"BONITA BURNEY SIMMONS" by Wanda Armstead Smith

...An inspiring story about a singer who ministers through music...

It was the summer of 1989. Shortly after graduation, a group of Kinstonians drove all the way to New York City from Kinston, North Carolina in support of fellow classmate—Bonita Burney—who was scheduled to perform at the famous Apollo Theatre. Although there was heavy competition, when Bonita hit the stage, she felt the love of her supporters all around her. And without fail, Bonita proved to the world what most people already knew—her voice was annointed! She was so good, in fact, she was even paid for some of her performances on the show. “I remember getting a check for $700! And I remember getting a check for $250 or something like that. Before I did the Showtime (which was televised), I did a couple of Amateur Nights (which were not televised back then) and I did place. At Amateur Night, if you win, they want you to come back. So if I would go back, I would place again. I won a couple of 1st prizes and one time I won 3rd,” Bonita recalls. While this was not her first time performing on stage, this was one of many memorable milestones.

Born to Sing...
Without a doubt, Bonita is truly gifted! “I’ve always loved to sing! It’s just what I like to do. I love it! It’s what I was born to do!” she exclaims. Born in Connecticut, Bonita was singing before she could even speak! She explains, “As far as I can remember, my mom says I started singing when I was 3. Now I’m not talking at that time, but I could sing music.” Although she doesn’t have any memory of it now, Bonita would hear lyrics on the radio and mimic exactly what she heard. She recalls how her audience was blown away during her first performance. People simply couldn’t believe such a big voice was coming from this skinny, little girl! “My first performance was when I was 5 or 7 in church. It was always—WOW! People just felt amazed just to see. But not only just to see me, but they felt what I sang,” Bonita says.

Honing Her Skills...
Relocating to Kinston, NC with her family in 1974, Bonita would hone her skills while participating in music programs offered in Lenoir County Public Schools. “My earliest memory was when I was 10 and I was in the 5th grade at Sampson School. Mrs. Shepherd (who was later murdered) was an outstanding teacher, but she was retiring and Mrs. Cogdell (Harold Cogdell’s mother) was my music teacher. I was chosen to sing 'The Way We Were' by Barbara Streisand and when I sang it, I heard there was not a dry eye. I think that was my first memory of actually singing before peers and singing before adults and I really enjoying being on stage. When I got to middle school (Rochelle), I was blessed to have Mrs. Martha Manor as a music teacher and she did more performances—they did music like fame. At middle school, we’re already hearing about what Mrs. Daves-Epps is doing (at Kinston High School) and we can hardly wait. But you remember there was no music department at the junior high (then Kinston Jr. High School)”, she explains. For two years, (8th & 9th grade) Bonita didn’t do anything in school, but she was always active in the community, performing at events like NAACP banquets or weddings. Bonita says she fell in love with more of the performance of it all. “I loved the clothes. When we were in chorus, we wore gowns and tuxedos for our events. We looked the part. We pride ourselves in our group with Mrs. Epps. We were chamber singers. We were the elite group. Our chorus, not just because we were singers, but we were the singers of the school,” Bonita says proudly.

To maintain a competitive edge, Bonita says she also took private lessons with a vocal coach. By the time she reached Kinston High School, she was already considered a professional singer—having opened for major artists like Shirley Caesar, The Winans, The Jackson Southernaires and Luther Barnes. In fact at age 12, she started her own gospel singing group, a trio called “Tried by Fire.” The youngest to reach this level, Bonita was humbled by the experience and harmonized quite well with her band mates (Juanita Garner & Sam Mattocks), who were twice her age. Bonita goes on to describe how she would perform with her group at concerts held at Sampson, Rochelle and other places. “At an early age, I already had some type of entrepreneurial skills and entertaining with live music. People were calling me to come places. When I was 12, gospel artists would come to town. Veronica Thomas (now a pastor and Bonita’s godmother/advisor) was one the program managers at WQDW and a promoter at the time. All of the big names at that time would come to Kinston and I would open the concert for them. Those types of things were real good training. I didn’t get paid but I got the experience. Throughout high school, I did concerts (seasonal and promotional) at the Holiday Inn in Kinston. Veronica would put it together and we would sell tickets.”

Overcoming Obstacles...
Bonita says, “Life affords you some detours that you sometimes weren’t prepared for.” From overcoming health issues, experiencing domestic abuse in a previous marriage to deciding against signing with a big record label, Bonita has met her share of challenges on her journey as a professional singer. “In the music industry, you have to produce like you’re on an assembly line and it doesn’t always work like that. Now I’m understanding why it was not the path that God wanted me to take. Being that entertainer that I wanted to be. Not on that scale. There are a lot of things that come with it. And He (God) knows my make up. I’m not a dishonest person. I can’t be in any type of business relationship and I’m manipulating. I’m not going to be in a business with you just for the sake of making money. I want to be able to be effective wherever I am,” she explains.

However, because of her tribulations Bonita feels she is much stronger now. Her life lessons are part of the tapestry that makes her the quilt and enables her to relate to hurting women. “When I write, sing and select music, it has to be music that speaks about our time and what we’re going through. At the same time what I am personally feeling or what I personally went through. I am very cautious of the music I select. I have to feel it. There are so many great artists, secular as well as gospel. I’m not boxed in to just gospel although that is my favorite genre of music. It just speaks more true to who I am than any other genre, but I can relate to many things that Mary J. Blige sings about”, says Bonita. And like Mary, her testimony enables her to connect with others through music.

At the Top of Her Game...
Bonita has defined her own success, choosing to embrace an obedient lifestyle according to God’s will for her life and career. “I allow God to do the navigation. It always works out. The mindset of God and doing the kingdom work—You can’t be in control,” Bonita says. This time she’s learned to depend solely on God to direct her career path. “If I make the way, then I’ll have to pay the way. But if I allow HIM to make the way, he’ll pay the way! It’s a learned behavior,” she adds.

Now at age 41, Bonita is enjoying the flexibility of being an independent artist. Happily married for 18 years with two young boys, her priority is to God then family. Currently residing in New Bern, NC, Bonita visits Kinston on Sundays to attend her late father’s church, Family Worship Center (where George E. Fields, Jr. is pastor). Although she gets time to perform and to record new music during the year, a normal day for Bonita would include helping someone through her ministry outreach or volunteering at her son’s school as Secretary of the PTO. “I am a mother. I want to be a good mother. I don’t want to have to take crap from some label telling me I can’t go to my son’s function because they’ve already sold so many tickets! I chose to be a mother. I didn’t actually choose to be a singer, it chose me because it’s the gift God gave me and I’ve perfected it over the years. I can choose the material that I put out. I can choose if I sign with you or not.”

Bonita’s singing career has been gaining momentum lately. She is currently in competition to win a spotlight on WeTv’s Mary Mary Show, where fans are allowed to vote online for her to win. (VOTE HERE!-Can vote daily-ends 2/14/13 12pm EST) She is also celebrating the recent release of her latest single, “I Surrender,” which is based on an old hymn. “I’m a mother of hymns, but I like to put my own personal testament on it. So I like to re-arrange it, but not too much so that it looses its authenticity. When I wrote “I Surrender” the open line is ‘I’ve been holding on to so much and letting go of very little.' So I surrender…everything,” Bonita explains of her new release. Her latest album, titled “Thank You”, is also slated to be released in early 2013.
Bonita Burney Simmons is now a licensed Minister and is grounded by her divine purpose—as a minister of music. She understands that her voice is like a channel, allowing God to minister the gospel to others through her songs. “When you hear people say I loved that song…but when you sang it, it gave me goose bumps…When you sang it, it brought tears to my eyes…It allowed me to rejoice…When you sang it, it made me feel God was speaking to me. That’s something that’s priceless. That’s something that a Grammy, though a great accolade, can’t even do. I would love to have a Grammy, but it will not give me what a woman at Raleigh Correctional Center, who’s serving maybe 10 years or 25 years, can. Who look me in the eye and say thank you for coming and sharing what God really thinks about me through song. You can see her face is just rolling with tears and you can see that she is truly thankful.” Bonita says profoundly, “Now that’s better than a Grammy!”

For Bookings, Contact:
B&S Productions
Attn: Eric B. Simmons Sr.
P.O. Box 12691
New Bern, N.C. 28562
(252) 637-2339


Single: "I Surrender"
Produced by William Oatman, Destiny Musik Group

Album: "Thank You"
Produced by Alegacy Music Group

"As long as I can remember, my only aspiration was to be a Gospel Music Superstar. I have learned much through the things I have suffered. So, I ask God to give me a song. Not a CD, not a record deal, but a song that reflected the hearts of the tired, downtrodden, outcast, and the dreamers whose dream has yet to become reality. Instead of seeking fame, in recent years I have sought the Kingdom. God has assured me that He will always have a platform for me to share His love through song. Once I became a servant it was easy to SURRENDER!"

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