In October 1995, my mother was ill, my godbrother was terminally ill, and I was a caregiver, going from the hospital to my house, taking care of everything. Caregiving is a very difficult thing to do. It’s time consuming, and if you don’t watch out, you’ll end up in the hospital, too. I also began to feel that I wasn’t doing enough for my loved ones. I felt helpless and inadequate in what I was doing.
At the same time, I had just founded Vision and was starting early rehearsals in preparation for a recording the beginning of that next year, 1996. I was coming up with music for the album, so from time to time, I would sit at the piano and fiddle around and see what I could come up with.
I don’t remember specifically trying to write a song that day in October. I just sat down at the piano in my living room and started playing, and “Total Praise” just started coming out. I remember distinctly recognizing that it was a praise song, in terms of a theme, but I was trying to pull it back the other way and go into a pity party kind of song: “Lord, I will lift mine eyes to the hills, I know you’re my help, so I need you to hold me, to dry my tears”—that kind of thing. But the more I pulled it that way, the more it pulled the other way, in terms of praise.
‘Total Praise,’ Richard Smallwood with Vision! From the 1996 album, Adoration: Live in Atlanta
I thought, “This is a song we probably could use. Let me see if I can’t finish it.” I wrote “Total Praise” pretty fast—in an hour or an hour and a half. I was putting it down on my cassette recorder, which was sitting on my piano. I could hear the amens in my head, but I wanted to hear them back at me. I had a four-track cassette player on which you could record separate tracks. I recorded the amens on it so I could make sure the harmony was what I was hearing in my head. It took about a half hour to record the amens.
When I finished, God spoke to my spirit and began to explain that he deserves praise in whatever season we find ourselves in. What I call “mountaintop praise,” when everything is going well and you have so much to praise God for, is easy. But the opposite of that is what I call “valley praise,” when you are in a dark situation and you can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. But yet we praise God anyhow, because we understand that this too shall pass, and even though it’s a dark situation, God is with us through it. Writing that song, for me, was a teaching moment from God.
I always used to gauge the success of what I would write by my mom. I’d play it for her and from her reaction, I could tell if it was really going to touch people. By then, mom was in her eighties. She loved it! Her reaction let me know that this was something special. Still, I had no clue as to what “Total Praise” would do or where it would go. At the time, it was just something that God gave to me for me.
But at the rehearsal, we couldn’t move on from the song. After I taught it and we sang it, I remember God coming through and stopping the rehearsal. The same thing happened the following year, in Atlanta, during the sound check the day before the recording. “Total Praise” was to be the opening song for the recording. I’m not sure why I put it first; it was just a good opening. It was sort of a new chapter for me. I’d done the Smallwood Singers for almost fifteen years, and this was the first time I had done a choral ensemble aggregation. So I thought it would just sort of set the tone. But it was even hard to move past it the night we recorded it.
Even then, I had no idea that the song would do what it has done, especially twenty years later. You have kids singing and playing it who weren’t even born in 1995! It’s amazing what God has done with that song.
When the album [Adoration–Live in Atlanta] came out, “Total Praise” didn’t hit immediately. It was gradual. Radio was playing “Angels” and “Thank You.” It took a while for “Total Praise” to catch on, but once it started rolling, it was like a stone rolling down a hill. Going overseas seven or eight years later, I heard it sung in another language. I was in Norway and a choir sang it in Norwegian. I’ve seen videos of it in Samoan and Italian and Russian and Hebrew, and heard it sung in Japanese, German, and French.
The Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir’s version of ‘Total Praise’
I’ve seen a video of Fantasia doing “Total Praise” in the finale of her show. Patti LaBelle has done it. Destiny’s Child has done it. It’s not a crossover song, particularly. It’s a song that gives praise to God, but it’s transcending the church walls and going to places I never thought it would go. It was even sung on the White House lawn for President Obama and Pope Francis during his recent visit.
“Total Praise” now has a life of its own, and I’m blessed to have had God bring it out to the world through me.