Minister revives gospel career
By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on December 28, 2009 1:46 PM
In the late 1970s, Janice Brown was carving out a nice little niche for herself in the gospel music recording world.
As the 1980s rolled around, she had released about nine albums -- one was nominated for a Grammy -- performed at Ronald Reagan's first inaugural ball, and traveled around the globe sharing her music.
But by decade's end, she had parted ways with her duet partner and left the music business to become a pastor in a small town in Jones County, North Carolina.
Originally from Rocky Mount, Ms. Brown has lived in Goldsboro since 1991. But she still travels every weekend to St. Mary United Holy Church in the Jones County town of Comfort to preach.
Now, after a nearly 20-year absence from music, she has returned to the recording studio and will soon release an album with a new partner.
And Ms. Brown was just named a national member of The Recording Academy of Santa Monica, local chapter in Nashville, Tenn., which includes voting rights for the Grammy Awards. She plans to attend the 52nd annual celebration in California, which will be televised on Jan. 31.
For the unassuming country minister, the whirlwind turn of events this past year is still sinking in.
"It was very phenomenal, unusual really," she says, reflecting on the chain of events that began around February.
"I was sitting in my living room one night watching TV, thinking, 'I wish I could get in touch with some people I used to know years ago in Tennessee and Louisiana, Mississippi, all across the country," she said. "Then I forgot about it.
"I think it was on a Thursday night. It wasn't a week later, I got this telephone call."
The caller was Monte Stephens, founder and president of Freedom Records in Murfreesboro, Tenn., near Nashville. He had met Ms. Brown years ago when he owned a gospel radio station and became familiar with her music.
"I was getting requests, requests, requests," he said of one of her earlier albums. "I liked what I was hearing (and) I got in touch with them."
He brought Ms. Brown and her then-singing partner, Rev. F.C. Barnes, also of Rocky Mount, to the area for a performance.
"They just brought the house down at the concert," Stephens recalls.
That was around 1985, he said. Three years later, the duet partnership had dissolved but Stephens invited Brown to lead a revival at the church he was pastoring.
"That was the last time I had any contact with her for 20 years," he said.
Stephens sold his radio station but kept all the black gospel albums. It was one of those records, featuring Ms. Brown, that Stephens' wife, Dee, found herself listening to earlier this year, around the time Ms. Brown was wistfully contemplating seeing old familiar faces.
The music resonated with Dee, her husband said, and she "wanted to meet this lady."
That almost didn't happen, though.
"They had a hard time finding me," Ms. Brown said. "On the Internet, they had me as dead."
Fortunately, the couple persisted and tracked down the former singer, which led to an invitation to record an album with Monte.
"I told her yes and she just set everything in order," Ms. Brown. Dee arranged for studio time and served as producer on the album, which was recorded over the summer.
Their voices blended well together, Monte said of his pairing with Ms. Brown. The white country preacher and his new partner call themselves "Ebony and Ivory," he said.
The CD, slated to be released in late January, features some traditional songs and some written by Monte. The album's name came from Dee.
"When she heard I was on the Internet as dead, she said, 'I know what we will call it -- 'Alive and Well','" Ms. Brown said.
Sadly, Dee died of cancer in October and will not see the fruit of her labors.
But the friendship she helped recreate will continue, said her husband, who plans to do more projects with Ms. Brown.
Ms. Brown describes their collaboration as "a dream.".
"Monte and I were talking the other day. He asked, 'How do you feel?' I said I still feel numb. It just feels so unreal," she said.
Over her two-decade absence from the recording charts, the 66-year-old kept adequately busy, she said -- a few solos and concerts here and there, but mostly she focused on preaching.
"If the Lord led me to sing or whatever, in that setting I did it," she said.
It's been an exciting new chapter, one her family has been especially pleased to share, Ms. Brown said.
"I called my sister and told them about it and man, they yelled, they screamed, they praised the Lord. It was wonderful," she said. "My children, it's unbelievable."
She is the mother of three and grandmother to six.
But she shows no signs of slowing down now. Mid-December, she was notified of her acceptance into the Recording Academy of Santa Monica, which produces the Grammy's.
"It was a good Christmas present," she said with a smile.
Ms. Brown is still waiting to hear more about what the membership entails, but meanwhile is looking forward to attending the parties and other functions that accompany it.
And while there is much excitement afoot in the coming months, she remains steadfast about what really matters in her heart.
"My goal in all of anything that I do is to win one million souls to Jesus Christ," she said. "It's not for self-gratification but it's to help somebody else to build the kingdom of God. The next thing is to, naturally, get the album out. I'm looking forward to going to California for the Grammy celebration. And other than that, I'm preaching every Sunday. ...
"At this stage of the game, I don't know where God is going to take this but I just want to do whatever the Holy Spirit says. I'm on His agenda now."