Sneed: Setbacks resulted in blessings

Photo by TIM DAHN -- Troy Sneed
Photo by TIM DAHN -- Troy Sneed

A gospel singer, recording artist, producer, record-company owner and collaborator with the late singer-actress Whitney Houston, Troy Sneed never dreamed about gospel music when he was growing up in Perry, Fla., a small town near Tallahassee.

Sneed wanted to play football. He even got a football scholarship to Florida A&M University. But an injury to his right knee and resulting surgery temporarily took him off the field during his junior year in high school.

Sneed returned to the game in his senior year but, during the season’s final game, he re-injured his knee. More surgery followed. His doctor told him he’d never play football again.

“I thought my world was over,” Sneed recalled of an 18-month bout of depression. “And then I started dabbling around at the piano. Next thing I knew I was writing songs. I thought, ‘Man, this music thing is pretty cool.’

“God had it all planned,” Sneed reflected from his Emtro Gospel office near Jacksonville. “I couldn’t see it at first. He had to shut me down to let me understand what he was trying to do. And I have no regrets about the path that he’s taken me on.”

Sneed got into music seriously when he was a freshman at Florida A&M. The school’s choir advisor, Prince J.D. Olds, asked him to be the choir’s minister of music. Later, when the Florida A&M choir performed in a concert with the Rev. James Cleveland in Los Angeles, the Rev. Milton Biggham, founder of the Georgia Mass Choir, asked Sneed to be that famous group’s assistant minister of music.

“They saw something that I didn’t see in myself,” Sneed said of Olds and Biggham. “Prince J.D. Olds, he picked me out of nowhere. They both mentored me into music, because it’s not what I was trying to do.”

Sneed stayed with the Georgia Mass Choir for 12 years. Early during his time with the group, he worked with Whitney Houston and singers playing the role of the St. Matthew’s Choir in the 1996 movie, The Preacher’s Wife. Sneed taught Houston and the choir members their parts. Thanks to director Penny Marshall, he also appears in the movie.

“Getting the chance to work with composer Hans Zimmer, Whitney and Denzel Washington and Courtney Vance and Lionel Richie and so many other great entertainments, inspired me to just say, ‘It’s time to jump on out here, for real.’ ”

Having worked so closely with Houston during the producton of The Preacher’s Wife, the news of her death in February devastated Sneed. His mind instantly returned to a memorable day on the movie’s set in New Jersey, the day Houston performed “I Love the Lord.”

“When Whitney sang that song,” Sneed said, “the cameramen cried, the director cried, the whole choir cried. It was so powerful. Whitney literally shut the whole set down. We had to go back to the hotel, because everybody was just so moved.

“To see the power of God that was on her that day, that let me know that, despite all of the things she went through, she was a Christian who loved the Lord in the core of her heart. I believe she is in heaven.”

Following his Georgia Mass Choir tenure and the release of his solo recordings by Savoy Records, Sneed grew restless.

“It got to a point where I had held that position for so long that I wanted to give the opportunity to somebody else,” he said.

“And I was frustrated with the way the major labels promoted new artists. If you weren’t a name, you were forgotten about. But I knew I had something special. So, I said, ‘I’ve learned how to do this. I can do this myself.’ ”

With the help of the college sweetheart who became his wife, Emily, Sneed founded the couple’s production company, Emtro Gospel. The company went full time in 2003, releasing recordings by Sneed and artists whom he signs and produces.

Emtro Gospel released Sneed’s latest album, All Is Well, in August. His single, “Lay It Down,” is in the Top 10 of Billboard magazine’s Hot Gospel Songs chart.

“It’s continuing to build,” he said. “People are receiving the message and embracing it. And our company continues to grow. Through the recession and everything else, we’ve still put out records.”

More comfortable being behind the scenes in his producer’s chair, Sneed still gets anxious before his performances.

“I want to give my best every time,” he explained. “I put a lot of pressure on myself, because I’m a perfectionist. It has to be right. Because I definitely want to give the people what they want and something I can feel good about.

“And in gospel music, you have to be in tune with the spiritual side of what God is doing. When I sing a song, I put myself in the situation, connect with the song. God comes in and takes over the fear. The next thing I know people are rocking and singing and lifting their hands. They’re blessed.”