Despite his chart success, critical acclaim, and international renown, Jonathan Butler still has to make one thing very clear.
"What I like to let people know is that I'm a musician first. I just happen to be a born-again Christian; an artist who's born again," says the 51-year-old jazz and R&B singer/guitarist. "That's the other side of Jonathan Butler: the ministry side."
On Saturday, the South African-born Butler will be playing music and ministering as part of a concert event at St. Andrew AME Church, along with a capella group Committed.
Though he still plays secular concerts -- he's about to embark on three-month "Soul of Summer" tour with Warren Hill and Maysa -- in recent years Butler has been more and more focused on his spiritual quest.
"I've been following God's lead on what I'm doing. I'm doing gospel and playing a lot of churches," says Butler. "I love ministering; it's so much a part of who I am I can't separate it from what I'm doing musically."
The youngest of 12 children born in apartheid-torn Cape Town, South Africa, Butler was a teen prodigy who became a star in his native country. Signing to Jive records in 1977, he eventually moved to London, where he spent two decades, siring a succession of hits in the late '80s, including the Grammy-nominated "Lies" and "Sarah, Sarah."
Over the years Butler's vibrant guitar style has most often been compared to a jazzer George Benson, while his soulful featherlight vocals bear the influence of Stevie Wonder. Though he doesn't dismiss such lofty comparisons, Butler has always strived to be his own man musically.
"Look, when I was growing up, I listened to Stevie Wonder all day long," says Butler, chuckling. "All day long. But at some point you gotta step out and find your voice in this business and start to do you. That's what I've been focused on over the years: getting comfortable with my sound and my style of playing."
Though he became born again in 1982, Butler says his ultimate move toward spiritual music, which began in earnest with 2000's The Source, was a hard-earned shift. "I never wanted to be a jazz or R&B artist who just decided to do a gospel record as purely a musical exercise," he says.
"Just because you can sing gospel music doesn't mean you should. To me it's very much a question of 'Do you live it? Do you love God genuinely?' I waited a long time for God to release me to do this. I had to wait a very long time and it just came together naturally."
Butler has just completed work on a new album called Grace and Mercy. The disc, which follows up his 2011 effort So Strong, is set for release in the summer.
"The new album is a bit more edgy, a little more contemporary-sounding, more urban," says Butler. "But I'm an old soul. I love old-school gospel. And there's something beautiful about the deeper side of gospel music. So whatever I do, I reach for that element."
Jonathan Butler, Committed
Saturday, 7 p.m. at St. Andrew AME Church, 867 South Parkway E. Tickets are $35; VIP seats are $50. Call (901) 766-9100 or go to the Cultural Arts for Everyone website, cdfmemphis.org.