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Gospel recording artist veteran star CeCe Winans has become Motown Gospel’s first signing, with her inaugural Motown Gospel album. This will also mark Winans’ first record in five years which is not set for release early next year.

Also on the roster are Detroiter Kierra (Kiki) Sheard, Smokie Norful, Tye Tribbett and Tasha Cobbs.

Barry Weiss, chairman and CEO, Universal Music Group East Coast Label Group says the new label will also tap into the promotional resources of Motown Records, whose current roster includes Ne-Yo, Erykah Badu and Kem.

The venture comes half a century after Motown’s first foray into gospel music, with the short-lived Divinity Records in 1962.  But the new Motown Gospel is already a prime-time player, marshaling an array of top executives in New York and Nashville and helmed by a pair of industry veterans: Universal’s Weiss — whose Island Def Jam group includes Motown Records — and Bill Hearn, president of EMI’s Christian music arm.

“It’s hugely significant for Barry Weiss and Bill Hearn to come together,” said Jackie Patillo, executive director of the Gospel Music Association. “This just strengthens the reach for gospel music.”

The appointment of Aaron Lindsey as head of A&R “is a major statement about the impact they’re planning to have,” said Patillo. Lindsey is among the most decorated producers in modern gospel music, having directed chart-topping projects for Marvin Sapp, Fred Hammond, Israel Houghton and others.

Weiss said the gospel label is part of a broader effort by Universal to reinvigorate the Motown brand and “bring it back to former glory.” The launch was timed to capitalize on the buzz around Berry Gordy Jr.’s “Motown: The Musical,” set to premiere April 14 on Broadway.

“We see Motown Gospel as brand extension,” said Weiss. “Motown stands for great artists, and it can do that with gospel music.”

The announcement comes as gospel enjoys a growing mainstream presence with R&B successes such as Mary Mary, along with prime performance slots on late-night and morning network programs.  Also Sheard is now starring in a reality show about her family that is now airing on Sunday’s on BET at 8:00p.m.

“What we’ve been seeing with gospel this past year is pretty awesome,” said Patillo. “There’s been a lot of visibility for gospel music, so (Motown Gospel) is a big step in the right direction.”

Motown Gospel will be pushing for such multi-format successes as “we attempt to create the next Kirk Franklin or Yolanda Adams,” said Weiss.

“The bottom line is we’re looking for this to go new places,” he said. “When a Motown Gospel artist has a record we feel can cross over into the secular marketplace, we’ll employ the Island Def Jam promotional machine.”

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