Producer Keith Thomas on Nashville, songwriting and Whitney

Renowned Nashville producer and songwriter Keith Thomas chats to Headliner about some of his career highlights and long-standing working relationships, and reflects on how he co-wrote Don’t Cry with BeBe Winans, a track which is being used in the new Whitney Houston biopic Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody.

Born into a musical family in Conyers, Georgia, and growing up with a “hillbilly musician” father whose dream was to make it in the music business, the young Thomas was arguably destined to follow the same path. Playing multiple instruments at his local church services and making records from a young age, he later experimented with an acting scholarship, much to his father’s disapproval.

After eventually hitting the road with a Christian band on Word Records for almost four years, Thomas tried his luck and sent two vocal demos to singer Rob Galbraith in Nashville. He soon found himself in Music City with the knowledge that Galbraith and co were starting a publishing company, and soon after that, was asked to be the first staff writer for Ronnie Milsap – one of country music’s most popular and influential performers of the ‘70s and ‘80s.

“Ronnie and Rob truly changed my life,” Thomas reflects fondly. “When Ronnie was on the road, I was fortunate enough to be given free rein of his studio, Groundstar Laboratories, and would spend up to 15 hours a day learning how to produce in there.”

Thomas then moved to Word Records where he spent six years, writing and producing over 20 Number One records during his time at the company. It was at this stage, however, that he decided pop music was to be his calling.

I have a few tricks that I employ so that I don't feel like I'm going to the same well every time.

“It’s a hard transition from Christian to pop,” he affirms. “I had been working with Amy Grant, as a programmer on her Lead Me On album, and we became really good friends. I’d written this song called Baby Baby, and when I ran the idea past her, she loved it. So she took it and finished it, and that became the song that actually launched my pop career.”

To date, Thomas has co-written a whole plethora of successful songs for Grant, and recently witnessed her receive the prestigious Kennedy Center Honor Award at the 2022 ceremony. Having established such a close friendship and working relationship with the artist over the years, this was a very special moment indeed for Thomas.

“I love this woman – we go way back, and seeing her in that situation made me so happy for her and the path she’s taken,” he says. “I usually cry at the drop of a hat, so I was just sitting there bawling while thinking about the body of work we’ve created over the years. I tell everyone that Amy Grant is the quintessential artist. In 35 plus years working together, we have never had one cross word in the studio. She loves giving back to people, and really just has the biggest heart.”

Thomas has also had a longstanding working relationship with gospel brother and sister duo BeBe and CeCe Winans, almost acting as their third member at certain points over the years.

“I was introduced to BeBe and CeCe through Howard McCrary, who was a monster talent,” Thomas laments. “When I was leaving Word, I asked BeBe if he would consider doing a guest spot on my new solo record, and so we ended up writing a song together called It’s Only Natural for my 1986 album Kaleidoscope.”

Thomas ended up writing the duo’s first four or five records, and through their musical endeavors, went on to win a bunch of top accolades including a Grammy for Best Contemporary Soul Gospel Album in 1991. It was off the back of this relationship when Thomas was asked to produce Vanessa Williams in New York – marking the next chapter of his illustrious production career.

During his time with BeBe and Cece, Thomas co-wrote a track called Don’t Cry for the duo’s 1988 album Heaven, a song that recently made it onto the soundtrack for the new Whitney Houston biopic Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody, which premiered in December 2022. Thomas was indeed lucky enough to spend some time with the legendary singer before her death, and was happy to share details with Headliner:

“There’s one particular memory I have,” he explains. “BeBe and I used to have this little back and forth rapport, where he would do a lick and I would try to mimic him and pare it back, albeit badly. And so one night we were with Whitney in a limo going to the Grammys, and BeBe started doing just that. I started doing my bit and she just looked at me and said, ‘No, no, Keith, just don’t sing.’ BeBe’s obviously quite the singer, and there’s me trying to keep up with him. It was too funny, and is definitely one of the highlights of my career so far.

Don’t Cry is one of my favourite things that I cut on CeCe back in the day, and I know her and Whitney used to perform it when they would do shows together.” Thomas continues. “Clive Davis was adamant that the song had to be used for the end credits, and that’s basically how that came about. The version that’s being used however is one that I cut a long time ago, which I totally forgot about. When I saw the film I was crying like a baby of course. To hear that song played at the end was just amazing, and so emotional.”

As technology has changed over the years, so has Thomas’ creative process in the studio. Allegedly the first person in Nashville to have one of Sony’s then brand new PCM-3348 digital tape machines, he would often write on piano or synth, and then proceed to programme drums. More recently, in what he describes as the “drag and drop era,” Thomas has been an ardent Logic user, and often likes to bring himself up to date with the latest pro audio software and plugins.

“I have a few tricks that I employ so that I don’t feel like I’m going to the same well every time,” he reveals. “Sometimes I’ll write on bass or guitar, and that makes me think completely differently. Sometimes it starts with a piano piece or a beat; I just try to keep things as fresh as I can. A big thing for me is making sure I listen to New Music Friday every week, so that I know what the people are listening to.

“I have a set of Neve mic pres that I use with a Sony C800-G, and that’s really my chain. Everything else is pretty much in the box unless I’m dealing with a country artist. I did a record for Tanya Tucker’s daughter the year before last – recorded in the studio with live players – and it was completely organic, just like the old days. That was a blast, and I have to say I do miss that energy and synergy in the studio that I can’t get when I’m just here by myself. Having input from everyone involved is amazing, and so I love doing it both ways.”

Right now, Thomas is excited about three of his ongoing projects – the first being his foray into VR and AI through the creation of free-to-use music libraries for Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat.

“I’m also excited to be working with Sydney Palmieri, who is a young pop artist out of Nashville and a great little songwriter. Then I’m also working with Engelbert Humperdinck’s granddaughter Olivia, who is a beast of a singer. Of all the artists I’ve worked with over my years, to me this one feels very special.”

You can listen to the full interview with Keith Thomas on Headliner Radio, here: