Each year, the B-Metro team compiles a list of people and organizations that we believe are extraordinary; we call it our A List. Those who landed on this year’s list can boast some remarkable achievements, but their mention here goes beyond that—these are the people who are working to make this city better, in whatever way they know how.
Written by Phillip Ratliff
Photos by Beau Gustafson
It’s not an exaggeration to say that the phenomenon that is Dr. Henry Panion III resonates throughout the city of Birmingham. It resounds, quite literally, in the UAB Recording Studio that he founded, and in the exuberant performances offered up by the various community choirs Panion has organized over the years. In recent months, Panion’s impact has been keenly felt throughout downtown Woodlawn, where two of his private ventures, Audiostate 55 studio and his music technology lab serving students from across the state, have become vital parts of the community’s economic resurgence.
Lately, Panion has gained a presence on the shelves of the country’s leading music retailers. Some 800 retailers, including Wal-Mart and Best Buy, are currently stocking Audiostate 55’s project with gospel singer Denita Gibbs. The album, Without You, has garnered critical and commercial success, debuting at no. 14 on the Billboard gospel album chart. Followers of Panion’s career will note that it’s not the first time one of his musical projects has achieved this sort of success. But, as Audiostate 55’s first project through its agreement with Warner Music Group, Without You signals an ambitious new direction for Panion: If Panion has his way, such ventures will help transform Birmingham into the gospel capital of the world.
If this seems like mere puffery, consider all that Panion has going for him. First, there’s his track record in the gospel world; his 2006 release, Gospel Goes Classical, climbed to no. 2 on the Billboard gospel chart. Then there are his connections to the music industry; as a conductor, Panion worked with Stevie Wonder, the Winans, Aretha Franklin, and Quincy Jones. And there’s the fact that Birmingham already enjoys a solid reputation for producing talented gospel singers.
But unlike great music capitals—Nashvillle, Memphis, Detroit, and, in more recent times, Atlanta—Birmingham has never supported a vibrant recording industry. As a result, rather than attracting artists the way Atlanta is, Birmingham exports its talented artists to larger cities. This is precisely what Panion wants to help fix, and he may be just the person to do it. Besides possessing solid music industry bona fides, Panion’s success with Gibbs suggests a gift for recognizing young talent and fostering the production of their best work. Panion first became aware of Denita Gibbs when she was child singing in church and community choirs. Although their musical paths crossed often over the next two decades, there was at first no indication that they would ever find a reason to work together. The possibility was at its bleakest four years ago, Gibb says, after she took a demo of her music to him. “He sort of turned me down,” Gibbs remembers.
While the snub hurt her feelings, it also prompted her to vow to work harder. Gibbs kept at it, honing her craft by serving as a praise and worship leader at Faith Apostolic Church and singing at local gospel music festivals. Gibbs believes that it was her performance at one of those, the 2011 Celebration of Gospel concert, that gave Panion a chance to reassess her work. After, Gibbs began to hear rumors that Panion had recorded her singing on his cell phone. Then rumors that Panion wanted to offer her a contract began floating around. Gibbs shrugged them off. When Panion eventually called Gibbs to request a meeting, she remained skeptical. “It took three weeks for the meeting to actually happen,” Gibbs says. But when the two finally got together at the Audiostate 55 office, Panion offered Gibbs a contract.
The deal has proven a big one, earning Gibbs a spate of honors and national media attention, including a nomination for the Rhythm of Gospel awards and a televised performance on Bobby Jones Presents. Panion shaped Without You for just this sort of success. He teamed Gibbs with engineers and performers, vocal stylists and instrumental arrangers, placing them in a sort of gospel music laboratory. The process was collaborative, experimental, and painstaking. Panion credits one of his early musical influences, legendary Motown founder Berry Gordy, for perfecting the technique.
In Panion’s lab, a song might begin as rhythms or beats, or as a melody, or some combination of all of those elements, from which Gibbs created lyrics or her own melodies. Other times, Panion would supply Gibbs with a fully produced instrumental track. Gibbs would use such tracks to add lyrics and melody before receiving backup vocals or instrumental arrangements. Or Panion might flip the process, asking the team to build the entire production around Gibbs’s original, full-formed melody.
To ensure widespread appeal, Panion nudged Gibbs toward a more contemporary style of inspirational music. It wasn’t always comfortable. “I thought, ‘This is out of my box. I am a straight praise and worship leader. I can’t do this. I am going to lose my fan base,’” Gibbs says. Gibbs had to familiarize herself with the principles of contemporary gospel, which takes a broader approach, to draw people into the music’s spiritual message. She learned to incorporate rap and soul into her music, which she calls “Snoop Doggy Dog” beats. Although it was a stretch, Gibbs is grateful for Panion’s guidance. “Dr. Panion broadened me. I learned I could do different styles. I’m open to anything now, even country and reggae,” Gibbs says.
Critics have praised the results. Bob Marovich of The Black Gospel Blog likened Gibbs to such gospel greats as Kierra Sheard, Cheneta Jones, and Alexis Spight. Timothy Yap, writing for the gospel music blog BREATHEcast, lauded Gibbs for her “uncanny ability to draw the church in with her dynamic shout-outs in the glorious traditions of Yolanda Adams, Dorinda Clark-Cole, and Kim Burrell.”
While music bloggers rattle off the comparisons, one should not lose sight of the originality Panion has accomplished. He has, in essence, productized a Birmingham gospel sound. In addition to Wal-Mart and Best Buy, niche outlets like Lifeway Christian Bookstores and local churches, and online delivery systems like iTunes and Rhapsody are snapping up this product.
Key to this success is the deal Panion brokered with Warner Music Group. Warner’s reach into the world of retail music sales is extensive. The company has reps twisting the arms of the Christian Bookstore Association, buyers from Wal-Mart and Best Buy, and Christian retail distributors that in turn make deals with local churches. Warner juices the distribution system with promotional support. The company can even influence where an album is placed in a store. Panion counts it a victory that Without You spent time on Best Buy’s coveted corner display racks rather than being buried in an alphabet soup of CD bins. “I can’t get [the] iTunes editorial staff interested in featuring Denita Gibbs on the front page of iTunes—which they did. It’s a full system. There’s a sales team and their job is selling. There are important bloggers, a subscription e-blast with 320,000 subscribers, social media, YouTube placement, Twitter. The record company is significantly involved,” Panion says. Panion credits his music industry associations for Warner’s decision to give him a hearing. But ultimately, Panion said, Warner liked what Gibbs and Audiostate 55 were doing.
As Denita Gibbs and Without You were finding a footing in the gospel music world, Panion was already knee-deep in the creation of another homegrown musical product that will hopefully find similar success. Audiostate 55’s latest project is with singer Curtiss Glenn. Glenn has already gained some notoriety through his appearance on rap star Sean Combs’s reality show, Making of the Band. But the secular hip-hop world wasn’t providing Glenn with the path he hoped to follow.
Panion and Audiostate 55 offered Glenn a chance to create music that aligns with his Christian faith. Engineer James Bevelle recently shared the results of Glenn’s work at the Woodlawn studio. Bevelle cued up a background track from Glenn’s project, filling the room with sumptuous urban gospel music minus the lead vocals, which Glenn will add later. The near final product was finely wrought, almost maximalist. It clearly melded the creative output of several artists. Panion says that he tends to stay out of recording sessions until the end of a day’s work, to give the musicians room to be spontaneous and to let their ideas become a part of the musical fabric. He summed up his creative process in a way that makes it sound easy: “I like to bring in all sorts of people to keep the final product from sounding too much like one person,” Panion says.
One could argue that the product does in fact sound like one person, namely Dr. Henry Panion III. Panion is a transformational individual, whose impact only seems to be growing. Though he is adept, almost abstract, in his descriptions of the creative processes and marketing mechanisms that produce and distribute his music, Panion ascribes an ultimate emotional, even a spiritual, significance to his ambitions for Birmingham and Audiostate 55. He recently took a rare moment from discussing the ins-and-outs of the music machine he helps fuel to savor the human dimension of what he and Gibbs have accomplished.
“It means a whole lot in some ways. In some ways it doesn’t mean a whole lot,” Panion says. “I was thinking the other day, ‘You should be feeling really, really great right now.’ I mean, you work, you work hard, and you get to a place like with Billboard, which says people liked it and they bought it and you think, ‘Well, that’s good.’ The comments from major industry people: that means the world to me. The other thing that means the world to me is the hundreds and hundreds of email comments and Facebook comments from people buying the record. All over the country, people made Denita’s album cover their profile picture. When I looked at the chart online today, to see all the major artists that are around her, in the top 20—now that’s a really good feeling.”