Who’s this white girl singing like this?" That was the question on
Kirk Franklin’s mind upon hearing Crystal Lewis sing for the first time on a recorded duet with Yolanda Adams. "I was like, ‘Yo, who is this girl?’ It was just crazy," Franklin says.
A meeting at the Dove Awards in 1997 assured Franklin that Lewis was a major talent, and he included her alongside superstar soloists R. Kelly, Mary J. Blige and U2’s Bono on the radio hit "Lean on Me" from his The Nu Nation Project (1998). For 30-year-old Crystal Lewis, the experience brought more than she bargained for, as proven when she walked into rehearsals to perform "Lean on Me" for the 1999 Grammy Awards.
"I almost fr
oze," Lewis says. "I was like, ‘I cannot do this. This is not my territory.’ I felt so out of place. Seconds before I took the stage, I got this sense of it’s now or never. I thought, ‘Nobody knows who the heck I am. This should be a plus.’ I walked out there thinking, I’m scared, but this is so much fun."
Crystal says that the live global exposure and proximity to pop music’s biggest stars turned her head a little. "It was an amazing thing to look out and see Sting and Jimmy Vaughan and B.B. King and Tony Bennett, not to mention Will Smith sitting in the front row. It was like I was in some weird abstract dream, but it was a thrill. Kirk had some beautiful words after we finished rehearsal that day. He said, ‘Don’t forget, this is the only light shining tonight.’ That totally calmed the butterflies and changed our point of view."
Mingling with music’s top names brought another unexpected surprise to the evening. The admittedly star-struck Lewis says, "Bono kissed me at the end, which was one of the most wonderful things ever. We had spoken earlier so it wasn’t like we hadn’t met, but it was the end of the song, and he just did it. I looked right at my husband, and he just smiled and thought ‘This is cool.’ Oh, man, what a highlight."
No Overnight Sensation
But her night at the Grammys represented just one more curve in Crystal Lewis’ long and winding career path. Lewis, who grew up in the home of a Nazarene minister in Southern California, credits her mother for her current occupation. "My mother’s an amazing musician," Crystal says. "If it were not for her, I’m sure I would not be doing what I’m doing because she’s the one that encouraged my talent and me."
By age four, Lewis was singing in her father’s services. By 15, she had a role in the Christian musical "Hi-Tops." From the very beginning there was one constant in her voice: "My mom says that since I was born, I’ve just always been annoyingly loud," Lewis recounts with a laugh.
Coming from such a delicate young woman, this larger-than-life voice is an anomaly. "God chose the foolish things of the world to confound the wise," says Lewis of her gift. "And, it is this foolish thing because, aside from the times when I’ve been pregnant, I’ve never weighed over 100 pounds."
Early influences explain her leanings toward soul and R&B. "At a very young age I was drawn to black music," says Lewis. "That’s pretty much all I listened to growing up: Jackson 5, Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall and Thriller, Aretha Franklin and BeBe & CeCe Winans’ early stuff. Keith Green was one of the very few white artists I listened to."
In "Hi-Tops," Lewis met Chris Brigandi who invited her to join the cow-punk rockabilly combo Wild Blue Yonder, which recorded an album for the now defunct Frontline Records when Lewis was just 16. Brigandi also introduced Lewis to her future husband, Brian Ray, who’d drummed in his old band, The Lifters.
"Brian just looked like a bad influence," says Lewis, explaining her parents’ early worries about the relationship. "He had a tattoo and drove a convertible. We dated three years before we got married. We started dating when I was 17 and he was 22, and that was a problem. Now my parents just adore Brian."
Crystal’s work as a teenager in the music biz led to her being heavily courted for a solo career. Early albums, she says, were more producer driven than artist driven, and soon she and Brian dreamed of running their own label, a dream that got off the ground in June 1992 with the launch of Metro One Music.
Originally, Metro One was supposed to support Crystal’s career while releasing alternative rock and hip-hop efforts. Brian Ray admits that in reality it was the other way around. "When we started, it was money from her concerts that was coming in to pay for recording budgets and royalties."
Crystal and Brian worked side by side on her 1992 Metro One debut, Remember, a tradition that has continued over the course of her 16-album career. A stint on the TV show "Roundhouse" for cable network Nickelodeon in the early ’90s added to her acclaim as a top-notch vocalist and charismatic personality. By the late ’90s, Nashville-based Myrrh Records was partnering with Metro One on Crystal’s albums, producing two discs that between them have sold nearly a million copies, Beauty for Ashes and Gold. Crystal has also released six of her albums in Spanish language versions, winning the first-ever Dove Award for Spanish Event Album of the Year for La Belleza de La Cruz in 1998.
At this point Metro One is still largely dependent on Lewis, says Ray. "I think we still need Crystal’s income to generate what we want to do with the company. We feel that these bands can do things and go places that Crystal can’t, in a ministry sense."
One Metro One release last year did bring Crystal full-circle with Chris Brigandi, who had an idea for a rockabilly project in the vein of The Lifters and Wild Blue Yonder. The project, Attack of the Screamin’ Rays (Metrovox), features Crystal’s vocals but—despite a popular rumor to the contrary—her husband Brian Ray is not in the band. "One of Chris’ rockabilly heroes, this guy Johnny Ray, had become a Christian about two years ago," says Brian. "So, they’d been jamming together, and Crystal got involved. She wanted to do a punk version of Patsy Cline, so we thought it’d be a lot of fun to do a record."
"Screamin’ Rays is so precious to me," says Crystal. "It hasn’t sold extremely well, but it’s one of the funnest [sic] things I’ve ever done. I’m going back to my roots. I get a second chance here."
Coming full circle seems to be a theme in the life of the Rays, who are celebrating 11 years of marriage this year. After partnering with Myrrh for several years, Crystal and Brian are running the show alone once again, though their ties with Kirk Franklin paid off. Franklin’s label homes, Gospo Centric and Interscope, have stepped up to the plate to market and distribute Crystal’s new album, Fearless, in the Christian and general markets, respectively.
So, naturally, the question of the moment seems to be will the pretty, young gospel singer go pop? After spending the last decade establishing a solid Christian music fan-base and winning the Dove Award for Female Vocalist of the Year in 1998, will she use the Grammy exposure to take the next step toward general market success?
Of course, Lewis considered her options. "In the early stages, hot on the heels of the Grammy thing, everybody wanted to do something, and we were going back and forth, contemplating [a pop breakthrough]," she says. "I just wasn’t feeling that, and that’s not the way I write. I’ve found that, without the [Bible] in my life, I can be a very inadequate thinker. I usually have to write from what I’m experiencing, something I’ve read in the Bible that grounds me."
"It was really a labor of love for Crystal," says Ray of creating Fearless. "It all comes down to what kind of record you want to make. She said ‘I want to make a really Christian record.’ It’s her ministry, it’s her record, and if people like it, fantastic. But if everyone doesn’t, that’s okay, too, because she made the record she wanted to make."
"The whole concept of Fearless came from a conversation with my mother," says Crystal. "We were talking about friendship, and I was saying that because of my weird lifestyle, traveling so much, that my friendships have always suffered. She said, ‘I think it’s because you’re afraid to pursue them.’ That got my wheels turning.
"The first thing that came to mind was not being afraid with what people think. Whether it’s spiritually, or a sense of self-esteem, what you wear, what you look like, what job you have, whatever. Our society is consumed with worry about what other people think. It’s comical. People have lost the ability to be who they are."
A quick glance at the print ads for Fearless with the blond Lewis in black leather pants and sleeveless top, screaming into the camera, and it’s clear Crystal is not afraid to let her spirit show. Certainly, it’s not your average Christian marketing campaign. "I love the irony of it," says Lewis of the ads. "But the thing is, I’ve been wearing those pants on stage for two and half years. It’s not something we tried on to see if we could have an impact."
Still, Lewis’ intuitive fashion sense has had an impact. "For as long as I can remember," admits Lewis, "I’ve been infatuated with clothing. Shopping has never been very hard for me. My folks allowed me to experiment with a variety of weird clothing stages growing up. I always had a handle on the modesty issue, growing up as a pastor’s daughter, but I also knew how far I could push it."
The point being this, says Lewis: "I think it’s my calling to reach out to both the church and the folk of the mainstream culture. I love singing in church, the body of Christ is my family. But I have a gift that appeals to people outside the church. Christian people bring their non-Christian friends, they hear me sing, and they look at me and they see what I’m wearing, and they think ‘I’d wear that.’ You can be fashionable and make a statement and still live a very God-fearing, holy life. And that’s what I enjoy."
But as a performer, one who depends on the approval of others to make a living, Lewis acknowledges living with such tension can be "extremely difficult. That’s one of the reasons God put that on my heart because I’ve been so overwhelmingly concerned with what people think. All of that led me back to 2 Timothy 1:7‚ the verse I heard my father say every single Sunday morning. It says, ‘God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but of power, of love and of self-discipline.’ I’ve heard it all my life, I’ve memorized it, it’s always been there. Paul is telling Timothy not to be ashamed of the gospel or the Lord.
"My point is to be a Timothy. To be willing to go wherever, whatever the circumstances you’re in, whatever line of work, or whatever place in life you find yourself, to be able and willing to share one-on-one. That’s the place where it’s been the most difficult for me. It’s been easy to hide behind the stage, which again sounds ironic."
Rising to the Challenges
Hiding behind the stage might not sound like such a bad option right now. Since Fearless was finished three months ago, Lewis has experienced the deaths of several loved ones, forcing her to face her own fears head on.
"Personally, as soon as I committed to the whole idea of Fearless>, it’s been a challenge to really live like that," she says of the personal ups and downs her life has taken in 2000. "It was so exciting to have the recording behind us. [But] then to walk right into the deaths of four good friends right in a row. Life is such a strange rollercoaster ride, but that’s just life. It’s important right now to be in it, to learn from the experiences, and sometimes it’s hard. I loved when Beauty for Ashes came out and people called it dark worship. On each album I’ve dealt with death or pain of some kind, but we have to deal with it.
"The final straw in all of this is that I turned 30 in 1999. Man, oh man. I felt like I’ve committed to this title, and now I’m not going to be able to live up to it. But the opposite happened. I felt that little extra measure of wisdom, extra common sense, an extra measure of confidence and courage, was just put in my lap. It’s been an interesting journey."
One person who’s happy to have been a part of that journey is Kirk Franklin, who not only helped with vocal arrangements on Fearless but also gave Crystal the song "I Still Believe," originally written for the Will Smith movie Wild Wild West.
"The way that she balances her career and the whole family thing is just awesome," says Franklin of Lewis’ skills as an artist, label head, wife and mother of two. "The fact that she and her husband are out there, trying to do the whole thing independently, trying to make it happen… And just her being beautiful, and to have these incredible chops, I mean, she’s got chops! She’s just off the chain."
Crystal Lewis may not be entirely fearless, but she has placed her faith in the Christ who said, "Do not be afraid, for I am with you." In the face of good and difficult times, she affirms with conviction, "If we really believe what we say we believe, it does change your perspective."