TAMPA — Corey Edwards had just two weeks to prepare for one of the biggest performances of his career.
In early September, the director of music and worship at Bible-Based Fellowship Church in Carrollwood fielded a call from promoters of the King's Men national concert tour.
Would Edwards' choir open for an unprecedented quartet of gospel superstars at its stop at the University of South Florida Sun Dome?
Of course, Edwards said yes.
Come Tuesday, a select group of choir members will precede gospel greats Kirk Franklin, Marvin Sapp, Donnie McClurkin and Israel Houghton in a much-hyped concert that some say could lay the groundwork for expanding the genre's reach.
And, like Edwards, the four headliners are in the midst of a landmark experience.
The tour is a collaboration with Live Nation, said to be the world's leading live entertainment company. Accustomed to big names in secular music—Rihanna, Jay-Z, Journey and Fiona Apple, for instance — the company has never before taken on a gospel tour.
Live Nation is banking on the popularity of Franklin, Sapp, McClurkin and Houghton to draw ticket-buyers, likening the tour to a rock collaboration of Bruce Springsteen, Paul McCartney, Prince and Elton John.
Franklin sought out the partnership, approaching Live Nation some time ago with the idea. That's not surprising because the multiplatinum artist is known for breaking down musical barriers, often infusing hip-hop and R&B in his style of gospel that tops Christian and R&B charts.
• • •
Franklin said he's aiming for a new kind of "inspirational entertainment." He wants to draw people from all walks of life, not just to bob their heads and recite lyrics, but to grab hold of the hope that gospel music implants in the soul.
Many today are looking for inspiration outside of the church walls on a Sunday morning, Franklin said. They're looking for something "that doesn't come with all of the religious stigma that people have been hurt by or turned off by."
Live Nation executive Kevin Morrow has said the company is looking to promote gospel tours through House of Blues venues for up-and-coming artists — depending on how well the King's Men fares in each city.
He told the Associated Press in August that Live Nation expected the tour to do well in larger cities, but would keep a close eye on smaller markets, including the upcoming concerts in Tampa, Hartford, Conn., and Norfolk, Va.
A Live Nation executive could not be reached late last week by the Tampa Bay Times.
For sure, gospel singers have toured in arenas and auditoriums for years. But the partnership with Live Nation takes the experience to another level, Franklin said.
This tour's promotions and production make the point.
A whirlwind of publicity has followed the King's Men in the past few months: television commercials, photo shoots for marketing packets and prominent radio and interviews, including time on TV's The View talk show.
"You've never seen a tour that has gotten this much press before in the history of gospel music," Franklin said. "Never."
On stage, look for a presentation with high-quality lighting, staging and video. The show has been choreographed so that the four artists perform on equal footing, neither of them acting as an individual headliner. Likewise, each has his own place in the upper echelons of the industry. Aside from Franklin's well-documented success over the past two decades, Sapp's album Here I Am became the highest charting gospel album in Billboard history. McClurkin and Houghton have won numerous awards, including Grammys. Houghton is also known for his day job as worship leader at Joel Osteen's Lakewood Church in Houston.
Franklin was optimistic about ticket sales when reached by telephone Friday, saying the concert has booked 90 percent of the house in other venues. The Oct. 12 performance in Detroit has already sold out, he said.
"This tour is doing stronger numbers than a lot of the mainstream tours that are out," Franklin said.
Edwards' choir will be in the center of the hype. The only catch: Edwards was told that only 16 singers could perform onstage due to certain restrictions. At times, the choir ranges in excess of 80 singers.
"I had to do something that I rarely do here at the church and this is to audition the singers down," he said.
About 30 singers auditioned for the spots, and Edwards was finishing his selection last week.
As for the King's Men, Edwards was excited about the tour and what it might mean for the future of gospel.
"I really believe it's just another opportunity for the good news of Jesus Christ to be spread on a global scale," he said.