Paris is apparently a lucky name for singer Chris Willis.
The Ohio-born singer/songwriter had a great run in contemporary Christian music in the ‘90s; one of his biggest gigs was working as a backup singer for gospel legend Twila Paris on her seminal 1993 “Beyond a Dream Tour” though later he established himself as a go-to session singer and had his own gospel album out.
Later in Paris, France he collaborated with French producer/DJ David Guetta and the two enjoyed an unusually rich partnership that resulted in the No. 1 dance hits “Love is Gone”, “Give it All You Got” (both 2007) and “Gettin’ Over You,” a 2010 collaboration with Fergie and LMFAO.
Now Willis, who essentially rebuilt his music career from scratch after coming out around the new millennium, is branching out solo once again. His hit “Louder (Put Your Hands Up)” was a No. 1 hit in 2010 on the Billboard dance chart. Last year’s “Too Much in Love” went to No. 4. Last month it went to No. 1 on the DJ Times Dance/Crossover chart.
They’re both on his latest EP “Premium: Songs From the Love Ship, vol. 1,” which dropped in November. He’s planning two more installments and spends about three weekends a month on the road, performing 30-minute sets in dance clubs all over the world. He’ll be in Washington on Feb. 21 for a media blitz, though no performances are planned.
He remembers a pivotal turning point during a break in performing on a cruise ship in the late ‘90s — the feelings are eerily similar to those shared by many other gays who grew up in evangelical Christianity.
“I was always thinking, ‘How do I reconcile this with what I hear in sermons and what I read in the Bible,’” Willis, 43, says during a phone interview from his Atlanta home. “All those years living in the closet I tried to pray it away and lived with all this doubt, guilt and shame. I couldn’t reconcile the process either. It felt odd in a way because to a degree, I always had a certain sense of peace in my soul. I had to really learn to adopt a philosophy that there are no mistakes and for whatever reason, this is the hand I’ve been dealt. I started to realize that nothing positive was ever going to happen unless I accepted it.”
Despite the inner struggle, Willis says he enjoyed his years in Nashville working with gospel acts like Paris, Mark Lowry, Amy Grant and others (he’s also cut vocals for Dusty Springfield, Ricky Martin, Kelly Rowland and Quincy Jones). He considers several of Grant’s former back-up singers such as Donna McElroy, Vickie Hampton and Kim Fleming, dear friends who helped him network wildly in the ‘90s.
“I have such respect for those years and that time,” he says. “It was a great grooming period for me and though it was tough personally and internally, I learned to take the good with the odd and bad and embrace and appreciate the whole pie.”
After moving to New York, he started to rebuild his career almost from scratch. He had “almost no contact” with people from his Nashville years and says there’s almost zero crossover between the gospel and electro/dance industry brass. Never mind that the industry paradigm was, of course, crumbling around him — he did one album for Warner Brothers that was shelved. His second, an eponymous 1996 release, did modestly well on Star Song, in imprint eventually bought by EMI.
Willis met Guetta in Miami in 2000. They clicked musically and Willis is featured on the title cut to Guetta’s 2002 debut, “Just a Little More Love.” It was only a modest international hit but it was the start of the second major phase of Willis’s career.
Despite his successes — Willis says clubgoers all over the world know his songs and sing along when he makes appearances — it’s still a highly competitive field.
“I can make a great impact in the electro market but on the charts, you’re up against the latest remixes from Beyonce or Rihanna and it’s really intimidating,” he says. “As an artist, it obviously makes me a little nervous, but I love making music and taking that risk and chance. And you know, I tend not to pay so much attention to the charts. It’s a great way to avoid being disappointed. I’m just happy to be able to work and travel and I have many loyal supporters who help keep me going.”