Producer Bill Maxwell discusses the Winans sophomore album, Tomorrow, on its 30th anniversary
The Winans's Tomorrow, released by Light Records in 1984, would establish the group as a formidable quartet within the gospel and secular tradition and elevate their profile to mainstream audiences.
By the beginning of the 1980s, Marvin Winans, Carvin Winans, Ronald Winans, and Michael Winans had embarked on a gospel singing career by signing their first record deal with Light Records. After releasing two underperforming albums, Introducing the Winans (1981) and Long Time Comin’ (1983), the Winans would establish themselves as a formidable quartet within the gospel and secular tradition with their next effort. Tomorrow was released by Light Records in 1984, and it elevated their profile to mainstream audiences. The record would spawn three singles, including the hits “Tomorrow,” “Uphold Me,” and “Lord I Believe.”
During the recording of the album, the four brothers utilized the plethora of their musical gifts alongside the stellar producing and arranging talents of Bill Maxwell, Scott Smith, Tom Keane, Harlan Rogers, Michael Ruff, and Rhett Lawrence. Tomorrow served as a stepping stone for the group’s crossover successes for the remainder of the decade. As a result, it became their highest selling album until the release of the group’s Decisions (1987) album. For the album’s 30th anniversary, I spoke with Bill Maxwell about recording this classic record.
How did you become involved with working with the Winans?
Bill Maxwell: Well, I produced the previous two albums for the Winans, Introducing the Winans and Long Time Comin’. I was working at Light Records as the director of A&R, when we signed the Winans. They were actually called The Testimonial Singers. I was the one to tell them to go by their family name. Andrae Crouch and I were on the road playing together and a singer named Howard Smith was a part of the Testimonial Singers. The Testimonial Singers, at that time, were Marvin Winans, Carvin Winans, Ronald Winans, and Howard Smith. Howard Smith quit the group, and he moved to Los Angeles. He started singing with Andrae, and he told us about his old group the Testimonial Singers. When we played a concert in Detroit, they came and sang for us. I remember hearing them, and I immediately went back to the record company and told them they had to sign these guys. Andrae had formed a production company with Light Records, and they were signed initially to the production company.
When did their brother Michael get added to the group?
Marvin tells the story that he wanted BeBe to take Howard Smith’s place, but their father said Michael was the oldest and BeBe was the youngest, and Michael was the next one in line. Marvin told us that they were all still living at home and his father was paying the bills, so they took Michael. [laughs]
Since you were involved in the creation of their first two albums, what direction were you trying to take their sound in hopes of them reaching the next level?
On the very first album, we barely had any money to do the record. It was done very quickly. We had a band in the studio playing live while they sang. We fixed their vocal parts and did a quick horn session and a couple of guitar sessions—then we mixed the record. It was a very inexpensive album. It’s stunning to me now, when I listen to the first two records, they sound the best to me. On the Tomorrow album, we had more money and we were trying to be more accessible to radio. We started to delve into the more modern sounds of that time, as opposed to the first two albums, where we used more natural instruments, and they don’t show the time period as much. If you put on the Tomorrow album, you’ll know around what year it was done due to the sound of the synthesizers and drums on the record, because we were dealing with what was more current on the radio back then.
Were they going for more of a crossover appeal with Tomorrow?
Well, the Winans were soul and R&B from the beginning. They’re from Detroit and they grew up hearing groups like the Temptations and the Four Tops, and they were a quartet based after that style of Motown R&B, but with Christian lyrics according to what the Bible says. They were never a traditional gospel group.
Who lead the charge for coming up with the melodies and harmonies for each song as well as the arrangements?
We had different arrangers working on different songs. The majority of all the songwriting was done by Marvin. Carvin wrote “Tomorrow,” but Marvin helped him with it. As far as the vocal arrangements, Marvin would usually come in and they would have a verse and a chorus written—then he would repeat the second verse. I would say repeat the first verse for the second verse—then I would tell Marvin that he would have to write a second verse. They would work to try to get their words as complete as they could, and then it became pretty obvious what they were going to do. They worked it out as group whether they were going to sing in unison or in different harmonies. Then we would just expand on their direction. And as far as the musical arrangements, I used three different arrangers for this album. I used Scott Smith, Tom Keane, and Harlan Rogers.
Did most of the album get recorded in the studio, and if so, can you discuss the creative dynamic that existed between you, Marvin, and the group, since he wrote the majority of the songs on this album?
It was a fun experience. I love Marvin very much. We had a good time together. This album was the only album that I was involved with where we didn’t use the Winans as background singers. We used some girls. We used those girls on “Love Is a Spirit” and “Bring Back the Days of Yea and Nay.” We changed the sound up a little bit. There, it was just Marvin and I in the studio. It seemed like during the recording process of the album that the guys wanted to get back to Detroit as much as they could. They never liked being in Los Angeles very much. As soon as we cut the last song on the album, they would be on the first plane back to Detroit. I’ve never known guys who loved their hometown as much as they did. The studio atmosphere was fun and creative. We had a good time.
Would you describe the studio atmosphere as being free flowing or was there a set plan to get things accomplished?
I always had a plan—I always had a plan for what we were going to do on a certain day. The first thing we did was we cut the tracks—then lay down a rough idea for the vocals. Then, we would lay down as good of a scratch vocal as possible, and then I would start the overdubbing process, which is putting guitars, synthesizers, strings, or horns on a track. Then they would come back in and lay down their final vocals. After that, I would listen to see if we needed to add anything else. If so, we would add some percussion. I didn’t have the budget to just show up and not have a plan. [laughs] We would book a studio, and we had to pay back then $150 an hour to be in the studio. I would typically show up there at noon, and I’d hoped that the Winans would be there, too. [laughs] When you’re spending that type of money, you want to use your time wisely, and we did. We would usually cut two songs in three hours.
Can you talk about how special it was to work with Marvin specifically because of his great skills as a songwriter?
He was definitely special. It was like a light that went off in Marvin while we were making this album. From the first time I saw him, he just lit up. There isn’t a Winans group without Marvin. He played the piano and told everyone what note to sing. He wrote the songs, and he was the leader. Even though he was the younger brother to Ronald, Marvin was the leader.
How easy was it working with the brothers due to their vocal talents?
The three main lead singers were Marvin, Carvin, and Ronald. Ronald would do certain type of songs. He was good for singing the shouting type of songs. Carvin was the great falsetto. Michael wasn’t much of a lead singer. We had to spend more time with him. He wasn’t as comfortable in the studio. Marvin was a very spontaneous singer. I don’t know if you know what “punching in” means. But it’s when you’re singing and you say, “Okay. That’s good, but I want to fix this line here.” Marvin was someone we couldn’t “punch in” well because he would always be in a different place. Carvin was a very precise singer. He would plan what he was going to sing, and he would work on it. He would do it the same way every time. He was very easy to “punch in.” But we would do a lot more fixing with Carvin to try to get his vocals just right. Marvin would just go out there and sing, and we would record two or three tracks and pretty much use the first one. Ronald was more like Marvin, where he went more with the emotion of a song. With Michael, we really had to work on his parts. When they were singing in unison, they sounded great. Whenever they got into harder harmonies, we had to take a lot of time with them to make sure they got them just right. It wasn’t particularly fast. We recorded on 24 track analog tape.
Can you discuss how each song was constructed from this album?
The process was always the same. I would get together with them and listen to all the songs they had, and we would decide which ones would be best for the album. I thought that “Secret Place” was a simple song, but I also thought it could be funky. I heard that from Marvin, and I liked it. They demoed the song for me, which meant they got around a piano and sang it. I made a recording of it, and I gave it to Tom Keane, who was the piano player arranger that worked on their previous albums. Tom Keane wrote out a rhythm arrangement, and then we took the band in the studio. The band consisted of Abraham Laboriel, Hadley Hockensmith, David Williams, Tom Keane, Alex Acuna, and I. We cut the track as they sang to it. We overdubbed Michael Ruff on synthesizers and added guitars to it, and that’s how this song came together.
“Tomorrow” was Carvin’s song. Scott Smith did the rhythm arrangement on it. Harlan Rogers played the famous keyboard part on the song, which was the synthesized Fender Rhodes sound. We continued with the same process. I recorded them, and I gave Scott the tape. It’s not a long song. It basically has two sections. But the message was really good. Carvin sounded great on this record. Scott Smith also did the string arrangement for this record, too.
On “You Just Don’t Wanna Be Loved,” we used the girls for the background vocals and Harlan was in charge of doing the arrangement for this one. Again, we used the same process for recording the demo and finishing it.
“Uphold Me” was the one I really liked. This song is the one Ronald sang. I always liked hearing Ronald sing because he had a lot of joy. Scott Smith once again arranged it and Harlan Rogers was on synthesizer. Harlan also had input on the arrangement of this song. I recorded them, when they were singing around a piano, and I gave Scott the tape. This is how we did all the songs on the album.
“Lord I Believe” featured a lot of synthesizer work by Michael Ruff. Marvin sung lead vocals on this one as well as writing it. I remember working mostly with Marvin on it because the guys were back in Detroit. We cut this song in Monterey Studios in Glendale, California. Marvin sang incredibly on this one, too.
“Trust in God” was a very similar ballad to many of the other songs they’ve done on their other albums. Tom Keane did the arrangements for this song as well.
“Golden Opportunity” was a song that only Marvin and I liked. Carvin didn’t want it on the album at all. I thought it was a good song, and I thought it was a way to put BeBe on the album. Things were changing around so quickly. This song featured mostly Ronald and BeBe.
“Love is a Spirit” was a song that we gave to Rhett Lawrence. He was more of a pop music synthesizer programmer. He programmed the synth, and I overdubbed the drums and keyboard parts. Hadley Hockensmith overdubbed the guitars. This song featured Marvin more than the rest of the guys. This song also had the girls singing background, which we hadn’t done with the previous albums.
“Everything You Touch is a Song” was another song we gave to Rhett Lawrence. He programmed it. Harlan Rogers played all the keyboard parts, and I overdubbed the drums and the bass. I liked this song because it reminded me the old quartets and the different sounds on it. I liked what it said, too. I thought Ronald sang really well, and it featured all four brothers. Each one of them did a different line.
“Bring Back the Days of Yea and Nay” was a Marvin song. I think the words from this song are still relevant today. This was a pretty song. This song sung primarily by Marvin with backing vocals from the girls. This song wasn’t a typical Winans production. Harlan Rogers played on piano and did the arrangements.
This is one of the best gospel albums from the 1980s. How do you feel about the impact it has made on popular culture since its release thirty years ago?
It makes me feel good that anything I did that long ago still means something in someone’s life. A couple years ago, I met Raphael Saadiq. He told me how much every Winans record meant to him. He knew every word and note on their first three records. He could sit down and play every part on each album. I’ve met a lot of famous musicians that always tell me they love the Winans’s Long Time Comin’ album. Warryn Campbell told me he still plays this album everyday on vinyl at his house on his big system and that’s his inspiration. When I heard Boyz II Men, I heard the Winans influence. There were many years of music that were inspired by the Winans albums. When I hear that these albums were an inspiration, it makes me happy to know I was involved with something that meant anything to somebody’s life, and especially, the message of what we were trying to bring, which was the message of restoration to Jesus, and the fact that he’s alive and that he’s real.
When I heard Whitney Houston was going to remake “Tomorrow,” that meant a lot to me. Being a part of these songs was truly a fulfillment and a blessing. I’m glad we were able to get these songs on R&B radio, which was hard at that time for any Christian music to get on secular stations. From the very beginning, I thought the Winans were exceptional, and I liked them as much as any artist in other genres. I wanted the whole world to hear these guys. I told my friends that these guys could really sing. I believed in their message one hundred percent. The music business was the music business and I didn’t understand that as much in the early days. You have to have a machine in place. So, finally, with Tomorrow, we were able to hire some public relations people to get it to the radio stations and the press where people could start hiring about them. I was glad that finally people knew who the Winans were as artists. These guys were poor. They were all living in one house. They came from a big family with ten kids, and I wanted to see them be blessed and to do well. I always wanted the best for them.
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