DALLAS—Fred Hammond was ready to give up.
The basic bass guitar his mother had given to him to play at church was sitting under his bed, unused. After a few months, his frustrated mother, Mildred Hammond, asked him why.
"Who laughs at you?" she queried.
There was no further discussion, but the next week, the hardworking Mildred Hammond plunked down $400 to buy her son "the best bass" money could buy.
"That $400 investment retired her," the 48-year-old gospel music legend said recently. "It paid for her last days on earth and all the days between it. It inspired me to be a better musician, be a better singer. That investment made Fred Hammond."
"She paid like $30 a month for years," he said. "It paid one-thousandfold."
The memory of that period is special to Hammond, who was born in San Antonio, moved to Detroit at age 2 and now lives in Cedar Hill, Texas. He lost his mother, his biggest supporter, to breast cancer in 2007 at the age of 72. He just released his latest CD, "Love Unstoppable," and although the title isn't necessarily dedicated to his mother, it could certainly describe the influence she had on him.
"It was harder for her," Hammond said. As a single parent, she raised five children in the heart of Detroit's gang territory. "She was a nurse, and she had to work double shifts at times. When a woman has to do a man's and a woman's job, that's tough. And she didn't know how to be a dad. But she didn't play. If you got out of line, she would knock you out."
Hammond didn't always have to feel her wrath. When the kids were young, Mildred, a church choir director and musician, would take her children to church with her. Young Fred started playing drums before moving up to bass. Once he started playing that $400 instrument, people around Detroit's thriving gospel scene took notice.
Before he was 20, he was playing bass guitar for the popular Winans group. But Hammond gained true fame in the 1980s as an original member and lead vocalist of the Detroit-based group Commissioned. And his popularity soared when he left Commissioned to join the group Radical for Christ, which won several Dove and Stellar awards for gospel music.
Gospel music critic Bill Carpenter calls Hammond a genuine pioneer.
"Kirk Franklin and the Winans get credit for contemporizing gospel music," said Carpenter, the Washington-based author of the gospel encyclopedia "Uncloudy Days." "But, for the most part, the Winans were balladeers, and Kirk Franklin's success was well after Fred made his mark with Commissioned and as a soloist."
Carpenter said Hammond was instrumental in making praise and worship music the staple in the black church that it is today.
"A lot of artists would sing about God or sing about things he has done, but Fred sang to God and did it in a very modern fashion," he said. "When you sing to God, that transforms the music from strictly gospel into praise and worship territory.
"A lot of people in the black church used to think of P&W as corny music for evangelicals. Now, all sorts of black artists are doing praise and worship music, and that's because Fred opened that door and showed them how to do it and make it relevant to the black church musical culture."
Eventually, though, Hammond's life hit a rough patch. He and his wife divorced several years ago, and Hammond says he became "spiritually empty."
About five years ago, he says, he began thinking about moving from Detroit. Though he was divorced, he says he wanted to be sure that his ex-wife and his two children -- who both appear on Love Unstoppable -- realized that he wasn't abandoning them. Once he thought they were settled, though, the next step was deciding where to move.
"I thought I would go to Atlanta, because I like Atlanta," he said. "And I thought about Orlando because Florida is where a lot of people go when they get old. Dallas was on the radar, but not much. I was following Bishop Jakes" -- senior pastor T.D. Jakes of the Potter's House in Dallas -- "on TV, and I was getting fed from him. And I made the decision that I was just going to move down there, get fed again, and refuel. He welcomed me and the church welcomed me, and I've been getting fed ever since."
He says the move to the Dallas area -- home to gospel stars Jakes, Franklin and Greg O'Quin -- is one of the best things he's ever done.
"This is one of the nicest places with the nicest people, period," Hammond says.
Although he considers himself "bi-city," Hammond said "the reality is the Detroit music scene was not at fluid" as the one in Dallas. "You can go anywhere here . . . and the musicianship and artists here are really on top of their game."
In large part because he was caring for his ill mother, Hammond hadn't released an album in three years until "Love Unstoppable" last fall. The 15-track CD became an instant hit, zooming to No. 1 on the Billboard Top Christian-Gospel Albums, and No. 26 on the Billboard Top 200. The album's first single, "They That Wait," featuring another gospel star, John P. Kee, has already become a favorite on gospel radio playlists. Carpenter agrees that after "a little dry spell," Hammond appears to be back on top.
The CD is vintage Fred Hammond but with a new zeal that speaks to his desire to give glory to God and give back hope to his legion of fans.
"When you've done 30 years in gospel, you're almost like the Frankie Beverly of gospel -- people want to hear your old stuff," Hammond said, referring to the seemingly ageless R&B crooner. "But I needed to put something out that someone else needed to hear. Someone needed to know that they could make it through their midnight hour, just like I did."