Kevin Lemons & Higher Calling celebrates 25 years of gospel music

Pandemic inspired Lemons to focus on joy of the Lord in new project, ‘Third Round’

Kevin Lemons grew up surrounded by the sounds of gospel music.

His father was a well-known Atlanta choir director; his mother, Ruth, was a lead vocalist; and his grandmother, Annie Ruth Lemons, was the founder of the Atlanta Masonic Choir, which was organized in 1942.

Now for the past 25 years, Lemons, a 43-year-old Union City resident, has carried on that family musical tradition.

Kevin Lemons & Higher Calling — a 103-member choir that has performed with some of the top names in gospel music, including Kirk Franklin, Hezekiah Walker and BeBe Winans — is celebrating its silver anniversary this year.

To top it off, the 25-year-old choir also released a new project, “Third Round,” on Walker’s Hez House Entertainment label. One of the songs, “For Your Good,” reached No. 3 on the Billboard’s gospel digital song sales listing.

The album was recorded live in Atlanta, said Lemons, but it took three years for it to be released.

“I went through a season where what we recorded I was doubting the message we were trying to convey to people,” he said during a Zoom interview. “I sat on the project for about two years. I questioned every song and questioned all the sounds. Was this the right time?”

Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

He looked at the way the pandemic and cultural and political divisions were further dividing the nation.

People were “losing their faith and joy.”

“When everything shut down is when I started picking everything up,” he said. “I continued moving through COVID to get this message out. I was aiming to show God is still good and he is worthy of being adored. In this music, you will hear a lot of joy. You will hear a lot of excitement. You will hear a lot of worship, but mainly you hear a lot of fun.”

Gospel music, he believes, is not something to be dragged out and a damper; rather, it should be about the joy of the Lord.

He said the choir is like one big 103-person family.

And he’s certain he would not be celebrating 25 years without the influence of his father, Wilbert Lemons, who died in 2001.

“I loved my pops so much,” said Lemons, a self-described “daddy’s boy.” “Whatever he did, I wanted to do. Wherever he was, I wanted to be.”

The younger Lemons was 12 when his father fell ill. He had several strokes and open-heart surgery.

And like the good son, Lemons stepped in with the idea that he, at the age of 12, could direct the Atlanta Masonic Choir.

It was a big leap of faith, and that’s when his training began in earnest.

Under his father’s leadership, the choir had opened its doors to singers from outside the Prince Hall Masons and the Eastern Stars.

At 17, Lemons formed his own choir that was made up mostly of college students.

The choir at that time was comprised of young people who just liked to sing, he said.

Audiences said while the choir could sing well, they didn’t have any spirit about them. That’s something Lemons acknowledges, but he said that spiritual aspect came later after the death of his beloved father, which left him broken.

“I thought that I didn’t have anybody to talk to,” he said. Then it dawned on him he did. God.

“That God element made me even stronger,” he said.

“Honestly, we were told that we would never make it a year,” said Lemons, who was raised Baptist. “We had so many people who were speaking against us, saying we were too young and inexperienced to make it. Some of the naysayers were family members of mine.”

So to make it 25 years “is a mind-blowing blessing.”

“When I first started, none of us knew that I had the ability to train or teach or direct. I was always on the drums; that was my passion. When I was able to step in and help my dad, it awakened in me that I am more than just a drummer. I discovered that God had blessed my hands to bring people and voices together to create a perfect melody through directing ... I never knew there was so much strength in the raising of a hand.”