This week’s artist spotlight features another local legend whose contribution to a local children’s choir is as significant as his personal career. Willie Kitchens Jr. grew up with music in his blood. His father was a professional musician, and as he was given more opportunities to perform both with him and at school he realized that with his inherent skill came unharnessed potential for greatness. He fined tuned his voice and guitar skills, and eventually came on as the lead singer of the Impressions in 1999 and toured with the group and Eric Clapton in 2001.
Willie, thank you so much for taking time out of your day to let me interview you! Can you tell me a little bit about your stint with the Impressions?
Willie: Sure. I was sitting at home one day, working on the next project after four CD recordings with the children’s choir from Bethlehem Center when I received a phone call from one of the Impressions. He told me who he was and said, “I’m with the Impressions, and we’ve heard a lot about you.” They were originally from Chattanooga and they lived in the area so I had seen them maybe six months before at a Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences career day. “We want you singing and touring with us as our lead vocalist,” the caller continued. I wasn’t totally sure if I wanted to, so I said, “Let me get back to you,” because I was working with the kids and we were doing great.
I went to talk to my dad because I respect him so much and I know that, growing up in church, I would need his blessing before setting out on tour with Eric Clapton. Most people would have immediately said, “Of course, yes!” but I couldn’t leave the kids and I respected my dad enough to speak to him about it. I told my dad that I didn’t want to lose my connection in the church and he told me the wisest thing that I'd ever heard. He said, “I believe that God is expanding your territory so that you can be more of a light into the world. I don’t believe that you can leave God, wherever you go.” So I called the guys the next day and told them that I would consider it. But I had to make it clear with them and asked, “Am I going with you as a hired individual, or am I going as an Impression?” They told me, “You are going as an Impression. We will make sure that your name goes out as an Impression.” And that’s how I joined the group. I knew all of the music and I had the voice because I was always singing with older people when I was younger, so I could blend well with them.
What made you transition from performing into becoming a music director at the Bethlehem Center?
Willie:: This is a story most people don’t know about me. I was initially hired by Bethlehem Center as a custodian! I was doing music at the time, but I was also a truck driver and I was disappointed that I couldn’t perform on the weekends because they would always book me to drive. I quit and I had a friend who worked at the Bethlehem Center and said, “Look, I need the weekends off. I will do whatever y’all need me to do, but I cannot work weekends.” They hired me as their custodian. My friend Lurone Jennings, who works with Mayor Berke right now, was hired as the executive director of the center. Aware of my musical abilities, he came up to me one day, fired me as a custodian and hired me that same day as their music director. I had an 80 voice kids choir and I took them all over. Those kids sang for Shania Twain, Bishop Desmond Tutu, at the Capitol, they did a whole lotta things. It was at that point that Chattanooga realized that I had a heart for music.
Wow, that’s awesome. So after doing all of these crazy things, and I know that you’re from Chattanooga originally, why did you decide to make Chattanooga your home base? Why did you stay?
Willie: Well everybody always told me that to be somebody in music, I would have to leave Chattanooga. But my spiritual background always taught me this: He is the same God in Chattanooga as in Los Angeles. I did not have to go anywhere for the Impressions to find me to go on tour in England with Eric Clapton. I didn’t have to go anywhere, it came to me. I always tell people, “Yes. You could move to Atlanta or Nashville. You could go there. But if God has something planned for your life, you could go hide under a rock and He’s gonna find you.” So Chattanooga’s always been home.
Absolutely. What advice do you have for someone who wants to pursue music here?
Willie: I speak to a lot of high school students and the first thing I tell them is be committed to it. Whatever it is you have purposed in your heart to do, it is going to take commitment. It’s going to take sacrifice. It’s sometimes gonna take being by yourself. There’s this saying that it’s better to be prepared for the opportunity if it doesn’t come, than to not be prepared and have the opportunity show up. So for me, I was prepared when they called me. I was already working and training my voice and skills. There were many days and many nights that I spent working on my gift, not knowing that opportunity would knock on my door. But when it did, I left Chattanooga and flew to London with the Impressions.
What upcoming music projects are you excited about?
Willie: I was telling my wife the other day that I feel like I’ve accomplished a lot but I’m still not satisfied. I can’t say what it is but I know that I’ve got to continue to do music. I feel like the energizer bunny when it comes to my music projects and I think I’m gonna keep going.
Willie is currently working on a few projects with his local church, including an open mic/potluck dinner which gives local artists an opportunity to bond over good food, good company, and good music. He is also facilitating SoundCorps' launch of Craft Masters, an eight week intensive program to help aspiring music industry professionals make their dreams a reality.