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In the Key of Happy

    In the world of southern gospel music few names carry a more substantial legacy than Goodman.  Creativity, authenticity and a passion for sharing the good news of Jesus Christ have long been the cornerstones of the family’s sound and messages. They remain the foundation for the next chapter in the group’s illustrious history with the launch of Goodman Revival.


   Tanya Goodman Sykes, her husband, acclaimed producer Michael Sykes, and friend Johnny Minick, a gospel music veteran who performed for years with the Goodmans, once again propel the family name into the spotlight with the release of their debut album and DVD Songs in the Key of Happy (Gaither Music Group). The trio revives such Goodman classics as “I Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now,” “Until You’ve Known the Love of God” and “Who Am I,” breathing fresh life into songs that have defined the genre for decades.


   The decision to contribute a new chapter to the Goodman legacy evolved from a Sunday morning on stage at Minick’s church. “Michael and I moved to Texas a few years ago; and when we moved back in 2012, we actually stayed with Johnny and his wife, Sherry, for three weeks while we were looking for a place. They were so generous to open up their beautiful home to us,” Goodman Sykes recalls.  Minick pastors the River of Life Assembly of God Church in Smyrna, Tenn., and the three friends took the stage to sing one Sunday morning in a pivotal moment that would change their lives.


   “We had worked up ‘Until You’ve Known the Love of God,’ which is a song that my dad wrote in the 60s,” Goodman Sykes says of her father, the legendary Rusty Goodman. “We sang it on Sunday morning and the clip of it ended up on YouTube. Unbeknownst to us, it started getting a lot of attention. The phone started ringing and people were wanting to book us. We went out and did a couple of concerts. We had a lot of fun. There was a groundswell of interest for us to do something to revisit this music that we grew up with that was so much a part of our heritage. It was just really organic the way it happened. One thing led to another and somebody said, ‘You guys need to make a record.’”


   And so they did. The result is a finely crafted effort that is both a loving homage to the musical legacy that inspired each of them and a powerful look at a promising new trio’s future. Goodman Sykes, a GRAMMY winner, has long been known as one of southern gospel’s most compelling female vocalists. Her career began as a teenager performing with her father, Rusty, and her Aunt Vestal and Uncle Howard as part of the Happy Goodman Family. She graduated to a successful solo career and also spent time as a member of the female group Heirloom.         

   Producing Heirloom’s album won Michael the first of many GMA DOVE Awards as a producer. The North Carolina native had begun his career as a piano player.  He had met Tanya when he was playing for the Goodmans, and the couple married in 1983. Sykes has become one of the industry’s most successful producers, working with the Oak Ridge Boys, the Gaither Vocal Band, Jeff & Sheri Easter, Russ Taff, the Martins and others. As a vocalist, he recorded with the trio Ponder, Sykes and Wright and released his first solo album in 2013.


    A native of Little Rock, Arkansas, Minick began his career performing in his father’s gospel group, The Majestic Sounds. Rusty Goodman heard Minick and offered him a job playing piano with the Happy Goodman Family. He joined in 1975. Though he left a few years later to launch his own music ministry, Minick returned to performing with the Goodmans in 1990 when he, Howard and Vestal sang as a trio and became one of the most popular groups featured on Bill Gaither’s successful Homecoming Series. Teaming with Tanya and Michael to launch Goodman Revival feels like a homecoming to Minick, and it’s been a labor of love.


   “The Goodmans were a very powerful brand of gospel music,” he says. “They were very unique and innovative and not to be duplicated. That was not our intention anyway. We just wanted to pay honor to the music that really has become the fabric of our lives. There are so many things that I've done subsequent from the time that I worked with them as a family group, and I've just built on that throughout my ministry.”


   Minick is not the only one to continually feel the impact of this family’s musical legacy.  The group traces its roots back to the 1940s when Howard Goodman and his sisters founded the fledgling ensemble.  Despite their meager lifestyle as children there was no shortage of joy and laughter, no matter the circumstance.  As a result, early on, friends and neighbors dubbed them the “happy” Goodman family. Later, brothers Sam, Bobby and Rusty joined in, as well as Howard’s wife, Vestal. This lineup became firmly cemented in Gospel Music History as, “The Happy Goodman Family.”


   The Goodmans’ popularity grew; and in 1964, they became featured performers on “The Gospel Singing Jubilee,” a groundbreaking television show that would run for more than two decades. After 10 years with “Jubilee,” they launched their own successful TV show “The Happy Goodman Family Hour” and became a household name.


   In 1968, they won the very first GRAMMY® Award for Gospel Album by a Group for The Happy Gospel of the Happy Goodmans.  Widely considered pioneers in the southern gospel genre, the Goodmans scored 15 No. 1 hits and are known for such enduring classics as “Had It Not Been,” “I Wouldn't Take Nothing for My Journey Now,” “Who Am I” and numerous others many of which were penned by Rusty. They were inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 1998.


   In recording Songs in the Key of Happy, the members of Goodman Revival honor that legacy and inspiration. “When we got around to picking out the music that we wanted to record, we went back to the very first of their recordings and found a group of songs there that we felt like we could put our fingerprints on and make them ours,” Minick says.


   There was an excitement as the trio began imagining how they could put their own creative stamp on songs that held such precious memories for each of them. “We got together over at Johnny's house, and he has the entire discography of the Goodman family,” Goodman Sykes recalls with a smile. “We just started making a list. Somebody would say, ‘Well, I really like that one!’ We'd add that one to the list. Somebody else would go, ‘I really like that one!’ We came up with a list of about twenty-something songs and we whittled on that.”


   Nestled amongst such Goodman family gems as “I Hold a Clear Title to a Mansion,” “Sweetest Song I Know,” “What a Happy Time” and Tanya’s stirring vocal on “What Heaven Means to Me,” there’s a new song that fits comfortably among some of the most compelling southern gospel songs of our generation. Minick was inspired to write “Settle the Score” after listening to a guest pastor at his church. “She discussed how sometimes believers settle for a little less than what they could hold out for,” he explains. “The idea came to me, instead of settling for less, we need to settle the score. I thought about David and Goliath. I was sitting around talking to a friend of mine Tim Hill, who has been a very successful songwriter in gospel music and a preacher. We were sitting around talking, the way preachers usually do, about sermons and things like that and started to write this song. We finished it up in about an hour or so. It had that old, Goodman three-quarter time feel to it. I thought it might be a song we could do.”


   Sykes admits it was fun yet challenging to reinvent the foot stomping “Sweetest Song I Know.” “With all those moving parts, I was afraid I was going to end up in the fetal position over in the corner somewhere,” he grins. “It freaked me out, but it was probably one of the most fun things we did on the album.”


   Working together the threesome brought out the best in each other and in the songs. “There's a great balance here,” Minick says. “One of the greatest things about Michael's ability is that he makes you want to do things. I probably sang some things that I might not have wanted to sing if I had been doing what I wanted to do, but he just pulls things out you wouldn't normally do. He wants you to try things that you wouldn't normally try. That worked to our advantage on this. We got a lot more energy out of it.”


   When Tanya, Michael and Johnny performed at Minick’s church that fateful Sunday morning they had no idea God was about to send them on an exciting new adventure---one that would both revive cherished memories and challenge them to write a new chapter in an already distinguished musical dynasty. They were definitely up to the task; and with one listen to Songs in the Key of Happy, it is obvious that this trio has honored a legacy with their immense talents and handled their heritage with care. “There is trust between the three of us,” Goodman Sykes shares. “There is friendship. There is a wealth of shared experience. We all grew up in church 24-7, and this music has been a big part of all three of our lives. None of us planned this, but we're in a place in our lives where we walk through doors as they open.”


   “We've not put our hand on the wheel,” adds Minick. “Everything that has happened has happened because God has used other people to make it happen. This has been one of the most exciting things on a spiritual level.  I've always heard about God opening these doors, and He's done that for me all my life; but to see Him do something from the very beginning to where we are right now, knowing that we've done absolutely nothing to push any buttons or open any doors, has been an amazing ride. That's why I'm excited to be here because we don't know what's going to happen tomorrow. That's a neat place to be.”


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