Adventures in Gospel Land

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    Mary Mary1I knew that things had changed, perhaps drastically, in the world of gospel music when I heard the youth choir at a well known church on Woodward Avenue.

    Remember “Get Off,” the high-energy party song by the band Foxy that was a No. 1 hit in 1978? Well, the choir performed that song with the same arrangement but, of course, different words!

    For example, instead of saying “Get…Get…Get Off!” they sang “Je..Je…Je-sus!”

    I kid you not.

    ALTHOUGH some gospel artists are much too blatant and obvious in their attempts to reach the secular audience, which, of course, means exposure on R&B radio, it would be absurd to expect gospel to stay the same (some would say become stagnant) while everything else around it is changing. 

    And let’s not forget that gospel, R&B, jazz and blues are interrelated, born of the Black experience in the United States with roots in Africa. You could say they are cousins, albeit often “distant” cousins.


         There has been some interesting experimentation in gospel music throughout the decades.

          For example, in 1995 CeCe Winans reintroduced the gospel standard “Blessed Assurance” in a completely different, and unexpected, way on her album “Alone In His Presence.” She performed the song with a straight-up jazz arrangement, and it worked. It gently swings. 

    One might think that her mother, Delores “Mom” Winans, being from another generation, would not have approved of such a project, but not so. Mrs. Winans was so impressed that she used a similar jazz arrangement on “I Must Tell Jesus,” featured on her “An Affair to Remember” album.

        CAN CHOIRS “rock”? The answer is a resounding yes. For a prime example, take a trip back to the 1970s and listen to “I’ll Make It Alright” by the Beautiful Zion Missionary Baptist Choir featured on their self-titled album. The Chicago-based choir went even further with their next single, “Dust Yourself Off and Try It Again.” (Oh my!)

         As would be expected, recordings such as these spark controversy. Gospel traditionalists, who are worthy of respect just like most people, feel that making gospel music outside of the mainstream is wrong, even “sinful.” 

    But the same criticism could be leveled at those who feel they are justified in sitting in the judgment seat, pontificating to anyone who will listen. It seems a certainty that the Creator is far more concerned with the heart than what’s on the outside.

        ONE GOSPEL great who has always forged ahead despite criticism from some quarters is Rance Allen. Possessing one of the strongest, most distinctive and most effective voices in the history of gospel music, Allen just keeps singing his heart out. 

    In the process he has influenced many others. In fact, contemporary gospel megastar Kirk Franklin collaborated with Allen on one occasion.

         Ironically, Kirk Franklin started out very much in the traditional gospel realm. Kirk Franklin & the Family soared to the top of the gospel charts and became a mainstay on gospel radio in 1993 with their breakthrough song, “Why We Sing.” 

    However, before long it became obvious that Franklin had something else, something entirely different, in mind. The Family, including several overweight, very “church-looking” women, were replaced by a younger group of singers. 

    Called Nu Nation, they moved and grooved, and some of the ladies, with hair flying, looked liked they could have been “Soul Train” dancers.

    AS EYEBROWS were being raised, Franklin was not particularly concerned, if at all. 

    In  1997 he boldly addressed those who felt “gospel had gone too far” by recording a song (with another choir, God’s Property) titled “Stomp” that used the music from Funkadelic’s classic “One Nation Under a Groove.”  And for embellishment, he added a cameo rap by Salt of Salt-N-Pepa.

    Franklin, also the king of trendy gospel dressers, is definitely not the only gospel artist to be found on the R&B and sometimes Pop charts. Names like Marvin Sapp, Donne McClurkin, Yolanda Adams, Smokie Norful, Mary Mary, BeBe Winans, Karen-Clark Sheard, Ki-erra “Kiki” Sheard (her daughter), Fred Hammond, the Clark Sisters and Vickie Winans are essentially regulars.

    Winans and Adams, as well as Dorinda Clark Cole, are among the ladies who  represent another difference between today’s gospel and that of years past — they are glamorous, and yes I’ll say it, sexy, whether that was their intention or not.

    THE WINANS (Carvin, Michael, Ron and leader Marvin), now disbanded, were an extremely strong force in the development and expansion of contemporary gospel. In 1990 they even worked with R&B/new jack swing producer-writer Teddy Riley, the result being an R&B Top 10 hit, “It’s Time.”

    The quartet paved the road for the Winans to become the First Family of Gospel, a title previously held, for a very long time, by the Hawkins. That is, Edwin Hawkins, Walter Hawkins, Tramaine Hawkins and Lynette Hawkins.

    But before the Hawkins, there was the Staple Singers, who had been steeped in gospel tradition — that is, the early 1970s when they switched to “message songs.” 

    To say the least, they were successful, burning up the R&B and Pop charts with, among others, “I’ll Take You There” and “Respect Yourself,” both of which are still heard often today.

    The Staples got even more adventurous when Curtis Mayfield recruited them 1975 to be the vocalists for the film he had scored, “Let’s Do It Again.” 

    This was not a “message” song and was certainly far removed from gospel! The No. 1 hit (R&B and Pop), some of the group’s best work, was, let’s face it, about the pleasures of the flesh.  “Just makin’ good love” followed by  “good sleep in the morning.”  (But hey, sex is “of God” too!).

    ANOTHER GROUP that was about as mainstream as you can get, the Mighty Clouds of Joy, took a brand new approach to their music and presentation in the mid-1970s. With the powerful Joe Ligon up front, the group found plenty of favor with R&B and dance music lovers with their biggest hit from this period, “Mighty High,” that is still exciting today.

    But it has never been a one-way street. Quite a few R&B artists have journeyed into the gospel field. Among those making gospel albums are Jennifer Holliday, Gladys Knight, Reuben Studdard
    and, of course, Deniece Williams who alternated between gospel and secular albums. And you never know when Aretha Franklin is going to make a gospel album. 

    Meanwhile, Shirley Murdock, best known for the R&B song “As We Way,” about illicit love, switched over to gospel completely.

    What it all boils down to is “do what you feel” and “listen to what moves you.” No need to explain anything.

    Contemporary gospel is here to stay, some excesses notwithstanding. But so is  traditional gospel. There is plenty of room for Kirk Franklin and  Shirley Caesar.

    “Spread-the-Word ministry” or “entertainment to make money and excite people”? 

    It is both and always has been.


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