Creating from the start a masterful amalgam of edgy urban hip-hop, smooth and smoldering contemporary R&B, and soul-stirring ballads of praise & worship rendered with masterful pop finesse and grace, Donald Lawrence & the Tri-City Singers have almost challenged music writers to outdo each other with accolades: “Fresh, innovative and right on the vanguard of contemporary music;” “Gospel music as electrifying and exhilarating, provocative and profound, cooler-than-cool and hotter-than-hot as it gets;” and no less than Billboard magazine proclaiming Donald to be a “timeless tunesmith, lyricist and master of the mix.”
But perhaps the wisest course is to rely less on the prose and let the songs themselves do most of the talking. Yes, there is a story to be told, but just a mere listing of the titles alone from Restoring The Years: The Best Of Donald Lawrence & The Tri-City Singers, the latest release from one of Gospel’s most beloved vocal ensembles, speaks volumes by itself.
The 12-song collection still percolates with the jazzy, rollicking rhythm of the irresistibly hooky smash, “Never Seen the Righteous,” while Donald and Gospel great Walter Hawkins lay down breath-taking vocals over a tender acoustic guitar on “Seasons,” gradually building to a full-tilt band and choir crescendo with majestic echoes of traditional gospel. “The Best Is Yet to Come” is driven by punchy horns and Latin-flavored percussion, as Donald does vocal riffs off the melodic, ever-soulful Tri-City, while “Bless Me,” co-written by Donald and Gospel legend Andrae Couch, is a divinely delicate offering of praise and worship. The huge crossover hit, “Testify,” lays down a steaming groove that defies anyone with a pulse to remain seated, as is evidenced by the driving, imprimatur of dance remix wizard Junior Vasquez, which brushed against the Top 10 of Billboard’s Dance Charts, in a feat unattained even by many of Tri-City’s mainstream contemporaries.
The list of the 12-song collection goes on, to where commentary seems almost superfluous: “When Sunday Comes”, “I Am God” and “When The Saints Go To Worship”, each unforgettable and, in fact, already etched into the pantheon of classic Gospel music. New to Restoring The Years are a deeply moving reworking of “The Presence of a King,” first heard on Donald & Tri-City’s 1997 holiday offering, Hello Christmas, and the new album’s title song. A profound reminder of God’s promises to heal and restore the sufferings of his children, “Restoring The Years” finds Donald giving heartfelt recitation in counterpoint to the quietly majestic vocals of Tri-City.
“At first, this was just a song that I had that I felt people needed to hear,” says Donald. “But in overview, I can see that it has multiple meanings and relevance for me, and I hope many others. This album is a retrospective of many of the most successful songs that we have had, but people often don’t realize that for Donald Lawrence &Tri-City—just as for themselves and anyone—with every great success there is also failure and heartbreak and disappointment. But God promised that He would restore those lost, “valley” years of our lives, one hundred times over. So, yes, this is an album of mountaintop experiences, musically and spiritually, but in between, unseen to most, have been just as many hardships. The beauty of His promise is that He assures us that it’s all part of the same trip, and that if we believe, He will indeed work it all out for us for good in the end. That’s something we need to never lose sight of.”
Formed in 1981, the Tri-City Singers first came together as a community choir performing in local and regional churches throughout the Carolinas where they and Donald all still reside. In its first decade of its existence, Tri-City built a fervent following in and around the group members’ home bases of Charlotte and Gastonia, N.C., and Spartanburg/Greenville, S.C. Tri-City’s current 40-strong roster includes a razor-sharp five-man band, and in the last 10 years, since crossing paths and merging its dazzling talents with its musical director Donald, the group’s following has grown as far and wide as America and the world itself.
Donald Lawrence was a child born with a love for music, who grew up to earn a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the prestigious Cincinnati Conservatory. Anticipating a career in musical theater, his plans were abruptly changed a year after his graduation when pop/R&B superstar Stephanie Mills—the friend of a friend of Donald’s—met the rising young prodigy and quickly hired him to be her musical director.
By the mid-‘90s Donald had spent almost 10 years working and touring with Mills, and had produced two of her albums, in 1992 and ’94. Along the way he’d also established himself as one of Gospel music's most esteemed producers, with a sterling resume comprising work with Gospel/ R&B/pop superstar Kirk Franklin, hit-maker Peabo Bryson, and Gospel giants Daryl Coley, and the late Thomas Whitfield. Other entries on Donald’s dazzlingly diverse list of credits include writing and directing several highly successful Gospel musicals and plays, and serving as vocal coach for ‘90s chart royalty, En Vogue. The latest addition to his already impressive list of credits comes as writer and producer of “Ultimate Relationship (In The A.M.)” from the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul, Mary J. Bilge’s most recent album, “Love & Life.”
Donald began his association with the Tri?City Singers in the early’90s when a close friend who had served as the group’s musical director resigned his position, suggesting to Donald that the choir—already a tight, ready-for-primetime unit—would be a willing and able outlet for the burgeoning catalog of original choral music he’d compiled on the side during his tenure with Mills. Donald accepted and the collaboration was an immediate success. He was also instrumental in signing the Tri-City Singers to their first major-label recording contract, which yielded the 1993 hit album, A Songwriter's Point Of View. Nominated for numerous Stellar and NAACP Image Awards, that debut was followed two years later with Tri-City’s No.1 breakthrough album and stage production, the Grammy-nominated Bible Stories.
With hopes for a future that include not only his irreplaceable work with Tri-City, but movies, musical theater and TV as well, Donald speaks like a man still moving into his own ever-evolving destiny, and with an optimism that rings throughout.
“Above all else,” he says, “I would hope my songs can bring healing and comfort to even just one person, then that’s something they themselves can pass onto another, and that other to another, on and on. There’s nothing greater I could ever accomplish than that.”
Contemporary but never dated, fresh but never faddish, Donald & Tri-City’s music, so compellingly compiled in Restoring The Years, can truly be called timeless, a word that resonates with special meaning for Donald. “`Timeless’ doesn’t have to do so much with a musical style, or genre, or place in chronological time,” he concludes. “`Timeless is from the heart. If a song is indeed of the Lord, and from the heart…that’s what makes it truly timeless.”