Gospel singer Kim Burrell is everybody’s go-to for vocal inspiration, and the occasional “fix my life” moment. Like the time Whitney Houston’s family flew her to Germany so she could get into the late singer’s ear and whip her into shape. “That was my role for many years,” she says. “Whitney’s not listening. Call Kim.”
Now, Burrell is giving her no-nonsense advice weekly to contestants on BET’s Sunday Best. She spoke with ESSENCE.com about returning to the show, her memories of Whitney, and what advice she’d give to Whitney’s daughter Bobbi Kristina.
You’re getting ready for the season 7 of Sunday Best. How do you gauge who’s good, and what works?
It’s almost a Catch-22. I don’t differentiate in my expectation from when I’ve seen in a studio session with a Tyrese Gibson or a Missy Elliott or anybody else. I listen to the gospel singers in hopes that they can cover more than the gospel stage because I feel like that’s the opportunity that’s been afforded to me and I want to see that for other people.
It’s like asking you who’s your favorite child, but which contestants have really stood out to you over the years?
Joshua Rogers. I love Jessica Reedy. Le’andria Johnson was a standout and she probably did the most. I enjoyed her.
Do you keep in touch with them?
I do. Alexis Spight still reaches out to me quite a bit. Joshua [Rodgers] does every week. They still see me as Mommy Kim. They ask for advice, like ‘I’m getting ready to record. What should I do? What should I wear? What should I say?’ So yeah, I love them.
Do you still work with secular artists?
Absolutely. As a matter of fact, I think some people heard that I sang at Brandy’s surprise birthday party. Tyrese had to do with that. She didn’t know. I lost my mom two months ago and [Tyrese] didn’t know, and he just lost it when he found out, like ‘Kim, we haven’t been there for you. I’m buying you a plane ticket to L.A.’ Next thing you know my phone goes off and it’s the itinerary. I got there and he gave me the keys to one of his vehicles. He wouldn’t let me to go a hotel. Rev Run and his wife, and Russell Simmons, were also there because [Vanessa Simmons] was going to have her baby. I know Tyrese has probably talked or tweeted about this, but he built like a Benihana’s in the back of his house, so it’s like Gibsihana’s and he has his own sous chef and all. And it was all Benihana-style meals. And because he lost Paul Walker recently, Tyrese and I were able to share a lot of private time together and cover a lot, which included music. He was such a gentleman and such a sweetheart.
Eye Candy: Tyrese
We interviewed Adele’s drummer Derrick Wright and he mentioned how he sort of introduced Adele to gospel. Adele even said your name. Your name comes up so many times from secular artists who revere you. What does that feel like to you?
It makes me feel loved and appreciated. Because as many great opportunities and as many people as I’ve met, I don’t know how to get caught up in that. I don’t know how to go, ‘Well, you know, Adele listens to me, Beyoncé listens… The artist in me says, ‘Good, when are we going to do a song together?’
It’s been two years and a month since you lost your dear friend Whitney Houston. How are you coping? Are you in touch with the family?
It’s still very hard. I talk with Pat Houston [Whitney’s sister-in-law]. We still visit to cope together. We just did a documentary; me, David Foster, Jennifer Hudson, Pat of course, Whitney’s mom, CeCe Winans, her brothers, Clive Davis. I think they interviewed Dionne [Warwick] too. We all did our own contribution to this documentary about her that is going to be simply amazing. I think it’s a view of her that we don’t get to see.
I miss her every single day. There are times I think she chases me. The world loves her so much and they commemorate her on the radio. But I’m like, is it always like when I first get in the car they start playing her? It’s weird. I went out of the country, about two months after she passed away. I got to a restaurant in a place where they speak no English and there she comes on [Kim starts sings It’s not right, but it’s okay] and I’m like, Come on, Whitney. Really? I miss our talks. When Whitney called, we didn’t talk for 20 minutes. Whitney liked to talk for 7 hours at a time. And we spent 14 years doing that.
It seems like her daughter Bobbi Kristina is having a little trouble. If you could get in her ear, what would you tell her?
I remind her too much of her mama in a lot of ways. If I were to be in her ear, the first words I would probably say are, ‘Just stop it. And you know exactly what I mean. You know what time it is. Don’t go there.’ The girl is smart. To me, she’s a victim of circumstance. I’m not making any excuses, but she was born into craziness. At nine years old, your parents give you $5,000 to go shopping, and the money increases as you get older and you’re pretty much on your own. And you’re doing what you want to do and you’re around all this stuff that she’s involved in as a teenager.
So, I would just tell her, ‘Baby, just stop.’ And consider your life to be your own and not a reflection of anyone else’s. Do your best to try to live from this moment forward as an adult because right now you’re living out something that’s killing you quickly. I don’t want to talk too much about [her marriage] ‘cause it is a sore spot. She’s young. And I just hope that at some point she’ll let people in. She’s very rebellious, but she loves me. She just doesn’t want to hear what I have to say. And I get that.
Kim Burrell will be on season 7 of Sunday Best, returning this summer on BET.