Kee, John P. 1962(?)–
John P. Kee 1962(?)–
Gospel singer, songwriter, choir leader
A number of gospel artists in the 1990s and early 2000s enriched the music’s vocabulary with elements of hip-hop and R&B styles; figures such as Kirk Franklin and BeBe and CeCe Winans appealed to secular audiences and placed recordings in the top ranks of general sales charts. Perhaps no other gospel artist, however, absorbed urban styles as directly as John P. Kee, who lived the violent events described in many hip-hop pieces and then made sense of his experiences in gospel music. Kee and his New Life Community Choir were gospel favorites and consistent award winners over much of the 1990s.
John Prince Kee was born in Durham, North Carolina, around 1962 (that date is listed on the All Music website, but other accounts give ages for dates later in Kee’s life that do not correspond with that birthdate). The 15th of 16 children, he grew up in a religious household where his father encouraged all his offspring to sing. The last of six boys, Kee put a lot of effort into getting his father’s attention, and he developed into a child prodigy who quickly mastered the piano, flute, and drums. Kee was sent to the North Carolina School for the Arts in nearby Winston-Salem, and he graduated at age 14. He had already formed and led his first gospel choir.
Quickly Entered California Recording Scene
Together with his older brothers Al and Wayne, Kee headed for California to study music at the Yuba College Conservatory. His talents were noticed immediately, and he began to drift away from gospel and to perform with jazz musicians such as Donald Byrd and with pop acts like vocalist Phyllis Hyman and the funk group Cameo. Kee had both the musical chops and the adult demeanor to keep up, even though he was only in his mid-teens, but he lacked emotional maturity to handle the pressures of the music world.
“I was a spoiled brat,” Kee told the New York Daily News. “I could call down from my room to a club and get any kind of money I wanted for what I did. I took advantage of it and I loved it. It was rewarding, and I really had my mind on my craft, but there was the sidetrack part: the clubs, the exposure.” Soon, Kee recalled, he was “caught up in drugs and the whole nine.” In 1980 Kee returned to North Carolina and
At a Glance…
Born c. 1962 in Durham, NC; married Felice Sampson, December of 1995; two children. Education: North Carolina School for the Arts, Winston-Salem, NC, 1970s; attended Yuba College Conservatory, Marysville, CA, 1970s; studied with Rev. James Cleveland in gospel music workshop, 1985. Religion: Christian.
Career: Cameo, Donald Byrd, and other acts, California, backup musician, late 1970s; Miss Black Universe beauty pageant, musical ensemble member, 1980s; New Life Community Choir, founder and choral leader, mid-1980s–; gospel recording artist, 1989–; New Life Fellowship Church, Charlotte, NC, founder and pastor, 1990s–.
Selected awards: Grammy nominations for Show Up, 1995, and Strength, 1997; numerous Stellar awards; gold record for Show Up.
Addresses: Church offices —New Life Fellowship Center, 1337 Samuel St., Charlotte, NC 28212; Recording Studio—New Life Productions, Suite 3101, 6425 Idlewild Rd., Charlotte, NY 28212.
settled in Charlotte, but the homecoming didn’t put his life back on track. Indeed, it made things even worse.
For a time, Kee made money performing in the Ms. Black Universe beauty pageant, but he hungered for the easy money he had known as a teenage musical phenomenon. “In California, there was so much money to be made,” he told the Daily News. “When I moved back East, it was a lifestyle change. I couldn’t get work, so I got the lifestyle I was accustomed to in the street.” Soon Kee was dealing cocaine out of a small grocery store in Charlotte’s Double Oaks neighborhood.
The turning point in Kee’s life came in June of 1981 when he witnessed the murder of his best friend in a drug deal gone bad. Kee announced a new commitment to Christianity at a Charlotte revival held by the Rev. Jim Bakker’s PTL ministry, and soon he was making music in church once again and had founded the group of ex-addict and former prostitute singers that developed into the New Life Community Choir. An early indication of things to come was visible when Kee showed up as vocalist on two separate tracks on the annual mass choir compilation of the Gospel Music Workshop of America—the first time any vocalist, let alone an unknown, had been so honored.
Kee was able to launch a national career after he penned a successful song called “Jesus Lives in Me” for gospel giant Edwin Hawkins and invested the profits in his own music. A debut album under the New Life Community Choir designation, Yes Lord, was followed by a solo debut, Wait on Him, in 1989. By the early 1990s Kee and the choir (he continued to mix solo and choral releases) were racking up gospel-industry Stellar Awards, of which he eventually earned more than a dozen. Numerous other awards flowed Kee’s way, and gradually, as Kee moved from the small Tyscot label to the gospel industry leader Verity and finally recorded several albums for the secular label Jive, he began to gain fans from outside the usual gospel community.
The 1995 Show Up album, recorded with the New Life Community Choir, earned Kee the first of two Grammy nominations and was certified gold for sales of 500,000 copies. Around this time, Kee became one of the standard bearers for the trend of incorporating contemporary urban sounds, hip-hop above all, into gospel. “You need that,” Kee explained to the Daily News. “Then you’re still touching the lives of the masses. Keep a traditional vocal arrangement, add a back beat, and the babies enjoy the beat, grandma loves the lyrics, and we’re all happy.” Some compared Kee to earlier gospel crossover figures such as the Rev. James Cleveland, with whom Kee studied in a 1985 workshop, and even the father of gospel, Thomas A. Dorsey, whose music was strongly influenced by secular blues.
Kee demurred at such comparisons, but there is no doubt that he used hip-hop effectively in order to communicate his personal voyage from street violence to Christian redemption. “It could have been me/Still selling drugs, pulling triggers on the street/Lighting up the night like a butane flicker/I was smooth and you couldn’t trick the tricker,” Kee rapped in “It Could Have Been Me,” a song from his Colorblind album.
Kee and the New Life Community Choir continued as major forces in the gospel scene through the late 1990s and early 2000s. The 1997 album Strength gained Kee another Grammy nomination, and 2000’s Not Guilty … The Experience adapted the semi-dramatic, narrative structure of many contemporary hip-hop albums to a gospel message. The album, noted All Music’s Stacia Proefrock, was “a sort of gospel opera outlining the path to redemption through song.” Kee followed that album up with 2002’s Blessed by Association.
Increasingly, however, Kee was branching out into other activities. He applied his long years of musical experience as the producer of albums by other artists, including Vanessa Bell Armstrong, Inner City, and Drea Randle. Most importantly, he built and became pastor of the New Life Fellowship Center in Charlotte, expanding the church’s ministry into community projects such as a homeless shelter, after-school tutoring, and food distribution for the hungry. “There is so much hurting and suffering in the world,” the man now known as Pastor Kee observed on his website, “that the only way not to be overwhelmed by it, is to know that you are doing something about it.”
Yes Lord, Verity, 1987.
There Is Hope, Tyscot, 1990.
Churchin’ Christmas, Tyscot, 1992.
Never Shall Forget, Verity, 1994.
Show Up! Verity, 1995.
Stand, Jive, 1995.
Christmas Album, Verity, 1996.
Thursday Love, Verity, 1997.
Strength, Verity, 1997.
Any Day, Verity, 1998.
Not Guilty … The Experience, Verity, 2000.
Blessed by Association, Verity, 2002.
Chicago Sun-Times, June 8, 1994, p. 45.
Daily News (New York), June 9, 1996, p. 35; June 13, 1996, p. 47.
Washington Post, December 4, 1996, p. C4.
“Biography,” Official John P. Kee Website, www.johnpkee.com (October 10, 2003).
“John P. Kee,” All Music, www.allmusic.com (October 10, 2003).
—James M. Manheim
John P. Kee
John P. Kee
Prolific gospel singer John P. Kee, who has built an avid fan base within the realm of gospel music, infiltrated the secular rhythm and blues industry in 1994 with his eleventh album, Show Up!, by combining church choir harmonies with hip-hop sounds. Kee has often been compared to gospel music legend the Reverend James Cleveland, and the sheer power of Kee’s voice is reminiscent of Shirley Ceaser and Edwin Hawkins. Kee described his music to BRE magazine’s Ruth Robinson as “simple Sunday morning hip-hop, it’s got the thing that makes the kids move.”
Born on June 4, 1962, in Charlotte, North Carolina, John Prince Kee was the last of six boys born into a family of 16 children. Kee’s father was a religious man who insisted that his children embrace religion early in life, and all 16 kids were gifted singers who were members of gospel choirs. At the age of 13, Kee formed his first gospel choir, and by the time he went off to study voice and classical music at the North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem, he was six-feet-one-inch and had already amassed five years of solid performing and conducting experience. His early musical influences were Thomas Dorsey and Frank Williams.
While Kee was in college he performed with such groups as Cameo and Donald Byrd & the Blackbirds. His formative college years were turbulent after he was lured into using and selling cocaine regularly; Kee even operated his drug racket out of a church at one time. It was only after he witnessed the slaying of a close friend in a drug deal that he turned wholeheartedly to religion and gospel music for solace and inspiration. Ironically, it was Kee’s experience trafficking and using drugs that helped him relate to and feel comfortable with fans from all walks of life and of all ages.
In 1981 Kee formed the New Life Community Choir in Charlotte, which consists of 30 young inner city recruits. His ministry is aimed at attracting the young and providing a safe place for them to flourish spiritually. The singer told BRE’s Robinson, “I thought we should go down to the police station and get mug shots of all the people in the choir who have been arrested and put them on the back of an album.” Like Kee, most of the choir members struggled with drug abuse at one time and eventually turned their lives around through religion and their devotion to gospel music.
In 1985, at the age of 23, Kee became the first artist to record lead vocals on two selections for James Cleveland’s Gospel Music Workshop of America’s (GMWA) annual mass choir recording. Kee’s songs were “Jesus Can Do It All” and “He’s My All and All.” He confided to Teresa Hairston of Score magazine, “James opened the door for me through the GMWA.” Kee’s songwriting
Born John Prince Kee, June 4, 1962, in Charlotte, NC; divorced from first wife; children: Christopher, Shannon. Education: Studied voice and classical music at North Carolina School of the Arts, Winston-Salem, NC, and Yuba College Conservatory School of Music, Marysville, CA.
While a teenager, performed with groups Cameo and Donald Byrd & the Blackbirds; formed New Life Community Choir, 1981; provided lead vocals on two songs for James Cleveland’s Gospel Music Workshop of America’s (GMWA) annual mass choir recording; wrote and recorded “Jesus Lives in Me” for Edwin Hawkins Music & Arts Seminar album Give Us Peace; signed with Tyscot Records and released debut album, Yes Lord, 1987; tours U.S. with New Life Community Choir, 1990—.
Selected awards: Stellar awards, 1989, for album of the year for Wait on Him, best traditional choir, and song of the year for “It Will Be Alright”; Image Award nomination for best gospel artist, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), 1989; Stellar Award for best male solo performance for Just Me This Time, contemporary producer of the year citation from GMWA, and Dove Award for traditional black gospel recorded song, all 1990; two Stellar awards and five GMWA Excellence awards for Wash Me, all 1991; four GMWA awards for Never Shall Forget, 1991; two Billboard music awards and four GMWA awards for We Walk by Faith, all 1992; Dove Award for traditional black gospel album of the year and Stellar Award for best traditional album, both 1993; two GMWA awards, Inside Gospel Award, and Stellar Award, all for Colorblind, all 1994; Dove Award for contemporary black gospel recorded song of the year for “It Could Have Been Me,” 1994.
Addresses: Record company —Verity Records, 137 W. 25th Street, New York, NY 10001.
and singing career began to bloom soon after the recording; he subsequently wrote and performed on “Jesus Lives In Me” for the Edwin Hawkins Music & Arts Seminar album Give Us Peace. Kee was then able to finance a demo tape and was signed to the Tyscot Records label. In 1987 he released his debut album, Yes Lord, which was a low-budget effort marked by production glitches.
In 1989 Kee released Wait on Him with the New Life Community Choir. The LP was awarded three Stellar Awards, for album of the year, best traditional choir, and song of the year for “It Will Be Alright.” The recording served to propel Kee to the forefront of the gospel realm.
The following year Kee and his choir released There Is Hope. A portion of the album’s proceeds was donated for AIDS research and to a foundation that assists battered children. The album earned Kee a nomination for a National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Image Award in the best gospel artist category. Later in 1990 Kee recorded his first solo album, Just Me This Time, which garnered the singer a Stellar Award for best male solo performance and a contemporary producer of the year award from the GMWA. Just Me This Time was also nominated for a Dove Award in the category of traditional black gospel recorded song.
In 1991 Kee and the New Life Community Choir released Wash Me, which received two Stellar awards and five GMWA Excellence awards. That same year Kee wrote I Can Call Him for the East Coast Regional Mass and recorded Never Shall Forget with the Victory in Praise Mass Choir. The latter album reflects the culmination of nightly services and workshops at an annual conference for gospel delegates and was awarded four GMWA Excellence awards. Later in 1991 Kee produced Surrender, an LP comprised of performances by New Life’s female choir members.
A video for Wash Me was released in 1992 and earned a Stellar Award for best music video and a GMWA Excellence Award for best video concert. That same year We Walk by Faith was released; it won two Bill-board music awards and four GMWA excellence awards. Lily in the Valley, released in 1993, is a second recording by the Victory in Praise Mass Choir. This won a Dove Award for traditional black gospel album of the year and a Stellar Award for best traditional album.
Colorblind, an album that tackles such contemporary issues as prejudice, was released in 1994 and was Kee’s second solo effort and first release on the Verity Records label. It was the recipient of two GMWA Excellence awards, an Inside Gospel Award, and a Stellar Award. The album was also nominated for a Dove Award.
Show Up!, Kee’s crossover LP, appeared in 1995 and features Kee backed by the New Life Community Choir. It debuted at Number Seven on the Bill board Heatseek-er’s Chart, the highest debut for a gospel album in the chart’s history. Robinson commented in a BRE review, “The album might be filled with ole’ time religion, but it’s not full of solemn, sober pleas to the Lord. This is a foot-stomping, hand-clapping sho’nuff shout to the Heavens.”
When Kee isn’t producing, writing, and performing for his New Life Productions, he oversees an inner-city youth program in Charlotte. Divorced from his first wife, he keeps in close contact with his two children: a son, Christopher, and daughter, Shannon. In addition to music and ministry, Kee has pursued such philanthropic interests as building an inner-city playground, donating $3000 to an urban reading program, providing antidrug counseling, and creating the Victory in Praise Music & Arts Convention.
Kee declared to Score magazine’s Hairston, “[The New Life Choir wants] to be unique. The only way we can do that is for people to be able to identify with who we are and what we stand for. That’s the key to where we are and where God is taking us.”
Yes Lord, Tyscot,1987.
Wait on Him, Tyscot, 1989.
There is Hope, Tyscot,1990.
Just Me This Time, Tyscot,1990.
Wash Me, Tyscot,1991.
Never Shall Forget, Tyscot,1991.
We Walk by Faith, Tyscot,1992.
Lily in the Valley, Tyscot,1993.
Show Up!, Verity/Jive, 1995.
Billboard, February 25, 1995.
Blues & Soul, May 17, 1994.
BRE, January 20, 1995.
GMMC (Gospel Music and Ministry Connection), February/March 1995.
Jack the Rapper, February 15, 1995.
Music Review, July/August 1994.
Score, July/August 1993; July/August 1994.
Additional information for this profile was provided by Verity/Jive publicity materials, 1995.
—B. Kimberly Taylor