Keith Williams is new to the national music scene but not new to the music industry. A former worship leader at the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta where Martin Luther King, Jr. once preached and a seasoned behind-the-scenes veteran, he’s served artists as diverse as Aretha Franklin, Jennifer Holliday, Patti LaBelle and his musical collaborator and business partner, Earnest Pugh. He’s now stepped down from his position at Ebenezer to focus on his solo career and his new role as head of A&R for Pugh’s EPM Music Group. The sultry tenor’s polished, measured tones will add a new level of sophistication to the gospel music landscape and set up his forthcoming sophomore CD “Tone For Worship” as one of the most anticipated CDs of autumn 2013.
Williams has been preparing for this moment all of his life. He and his twin brother, Kenneth, were born July 29, 1971 in Silver Spring, MD. Their father was a computer specialist with the District of Columbia government and their mother was a Grants Management Officer with the Federal government. The Williams brothers had an older sister and have twin younger brothers. They enjoyed a solid middle class upbringing in the Maryland suburbs that revolved around church culture. “My mother was our church organist for 20 years,” Williams recalls. “My earliest memories in life are of sitting on my mother’s lap at choir rehearsal. I couldn’t have been more than 5 years old.”
Williams first sang a church solo, “Take Your Burdens to the Lord”, at the age of five but gospel wasn’t the only music in his household. “Church was the foundation of everything for me but my parents were extreme Motown fans”, he laughs. “They listened to The Temptations, The Supremes, Smokey Robinson. When I was young I wanted to be a member of The Jackson 5.” With that in mind, Williams started playing piano at age of seven and by the age of eleven, he was the salaried choir director for the Ebony Gospel Choir at The Jerusalem Mt. Pleasant United Methodist Church in Rockville, MD.
After graduating from Springbrook High School, Williams enrolled in the music department at Howard University in Washington, D.C. During his college years, Williams received an opportunity to broaden his musical palette and became a theater fan. While still a student, he traveled with an international production of the Broadway musical “Dream Girls” that took to China. He later joined The William Barkheimar Company’s European tour of “Porgy & Bess” in 1994. Back in the states, Williams became active in the late Rev. James Cleveland’s Gospel Music Workshop of America (GMWA) convention, conducting various ensembles and arranging songs. Through his travels he encountered Cleveland’s protégé, Betty Griffin Keller, and eventually spent a couple of years as her musical director. With Keller, Williams got his first major songwriting placement when she recorded his song “Oh Lord Inhabit Our Praise” for her sophomore Gospocentric CD that was never released.
However, Williams’ former college professor was looking out for him and sent him to meet the renowned chorale director, Donald Vails of Donald Vail & the Choraleers. In short order, Vails recruited Williams for a workshop that Vails was coordinating at Ebenezer A.M.E. Church in Ft. Washington, Maryland. The workshop led to a staff position with the 10,000-member church. After Vails died circa 1997, Byron Cage was brought in to take over as minister of music. “Byron Cage brought in Earnest Pugh,” Williams says. “That’s how I met Earnest and we started working together.”
At the church, Williams was instrumental in producing an Ebenezer A.M.E. Mass Choir CD that featured a remake of Thomas Whitfield’s “That’s How The Lord Works” with belter Beverly Crawford handling the lead vocals in 1999. “I’ve done a lot of stuff under somebody else’s name or under the bigger name of a group,” Williams admits. He’s assembled backing choirs for artists such as Aretha Franklin and Bebe & Cece Winans. He worked with Patti LaBelle to promote her 2006 CD, “The Gospel According To Patti LaBelle” on the DC leg of her national tour and also worked with producer/ choreographer, Debbie Allen, on the Kennedy Center production, “Soul Possessed” where he and LaBelle sang a duet.
However, in 2002, Williams finally stepped into the spotlight for the first time as a solo artist when he released his debut CD, “…& Again I Say Rejoice “, on his own record label with a production assist from jazz great, John Stoddard. In the years since, Williams has spent half of his time as minister of worship at the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once served as Assistant Pastor. He left in April 2012 to devote more time to his solo career and to EPM Music Group. The other half of the time, he’s spent writing songs for his friends, Tony Award winner Jennifer Holliday, Dottie Peoples and helping launch Earnest Pugh’s incredible career as a gospel balladeer.
Considering his investment in Pugh’s career that has included #1 hits such as “I Need Your Glory” and “Rain On Us,” it only makes sense that Pugh would now return the favor. Not only is Williams the director of A&R for Pugh’s EPM Music Group but he is also one of the artists that Pugh is committed to making a gospel superstar.
He’s recruited Marquis Walker and Robert Ellis, who have collaborated with Vickie Winans and the Mighty Clouds of Joy, to produce Williams’ new CD that promises to have something for everyone. “I hate to categorize myself,” Williams says. “I don’t even know what my voice sounds like. I call the new CD music for your week. There’s something on it for every day of your week. I’m a church kid so there’s church music – music we can sing on Sunday morning. But I’m a real person and I live throughout the week so there’s music we can live to. I’m looking forward to being able to take this music and sing it everywhere.”
Now that his solo career is back on track, Williams is asked whether he has any other dreams and he answers with an emphatic yes. “I want to do Broadway,” he confesses. “I really want to do stage work on Broadway like Fantasia and Bebe Winans did a couple of times. Secondly, I’d love to act and do a recurring role on television. Thirdly, I want to learn how to ride a horse.” In the meantime, this smooth tenor is preparing to ride the EPM Music Group and its gospel roster to new heights.