Prior to the ’90s, worship leaders, even recorded ones, were rather anonymous. There were some celebrity Southern Gospel recording artists, like the Gaithers and their friends, but contemporary worship leaders were mostly unknown.
Last week I wrote about the worship recording and publishing company, Integrity’s Praise & Worship. Most of the CDs — or rather, tapes — they produced featured different worship leaders, with a few repeat appearances here and there. But with the ’90s came the rise of the worship leader as a recording artist. One of these worship leaders who greatly influenced me was Ron Kenoly. His first worship project with Integrity’s featured their conventional cover art, which was something like shaped paper cuttings, but his following CDs demonstrated his rise in popularity with the prominent placement of his mug and exhuberant smile.
Ron Kenoly’s style combined elements of R&B, smooth jazz, and enough Top 40 pop to appeal to us white folk. He featured a large vocal ensemble, though not with the traditional black Gospel sound. Liner notes reveal quite a few non-black singers. Ron Kenoly was a crossover artist before we really knew what that was.
Kenoly’s band was pretty hot. Tom Brooks covered the keys by himself, typically playing variations of ’80s electric pianos with lots of tines and bells, as the warmth of the Rhodes and Wurlitzer had fallen out of favor and wouldn’t resurface for at least another decade. Two percussionists complemented his drummer, which varied from album to album, as did his electric guitarist, who played heavily chorused accents and was seldom featured.
The strength of Kenoly’s band (aside from Brooks) was his bassist, Abraham Laboriel, about whom I wrote last year, and woodwind extraordinaire, Justo Almario, who in addition to his flute brought along an early-’90s soprano saxophone (think theme song to 7th Heaven). Almario’s virtuosic improvisation soared over the brass section, which was typically three to four trumpets and a couple trombones.
The bulk of the songs I picked early on in my worship leading career were from Kenoly’s projects, which began with his Jesus Is Alive and (for me) culminated with his fourth project, Sing Out with One Voice. He would go on to record more albums, but none matched the production of Sing Out, which, even to this day, when I plan worship events I return to, in considering theme and how a musical worship journey should go.
At the church where I started in worship, we sang these songs:
From Jesus Is Alive
- HALLOWED BE THY NAME – an island sounding tune we always had fun with
- JESUS IS ALIVE – the song that put Ron Kenoly on the map
- MAKING WAR IN THE HEAVENLIES – a spiritual warfare song, at least one of which Kenoly would feature on just about every project
- WE ARE POSSESSING – same thing
From Lift Him Up, a giant of a worship album
- LIFT HIM UP – lots of funky chords my guitarist hated; diminisheds, augmenteds, 13ths, oh my
- MOURNING INTO DANCING – Latin Jazz in worship, penned by Tommy Walker, whom I’ll feature next week
- LET EVERYTHING THAT HAS BREATH – not the Matt Redman song
- ANCIENT OF DAYS – another huge hit here, as it still ranks on CCLI’s Top 100 list
- ANOINTING FALL ON ME – we weren’t shy about the Holy Spirit at my church
- ALL HONOR – an utterly beautiful minor key song
- WE’RE GOING UP TO THE HIGH PLACES – see “Making War” above
We didn’t use much from God Is Able, though Sing Out offered many great tunes:
- SING OUT – great horn parts and an altogether different variation on a song of Paul Baloche’s; it was interesting to see Baloche, whom I’ll write about, listed as a vocalist on a few of Kenoly’s albums.
- JOYFULLY, JOYFULLY – a great call to worship kind of song
- THE LORD BE MAGNIFIED – this featured the African Children’s Choir, a fun upbeat tune with a great trumpet part
- FOR THE LORD IS GOOD – a male/female echo kind of thing in the chorus, this was a great song, though with some difficult chords
- COME INTO THIS HOUSE – this was about as Gospel Choir-ish Ron Kenoly got; for good measure, he tacked on a rap
- I WILL COME AND BOW DOWN / OH THE GLORY OF YOUR PRESENCE – these weren’t new songs but greatly fit the theme of the project
- AIN’T GONNA LET NO ROCK – this was a favorite for a time at my church
As I mentioned, Ron Kenoly recorded a few more albums, but these were his better overall CDs. I saw Kenoly a couple times in concert, and his worship was infectious. You wanted what he had, as his joy overflowed. It’s my hope that my congregation would view me similarly.
These were great songs, ones I wish I could play again in church. I could say this for every post in this series. Join me next week for my look at a blond-haired California kid who could wail on guitar.