The Kennedy Center

Take 6


Christian singing group Take 6 burst onto the music scene in 1988 with their critically acclaimed debut album Take 6. The a capella sextet, with voices emulating the sounds and rhythms of musical instruments, has since awed both jazz and gospel listeners with immaculate harmonies and stirring vocal arrangements. Featuring original gospel songs by group members, in addition to jazzed-up renditions of traditional hymns, Take 6 boasts an uplifting, sophisticated sound that recalls the music of spirituals, doo-wop groups, and classic jazz combos. "Like their stylish clothes, the a capella music of Take 6 is performed with style-always in time, in tune," wrote Michael Handler in Down Beat. "It might be another reworking of a classic gospel tune, or an original, up-tempo number, but every song sounds fresh, clean, and full of joy."

Take 6 originated in 1980 at Oakwood College, a small Seventh-Day Adventist school in Huntsville, Alabama, and began as a gospel quartet named Alliance (later called Gentleman's Estate Quartet). Expanded into a sextet, the group held early rehearsals within the resounding walls of their college dormitory bathrooms, where they worked to develop their unique six-part gospel harmonies and arrangements. Each member was an accomplished music instrumentalist before becoming a vocalist, and most had jazz backgrounds. "It just seemed natural to have extended jazz chords throughout the music," recalled original member Claude V. McKnight III to Leonard Pitts, Jr., in Musician. "To make a capella music really fresh and exciting, you really have to get into a lot of the intricate rhythms and things that characterize jazz."

In 1987 Take 6 held an exclusive performance for gospel recording company executives, yet many refrained from attending, considering the group's sound too controversial. Fortunately, an uninvited representative of Warner Bros, showed up who was impressed with a tape he'd received of the group. "When I first played their tape," Jim Ed Norman told Ebony, "I heard the most enchanting, wonderful sound in music coming from the human voice that I had heard in the longest time." Warner Bros, signed Take 6 to a recording contract, and their self-titled debut album was released the following year on the company's Reprise label. Although the group had originally hoped to sign with a gospel label, they later realized the evangelistic opportunity to reach wider audiences with their jazzedup gospel music. "We are purposely styling our music the way we do so that we can take our message of the gospel to people who don't always listen to Christian music," explained group member Mervyn Warren to Ebony. "We have a message that is appropriate for everybody."

Take 6 received wide critical acclaim upon its release, and went on to earn 1988 Grammy Awards in both jazz and gospel categories, The sextet also became the first-ever gospel group nominated for a "Best New Artist" Grammy Award. Take 6's broad appeal was further evident in the variety of other honors accumulated after their debut album: four Gospel Music Dove Awards, an award from the television program Soul Train, and a first-place finish in jazz magazine Down Beat's 1989 readers' poll for Vocal Group of the Year. At their first-ever performance at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1989, Take 6 electrified the audience and was called back for a rare curtain call. Music industry giants were quick to enlist the group's talents. Take 6 was invited to perform with Stevie Wonder, an ardent fan, at New York's Radio City Music, and recorded with artists such as Quincy Jones, Johnny Mathis, Stephanie Mills, and Smokey Robinson, in addition to maintaining a solid string of concert appearances in the United States and abroad.

In 1990, Take 6's second album, So Much 2 Say, was released to further acclaim. Take 6 "combines the heartfelt devotion of the church with...audacious wit," wrote reviewer Will Friedwald in the New York Times. "In leavening their voices with passion, intelligence and musicianship, Take 6 has breathed new life into a musical genre dormant for generations." Robin Tolleson proclaimed in Down Beat: "There's nobody 2 really compare Take Six 2. They outsoul Manhattan Transfer in a minute and are far more adventurous than the Nylons.... There's never been any question about these guys' abilities since they strutted on the scene, but here the soul is catching up and starting to go right along with the talent." Reviewing the group's 1990 Carnegie Hall performance, New York Times music critic Stephen Holden wrote: "The Christian music group from Alabama has developed a vocal blend of such extraordinary precision and harmonic richness [that] . . . one is left awestruck at the level of technical perfection."

Although the music of Take 6 has a strong jazz following, their "message," Handler notes, "never strays from their common goal of spreading the good news through song." Devout Seventh-Day Adventists, the group is serious about their role as non-traditional Christian evangelists. "We present the message in an attractive package, and hopefully the folks will leave the show humming a tune," McKnight told Handler. "We let the Holy Spirit take it from there." In accordance with their strict religious beliefs, the group abstains from performing on Saturdays, in observance of the traditional Sabbath, unless specific contractual obligations require them to do so. Take 6 has been criticized by some of the more conservative elements of their Seventh-Day Adventist religion, yet are resolved in their mission. "We've accomplished what we set out to do, and that's to reach people in all walks of life," McKnight told Yanick Rice Lamb in the New York Times. "It has never made sense to just sing in church or to people who supposedly already have the message. You take it out into the world and into the streets to the people who really need it." Group member Alvin Chea told Lamb that their music is a natural extension of their talents: "We're just trying to share what makes us happy."