Multi-platinum selling gospel artist Kirk Franklin is once again about to break new ground. Not that groundbreaking is new to the Grammy winning artist who also happens to be the biggest selling gospel artist of all time.
But now for the first time in history, Franklin is partnering with one of the largest tour promoters in the world, Live Nation, to present “The King’s Men” tour. Kicking off this month, the tour will feature four of gospel music’s biggest names—Franklin, Marvin Sapp, Israel Houghton and Donnie McClurkin, collectively known as "The King's Men" —taking to the stage together in the most ambitious gospel tour since “Hopeville.”
“In the Gospel world, this is Springsteen, McCartney, Prince and Elton hitting the road together,” said Kevin Morrow, Senior Vice President of Touring at Live Nation. “It’s going to be a once-in-a-lifetime event for music fans.”
Collectively, Sapp, Houghton, Franklin and McClurkin have taken home more than 100 Grammy, Dove, Stellar BET, Soul Train, NAACP and American Music Award trophies and have sold out concerts all over the world.
“The opportunity to partner with Live Nation is a great honor and responsibility,” Franklin said. “The genre of gospel music having this kind of massive marketing support is monumental, and the talent on this tour makes it a must-see event! I’m very proud of this relationship and I expect it to be a new groundbreaking platform for inspirational entertainment.”
“What makes ‘The Kings Men’ tour so special,” said Marvin Sapp, “is that there are four individuals at the top of their game who get the chance to share the opportunity to minister and be on stage together. Our goal is to take gospel to the next level because of our partnership with Live Nation. This platform will give people the opportunity to see us in a whole other light.”
Franklin is the first to admit that a lot is riding on his success this time around.
"This tour is an extension of all our sacrifice and hard work and its success will continue to open up those doors for other gospel artists."
With their investment of somewhere between $6 and $7 million when it’s all said and done, Live Nation is banking on that.
It was Franklin who approached Live Nation with the idea.
“I was introduced to Kevin Morrow by someone who works at Live Nation. I told him my ideas and visions, the things I thought would be successful and the things that don’t work. I told him that there were a lot of great people in gospel and that it could survive in a format outside of the walls.
To solidify the relationship, Franklin invited Morrow to the Stellar Awards.
“You ought to come to this event so you can smell it, taste it and really see what it is,” Franklin told Morrow.
"I saw how amazing the emotional side of gospel is. I had forgotten how unbelievably great the singers are in gospel," Morrow told the Associated Press. “I went back and told everyone else at Live Nation that we need to get in business with them."
"The hope is that the tour does so well that the demand for it continues to grow," said Houghton, who’s racked up two gold albums, six Dove Awards, two Stellar Awards, a Soul Train Award and four Grammy Awards while also serving as a worship leader at Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church in Houston. "If we play it right, it's going to be a game changer."
Indeed, Morrow has said that the tour could lead to additional cities for the King's Men, as Live Nation also is looking to promote gospel tours through House of Blues venues for up-and-coming artists in the genre. That, of course, depends on how well the King's Men Tour does.
With a depressed economy, even a star-studded line up is no guarantee. Add to that the enduring partnership gospel has forged with today’s increasing mega church venues that regularly showcase its artists—and superstars— on Sunday mornings as part of church services.
The latter, perhaps, will be Franklin’s biggest challenge.
“We have a dynamic with this type of music that no other style of music has. It’s the Sunday morning church challenge. Sunday, you can see Marvin at a church service for free. You can see Donnie somewhere preach for free. You can see Israel at a Joyce Meyer event and then to turn around and charge people $40 to $50 to see us.”
Franklin understands how it can seem unfair for the church community to have to pay to watch people they can see for free.
“The challenge is that we don’t get to control the price of the venue,” says the host and executive-producer of the gospel talent show Sunday’s Best, the highest-rated gospel program in BET’s history.
Franklin continues, “We can’t control the gas in the tour bus. We can’t control what it costs to have a good lighting package. That’s the challenge—to really put something together for the people that you hope they will enjoy, but still with the understanding that there’s a business model in Live Nation and all these companies have to make money.”
The mission is hardly impossible given Franklin’s track record in this arena.
As with most every aspect of gospel music, Franklin has been an innovator when it comes to gospel touring— instrumental in the success of three of the top five selling gospel tours dating back to 1997 with “The Tour Of Life.”
Al Wash, one of the nation’s top black concert promoters who partnered with Franklin for the ’97 tour, recalls:
“Kirk was tapping a large group of people who just wasn’t in the churches and I thought maybe we could take this music to them. I didn’t pay him (Franklin) anything to do the first tour. He took a gamble like I was gambling and it paid off for the two of us.”
With gross receipts of $7 million, “The Tour of Life” became gospel’s most successful tour to date.
Then in 2002 Franklin made history again, along side Yolanda Adams and Donnie McClurkin, with the “Hopeville” Tour.
Featuring three of gospel’s four (at the time) platinum selling artists, “Hopeville” became the most successful tour in the history of the gospel music, outselling even some of the secular tours of the day and generating an increased interest in gospel touring. It was so successful that in 2004, they had a two-month revival tour.
“I felt that if gospel music had a platform. That if we could find a thin line between performance presentation and ministry, that people would come,” Franklin says of the 88-city tour.
“That was a very interesting machine,” he explains, “because you had three gospel artists and at the same time it was unique because Donnie had a platinum album, Yolanda had a platinum album and I was coming from a catalog of crossover songs.”
The 16 cities for “The Kings Men” tour were chosen based on market research with regards to sales and popularity of the four artists who were called together by Franklin.
Though gospel is a relatively small industry giving Franklin the opportunity to have toured with “almost everybody,” this is his first time touring with Marvin Sapp. A history maker in his own right, Sapp’s seventh album, Here I Am was the all-time highest charting gospel album in Billboard history, debuting at Number 2 on the Billboard 200 chart.
“Marvin’s ministry and his career is smoking hot,” says Franklin. “It made great business sense to try to get one of the great names in the genre right now to go out on the road with us.
“Israel was somebody that I saw live,” he continues. “He was such a great communicator. He has a great body of work and such a diverse audience. We knew he would be really great. And Donnie is just a staple. You just can’t say enough about his incredible gift and ministry.”
Donnie McClurkin was the first Franklin approached while they were on the set of BET’s Sunday Best.
“The thing about Kirk is he doesn’t even know his own pull. He was concerned as to whether we would want to do it or not,” said the platinum selling artist turned pastor who has yielded such classic hits as “Stand”, “Speak To My Heart” and “We Fall Down”, earning three Grammy awards, two Soul Train awards and ten Stellar awards.
The four headliners seem to share the same enthusiasm.
“Every one of us possesses, if you will, greatness in our right as it pertains to successes in the music business and gospel so it’s not going to be a normal gospel production,” says Sapp, who insists that the special effects and lighting will be a sight to see.
And let’s not forget the hodge-podge of talent.
“I’m going to sing on some of Donnie’s songs. He will sing on some of mine,” Sapp continues. “The same with Kirk and Israel. It will be gumbo of sorts.”
McClurkin agrees, “It’s kind of landmark to have the four of us on stage together because it’s going to be so absolutely creative.
“It’s the anointing of the Lord and songs of the kingdom and it’s men really loving God and each other. The one thing I can say about the four of us is that fame is not a situation. Our job is service and we love serving the people of God and the kingdom.”
“It’s something we’re trying to bring to a community that don’t get to see this music, this genre in this particular light,” says Franklin. “And I’m always trying to figure out ways of getting my community excited so that the powers that be can see that there are people who really want it.”
Promoter Al Wash— who saw gospel account for at least 60% of his business at one time— believes that if anyone can pull off a gospel tour of this magnitude, Franklin can, while also understanding the pressure the superstar will be under to see that it works.
“He’s the only one who could headline a tour of that magnitude and it’s a great line up. It could be one that rivals “The Tour of Life” and “Hopeville”, but I don’t know that the chemistry is there with white folks promoting it.”
Acknowledging Franklin as a genius on the stage, Wash worries that he may fall short on the promotion end.
Pointing out some of the challenges “The King’s Men” Tour faces, “the ticket price—$75–100 for a weekday show, the venues they’re playing, the night of the week [bible study night in some cities],” Wash says these guys have their work cut out for them.
But make no mistake, Wash is rooting for them.
“I would love for black people to come out and support it, not just because it would open the doors for me to come out and do another major gospel tour,” says Wash.
“The community should support it because it will be a great show and I’m going to buy a ticket to show my support.”
“Most gospel artists don’t tour. They do spot dates,” says Sapp. “We don’t have promoters out there willing to take the risk of investing into a tour. This is our chance. This is our time to promote the King's music to another level. We need the gospel music fanbase to show up.”
“There’s always fear,” Franklin concedes. “Gospel music has so many things fighting against it that you hope and pray that there is still an audience that will embrace the production value and all the labor that goes on behind the scenes.
But ultimately, what the audience takes from the experience.
“We are putting together a show, a production,” says Franklin. “I really try to make sure people feel they got something that’s really worth their money. This is definitely going to be an event.”