Wintley Phipps: Finding My Voice

This acclaimed gospel singer and pastor has sung for presidents, a pope and even Mother Teresa, but it was the small moments in his life that made the big difference.

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Gospel singer and pastor Wintley Phipps

Moments of destiny. A rendezvous with fate that you could not possibly orchestrate on your own. A door will open, a path made clear, and God’s best for you will be within your grasp. I’m sure you’ve all had them. Let me tell you about a few from my life.

As a kid I wanted to be a great singer, a rock star with gold records and stadiums full of fans. What took a while was figuring out just what my voice could do. Or not do.

At first I tried to be the next Little Richard. I practiced until I had the songs and the moves down. I unveiled them at a school talent show, wailing at the top of my lungs. The next morning I could barely speak. A doctor said I’d damaged my voice, maybe permanently. After a week of silence my singing voice returned, but my screaming days were over.

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Time for a new role model. The year I turned 15, Sly and the Family Stone were coming to Montreal, where I lived. They’d been showstoppers the year before at Woodstock, and their latest single, “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)” was number one on the charts. I was a huge fan.

The show was sold out. Desperate, I called the Montreal Forum press office, lowering my voice an octave, saying that I was a reporter and wanted to write about Sly. “Yes, sir,” they said, “you’re welcome to come backstage.”

With two cameras dangling from my neck, I waited with members of the press outside the VIP entrance before the show. A limo pulled up. The guy who staggered out looked nothing like a rock star. Who was this frail, disoriented man held up by bodyguards? They practically carried him inside.

Later I read about Sly’s drug issues. I’d always assumed that money, influence and adulation ensured happiness. Now I wasn’t so certain. Maybe singing gospel was a wiser path. The question remained, though: What was I supposed to sound like?

You’ll probably think someone from church helped me find my voice. No, it was someone I heard on the radio in the top 10. His technique was flawless, his baritone riveting. Not long ago my wife and I had a chance to see him perform in Las Vegas. Even in his seventies, his voice was commanding.

So I mimicked his breath control, his phrasing, the way he would hold a note for a long time and then break into a vibrato, and applied it to gospel.

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Once I took a master class with a famous operatic bass. After listening to me sing he said, “I don’t know how you learned what you learned, but it’s good and you shouldn’t mess with it.” He would have been shocked to find out whose voice I’d modeled mine on....

At the end of the concert in Vegas I went backstage. This time, I didn’t have to pretend to be a reporter. I walked into Tom Jones’s dressing room, belting out, “It’s not unusual to be loved by anyone,” sounding, well, just like him.

There were also moments when my path crossed someone else’s that changed both of us. I’ll give you examples of two people, one world famous and the other one famous to me.

In my early days, I performed at an event at the Baltimore Civic Center. Afterward a young woman approached me. She was a reporter on a local television show and my performance had touched her. “Would you be able to spare a few minutes?” she asked.

She said she wasn’t fulfilled doing what she was doing and was looking for something different, but she wasn’t sure what. “God is going to bless you,” I said, “and give you an opportunity to speak to millions.” I don’t know where that prediction came from—definitely not from me. It just popped out!

“Really?” she asked. “Do you think God would do that for me?”

Today the two of us joke about that line “speak to millions.” “When I said ‘millions,’” I say to her, “I thought that would mean millions over a course of years, not millions of people every day!” That woman, Oprah Winfrey, is still my friend.

As for the not-so-famous example, let me take you back to my student days at Oakwood College in Huntsville, Alabama. I did a lot of singing gigs on weekends for tuition money. One weekend, the concert ran late and I missed my return flight. I booked a new flight through Atlanta. I got there safely but I still had to pay for the last leg, to Huntsville.

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“That’ll be fifty-five dollars,” said the ticket agent at the counter.

All I had was the 50 dollars the concert organizers had given me and one thin dime. One look into the agent’s steel-blue eyes told me I had no hope of talking my way out of this. She was all business. I pulled the money out of my pocket and laid the bills—and the dime—on the counter.

“Is that all you have?” she asked.

I nodded. It was almost midnight. I just wanted to go home.

“I am sorry,” she said firmly. “I must have the full fare. I can’t give you any of the company’s money.”

My heart sank.

“But,” she continued crisply, “I can give you some of my own money.”

She took a five-dollar bill out of her purse and put it alongside my money. Then she issued a ticket and handed it and the dime to me.

“Have a good flight.”

Over the years I traveled through Atlanta many times, and I always looked up Pat Pullen—that was the agent’s name—to thank her. She met my bride. She met our kids. And she got one of the first copies of my first album.

Speaking of my wife, Linda, let me tell you about her. From the moment I spotted her in college, she was the one. She had a certain glow about her that I call a Jesus glow. She was beautiful, smart, a woman of great faith. How was I ever going to get on her radar?

My sophomore year the faculty put on an event where professors opened their homes to students, each providing food and entertainment from a different country. My classmates and I were to get on buses labeled Italy, Spain, West Indies, that would take us to the different houses.

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I saw Linda and a friend stepping onto the bus for Mexico. Here was my chance. I hopped on and sat behind them. Then I heard Linda’s friend say, “You know, I’m not really in the mood for tortillas tonight. Why don’t we try Chinese?” She and Linda hurried off the bus and onto a new one. I followed a few paces behind, trying not to be conspicuous.

The bus was packed. Linda and her friend sat down. I squeezed into a seat in the back. To my dismay, however, the two women got up a minute later and again slipped off the bus, with me in surreptitious pursuit.

This time, they boarded the Soul Food bus. I grabbed a seat behind them and waited until the bus started moving before I unleashed my less-than-original opening line: “What are two nice young women like you doing out alone on a night like this?’

Linda shot a glance back at me. “It looks like you’re the one who’s alone,” she said.

Not for long. That was the beginning of our courtship. Our first real date was a college-sponsored evening at a roller rink. I’d never been on roller skates, so I told Linda she would have to teach me.

Having the most beautiful woman in the world holding my hand, putting a steadying arm around my waist to help me get my balance…let’s just say I wasn’t in a hurry to become a proficient skater.

The two of us fell in love and that love, a mirror of God’s own love, has guided us and kept us together all these years, through my career as a singer and a pastor, through raising our three boys.

I have been blessed in the opportunities God has given me, but as I tell my congregation, such moments of destiny lie before all of us. God is always at work in our lives, and usually in the most unexpected way.

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