Few genres of popular music are as beholden to tradition as gospel, which hasn’t changed all that much in the past hundred years. Ye olde Negro church spirituals, as they might be called, laid the cultural foundation for blues and R&B with their call-and-response chants, mournful lamentations, and promise of a much better afterlife. But though many if not most great black entertainers started singing in church, church music hasn’t been particularly new for quite some time, which limits its message somewhat: Whose life are you saving, if you’re literally preaching to the converted?
This is where Sunny Hawkins comes in. The wife of Hawkins family scion Jamie, she grew up listening to Shirley Caesar and James Cleveland, but also to Aretha Franklin and Donny Hathaway. “I love me some Chaka Khan,” she adds, while her husband’s musical sensibilities run more toward Earth, Wind and Fire than brimstone and fire. Sunny’s latest album, More of You, offers more contemporary-ness than you would reasonably expect from a so-called contemporary gospel album; every track is arranged with a dollop of Oaktown fonk. Spiritual messages and odes to Christian faith abound lyrically, yet Sunny says she and Jamie aren’t “into being super-churchy.”
More of You doesn’t just depart from more predictable gospel albums musically, but vocally as well. As Sunny explains, “My voice is kinda smooth. It doesn’t fit into the traditional church style,” which is just fine for R&B and vocal jazz fans. She wouldn’t be surprised if her radical approach to devotional music turns off some gospel purists, but says it’s more important for her not to “turn off the very people you’re trying to reach” — mainly those you don’t see in church every Sunday. In fact, Sunny, Jamie, and their band will be at Yoshi’s on a Wednesday (tonight) for her official record release party (8 and 10 p.m., Yoshis.com). And if you don’t know how to dress, take a tip from Sunny: “If you want to wear a hat, you can do that. If you want to wear a motorcycle jacket, you can do that too.” Amen!