Like Sam Cooke, Donny Hathaway and Marvin Gaye, Anthony Hamilton began his path to soul stardom in the front of a church. Before his gold and platinum albums, before songs like “Charlene” and “The Point of it All” and this year’s “Amen,” Hamilton first sang in the choir of Charlotte, N.C.’s New Shiloh Baptist Church.
This summer, before the shooting of Keith Lamont Scott by a Charlotte police officer drew the attention of the nation to this city, Hamilton led Jason King, the host of NPR Music’s series Noteworthy, on a tour of his hometown. Sitting down with King in the pews of his boyhood church, Hamilton says his whole family played a role in the initial steps of his career. “Grandmother, granddaddy and aunts and uncles and everybody else [said], ‘Boy, you better go down there. You gonna do something. You need to join the choir because you need to serve the Lord,’” he says.
But Hamilton knew from an early age that he wanted to be a famous singer, and he knew that pursuit might take him away from songs of worship. “I was rebellious,” he says. “I was walking the line [between] the church and the world then. That was my battle.” That battle also played out in the urging of family and community members to “sing for the Lord, don’t sing for the world.”
Before he got the record deal that would bring him to New York, and then to millions around the country with the release of his breakthrough album, Comin’ From Where I’m From, Hamilton cut hair in a Charlotte barber shop, and credits the atmosphere there for helping to shape his voice as a songwriter. “Children come in and older folks come in and women come in. And you have all this conversation,” he says. “It’s like the information station. The sound manages to have a bunch of people talking about the same subject, but everybody has their own point of view. And even though they’re all taking at the same time, you can hear them all clearly. Then it all starts to make sense. You hear the things they desire, their dreams. It creates songs.”
Hamilton’s songwriting philosophy might best be summed up as, “inspiration can come from anywhere.” During King’s time with Hamilton, the singer improvised songs about the streets he grew up on, the dire need for a haircut and what Las Vegas can do to a traveler (he’d just returned from the city). But Hamilton says the city remains a part of his essence. “The neighborhood and your environment are so important,” he says. “They’re things from my past that I have to stay connected to because those are the people that I fuel through the music. I need those textures. I need that reminder of why I work so hard.”