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Why gospel’s heroes go unsung

23 November 2010

Gospel music was probably the deepest influence on rock and roll, but it doesn’t get the credit it deserves, argues Steve Turner in his new book

IN JULY 1966, the Dixie Humming­birds, one of gospel music’s most venerable acts, took to the main stage of the Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island. They were not used to performing for young white people in jeans and T-shirts, who were more likely to be holding a lighted joint than an open Bible.

Yet they knew that the style of music they had been perfecting for more than two decades had a uni­ver-sal appeal. It could make the sinner envy the saved. One of their numbers was called The Reason I Shout.

By the end of the eight-and-a-half-minute workout, the vocalists, Ira Tucker and James Walker, were exchanging the microphone after every word, their heads jerking back­wards and forwards in a frenzy. “Thank you,” Walker would cry. “Jesus,” Tucker would add; and on and on it went until the audience was on its feet.

The Dixie Hummingbirds were bringing the musical experience of black religion to mainstream America. “Let’s have a little church,” was what Tucker had said when introducing the song. In their voices you could hear the suffering of slavery, as well as the hope of the spirituals. In their movements you could see the physicality and ex­uberance of African American wor­ship. In their smart dress you could sense their pride in being free people on the verge of even greater freedoms.

Hearing them gave plenty of clues to where American popular music had found a lot of its inspiration. You could hear the beat of Motown, the vocal tricks of people like Otis Redding and James Brown, and the guitar licks of Bo Diddley. You could also see the dance moves of Mick Jagger and the suave uniforms of groups like the Temptations and the Impressions. This was spectacular gospel, full of passion, verve, and imagination. And it made most pop and rock look pale in comparison.

Gospel music, along with country, blues, and jazz, was the main tribu-tary flowing in to rock and roll. It was during the 1940s that some black artists began fusing these sounds and creating a hybrid that the trade papers called “rhythm and blues”. In the 1950s, some white guys did the same, called it rock and roll, and started a revolution in popular music which has yet to end.

Yet, of all these forms of music, gospel is the least known about and appreciated by lovers of rock. Rock magazines will regularly celebrate the legends of country, blues, and jazz, but almost never the legends of gospel.

THE Glastonbury Festival in Britain has featured the country star Johnny Cash on the main stage, as well as the blues guitarist Buddy Guy, but never one of the greats of gospel music. Documentary-makers go in search of the ghosts of Robert Johnson, Hank Williams, and Charlie Parker, but never of the ghosts of Thomas Dorsey or Clara Ward. When Rolling Stone magazine compiled its list of immortals — “The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time” — there was not a single gospel performer. Not even Mahalia Jackson!

Yet, of the artists selected, a third either sang in gospel groups as teenagers or were profoundly affec­ted by gospel. Ray Charles loved the voice of Archie Brownlee of the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi; Aretha Franklin originally modelled herself on Clara Ward; Little Richard copied his vocal swoops from Marion Williams; and Elvis was inspired by the on-stage antics of the Statesmen Quartet’s James “Big Chief” Wether­ing­ton, who used to quiver his legs.

Even the Beatles, the number-one act on the list, absorbed some gospel style at second hand through the American artists they admired: fal­setto from Claude Jeter, via Ron Isley of the Isley Brothers (who started performing in a gospel group); har­monies from the Louvin Brothers, via the Everly Brothers; head-shaking from the Holiness Church, via Little Richard; call-and-response from the plantation meeting houses, via Hank Ballard and the Mid­nighters.

Despite this overwhelming influ­ence, however, the average music-lover could reel off a list of greats from country, jazz, and blues, but would be hard-pushed to name more than one or two greats from the field of gospel.

ROCK MUSICIANS themselves freq­uently have a much more in­formed appreciation of gospel. Mick Jagger, Paul Simon, Van Morrison, Bob Dylan, and Bono have all been known to slip into churches to ap­preciate gospel in performance.

The producer Brian Eno (Talking Heads, U2, Paul Simon, Coldplay) is a long-term gospel fan. He told Cashbox magazine that even though gospel-music recordings were often technically inferior to pop and rock, “they absolutely vibrate with life for me.” He concluded: “My feeling about gospel is that it’s about time there was a music that actually moved you enough to make you shed tears again.”

The downplaying of gospel has ideological roots. People outside the Church can appreciate its authen­ticity, excitement, vocal skills, and musical inventiveness, but they are left cold, or possibly even offended, by the point of view of the lyrics. If a singer is expressing passion for Christ, uninitiated listeners cannot re­late to it in the way they could if the passion was for Johnny or Diana.

The only overlap was in the pas­sionate expression of gospel artists. When gospel singers were “in the Spirit”, they seemed to achieve that sense of freedom that rock artists as­pired to. James Brown used to mimic the performance of an ecstatic preacher, dropping to his knees and pleading in almost sobbing tones.

Yet the point of gospel was not to abandon oneself to instinct, but to hand oneself over to God. What looked like freaking out and going wild was, they would explain, captivity by the Holy Spirit.

Gospel music has always struggled when taken out of church and made to compete with other forms of entertainment. The tendency has been to accentuate the more physical elements — dancing, clapping, sway­ing, shrieking — and play down the spiritual. Otherwise, of course, gospel seems completely opaque to someone unfamiliar with the wor­ship, praise, and instruction that it was intended to promote.

It feels like reading an internal memo between people you have no knowledge of or interest in. Because of its origin in the life of the Church, gospel music tends to speak only of the spiritual. Its focus is on the relationship between the individual and God. Gospel singers appeared to be exempt from broken romances, unpaid bills, unfulfilled expecta­tions, and political instability.

THE primary audience for gospel music, on the other hand, became suspicious if gospel strayed away from theology. When Sam Cooke recorded the love song “Wonderful”, he had to use a pseudonym; and when his ruse was discovered his career as a gospel singer ended. Other singers have been reprimanded for airing personal doubts, singing about polit­ical issues or introducing the word “God” too late in a song.

The Rolling Stones’ first hit writ­ten by themselves, “The Last Time”, was a reworking of “This May be the Last Time”, recorded by the Staple Singers ten years before. In its original form, a father tells his chil­dren that in the light of the promised return of Jesus Christ this may be the last time they meet. The Jagger-Richards version is a misogynistic ul­timatum warning a woman that if she doesn’t try harder to please, she could be kicked out.

Soul music openly plundered gospel in this way. Charlie Gillett, in his book The Sound of the City, makes an interesting ob­serva­tion about how this may have been: “The abstract nature of the relationship in gospel songs between the singer and God was rare in the blues, but it was close to the ideal concep­tion of love which adolescents often have.”

In other words, the approach of gospel and the passion with which it was sung were well suited to songs where the object is believed to be perfect, trans­cendent, and otherworldly.

The next step was to exploit the know-how of gospel by marrying it to the love song. Charlie Gillett observed: “Between 1948 and 1952 the potential connection between the emotions of gospel singing and the expectations of adolescent listeners of popular music occurred to various singers, record-company executives, and composers. In­directly and directly, gospel styles and conventions were introduced into rhythm and blues — and con­­stituted the first sig­nificant trend away from the blues as such into black popular music.”

And so it came to pass that a performing art that had begun with men in dark suits and women in long dresses, standing in fixed positions and singing slave songs in voices schooled in the European tradition, has now reached a point where men and women in T-shirts and jeans rap over heavy beats, spin in the air, and sing.

This is an edited extract from An Illustrated History of Gospel: Gospel music from early spirituals to con­temporary urban by Steve Turner (Lion Hudson, £18 (Church Times Bookshop £16.20); 978-0-7459 5339-7), reprinted by kind permission.

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