Winans, Ronald Winans was a pioneer in the incorporation of modern pop sounds into the language of gospel music. As the leader of his own group, Ronald Winans Family & Friends, he brought contemporary sounds to a choral format and helped launch the careers of younger musicians.
For some, though, the most important chapter of his life was the last. Given just hours to live by physicians after a 1997 heart attack, he recovered after a dramatic prayerful intervention by his brother, Pastor Marvin Winans, and other members of his famous family. Returning to a full-strength career, he became known for his warm spirit and for his enthusiastic affirmations of his faith.
Born in Detroit, Michigan, on June 30, 1956, Ronald Winans was the second of ten children born to David “Pops” Winans and Delores “Mom” Winans. The Winans children were allowed to listen only to gospel music at home, and Ronald grew up with the sound of the city’s numerous gospel church choirs in his ears. Vibrant secular sounds were everywhere in 1960s Detroit, and the Winans children, most of whom had gospel-music careers and made recordings of national significance, gravitated toward progressive gospel sounds that mixed smooth pop sounds with the ecstatic style of older gospel choirs.
In an Inside Gospel interview quoted in the Passaic, New Jersey, Herald News, Ronald Winans defended the family’s approach against the complaints of traditionalists, pointing out that the Winans’ sound attracted young people to churches. “Church is an escape to get away from the craziness of this world,” he said. “Gospel music is fun to listen to, and church is the way to go to live a much fuller life and escape all of the madness.”
Winans graduated from Detroit’s Mumford High School and began performing gospel music with other family members. Even among a sibling group as drenched in gospel as the Winans, Ronald Winans stood out. The family, Marvin Winans told Adam Graham and Mekeisha Madden Toby of the Detroit News, referred to him simply as “the gospel singer,” and gospel producer Cedric Caldwell, the husband of performer Angie Winans, concurred, telling Kelley L. Carter of the Detroit Free Press that “Ronald was the guy on stage that everybody kind of focused on. He was probably the best performer in the whole family.” Ronald and younger brothers Marvin, Carvin, and Michael Winans began performing as the Winans in the late 1970s.
The group’s chief songwriter was Marvin Winans, who became pastor of the Perfecting Church on Detroit’s northeast side. His songs fused the passion of traditional gospel with urban contemporary sounds and complex electric-keyboard harmonies derived in part from fusion jazz. After being discovered by contemporary gospel pioneer Andrae Crouch, the group released its first album, Introducing the Winans, in 1981.
It contained a sweet-sounding song, “The Question Is,” that became a gospel classic. The Winans, noted Stephen Holden of the New York Times, “have refined one of those chemically perfect vocal blends that only seem possible among family members.” With the Winans, Ronald Winans would receive five Grammy awards over the next decade and a half; the group was inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 2001.
During that period, various Winans siblings and other relatives launched solo careers, with brother and sister BeBe and CeCe Winans becoming major stars in the late 1990s. The Ron Winans Family & Friends Choir, which released its first album in 1987, never reached that level, but the group played a role in spreading the Winans’ sound to the next generation of gospel musicians. Future star Donnie McClurkin first appeared on record when he was heard on the Ron Winans Family & Friends debut album, and Alvin Chea of Take 6, in conversation with Deborah Evans Price of Billboard, called Winans “an ‘ambassador of praise,’ whose music, not only with his three brothers, but also with his beloved choir, transformed lives.