By Micha Green
AFRO D.C. Editor

Gospel sensation Richard Smallwood spent more than four decades ministering to the masses through music. The “Total Praise,” creator, who now has an autobiography by the same name, has officially achieved the moniker, “Living Legend.” Smallwood spoke to the AFRO about life’s ups and downs, why he decided to write a book and the reason music has been important historically and will continue to be in the future.

Most people live their lives as relatively unknown talent. Smallwood, on the other hand, was just honored as a “Living Legend,” on BET’s gospel singing competition “Sunday Best,” where he and his music appeared as the featured artist.

In an intimate conversation with the AFRO, Gospel legend Richard Smallwood shared personal anecdotes about life’s ups and downs, his pathway to a more than four decade career and the reason music is so important to culture, change and life. (photo courtesy of Facebook)

“It takes being old ,” Smallwood said in jest.  “No, but for real, I’m very, very fortunate to have been doing this, really if I look at it technically, going on 50 years, and who thought, when I started- certainly I didn’t- that this much later I’d still be doing the same thing.  It’s certainly something that’s close to my heart.  Something that I understand I’ve been put on this planet for; I understand it’s a mission, it’s ministry but who knows?  You just don’t know the future, so I’m very grateful to God, and I’m grateful for people- the generations and generations of people who have supported me over the years,” the Gospel artist said humbly.

After years in the industry, the artist known for Gospel classics such as “Total Praise” and “Center of My Joy,” used his autobiography {Total Praise} as a way to clear misinformation, a reference point for his life and as a means to raise awareness about issues in the Black community and church, while also inspiring others.  

“I’m sort of a history buff, I love to read history, especially Black history, and I started to read press stuff about me that really wasn’t true. The dates were wrong; the year was wrong.  I was like, you know what, ‘If I don’t step up and write something that says when I’m gone, ‘Oh what year did he do that? Just look at his book and it’ll be there,’” Smallwood explained.

“Then I thought I had a very interesting life- a lot of twists, a lot of turns. And people think also that if they see you successful, that you come from very esteemed means and you were born with a silver spoon in your mouth, and I came from a very poor background. It was a struggle, but my mother loved me through all of it.  And I also knew where God brought me from, how He stayed with me, how so many times it could have gone the other way, but he had a purpose and he had a plan for me,” Smallwood said.

The musician also said that his story was a testimony to the importance of speaking about mental health- specifically in the Black community and church.

“I also suffered with depression most of my life and I want to talk about that because we don’t talk about it in the church, the Black church, we don’t talk about it period.  And if you look around and see all these suicides of, not only everyday, ordinary people, but rich, famous folk who are dealing with this awful mental illness.  I wanted to talk about that, and my journey through it, and what I had to do to cope with it and keep going,” he said passionately.

There’s even, as Smallwood explained, “some things Mama didn’t tell me,” featured in his book.

“I found out about seven years ago that I wasn’t an only child like I thought I was, and I had two brothers.”

Not only has Smallwood’s more than 70 years on earth been interesting, as a history lover who’s been involved in the struggle for Civil Rights, the artist has seen the important role music plays in culture and making a change.

“I’m still heartbroken that we lost Congressman Lewis, someone who was just a champion for justice, for the vote, and we’re still fighting for the vote today… I remember him saying that if it wasn’t for the music, that they would’ve never had the power and the strength to go through some of the things that they went through in the 50s and 60s, because it’s something about music that brings hope to whatever you’re fighting for.  It brings hope to it, it brings a sense of, there is possibility, we can make this…So I think music is very important,” he said.  “Historically, music got the Negro slaves through slavery.  What else did? Other than God and music, that was it.  Those songs ‘Steal Away to Jesus,’ and ‘Deep River,’ and all those songs gave them hope that there was a better time coming.  Even if they didn’t live to see it, at some point, if their children see it, or their grandchildren see it, there was a better time coming.  So I think that music gives us that hope and that fortitude to keep fighting on.  So just like it did then, through the history of the music, it still gives us that thing that we can hold onto and singing together seems to bring a bond together,” the musician and newly revealed historian explained. 

“And I’ve seen music change folk.  The author of ‘Amazing Grace,’ was a slave holder.  He sold slaves!.. He heard the melody on some of the ships- because we’ve (Black people) always been musical, and he heard the melody and God touched him and put that on his heart.  So I mean God can use anybody and he’s still the same God.  So music is what keeps us going. If we didn’t have music, I don’t know. where we’d be.”

As a true living legend, Smallwood also offered advice for the next generation of musicians.

“We all stand on the shoulders of others…. You’re influenced by those who come before you, but you take that influence and add a little bit of clay to it, and a little bit of this to it, and a little bit of sparkle to it and make it your own thing and that’s how music continues to grow and evolve,” Smallwood said.  “Study your past… see how Black music has evolved, because you can’t go forward if you don’t know where the roots are.  Roots have everything to do with who we are.  So also study the history of our kind of music.  Our history is so rich, and the people who paved the way.  I can still listen to Duke Ellington and some of those people and hear something different,” he said.

Finally, Smallwood advised to keep tuning one’s instrument.

“Try to take some of what’s unique about yourself and try to evolve that. Take some lessons.  If you’re a voice person, take some voice lessons.  Learn how to still sing when you’re 60 or 65.  Learn how to sing correctly.  If you’re a pianist learn some theory, learn how the chords are constructed.”


Micha Green

AFRO Washington, D.C. Editor