Kathie Lee Gifford on Her 'Healing' Return to Music & Penning 'He Saw Jesus' for Late Husband Frank Gifford

Kathie Lee Gifford
Fadil Berisha

Kathie Lee Gifford

Though Kathie Lee Gifford is best known for co-hosting the Today show with Hoda Kotb, the former singer been tapping back into her roots lately with the release of a new children’s musical, The Little Giant, an upcoming film, and her recent No. 1 appearance on the Christian Digital Song Sales chart with “He Saw Jesus,” inspired by her late husband Frank Gifford.  

The TV host co-wrote the song with Nashville tunesmith Brett James, known for penning such hits as Carrie Underwood’s “Jesus Take the Wheel,” Kenny Chesney’s “Out Last Night” and Chris Young’s “The Man I Want to Be.” “He is amazing and we’ve become really, really wonderful friends,” Gifford says.  

The two met last June when Gifford was in Nashville for the CMT Music Awards. “He said he was a big fan of my husband and he was so sorry for my loss,” she tells Billboard. “He asked, 'How are you doing?’ I told him the truth. I said, ‘You know what Brett? I found him that morning. This was the look on his face, this look of awe. He saw Jesus and Jesus took his breath away.’ And I said, ‘Someday I’m going to write that song.’ And he smiles and goes, ‘Well then let’s write that song.’”  

Gifford returned to Nashville the following week and the two got to work. They finished writing “He Saw Jesus,” and then Gifford says James tricked her into recording the song. “I don’t even sing professionally any more. He rooked me into that. Now that I know him, I should have seen it coming, but I didn’t,” she laughs. “After we wrote the song in Nashville, he flew up to my house to record it and he said, ‘Kathie, you’ve got to record this,’ because I was saying, ‘Let’s get Faith Hill or Wynonna. Let’s get Trisha Yearwood -- people that are all still singing professionally and just sound great.’ He said, ‘We can talk about that, but in the meantime, you record the demo.’”

Gifford was initially hesitant because of a previous illness that diminished her breathing. “I have damage that was done to my vocal chords 15 years ago,” she shares. “When my father was dying, I had double pneumonia and I didn’t get antibiotics in time because my daddy was in hospice and we were giving him morphine every 15 minutes. You’re not thinking about taking care of yourself when your beloved precious father is passing away, so by the time I got antibiotics there was scar tissue on my lungs which makes it harder to breathe, so I’ve lost between 25-30 percent of my breathing capacity. Singing isn’t easy for me anymore. It never was easy for me, but it’s really hard now.... I love writing. I’m writing for Broadway, off Broadway. I’m writing films. I’m happy to close that [singing] chapter of my life.”

James, however, had other ideas and coaxed her into singing the demo. He then returned to Nashville with her vocals and fully produced the song. “He said, ‘Only Kathie Lee can sing this song. It is such a personal song.’ And he was absolutely right,” Gifford admits. “And then I was scared to death to sing it live on the Today show. Now I’m coming to Nashville and we’re recording songs for the movie and I’m going, ‘How did this man get me singing again after 15 years?’”  

Gifford sang “He Saw Jesus” on the Today show on Oct. 12 and the song was an instant sensation. “I was stunned with the reaction from people and how many people we’ve heard from,” says Gifford, adding that they are donating all proceeds from the song to Samaritan’s Purse, a nondenominational evangelical Christian International Relief organization. “It was No. 1 on iTunes in the Christian [list] and then on the Billboard chart. You don’t have a hit after five decades in this business. It’s actually kind of comical. I’m enjoying it.”

In addition to the tribute to her late husband, Gifford is also excited about her new children’s music, The Little Giant, a contemporary telling of the Bible’s David and Goliath story. The project was released on Nashville-based New Haven Kids, a division of New Haven Records, which is distributed to the mainstream through Sony Distribution and to the Christian market through Provident Music Distribution. Gifford says she was introduced to New Haven president Ken Harding through a mutual friend.

“He’s a sweetheart,” she says of working with Harding on the musical. “It’s only a CD right now, so kids can play it in the car and really learn the story of David and Goliath -- not what a miracle it was that a 12-year-old little boy could slay a giant -- it was that he had a relationship, a living relationship with the living God of Israel. All the Israelites and King Saul had was religion. That doesn’t do you any good in life, but when you have a relationship with the living God, you can conquer anything.”

Gifford co-wrote the songs on the 30-minute, 13-song project, which was produced by David Pomeranz. Gifford portrays Sheeba, a feisty ewe. Longtime friend Regis Philbin is Jesse, and Broadway notables Aidan Gemme and Gregg Edelman are also featured on the project.

The Little Giant was inspired by a trip to Israel Gifford took with her husband before he passed.

“There in the valley where David defeated Goliath, Frank and I had a life-transforming experience,” she says. “We all had been taught that the miracle was that a young boy took down a giant. But in reality, in those days, any shepherd was experienced in killing big animals that threatened the flock. Just as the Lord had prepared David for that one moment, we realized that God has already given each of us a stone to use. That’s the real miracle. The question then becomes ‘What is our stone and how will we use it?’ When we left Israel, Frank and I each took a small stone with us and committed to use them however the Lord would lead.”

When asked what her stone is, Gifford reveals, “My gift is I’m a communicator. I’ve been an entertainer all my life,” she says. “My gift is bringing stories to life. My gift is entertaining people. I think God uses humor to heal. I’ve been a singer and an actress all my life. I sat on a stool for 15 years with Regis and shared life and encouraged people and got them to laugh. I hear from people all the time that are in hospitals and everywhere else that sometimes with all the bad news in the world, they turn to me and Hoda the same way they used to turn to me and Regis and for a little while they just get away from it all. I try to be a real friend to everybody that is watching us. I try to be real and I try to share my faith in a real authentic way. I think it’s real important. That’s my gift. I don’t have too many, but I’m writing all these things. I keep busy.”

Indeed she does, as Gifford and James have been writing songs for a movie. “It’s called A Reel Life. It’s a movie about movies and how they impact our lives,” she says. “We’re going to shoot it in the spring in Nantucket and in Scotland so it won’t be out for another year.”

Gifford enjoys writing and is especially excited about working with James. “You don’t get an offer like that, writing with the best in the business,” she says. “Now we’ve written all the songs. We’ve done the whole score for my film and then we’ve just written a brand new Christmas song that we’re going to be doing as a duet... and then we’ll see what else the future has for us. It’s been a joy and a big healing for me. It really has."