Interview recorded on February 23, 2012
When you mention Take 6, a few things are automatically understood: the harmonies are going to be tight, the songs are going to be well written, and the fellas are going to be singing their hearts out. They've been doing it this way since their debut album in 1988. So one can expect more of the same from their forthcoming album, ONE.
Founding member Claude McKnight and arranger Mark Kibble share with Darnell Meyers-Johnson how the group was created, and reveal the philosphy that has kept them together as one thoughout the years.
Darnell Meyers-Johnson: Good day, this is Darnell Meyers-Johnson for SoulMusic.com. Today I’m speaking with some gentlemen who have taken the art of a cappella singing to a whole new level. They’ve been on the scene since 1988, and have ten Grammy Awards to show for their excellence. Quincy Jones calls them “the baddest vocal cats on the planet,” and you know Q don’t lie about these things. The fellas are back with a brand-new single called “One,” from their forthcoming album of the same name. Today, I am speaking with Mr. Claude McKnight and Mr. Mark Kibble from the group Take 6. Gentlemen, how are you?
Both: Wonderful. Very well.
DMJ: Gentlemen, just from the start, I want to say that I appreciate your time. We have a couple of things to cover, including your exciting new album, ONE, but first I just want to cover a little bit of history about the two of you, individually. If you could just each speak about your musical interests before being a part of Take 6. I guess, Claude, we can start with you.
Mark Kibble: Yeah 'cause you're much older.
Claud McKnight: There you go. Well, before Take 6, I grew up … pretty much, my formative years were in Buffalo, New York. And I’d sing in the choir that my grandfather led up there in Buffalo, and that was a family tradition, that everybody came through that choir. I’m also a trombone player, so I grew up playing in jazz bands, and things of that nature.
So when Take 6 came along and Mark started arranging for the group, we started doing the kinds of things--I was already playing in the bands that I grew up in. so it was a natural progression.
DMJ: Okay. And Mark, how about you? What was going on with you, musically speaking, before the group?
MK: Well it’s funny, because I actually grew up in Buffalo at the same time Claude was there. While he was singing in the choir, I was a wee lad watching as he sang with the elders.
CM: [Laughs] Wow.
MK: No, I grew up around the same time. My dad was the pastor of that church at the time, and my family would sing together, traveling from Boston to Buffalo. And like Claude said, that church was extremely musical—led by his grandfather—and I got involved with music there, and I guess it was ingrained in me.
I started doing quartet music, actually, in Buffalo. I moved to Nashville, Tennessee early on with my family, because pastors move, and I was starting to do quartet music even then, all through high school.
I met up with Mervyn Warren when I went to high school in Huntsville, Alabama, and we partnered in doing a lot of music then. Claude and I both sang in another group called A Special Blend that Mervyn Warren led, and that was just one of the many groups that we sang in. We sang in a group called Symbolic Sounds, and actually, Claude started the group that we are currently in now, at that same time. So there was a lot of music going on, but there’s kind of a synopsis of the roots.
DMJ: And was there any degree of friendly competition among the groups since you guys were all doing it at the same time?
CM: Absolutely. [Laughs]
MK: It's so funny, but Claude and I could not lose, because we were in both.
CM: That’s right.
MK: We were in all the groups at the same time.
DMJ: Well, Claude, as Mark just said, Take 6 was your creation. So tell me a little bit about how the group was formed, and how it has evolved into the Take 6 that we see today.
CM: Well, the way it worked with that was I started a quartet when I was a freshman in college at Oakwood University, and at the time, it was pretty much what you would call barbershop-style harmonies.
We didn’t really evolve into what it is you’re hearing now until Mark came into the group, and started being the primary arranger of the group. He and Mervyn did a lot of the arrangements, and that’s what really set our sound apart from all of the other groups that were down there at the college at the time. So I’m credited with starting the group, but it’s really the sound of Mark and Merv, and then later on, Cedric Dent, who really, really fashioned the sound of what we have.
DMJ: And Mark, were you also there at the same college?
MK: Yes, that’s where we all met up again. I knew Claude in Buffalo and we met again at that bathroom scene where Claude formed that quartet. As the story goes, I don’t know why they were using the bathroom to rehearse.
DMJ: The acoustics, I guess, right?
CM: That’s right, that’s right—acoustics.
MK: And I heard them singing in there and decided to join and add a fifth part. That was the auditorium bathroom, and we went right on upstairs and performed, and I knew it was born. Yes, I was there.
DMJ: Now the college where it all started was a Seventh-Day Adventist college, from what I understand. Do all the members subscribe to that particular faith?
CM: Yes, absolutely. We’ve gone through a lot of different members as well, but the group did start there, and we’re all Seventh-Day Adventists. Over the years there have been members here and there who have not been Seventh-Day Adventists, but yeah, it is primarily a Seventh-Day Adventist group.
DMJ: And Claude, as you said earlier, you played trombone. What was it about this thing of a cappella singing that attracted you?
CM: A couple of things: one, this particular college had a really rich heritage of a cappella groups—a lot of trios, quartets, and choirs and such—so I wanted to have a singing group once I got to the college.
Also, I think what happened with this particular group is everybody played some kind of instrument: everybody played keyboard to various degrees, and guitar and other things, so it was cool to try to emulate and to arrange in a way that we wouldn’t miss the instruments, and just do it a cappella in that way. So it was a welcome challenge to see how far we could go with just our voices.
DMJ: Mark, this is a good question for you since you do a lot of the arranging: how often do you guys rehearse to get that great harmony together?
MK: That changed with the years: When we first started, we would rehearse all the time—we’d rehearse every day of the weekend, and for long hours. We couldn’t rehearse that much during the school week, but on the weekends we dedicated three- and four-hour sessions of rehearsal to pull it together. As the years go by and we start performing a lot more, then the rehearsals dwindled down to just when it was time to learn new material.
We would probably take two weeks to come together and rehearse a bunch of material; then the rest of the rehearsals happened on the road. As we perform, we continue to develop, so actually dedicated rehearsal time is few and far-between for us.
DMJ: Claude, can you talk to me a little bit about the inner workings, for lack of a better term, of the group? Because there are six of you, I’m wondering, how do you decide what you’re going to do, creatively—which songs you’re going to do, which direction an album is going to go in. How do you make those kinds of decisions?
CM: Well, the great thing about this group is we’ve been together so long, and I think there’s a really high respect for each other, from a creative standpoint, and a musical and spiritual standpoint, that what we do is we pretty much talk everything out. We make sure that everybody’s heard when it comes to the projects that we want to do, when it comes to the songs that we want to include on those projects, and generally—and this has happened in the last few years—we will appoint one person to be the overall producer of whatever project we decide on, and it’s been pretty much smooth sailing.
And it’s a great question that you brought up, because with groups—I don’t care what group it is; it could be two people, it could be ten people—there are always going to be disagreements. There’s always going to be times when people may feel like their voices aren’t being heard. But in this group we try to make sure that that is really minimized, and I think it’s really, really working for us, as far as our communication and everything; and I think that that really makes the creative process go much better for us.
DMJ: Mark, this one is for you. Since you guys came out with that first album in ’88, you have greatly influenced the game, in my opinion, and we can hear that influence in other groups, like Boyz II Men and Straight No Chaser. Why do you think Take 6 has been able to elevate this particular genre of music more than anyone else in recent years?
MK: I think that, for us, we were probably some of the most visible pioneers for expanding what you can do, and showing people what can be done. That’s really what it’s all about, when people grow up and they start listening to things, and they go, “Okay, you can do it this way rather than just the same old way that everybody else has been doing it.” Then they want to take that on. Present it in a cool way and everybody wants to be cool.
So what we did in expanding what can be done with harmonics, and mixing it with soul and gospel, and putting together a whole new flavour, especially when we came out, was the next best thing to sliced bread. So, naturally, groups grew up and then you found, a few years later, they were taking it on and incorporating it into whatever they were doing.
So we’re honoured to be in that position. We think it a compliment when we hear other people emulating what we do, or some of what we do, to whatever degree that they can.
DMJ: Claude, I had the great pleasure of interviewing your brother Brian McKnight last year. One of the things I was surprised to learn was that he had never won a Grammy Award. However, with you guys, as I said in the intro, you won ten and you won your first two with your very first album. Can you recall—for those of us who won’t ever get that honour—what it felt like to receive such an honour with your very first album?
CM: Well, it was incredibly surreal, because at the time we were all, literally, mid-twenties—some of the guys were early twenties, as far as age was concerned. And I remember two or three of the guys actually had their books and everything with them, because I believe it was exam week, so they were students.
And we were all just trying to figure out what this whole thing was about. So to go to the Grammys, to sing on the program, and to win two of the three that we were nominated for was so surreal that it’s almost hard to even think about it until someone asks you the question, like right now. And you look over and you see the actual Grammys that you have and you’re, like, “Wow! Yeah, those are mine.”
DMJ: Mark, another thing I was surprised to learn in my chat with Brian is that he said he would never make a jazz album; however, you guys seem to embrace a lot of those jazz elements in the arrangements. Since you’re the one who handles a lot of that, tell me why that is that you embrace so much of the jazz elements?
MK: Well, I think the biggest thing is that we like jazz. It’s very simple. We grew up listening to it. It’s a little more challenging to understand, and we had the mind to understand it and appreciate it, and it’s just in us. As creative artists you have to do what’s in you, and that’s just what comes out, so it’s easy for us. It’s kind of hard for us to not do jazz.
DMJ: Right, I gotcha. Claude, anybody who listens to your albums, like 2002’s BEAUTIFUL WORLD or 2008’s THE STANDARD, can hear that, typically, your albums have a central theme. I want to talk about the new album, ONE: is there a central theme going on with that particular project?
CM: Oh, absolutely. I think from the very beginning, what we wanted to do with the single and with the album is to let people know a couple of things: one, Take 6 is moving forward in this next stage of our career as one—the six of us, as far as our mindset, our heart-set, our spirituality, and everything. Not that we weren’t before, but every couple of years, you have to take inventory on where you are.
I think a lot of the meetings we’ve been having in the last year … specifically, it started in Brazil, last year, where we really tried getting on even more of the same page. We were already working on the record then. For us, really, there’s one power to us, for us, and that’s Jesus Christ—that’s God, that’s His love. And so, for us, it is one, and that’s the central theme of this record.
A lot of the songs are spirituals; a lot of the same kinds of things—and Mark may be able to elaborate on this—that we did on our very first record when we came out. We were arranging spirituals and more Gospel-flavoured songs. I think this is a throwback to that, but in a 2012 way.
DMJ: Mark, is there anything you would want add about the theme of the current project?
MK: Well, yes. The main thing here is that, in the last several years, we’ve been doing theme albums. The one that we did before this one was a Christmas album, and we were doing more Christmas standards, and honestly, less spiritual Christmas standards. And before that we did THE STANDARD, which was all kinds of standards.
This one is specifically a Gospel CD. It is taking us all the way back to the roots of where we began, and we’re doing hymns and very old gospel songs, and songs that might be very familiar to you. And it’s just the unadulterated uplifting of Jesus Christ on this one, and it’s very easy for us, because that’s who we really are. But ultimately that’s the flavour of it; it’s just straight-up, “Let’s praise God” here.
DMJ: Well, since we’re here, let’s talk about some of the songs on it. I haven’t heard the whole thing; I’ve heard maybe about six tracks, and I really liked “Take the Lord with You.” That stood out as one of my favourites. Mark, you just mentioned that there will be some other songs on there that’ll be familiar to us. If you could, just mention a few of those.
MK: Yes, we’re doing the hymn “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” We’re doing a song called “I Want to Be a Christian In My Heart”; we’re doing one of the old—I think you just mentioned—“Take The Lord With You Everywhere You Go”; we’re doing a very familiar gospel hymn, “One Day”… “Living, He loved me/dying, He saved me/buried, He carried my sins far away.” We’re doing an anthem, Randall Thompson’s “Alleluia”; we took that and decided to put a Take 6 flavour on it.
If you're gospel or know choirs, in general, it’s hard to not be familiar with that one. You might need to be in the choir realm to know where that came from, but it’s been around for a very long time. Then there’s another song called “Noah” from way back, and we have a special jam from Stevie Wonder on there, as well.
DMJ: Okay. Claude, is there any particular tracks that stand out as favourites for you?
CM: For me, probably “Alleluia” and “Noah,” two songs that are pretty much tour-de-force Take 6 arrangements that Mark really, really put his whole foot in. Did you put four feet into that, Mark?
MK: Yeah. Well, actually, I just put half of one in.
CM: Oh, wow. Well, see? This particular interview we're doing is the first interview about the record since it’s been completely done. Mark, I believe, is just getting back—I don’t even know if you’re back yet, Mark—from New York, mastering the record and everything, so he’s got the most up-to-date sound, as far as what this record is. So I’m very excited, because I haven’t heard it in its entirety.
MK: Yeah, he hasn’t actually heard the completed project yet. But he knows all the songs, though.
DMJ: Mark, you guys have been around actually since 1980 … everybody can do their own math; we don’t have to call the numbers. But what is it that you’re hoping that today’s audience—let’s say people in their twenties or younger—get from your album, should they come across it?
MK: Well, one thing about this one, we’re doing songs, actually, in a simpler way, so that you can sing along with them—you’re so familiar with them that they just get ingrained in your skin. And then we really wanted to bring it home, like with the title cut: it’s talking about things that you’re very familiar with: sports, food … and food. Did I mention dinner?
DMJ: You a little hungry over there?
MK: Well, it’s just things that you’re very familiar with, so you very easily relate to it, and you get the whole picture of what it takes to become one, and what’s the most important: unity. That’s what it’s really all about. So if you don’t come with anything else, that you realize what is most important, that Christ is most important--He should be number one in your life--and that you feel His love through it all, then we’ve accomplished our task.
DMJ: There you go. Claude, I want to ask you before I forget, about the video for the single, “One.” I don’t know if it’s been released, I haven’t seen it, but I hear that there’s quite a bit of star power in it. Can you speak on that for a moment?
CM: Star power ... definitely. We do have a couple of cameos from some of our friends, maybe a brother, maybe a couple people that we’ve mentioned in the interview already. It’s one of those things where, basically, the video is an outdoor barbeque, family-style picnic thing, and we’re just having a lot of fun. So we did ask some of our friends to come by and hang out with us, and they did. So look for the video—look for our peeps up in it.
DMJ: And when is that video going to be available for us to see?
CM: It should, literally, be any day now. We have looked through the different versions of it; we’ve pretty much approved everything. I think they’re just doing some final tweaks on it, so I want to say within the next week or less, we should be seeing it.
DMJ: And speaking of your friends, some of your friends have made guest spots on your albums in the past. So any guest appearances on the album, Mark? On this one?
MK: Yeah, like I mentioned before, Stevie Wonder is on there with us, because he gave us one of his cuts that we’ve actually performed with him before, “Can’t Imagine Love Without You,” and he’s singing on there with us. So, yes, we do have guest stars—our favourite, our brother Stevie Wonder.
DMJ: Just a few final things before we wrap up. Speaking of collaborations, is there anybody that you guys would like to work with that you haven’t had the chance to work with yet?
CM: Oh, wow, I’m sure there are. I think, for us, we’ve had a really, really blessed career in the sense that we’ve been able to work with almost everybody that we have wanted to, as far as people that we grew up listening to. My thought is it would be really great to reach out to some of the younger artists now, who have come up after us, and see what they could bring to what it is we do. Some of the people like Alicia Keys, and people like that. Raheem DeVaughn …
CM: Oh, yeah. India Arie, people like that. Kim Burrell …
DMJ: Oh, man, yeah. That would be real nice, so I’m glad we’re putting that out there in the universe, so speak truth to it …
DMJ: And there you go. Just one last thing, and I want to get each of you to comment on this if you can, if you want to. But as we all know, there’s been the recent passing of Whitney Houston. I believe, Mark—I’m not sure how many other people in the group—I think, Mark, you did some work on her Christmas album some years ago. Can you guys just share with me a little bit of your feelings about that before we wrap up here?
MK: Absolutely. Let me just correct you there: on that Christmas album was Mervyn Warren; he worked with her specifically on that. But we have worked with her. There was a South African performance where we did the music for her to sing … what was it called? “Love in the Name of Love.”
And we were very good friends with her. We sang “Happy Birthday” to her over the phone, and we ran into her on many occasions, so there was a lot of respect. I think Claude was probably the last one to actually just hang with her, from our group, anyway—and Claude, you can probably speak to that. But she was just a good friend to us, we knew her to be a wonderful person and loved the camaraderie.
Oh, maybe I should mention this: I was going to mention that we actually did the song “I Will Always Love You,” and we dedicate that to her. We recorded that a long time ago for a Japanese release, and absolutely, we put it out there in remembrance of her. Go ahead, Claude.
CM: Yeah, it was really devastating for us. We were in Japan when we heard of her passing, and it was so surreal. Again, you don’t expect to hear this kind of thing when you’re clear on the other side of the world watching CNN International, and you see it come up.
I was the last person to actually see and hang with her from the group—we got to hang out before the 2010 BET Honours program. It was a very cool time because we were just standing there, the two of us--and there was a live band playing at the party the night before. So we’re just standing over there, talking and singing harmonies to what was going on. She just had that kind of spirit, man.
Whitney was just a regular young lady, at all times. We all have our problems, and unfortunately, hers may have contributed to what has happened, but she was a beautiful person and we really loved her as a friend and as a sister.
MK: Absolutely. We’ll sorely miss her.
DMJ: I want to thank you guys for sharing your personal thoughts, and I’m sorry for your particular loss, as friends. Let’s just put some information out there about the new album. Tell me when it’s coming out.
MK: I believe it’s March 27th.
CM: That is the street date that we’ve been told. It may come out on the day; it may come out after, because it’s so close to the date now--we’re just now getting it. But put that in your head: March 27th is supposed to be the date.
DMJ: Okay. And will you guys be touring in support of it?
MK: We plan to; that is still in formulation. [Laughs] Being formulated. Yup, I made up a word today, but we’re working on that, for sure.
DMJ: All right. Just one last thing, and this is for all your fans out there. Is there any way they can keep in contact with you online? Claude, I know you’re on Facebook. Is there a Take 6 Fan Page on Facebook?
CM: Absolutely, you can reach us in a couple of different places: take6.com, you can reach us on Facebook at the Take 6 page, you can also reach us on Twitter because we’re pretty active there @Take6official.
DMJ: All right, gentlemen, that’s it. Is there anything either of you would like to say that we haven’t talked about? I know we covered a lot.
MK: We appreciate your giving us an opportunity to talk about it all.
DMJ: Yes, sir.
CM: Absolutely. Thank you very much.
DMJ: All right. Claude McKnight, Mark Kibble from Take 6, thank you so much. Any time that you guys have anything going on, our doors at SoulMusic.com are open. Thank you so much for your time, gentlemen, and be blessed.
MK: Likewise, thank you. God bless.
CM: You be blessed, brother.
DMJ: All right.
About the Writer
Darnell Meyers-Johnson is a New Jersey based music journalist and creator of The Meyers Music Report (www.TheMeyersMusicReport.Tumblr.com). Previously, he served as Entertainment Editor for the now defunct publication Nubian News and as Editorial Coordinator for SoulMusic.com. When not conducting interviews or writing liner notes, Darnell hosts a weekly radio show, Vocal About Jazz, which streams online every Saturday from 12-2pm, EST on JazzOn2.org and iTunes.