MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Friday, July 12th. Good morning! This is The World and Everything in It from listener-supported WORLD Radio. I’m Mary Reichard.
MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: And I’m Megan Basham. Back in the 1990s Ron Kenoly helped introduce a new genre of Christian music. At the height of his popularity, Kenoly’s high-energy praise and worship brought together tens of thousands of people. Now, a quarter of a century later, WORLD Radio’s Myrna Brown talked with Kenoly about how it all began.
MUSIC: King of King and Lord of Lords. His name is Jesus, Jesus
MYRNA BROWN, REPORTER: With emotions, voices and hands raised high…
MUSIC: Jesus, Jesus
..a vintage worship video shows a packed auditorium. It’s filled with men and women—out of their seats and on their feet.
MUSIC: King of Kings, King of Kings
Then 46-year-old worship leader Ron Kenoly is center stage.
KENOLY: We didn’t know what to call it. In fact, they were trying to promote me, and they didn’t know what to call the music because there was no genre of praise and worship music. So they asked me how do you want to be identified, Black Gospel, or inspirational or contemporary or traditional. I said, I’m none of that. I’m a praise and worship leader.
That was in 1990. But before the Coffeyville, Kansas, native became Ron Kenoly, the praise and worship leader, he was Ron Kenoly the soul singer.
KENOLY: My wife at the time and my mother had prayed me out of nightclubs.
In the mid ‘60s, Kenoly sang with the Mellow Fellows while serving in the United States Air Force. A decade later he worked in Los Angeles as a rhythm and blues entertainer. Then he began pursuing a different path.
KENOLY: And I began to write these scriptures choruses out of scripture study and I wrote these songs…
MUSIC: [Jesus Is Alive]
KENOLY: …but my church, which was the traditional Missionary Baptist Church, they didn’t want to have anything to do with this new kind of music that I was writing.
Kenoly says he found acceptance behind bars.
KENOLY: My beginning was in prison. Now, I wasn’t incarcerated, but my brother was incarcerated.
Kenoly is one of six boys. He says his brother told the prison chaplain about him.
KENOLY: And the chaplain invited me to sing and I sang these new songs that I had been writing.”
MUSIC: [Jesus Is Alive]
KENOLY: And right in front of me I mean right before my eyes, I saw the Holy Spirit just descend upon these inmates, these hardcore professional criminals. And they began to break down and cry and re-dedicate their lives, some even born again into the kingdom. And I didn’t even know that I had a ministry.
Kenoly says he continued to read scriptures and write songs about those scriptures.
KENOLY: I began writing songs about victory and overcoming and intimacy with the Father and intimacy with our Savior.
But the next eight years were challenging as he went from hearing cheers to jeers.
KENOLY Have you ever gone downtown in the city and seen these guys standing on the street corner preaching and people walking by and making fun and all of that? I was one of those guys. I was one of those guys, except I was singing. But I had made up my mind. I had seen in those prisons, the power of the Heavenly Father. I knew too much to turn around.
In 1985 Kenoly became the music pastor at a church in San Jose, California. That’s where music executives heard him. Kenoly went on to record nearly two dozen albums, many of them live.
In 1997, he earned a PhD in sacred music. He says he’s used that knowledge to develop the next generation of praise and worship leaders, including his two youngest sons. They’re known as the Kenoly Brothers.
AUDIO: [Sound of Kenoly’s 2019 recording]
Now based in Orlando, Florida, the 74-year-old Kenoly travels internationally and is leading a new generation in praise and worship.
Reporting for WORLD Radio, I’m Myrna Brown.