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Remembering Derrick Lee
5 great moments from the producer/arranger/musician's body of work.
On Saturday, February 19th gospel music lost one of its greats. Derrick Lee (1958-2022) has been a national presence since the late 70s when he moved to Nashville and became an integral part of the Woodland Studios’ session players, one of Nashville’s predominant studios for country, gospel and pop. After becoming a part of the Twenty-First Century Singers’ touring unit in 1978, he wrote and arranged their final album, Triumphant, in 1981. One of the album’s compositions, “There’s a Better Day Coming,” caught the ear of Dr. Bobby Jones who hired Lee as musical director for his group, New Life, and television show. He is greatly remembered for his presence on Dr. Jones’ Bobby Jones Gospel which ran on BET until 2016. His duties on Bobby Jones Gospel, however, were only a part of the work that he did. He played on, wrote, arranged and produced recordings for artists including Aretha Franklin, Vanessa Bell Armstrong, O’landa Draper & The Associates, Linda Clifford, BeBe and CeCe Winans, Beverly Crawford, Kelli Williams, Albertina Walker, Dorothy Norwood and countless others.
I was privileged to interview Derrick in 2020 for a project that is still in development. His experience in multiple gospel eras and metropolitan areas was a joy to converse about. His passion for the music, the singers and the act of music-making was palpable. To have witnessed his musical direction in the days of Dr. Jones’ Gospel Explosions in the 1990s is a gift I’ll never stop being grateful for. His work with New Life went far beyond his musical contribution. His ability to curate a band comprised of musicians who could follow where the vocalists (coupled with the audience’s response) were taking the song is unparalleled.
I wanted to raise a few of my favorite Derrick Lee compositions and/or productions and remember the contributions of this great artist.
The New Life Singers—"There’s a Better Day Coming” (retitled “There’s a Brighter Day” when Vanessa Bell Armstrong covered the song on Chosen in 1984).
Johnny Whittaker & The Twenty-First Century Singers—I’m Gonna Love You (1981) from Triumphant (To read more about the Twenty-First Century Singers, click here)
Bobby Jones and New Life—Bring It To Jesus (featuring Beverly Crawford).
I wrote about “Bring It To Jesus” in the last feature on Bob Bailey who co-wrote this song with Derrick and Raymond Brown. It was a top ten single for CCM artist Cynthia Clawson in 1986, and then Bobby Jones & New Life brought it into the gospel world via Bobby Jones Gospel on BET in the early 90s, and then finally on wax with their 1994 release, also titled Bring It To Jesus. It remains a signature song for Beverly Crawford.
Faithful—Aretha Franklin with Karen Clark-Sheard
Derrick arranged this track, a duet with Karen Clark-Sheard, produced by Nashville’s Sanchez Harley for the Queen of Soul’s 2011 album, A Woman Falling Out of Love.
One of Derrick’s most underrated works was the Music City Mass Choir’s 1993 sophomore album, We’ve Come To Praise Him. The project featured guest appearances from Bob Bailey, Beverly Crawford, Rev. Lawrence Thomison and other lead vocals from the choir’s members. This tune was co-written by Derrick and was led by former New Life Singer, Stefania Stone-Frierson (whose 1987 solo debut, Soldiers, was also produced by Lee).
Rest in peace, Derrick…and thank you for the music.