Revered gospel recording artist Paul Porter stepped out of a rental car in front of Willie Mitchell's Royal Studios and exclaimed, "Wow! Can you believe this? Do you know where we are?"
The exclamation and questions were directed to his traveling mates, publicist Jason Hardy and new label executive Lonnie Deadwyler. Porter – in Memphis to attend the "Help Is On The Way" Family Membership and Showcase picnic (Oct. 26th) hosted by the non-profit For The People By The People at Audubon Park – added amplification.
"Man, this was one of my childhood dreams to cut here! This is soul music, baby!"
Minutes later, the studio crew greeted Porter's team with enthusiasm, giving them the run of the place. Known to gospel music fans for his out-front vocals with the Christianaires, Porter viewed his support of the For The People By The People project as the perfect way to create buzz about his signing with the brand new Motown Gospel label.
"F.R.E.E." – his first CD with Motown Gospel – is slated for release in Spring 2014. It's a joint venture linking the TreMyles music label, which is owned by gospel superstar Smokie Norful, and the Grammy-winning Mars On Sunday production team that has written multiple Grammy-winning hits for Fergie, Beyoncé, Usher, Jamie Foxx and many more.
Porter shares Memphis musical roots with Mars On Sunday's chief producer and Clarksdale, Miss. native Elvis Williams, known industry wide as "Blac Elvis." Williams joined Porter's team the next night for an extended meet-and-greet session at the crowd-wowing Grammy GPS event at the Stax Museum. Williams and composing partner Harold Lilly wrote and produced much of "F.R.E.E." and their company, Mars On Sunday, will share label credit with Motown Gospel and Smokie Norful's TreMyles labels.
The CD marks a resounding comeback for Porter, a Stellar Awards winner, Grammy nominee and Gospel Music Hall of Fame inductee with the Christianaires, with whom he earned Grammy nomination, Stellar Awards and induction into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame. Born in Detroit, he is a former resident of Olive Branch, with still vivid memories Mitchell's Royal Studios.
"I was brought here to Royal when I signed my first record deal," he recalled. "I was with the CGI label, a division of Polygram Records. We came here scouting for studios to cut my first single. I was blown away, doc! I used to lie down for hours listening to Willie Mitchell's music back in the turntable days. Al Green baby!"
The work with Mitchell was never realized, but Porter and CGI instantly hit as the Christianaires. They consistently produced such gospel classics as the Grammy-nominated "Two Wings," "God Came Through On Time (Paul Porter's Testimony)," the Stellar Award winning "Standing Room Only, Live In Huntsville, Alabama," "Stand Up" on the Marxan label, distributed by Malaco Records. (Malaco also distributes a Christianaires' greatest hits collection released on Blackberry Records.)
"I've also been on Malaco's Muscle Shoals label and we cut in the famous studio there," Porter recalled. "Being here in Memphis for the advance announcement about my new music just brings it all around perfectly."
The Porter team's jubilation continued at the next stop, the Stax Museum, where Porter knew all the names in the gospel video history montage opening the permanent exhibit.
"Cassietta Walker, Shirley Caesar, the original Five Blind Boys...man, man, man!" he kept repeating, bursting into song time and time again as he read the exhibits.
The next day, Saturday, before the picnic, state Rep. Larry Miller, chairman of the Tennessee Legislative Black Caucus, presented an official welcome to the state.
"This is a very significant announcement you've brought to us," Miller said. "One, it's concerning a new division for the most heralded name in music, Motown Records. Two, your success with the Christianaires is a very significant achievement. And to bring in the hit-making power of Mars On Sunday, and especially Smokie Norful, something to be proud of. And we're proud that you chose Memphis to help introduce this exciting project."
'Same truth – God is!'
Porter's story goes much deeper, personally and professionally. In 1996, he suffered a brain aneurysm that left him debilitated for nearly a decade. Little by little, his memory and strength came back and Porter started performing in a wheelchair. Now fully recovered, he's on the march again with his message.
"I kept my faith. And He has delivered. After years ... on my back with no power to do anything but pray, He brought me through. I don't care how you worship Him, what religion you believe.
"My new CD "F.R.E.E." tells my story," said Porter. "From being helpless, speechless and voiceless, I have been rejuvenated and am being supported by the most successful company in black music history to join their new gospel division. And the people at Motown Gospel have been sincere in their commitment.
"All I ask is that gospel music lovers here in Memphis and around the nation start telling their friends to watch out for us in 2014. I have a story to tell. It's new music but the same truth – God Is!"