Producer’s Chair: Keith Thomas

keith thomas

Keith Thomas

By James Rea

If one were to ask Keith Thomas why he has been so successful, I’m sure he would say that it’s his ability to find star quality talent. Keith’s early Grammy-winning productions with Bebe & Cece Winans, Amy Grant and Vanessa Williams, when they were just getting started, propelled his career to having one of the most diverse and immense discographies in Nashville. With over 40 No. 1 Billboard Hits as a songwriter, his production body of work includes James Ingram, Peabo Bryson, Michael Bolton, Luther Vandross, Brian McKnight, Yolanda Adams, Trisha Yearwood, Mandy Moore, Selena and Puff Johnson. Jon Secada, Deborah Cox, Regina Belle, Wendy Moten and a cast of artists on the Touched By An Angel soundtrack, which peaked at No. 1 on the Billboard Top Christian Albums chart and No. 3 on the Top Country Charts in 1998.

Although Thomas will tell you himself that he is as “Country” as anyone in Nashville, you wouldn’t know it. None of his seven Grammy awards, 10 Grammy nominations, one Academy Award for Best Song, three Dove Awards, one Dove Award nomination or his two Grammy nominations for producer of the year were Country, which leads one to believe: all evidence to the contrary, but not so…

“I grew up playing gospel music in The Thomas Family band with my sister, my brother-in-law and my Dad, who was a hillbilly musician who played with the Sons of The Pioneers, early-on before they blew up,” says Keith. “We weren’t allowed to listen to anything except Country & gospel. I had to sneak a Carpenters record into the house, that’s how bad it was. We didn’t have hot running water or an inside bathroom until I was 13-years-old. There was a slop jar on the back porch where we fed the pigs and we had cows and pigs and chickens runnin’ in the yard. Momma would say, ‘Go get a chicken’ and I’d grab one and pop its head.'”

keith thomas family photo

Keith Thomas (right) with his father.

Born and raised in the Atlanta suburb of Conyers, Ga., Keith was singing lead with his father’s gospel group at the age of nine. His self-taught style as a keyboard player led him, while still in high school, to recording sessions in Atlanta and later to the gospel act, The Sharrett Brothers, for whom he wrote several songs, while finishing his college studies. The first time his ability as a songwriter was fully recognized, however, was when Ronnie Milsap included two of his compositions on his Milsap Magic album in the late 70s. Milsap invited Keith to bring his family to Nashville and by 1979, he relocated and become a staff writer for Milsap Music.

“Ronnie would go out of town and give me his studio and his engineer and I would spend 18 hrs a day in a state-of the art studio, while he was on the road, for about a year and a half,” said Thomas. “I was playing on Ronnie’s records and producing my own demos and I eventually got a loan and bought a huge rig that I took to sessions. So I learned to engineer and produce that way. The time I spent at Ronnie’s with all that free studio time, I learned so much and will always be grateful”

A year later he took a similar post with gospel label Word Records (for whom he had recorded with the Sharrett Brothers). As well as two of his own solo albums for Word, he became producer to Carman, First Call, Paul Smith, the Gaither Vocal Band, Kenny Marks and The Imperials.

After producing BeBe and CeCe’s, 1987 Grammy Award-winning debut, Thomas established his own independent production and publishing company, Yellow Elephant Music, in Franklin, Tenn., and in 1992 he purchased the Bennett House in Franklin for his own studio.

From that point on, Thomas was linked with a series of high-profile artists, beginning with Whitney Houston (co-writing “Take A Chance”), Vanessa Williams (“Save The Best For Last,” “The Sweetest Days” and ” Colors Of The Wind,” which garnered his Academy Award for Best Song).

Once settled in The Bennett House, Keith turned his attention again to Amy Grant by writing and producing “Baby, Baby,” “I Will Remember You” and “House Of Love” for her House of Love album. The album had several hits for Keith including the songs, “Lucky One” and the title track. Keith produced records for James Ingram, Peabo Bryson, Deborah Cox, Regina Belle and Wendy Moten. In 1995, Keith wrote and produced the hit song, “I Could Fall In Love” for Selena.

In 1997, Thomas completed tracks for Amy Grant’s next album, Behind The Eyes and Vanessa Williams’ follow up album, Next. He also produced records for Michael Bolton, Luther Vandross, Brian McKnight, Tamia and Puff Johnson.

In early 1998, Keith produced several songs for Vanessa and Jon Secada for the movie, Dance With Me. He also produced the track, “I Do (Cherish You)” for 98°’s multi-platinum album on Universal Records, 98° and Rising. The song was also featured in the Julia Roberts/Hugh Grant romantic comedy, Notting Hill. In Addition, Keith was nominated for a Grammy for Producer of the Year in 1998.

In late 1998, Thomas served as the principle Producer and co-Executive Producer for the multi-artist Touched By An Angel and in early 1999, Thomas produced the track “Precious Wings” on MJJ artist Tatyana Ali for the Sesame Street movie, Elmo In Grouchland. During that year he also produced tracks for Yolanda Adams, Wild Orchid and Williams. Thomas also produced the song, “You’re Where I Belong” for Trisha Yearwood for the movie, Stuart Little.

In 2000, Keith produced At Last for Gladys Knight and he wrote and produced the hit song, “I Wanna Be With You” for Mandy Moore. The song was featured in the Columbia Pictures film, Center Stage.

Over the past 13 years, Thomas has produced 43 more albums, whose artists include Carman, Charlotte Church, Jessica Simpson, Steve Camp, Jordan Pruitt, Rissi Palmer, Heather Headley, Laura Turner and Forever Jones, just to name a few.

You can watch Thomas (the on-camera mentor/producer/personality) in a new reality show, Chasing Nashville, which airs on Lifetime Oct. 22. The show tracks seven female artists from North Carolina, West Virginia & Kentucky.

The Producer’s Chair: When did you stop the pursuit of an artist career?
Keith Thomas: I think when I got married and the responsibility of having a young son (Jeremy) at the time. I was offered the opportunity to go on the road with Amy Grant and open for her. During that time period, we were new to Nashville and I just couldn’t leave my wife by herself. So the artist thing took a back seat and so did the acting.

I wanted to be an actor even more than I did a musician or a producer. I had a scholarship to act. The Alliance Theater in Atlanta offered to send me to New York and promised me all lead roles if I would go. So my Dad being a primitive Baptist Minister went to one of the rehearsals with me and some weird stuff happened. I was about 18 and he said, ‘You’re not going to New York.’ So that dream went away very quickly. My first trip to New York was when I went to meet Vanessa Williams to do ‘Save the Best for Last.’ I’m walking down the streets of New York and there was a theater with the door open and I walked in and the smell just took me, I had a panic attack … I was there again. So it’s been since college since I acted but it’s still in there. I’d love to do that.

Country is now more accepting of new grooves. Considering your pop and R&B background, does that attract you more?
KT: Absolutely, I love Country and I grew up on it but growing up I just felt like I wanted more in terms of chords and arrangements and orchestral stuff. I wanted to go the full gambit, but at the core it’s who I am. I love the fact that Country music is more accepting of programming.

Was it growing up in Atlanta that got you into R&B and pop?
KT: I started discovering The Stylistics and Gino Vanelli, The Commodores and The O’Jays and I just gravitated to it. So much so that, by the time I was making records, people didn’t know if I was black or white. The first time I met Vanessa Williams in New York, she walked in and said: ‘Oh, you’re white.’

When you left Milsap’s publishing company, how did you wind up at Word?
KT: Neal Joseph was head of A&R at Word. Mike Blanton, who managed Amy Grant, introduced me. I started doing sessions for Brown Bannister who would sometimes use me for background vocals and arranging. Neil had a Word Sampler project that he wanted me to do. They had 4-5 artists and whoever got the biggest response got a record deal. So Kenny Marks, the artist that I produced got the record deal. Just as I was finishing that, I got Steve Camp. I did his record, Run To The Battle and it was No. 1 for six months.

To what do you attribute its success?
KT: At the time I felt like I was producing a little ahead of where the gospel music thing was and it was kind of pushing the envelope. And then even more so when I got into BeBe and CeCe. BeBe thought he was going to get kicked out of the church because of some of the stuff we were doing. But it worked; people accepted it and they became huge icons.

When artists like Peabo Bryson and Luther Vandross are looking for songs, is their method the same as the Nashville song search, as we know it?
KT: It’s different. They have their individual songwriters and producers who they reach out to. The pop world is a little closed off and a different process.

How long have you been working with Amy Grant?
KT: I was her band leader on her very first concert at Vanderbilt. Her then husband Gary Chapman and I were writing songs together so, that was beginning of it. After I did that show, they offered me to go on the road and have 20 min in front of her. After passing on that, we stayed in touch.

How did you meet Bebe and Cece?
KT: I went to visit a friend on the PTL Club and I met Bebe there. I said, ‘I’d love to try and get you a deal.’ I’m doing a solo project for Word and I’d love for you to do a guest vocal spot on the project and we can take that and shop it for a deal. And that’s what happened. He won a Grammy with the song that we wrote, “It’s Only Natural,” and that got them their deal on Sparrow.

How did you meet Vanessa Williams?
KT: I got a call from Ed Eckstein who was running Mercury. He said; ‘I love your work, I heard the Bebe and Cece Winans stuff that you’ve done and I’d like to get you involved with Vanessa Williams, would you come to New York and meet her?’ So I took eight songs with me that I had written. They were just tracks and melodies and Ed said: ‘I love these. I want Cynthia Weil to write the lyrics.’ I didn’t know who she was but I said great. So he faxed over her discography. So I’m looking at that fax and oh my God, I felt like a fool. So I called her when I got home and we wrote those eight songs together. Six of them made the album. She’s the one who also introduced me to James Ingram. She’d say, ‘Who else do you want to work with?’ And I’d say my goal is to work with James Ingram. In a couple of days I had a message on my machine. Now James is one of my best friends. He’s my brother. In many ways, I’ve accomplished what I wanted to accomplish.

Who has been one of your most significant mentors along the way?
KT: David Sonenberg who also managed The Fugees, Black Eyed Peas, Lauryn Hill, and The Spin Doctors managed me for 18 years and he changed my life. I was the only producer that he managed at the time.

How did he change your life?
KT: He taught me how the business really worked. It’s very complicated and very political. I was pretty naive, especially coming into the pop market. Understanding how that all worked. I’ve watched him do so many deals and consequently, I’ve been able to do the same kind of deals. He and I split around 2002 and then Irving Azoff managed me for a while.

What is the most important aspect of artist development that you do?
KT: The most important aspect, I guess would be getting an artist to a place where they’re prepared. Not just in singing and artistry but, what to expect in the industry, teaching them how to connect with the fans, important steps with the media and understanding what happens with fame and money and how to handle that. Each artist has different areas that need to be worked on.

Do you prefer to work with artists who write?
KT: I do. I feel like the artist has to have something to say and it’s got to be believable. If they can’t sell it, it doesn’t work for me. It can work but it’s more about the production than it is about the artist and I’m all about the artist. I like an artist that knows who they are and willing to do whatever it takes to make it. The music industry is about taking one opportunity at a time and capitalizing on it and going to the next step. Very rarely do you just get that one shot and it takes you all the way. You gotta build it and you gotta be able to work and I don’t want to be a producer that works harder than the artist. I’ve done that and it doesn’t pay off.

Tell me about your company, Levosia Entertainment.
KT: It’s a production, publishing and management company. I signed Celica Westbrook four years ago, who was on The Voice. Forever Jones had their own reality show last year on Bounce TV. They’re a black gospel group and their 25-year-old daughter Dominique is a star.

Are you working with anyone else right now?
KT: I’ve got one girl in Atlanta who is a female Michael Bublé. I went down to Atlanta to shoot interviews of my family members for my brother’s birthday. So the younger of my two brothers said: ‘hey, why don’t we go and do an interview at the house where we grew up.’ So I’ve got my camera out front and he says: ‘I’m going to knock on the door.’ We talked the beautiful 24-year-old girl who opened the door, into letting us come through the rental. So when we were done, I said to her: ‘What do you do?’ She said, ‘I sell organic popsicles…and I like to sing.’ So I turned my camera on and asked her to sing and she killed me, a capella. She came up to Nashville and we went in the studio and it was shocking how great it was. Her popsicles are for sale at Whole Foods for $3 a piece.

Do you work with the same engineer all the time?
KT: Yes, Jonathan Crone. He’s been with me for seven yrs now.He’s from Berkley. He plays guitar, produces and he writes … the whole package.

Have the changes in the industry since the ’90s affected every genre, or did some escape?
KT: It’s everywhere. Even the urban side of things, which is where the big sales are right now and the Top 40 dance music are lucrative, but not like it was 10 years ago. I just read that this used to be a $38 billion industry a decade ago and now it’s a $16 billion industry. Buying singles instead of albums and the whole sharing thing I get, but at the same time there are so many people that never get paid. Like Lady Gaga having 1 million spins and only receiving $162, you can’t make a living doing that. The art is not as important any more. The democratization of the music itself has driven the cost down, but it’s also driven the revenue down. People don’t need it as much because they have so many other forms of entertainment. Back in the day, my per-track fee was $80,000 per track and from that I could pretty much count on what I was going to get on the back end. Now, the track fees are, well let’s just say, they’re not what they used to be and there’s very little back end. So, whatever you get up front is basically, what you’re going to get. And hopefully you have the single.

KT: I spend so much time trying to figure things out because I want to become part of that process. Until we get the whole streaming thing figured out, it’s just morphing into whatever it’s going to be. I don’t know what that is yet. I do know that there are more artists out there than there’s ever been. I’m deep into marketing. How do I get somebody’s attention for 20 seconds? I don’t know where it’s going to go but I want to be a part of that process and figure it out.

What would you like your future to hold?
KT: Ultimately for me, down the road, it’s either to have my own label or go into a situation where I can control that. I want to be in a place where I can oversee it all because of my track record with finding talent, even from back in the day, when I signed Katy Perry. One thing I didn’t tell you about, I’m working on Danny Gokey’s new project.

If you could produce anyone you wanted, who would that be today?
KT: Michael Bublé, Bruno Mars and Justin Timberlake.

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