibling group as drenched in gospel as the Winans, Ronald Winans stood out. The family, Marvin Winans told Adam Graham and Mekeisha Madden Toby of the Detroit News, referred to him simply as "the gospel singer," and gospel producer Cedric Caldwell, the husband of performer Angie Winans, concurred, telling Kelley L. Carter of the Detroit Free Press that "Ronald was the guy on stage that everybody kind of focused on. He was probably the best performer in the whole family." Ronald and younger brothers Marvin, Carvin, and Michael Winans began performing as the Winans in the late 1970s.
The group's chief songwriter was Marvin Winans, who became pastor of the Perfecting Church on Detroit's northeast side. His songs fused the passion of traditional gospel with urban contemporary sounds and complex electric-keyboard harmonies derived in part from fusion jazz. After being discovered by contemporary gospel pioneer Andrae Crouch, the group released its first album, Introducing the Winans, in 1981. It contained a sweet-sounding song, "The Question Is," that became a gospel classic. The Winans, noted Stephen Holden of the New York Times, "have refined one of those chemically perfect vocal blends that only seem possible among family members." With the Winans, Ronald Winans would receive five Grammy awards over the next decade and a half; the group was inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 2001.
During that period, various Winans siblings and other relatives launched solo careers, with brother and sister BeBe and CeCe Winans becoming major stars in the late 1990s. The Ron Winans Family & Friends Choir, which released its first album in 1987, never reached that level, but the group played a role in spreading the Winans' sound to the next generation of gospel musicians. Future star Donnie McClurkin first appeared on record when he was heard on the Ron Winans Family & Friends debut album, and Alvin Chea of Take 6, in conversation with Deborah Evans Price of Billboard, called Winans "an 'ambassador of praise,' whose music, not only with his three brothers, but also with his beloved choir, transformed lives." Chea described Winans as "a big, lovable teddy bear," a description echoed by others who knew him. The first three Ron Winans albums were re-released as a box set by Detroit's Entheos label in 2005.
After releasing four albums and touring widely with his choir, Winans suffered health problems in 1997. After a persistent malaise was misdiagnosed as influenza, asthma, and bronchitis, he was admitted to the University of Michigan Hospital in Ann Arbor after a severe heart attack due to an aortic tear—a silent killer that proved fatal for actor John Ritter among others. Winans' surgeon, University of Michigan professor G. Michael Deeb, told the assembled Winans family to say its good-byes, but the family asked if they could pray for Winans instead. They spoke in tongues, and Pastor Marvin Winans laid his hands on the surgeon's head, prayed, and said, as Deeb recalled to Kelley L. Carter, "You go back and take my son off the heart-lung machine. He will live." The shocked Deeb complied. Winans lived, and Deeb later told Carter that the experience had "brought some spiritualism to my practice."
Winans himself recalled little of the episode, but he told Deborah Evans Price that "I didn't see Jesus, because [if I had] I wouldn't have come back." After a period of recovery Winans devoted himself to preaching and speaking about his experiences. In 2002 he joined the Winans on the road for their "Together We Stand" tour, the first time he had performed with his brothers in a decade. "Here I am today," he told Prentiss Findlay of the Charleston, South Carolina, Post & Courier. Luminaries of gospel and R&B such as Gladys Knight, the Katinas, and Vanessa Bell Armstrong joined Winans and several of his siblings on a new album, A Celebration, recorded at Greater Grace Temple in Detroit in 2004 and released in early 2005. Hospitalized again after his heart problems recurred that summer, Winans died on June 17. Among the many gospel music figures who marked his passing was Take 6's Chea, who told Deborah Evans Price that "Ron will be missed. His loss is a loss not only for the black gospel community in Detroit but the world at large. His scope and influence was as large as his smile."
Albums with Ron Winans Family & Friends
Volume 1, Selah, 1987.
Volume 2, Selah, 1989.
Volume 3, Selah, 1992.
Volume 4, Chordant, 1996.
Volume 5: A Celebration, Entheos, 2005.
Ron Winans I-III (box set reissued of Volumes 1-3), Entheos, 2005.
At a Glance …
Born on June 30, 1956, in Detroit, MI; son of David "Pops" Winans, a pastor and gospel singer, and Delores "Mom" Winans; second-oldest of 10 Winans children, most of whom went on to musical careers; died on June 17, 2005, Detroit, MI.
The Winans (musical group), member with younger brothers Marvin, Carvin, and Michael Winans, late 1970s-1987; Ron Winans Family & Friends Choir, member, 1987-2005.
Five Grammy awards with The Winans; Gospel Music Hall of Fame inductee, 2001.
Billboard, July 2, 2005.
Detroit Free Press, February 3, 2005; June 18, 2005.
Detroit News, June 18, 2005, p. D1.
Herald News (Passaic County, NJ), June 18, 2005, p. B5.
New York Times, October 14, 1987, p. C26; June 18, 2005, p. A11.
Post and Courier (Charleston, SC), April 11, 2002, p. 16.
"Ron Winans," All Music Guide, www.allmusic.com (August 2, 2005).
—James M. Manheim
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