Saturday, February 26, 2011

Happy 175th Birthday, Texas! Let's celebrate by focusing on the Golden Era Gospel Greats from Texas

March 2nd marks the 175th birthday of the Lone Star State. I know it's a little early, but to celebrate, here's one of my first ever blog posts, which is about Golden Era Gospel in Texas.

Originally posted on September 25, 2009

By: Joseph Middleton

It just wouldn't be right for me as a Texan to discuss Golden Era Gospel without focusing on the aspects of it as it relates to Texas! Modern gospel artists from Texas aren't hard to find. Dallas is known best for Kirk Franklin, and Austin for Chester D.T. Baldwin. Houston on the other hand seems to be where most of the Texas based, well known modern gospel artists are. Houston has Yolanda Adams, Endurance, Kathy Taylor, Soulfruit, Carolyn Traylor, Kim Burrell, Gary Mayes, James Fortune, Yunek, Shawn McLemore and Shei Atkins just to name a few. When Golden Era Gospel is discussed, the cities of Chicago, Detroit, and Philadelphia are heavily mentioned because they were the places where the major Golden Era artists were based. Chicago is regarded as the birthplace of gospel music and was home to Thomas Dorsey, Mahalia Jackson, Roberta Martin, Robert Anderson, The Highway QCs, Albertina Walker and James Cleveland among others. Detroit was home to The Meditation Singers, Rev. Charles Nicks, The Voices of Tabernacle, and Dr. Mattie Moss-Clark, while Philadelphia had The Ward Singers, The Angelic Gospel Singers, and The Dixie Hummingbirds. But what about that big state down south called Texas? What did it contribute to the Golden Era? Well, it contributed much!

For starters, one of the founding fathers of gospel blues was born in Texas. Sources show that Blind Willie Johnson was born in 1897 in Independence, an unincorporated town which is located about 85 miles northwest of Houston, or in 1902 in Marlin, which is close to Waco. Johnson lived in Hearne and Temple during his lifetime, and died in 1947 in Beaumont.

Arizona Dranes was born in 1891 (or 1905 depending on your source) in Sherman, which is north of Dallas. Dranes was a blind pianist and singer who made her first recordings in the late 1920s. Her style of piano playing and singing was said to have been influential to Roberta Martin and Clara Ward. While she moved to Chicago and joined the gospel scene there, Texas can still claim her as our own.

Around 1926-27, Roy Crain formed a quartet with some teenagers from his church in Trinity, about 90 miles north of Houston and sang in a jubilee style. Meanwhile, in September 1929, a quartet was formed at New Pleasant Green Baptist Church, located at 1608 Andrews Street in Houston by Walter Lee La Beaux. La Beaux named the group the New Pleasant Green Singers. Crain left the quartet in Trinity in the early 1930s and moved to Houston. Crain joined the New Pleasant Green Singers under the condition that the group's name be changed to The Soul Stirrers upon his arrival. Thus, The Soul Stirrers were born in the Fourth Ward of Houston, Texas, starting a legacy that continues some 80 years later. Quartets proved to be quite popular in those days, especially in the South. So it's no surprise that more quartets were founded in Texas as time progressed, such as the Pilgrim Travelers, who were founded in Houston in 1936 and were based in Houston until they moved to Los Angeles, California in 1942.

In 1951, a quartet based in Austin led by A.C. Littlefield named The Bells of Joy released a hit song titled "Let's Talk About Jesus". "Let's Talk About Jesus" reached into the top 10 listings on the Billboard R&B Charts and sold over 1 million copies. Country legend and fellow Texan Willie Nelson, called the Bells of Joy "the best Gospel group going."

During the 1940s, 50s and 60s, a tenor named Wilmer "Little Axe" Broadnax sang with a number of quartets including the Fairfield Four, the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi, The Golden Echoes, The Southern Gospel Singers, and The Spirit of Memphis. Broadnax is regarded as one of the best tenors to ever grace the Golden Era quartets, and was Houston born. Even more interesting is that upon Broadnax's death in 1994, it was revealed that Broadnax was anatomically female.

Texas was also the birthplace of Sister Jessie Mae Renfro (Sapp). Renfro was born in Waxahachie, which is located south of Dallas. Her most popular song was "I Must Tell Jesus", which was recorded in November of 1952. Renfro recorded for Peacock Records in the 1950s and for the Delden label in the 1960s. More Texas born Golden Era Gospel singers include one singer well known for being associated with Chicago, Jessy Dixon. Dixon was born in San Antonio. Willie Neal Johnson, founder of the Gospel Keynotes was born in Tyler. The legendary soprano, Sara Jordan Powell of Houston got her start with The Sallie Martin Singers in 1961, and Houston was also the birthplace of the late Billy Preston, who played the organ and piano on the recordings of James Cleveland, Mahalia Jackson, Cassietta George, Bessie Griffin and Doris Akers in the 1960s.

Peacock Records was Don Robey's legendary label and was based in Fifth Ward in Houston. Peacock was founded in 1949 by Robey and along with the Duke subsidiary label was home to many gospel artists in the 1950s through the 1970s including Inez Andrews, The Sensational Nightingales, The O'Neal Twins, The Highway QCs, The Five Blind Boys of Mississippi, The Mighty Clouds of Joy, Rev. Cleophus Robinson, and The Pilgrim Jubilees. While Duke was shut down in 1957 and Peacock was bought out by ABC Records in 1973, the Peacock/Duke Records building still stands today at 2809 Erastus Street, and now houses the Charity Baptist Church Educational Building.

Houston was also home to The Music Hall, which was built in 1937 and demolished in 1998. The Music Hall hosted many packed gospel programs which drew audience members from hundreds of miles around. It was the venue where The Roberta Martin Singers first introduced their then newest member, baritone Archie Dennis in 1958, and was the place where The Mighty Clouds of Joy recorded their "Live At the Music Hall" LP on the Peacock label in 1967. Click here to listen to a song from that album.

So as you can see, Texas is rich with Golden Era Gospel history. Chicago may be the birthplace of the gospel sound, but the sound resonated from Illinois and deep into Texas, deep into the Piney Woods of East Texas, deep into the Bayou City of Houston, and even the Hill Country region.

The Gospel Discography 1943-1970
Uncloudy Days, The Gospel Music Encyclopedia
We'll Understand It Better By and By
Texas Blues & Gospel

See these links for more information
Postcards From Texas: R&B Royalty: Houston's Own Don Robey (Peacock Records)
Peacock Records Discography
Soul Stirrers History
The Bells of Joy

Monday, February 14, 2011

Repost: A Golden Era Valentine's Day Word

By: Joseph Middleton

Originally posted February 14, 2010

During the Golden Era of Gospel, it was not uncommon to see entire albums dedicated solely to sermons. Some of these popular preachers of the day who recorded sermons included Rev. C.L. Franklin, Rev. Morgan Babb, and Rev. Willie Morganfield just to name a few. Yet, as time went on into the 1980s and 1990s, new sermon albums were rendered obsolete once churches began their own in-house production. Now, a preacher could preach a sermon and have it recorded live, and available for purchase on tape and CD immediately after service. No longer did one have to wait months for the record company to put a sermon out for home enjoyment. Now, you could have that same sermon in your hand just minutes after it ended.

On February 14, 1965, Valentine's Day at Friendship Baptist Church in Houston, TX, Rev. Omie Lee "O.L." Holliday, the father of Jennifer Holliday, preached a sermon titled "How Sweet It Is To Be Loved By You." In the sermon, Rev. Holliday makes it known that he borrowed the title of the sermon from Marvin Gaye's 1964 hit single of the same name. The sermon was released on LP for Jewel Records in 1966. Rev. Holliday recorded more sermons for Jewel and pastored many churches across America. Rev. Holliday died on June 1, 1987.

While the sermon is hard to find today for purchase, here are links to the entire sermon broken up into 4 parts. You'll notice how dated the sermon sounds today, with references to "modern" dances such as The Mashed Potato and The Dog. Still, it's a nice look into yesteryear, and a good example of old time preaching. Enjoy!





Sunday, February 13, 2011

Congrats to Mavis Staples on her Grammy win!

It's been a long time coming, but after over 60 years in the music business, Mavis Staples has won her first ever Grammy. Staples took home the best Americana album for her latest release, "You Are Not Alone" during the pre-telecast portion of the Grammys. Pop & Hiss, the L.A. Times Music Blog, blogged Staples' win in real time. During her acceptance speech Staples thanked her Heavenly Father and her biological father, the late Roebuck "Pops" Staples.

"Give the honor to God and to my father, Pops Staples. It's because of you, Pops, that I stand here today. I tell you, you laid the foundation, and I am still working on the building ..."

At the end of her speech, Staples invoked the late Albertina Walker.

"You will not see the last of me. God is not through with me."

Congrats, Mavis!

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Happy Birthday to Roberta Martin!

February 12, or 14th depending on your source, marks what would have been Roberta Martin's 104th birthday. Varying sources say she would have turned 99 today. Whatever the case, if we're off by a few days concerning the exact date or off by a few years concerning her age, we should still honor the special day of the Grand Lady, the Queen Mother, the Helen Hayes of gospel.

Check the link below for my January 2011 writeup on Martin, which contains a few links to some videos that may be of interest to Roberta Martin fans.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Fantasia to play Mahalia Jackson in biopic about Jackson

News outlets are reporting that R&B singer and American Idol alum, Fantasia Barrino, has secured the lead role in an upcoming Mahalia Jackson biopic. The movie will be based on the 1993 book Got to Tell It: Mahalia Jackson, Queen of Gospel, and directed by Euzhan Palcy from a script written by Jim Evering. Production will begin in April in Philadelphia and Chicago, and the movie will be released in December.

For more info, see the following:

Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Atlanta Post Interviews Dr. Portia Maultsby

For Black History Month, the Atlanta Post has interviewed Dr. Portia Maultsby, Professor of Folklore and Ethnomusicology and Director of the Archives of African American Music and Culture at Indiana University Bloomington. When one discusses gospel music historians, Dr. Maultsby is among many of the names to be mentioned alongside Boyer, Mason, Heilbut, Marovich and Darden (perhaps one day, Middleton will be added to that list ;-)).

Like many of the others listed above, Dr. Maultsby's experience transcends gospel music, covering hip hop, rap, jazz, the blues, and any other genre classified as "black music."

You can read the interview with Dr. Maultsby at the following link:

Behind the Research: Ethnomusicologist Discusses The Legacy and Commodification of Black Music

Thursday, February 3, 2011

2010 Footage of Albertina Walker at the DuSable Museum

Here's a gem of a video taken last year of the late Albertina Walker at the DuSable Museum in Chicago.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Repost: Op-Ed: It's Always a Good Day to Sing a "Good Old" Gospel Song!

In recognition of Black History Month, I felt it would be appropriate to repost this entry from April 2010. Please note that since the writeup, BET's Sunday Best has been canceled, and I have made a few minor edits to correct some issues and update a few things.

By: Joseph Middleton

As some of you may know, on Black Entertainment Television (BET), there's a program airing its third season titled "Sunday Best". The gospel duo Mary Mary and solo artist Donnie McClurkin are the judges on this gospel counterpart to Fox's "American Idol". It seems like BET is proving "The Boondocks" correct in their observation that BET is taking old reality shows from five years ago and making them over. However, that particular topic is for discussion on another day, on another blog.

I'm going to cut straight to the issue that's relevant to THIS blog. On the episode filmed in Detroit, which originally aired on Sunday, April 11, 2010, one person auditioned for the judges by singing the old song, "I Know I've Been Changed". Tina Campbell of Mary Mary dismissed the singer and delivered a one-liner in response, stating, “DEFINITELY take that to the Black History Program.”

While I realize the show is all about competition and choosing the person that best exhibits broad marketability and high profitability for the record company, both the lover of the traditional gospel sound in me, AND the Gospel Music Historian in me had to shake my head in response to Tina Campbell's words. That is NOT the type of message that should be put forth. Whether people like it or not, songs such as those have a rightly deserved place within gospel music. Despite their age, old songs still touch the hearts and souls of a great number of parishioners and listeners everywhere, young and old alike. Just as everyone isn't drawn to the old school sound, not everyone is drawn to the contemporary sounds of today, either. One also has to realize that gospel is not some monolithic, or homogeneous genre of music. It is QUITE diverse! Gospel contains many sub-genres which appeal to different people. For example, mass choirs, quartets, neo-soul influenced groups and small mixed vocal ensembles are all lumped into the gospel category for simplicity's sake, but they are all sub-genres within gospel music.

There are those who are still getting Saved off of those old songs, and that's probably one of the most important things to recognize. Upon that realization, I don't believe it's prudent to actually restrict OR to even suggest restricting such songs to only be trotted out for the annual "Black History Program." There are people who enjoy and cherish those songs and wish to sing and hear them year-round. Dorothy Norwood's "Ride On King Jesus", Eugene Smith's "I Know The Lord Will Make a Way", Andrae Crouch's "The Blood Will Never Lose Its Power" and James Cleveland's "Walk on By Faith" are all songs which are all at least 45 years old in age, but they are still being sung and recorded by current gospel artists. Just look at Vickie Winans and how she scored a hit in late 2009 and early 2010 with her rendition of Rev. W. Herbert Brewster's legendary song, "How I Got Over", some 59 years after it was first published.

What I'm saying is, don't just recognize these songs during Black History Month, that is if they even get recognized at all (and they don't at some churches). Dust off some Golden Era goodies and give them a whirl. You may even want to start a choir or a group to exclusively sing these songs. These "good ole" Golden Era good news songs should be celebrated every day. After all, it's always a good time to give Praise!

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