Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Review: Andrae Crouch's Mighty Wind

Andraé Crouch
Mighty Wind (Verity)
Released May 2006
5 of 5 stars

Reviewed by LaTonya Taylor

Sounds like … there is no "sounds like" for an innovator like Crouch, but fans of contemporary gospel artists such as Israel and New Breed, Fred Hammond, Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir, and Donald Lawrence will enjoy this album.

At a glance …Mighty Wind is an excellent introduction to Crouch's work—and an aural recap of the various ways he's influenced Christian music over the last 40 years.

Andraé Crouch has a lot of musical descendants. In terms of Christian music, the praise and worship movement in general—in white churches, black churches, and others—owes its genesis to Crouch. Specifically, the funkified worship of Fred Hammond and Radical for Christ, the multicultural sonic influences and Scripturally based praise choruses of Israel Houghton and New Breed, the pop gospel of Brooklyn Tabernacle, and the classically rooted gospel of Donald Lawrence draw from the breadth and depth of Crouch's work.

Mighty Wind is Crouch's 40th anniversary project and the latest of 30-plus albums in his discography. Recorded with the San Diego Mass Choir and the choir at Crouch's New Christ Memorial Church of God in Christ, it's an excellent introduction for those who are unfamiliar with Crouch and, for those who already appreciate his music, it's a reminder of why he's often called "The Godfather of Gospel Music."

As always, Crouch's songs have an elegance you don't have to be a professional musician to appreciate. To understand what I mean, choose a song—"I Was Glad," for example—and listen to the jazzy background vocals all the way through, ignoring the lead vocals (well, try—that gorgeous throatiness is Disciples veteran Táta Vega). Check out the scatting over the bridge and rhythmic interplay between vocal parts. Repeat the exercise, this time listening to the song from an instrumental perspective. Then sit back and enjoy the lead.

Crouch's complex vocal/instrumental arrangements and the multiple energetic, effortless vamps make each song more than initially meets the ear. That's why a choir or praise team will need a few rehearsals to get a Crouch song just right. But the vocals and music are coupled with compelling Scriptural lyrics that are easy to identify with and sing. That's why, whether or not said choir or praise team nails every chord or has the musical personnel to totally replicate the sound, the congregation will respond, singing along the first time.

That elegance, juxtaposed with the apparent (and only apparent) simplicity of the music, is the genius of Crouch's gift. And it's why songs like "Soon and Very Soon," "Through It All," "My Tribute," and others are classics. Other artists have built well on this tradition (see above), but Crouch is the originator.

If you take the approach I suggest, it will take some time to get past the first song. But eventually you'll make it to the masterful "All Because of Jesus," a midtempo song of gratitude propelled by crisp percussion and sleek, clean background vocals behind Marvin Winans's lead. It includes Winans's wistful acknowledgment of the hard times he and Crouch have overcome during their journeys.

Karen Clark-Sheard leads "Jesus Is Lord," a danceable Latin-funk testimonial that morphs by way of breakdown vamp into one of Crouch's classic, multilayered endings. "Bless the Lord" is the kind of light choral gospel that Brooklyn Tabernacle is known for. "Oh Give Thanks," featuring Fred Hammond, is a timeless-feeling chorus that combines the guitar/organ/horn-driven urban praise and worship Hammond's known for with Crouch's signature husky lead interludes. Crystal Lewis leads the dramatic, orchestral "We Give You Glory," which has a sensibility similar to "Holy."

"Come Home" is a muted chorus perfect for the post-sermonic invitational moment, and "Thank You for Everything" has a 'round the piano feel and includes choruses sung in Spanish. "Yes Lord" is a surprising but not ineffective side trip into R&B, and the title track, an eight-minute plea for God's presence to overflow, is a triumph.

Not a moment is wasted here. I generally find reprises to be rather tedious rehashings of a song: the leftovers an artist or producer just couldn't bear to cut, but should have. But here they function as related outros. For example, the reprise for "I Was Glad" lets the funk rise to the top for a quick and welcome moment. The "All Because of Jesus" reprise allows Marvin Winans to speak briefly and to wander his weathered, leathery lead over the track. And the reiteration of "Bless the Lord" is breathtaking, a devastating a capella choral arrangement that transitions rapidly into an organic praise chorus—the kind that is raised rather than started.

A spiritually and aurally rich experience, Mighty Wind is destined to become a classic, like so much of Crouch's work. It's a fitting testament to the spiritual power of his God-given gift.

Review: June Rochelle's Changing Places

June Rochelle
Changing Places (Vision Entertainment)
Released April 2006
2.5 of 5 stars

Reviewed by LaTonya Taylor

Sounds like … a mix of overtly Christian and inspirational songs in smooth R&B a la Anita Baker or Oleta Adams, with some hip-hop and jazz.

At a glance …despite occasional missteps, fans of dreamy, smooth R&B will enjoy Rochelle's warm, soulful voice and positive messages.

Indianapolis-based vocalist June Rochelle has an impressive resume. Aside from her gospel credentials—which include opening for Yolanda Adams—Rochelle has performed in several theatrical productions and has shared the stage with Celine Dion and Diana Ross.

Rochelle's third album, Changing Places, is a blend of gospel with R&B and inspirational pop, marked by songs with positive lyrics—some focused toward God, some about romance, and others about the need to stay encouraged. The standout track is Rochelle's contemporary gospel reworking of "His Eye Is on the Sparrow," which features a touch of organ and soft piano behind her smooth-but-powerful mezzo soprano. Other strong tracks include "For All the Love," a mid-tempo song directed toward God; "Forever By Your Side," an inspirational wedding song; the title track, about living through trials; and "What's Going On," which encourages authority figures to take responsibility in their communities and to share the good news. Rochelle shares her testimony, including comforting reassurance from God, in "Wherever You Go."

However, themes and lyrics suffer from frequent banality and odd production choices—too much synth voice here, thunder and rain sounds there—giving too many songs a dated feel. The songs are also occasionally longer than they should be, padded with overly repetitive choruses. Others are simply confusing. Though Rochelle's "His Name Is Love" seems directed toward God, it has an uncomfortably breathy and growly vibe that seems out of character—though it does feature a cool, Badu-esque sung/spoken vocal. "Stomp Shaker" could be about Satan, or maybe it's about the "haters" mentioned in the raw-throated rap interludes. And "Just Because I'm Saved" is about enjoying the freedom to dance—but exactly where (the song mentions the dance floor and church, then includes instructions on how to form a soul-train line) isn't totally clear.

Despite the occasional missteps, Changing Places will satisfy fans of dreamy, smooth R&B with Rochelle's warm, soulful voice and positive messages.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Break Up That Fallow Ground . . .

Anyone know the song and artist/artists referenced in today's title? If so, you win . . .my admiration.

Seriously, I know my posts have been infrequent lately. The blog has lain somewhat fallow as I've added more commitments (including some grad school coursework) to my ever-busy life. But once things slow down in a couple of weeks, I should be able to pick up the pace.

In the meantime, I've decided to start a new feature: FROM THE VAULT. I've done a significant number of gospel music reviews and interviews over the last few years. I like to think they're pretty interesting, though perhaps not as timely as they once were. Anyway, I'm taking requests. Are you just dying to know what I thought about a particular album? Interested in reading conversations with your favorite artists? Leave your requests in the comments, and if I've got it, I'll post it.

Coming Next Week: Reviews of Andrae Crouch's Mighty Wind and June Rochelle's Changing Places.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

A Soul Man Testifies: Interview with David Ritz

A Soul Man Testifies
Gospel music led this skeptical author to faith.
LaTonya Taylor interviews David Ritz

Few people have the stories—or the storytelling ability—of writer David Ritz. As biographer and ghostwriter, he's told the stories of famed artists like Marvin Gaye, Ray Charles, the Neville Brothers, and Aretha Franklin. With a new book, Messengers (Doubleday, 2006), Ritz presents the voices of those who have joined him in writing a recent chapter of his own story—the story of his life as new Christian. The book brings together his Christian faith, his gifts as a ghostwriter, and the music he loves.

The story of this particular book is intertwined with the story of how you came to faith. Would you share your story?

My work as a writer has always come out of my passion about what I want to know and what I want to learn. I got interested in Christianity as a young boy, because I fell in love with gospel music. I grew up in the golden age of gospel, listening to Mahalia Jackson, Mavis Staples, Sam Cooke, and the Soul Stirrers. Part of me loved it and wanted to believe in Jesus, and just take it on face value. But because I grew up in a highly intellectual Jewish environment, my default position was to approach the music as a cultural anthropologist or an ethnomusicologist.

I'd think, Oh, this is interesting music from this ethnic group, and, here's what it's borne out of. Early on, a mentor of mine who loved gospel music told me it was suppressed sexuality and had nothing to do with anything that's real in terms of its spiritual content. I continued to have that attitude for a long time.

It seems like your career as a ghostwriter became an important part of your journey to faith.

My first book was the autobiography of Ray Charles, and that's how I discovered that my talent was for ghostwriting. And the more books I did, the more I enjoyed it.

Once I was on a panel at a writer's conference, and someone called me a hack because I'd written so many ghostwritten books. After I excused myself to the men's room and prayed up, I came back and asked: Who wrote the Bible? Weren't they ghostwriters, through the Holy Ghost? That was a great moment for me, because it made me feel like my gift to channel people's voices was the gift that the people who wrote the Bible had. I felt that they were able to channel the voice of God in a certain way, and that ghostwriting was an important calling.

I think the process of being a ghostwriter is something like surrendering to God. We give ourselves over to God, and, our whole aim is to do God's will. When you're a ghostwriter, you're serving other people, and allowing your audience to hear those people.

Your career as a ghostwriter brought you into contact with Marvin Gaye.

Marvin was an idol of mine, and he started talking to me about Jesus. And when he was right [before he became deeply involved with drugs], he was this very divine, aristocratic kind of brother. Really sweet, and very smart, and very deep. To hear him talk about Jesus made a huge impression on me. He could really preach, but in this very whispery way. I loved his music so much, and I always felt Jesus in his music.

When I met Ray Charles, his perspective was, ''If the Jews don't believe in Jesus, then I don't either, 'cause if he couldn't convince his own people, then why should I be convinced?" Toward the end, he kind of changed and embraced Jesus.

But Marvin always believed in Jesus. And never had doubts, even when he was crazy, even when he took a wrong turn and died the death of a drug addict.

Your own life had taken a difficult turn by that time.

I had developed addictions of my own with drugs, and I began attending a twelve-step group, about 16 years ago. I've been sober since. There, they kept saying that you weren't going to change your life until you embraced the notion of a transformational higher power. In reading about the history of the group, I discovered that it was based on an evangelical Christian movement in the early part of the 20th century in the United States. I loved the testimonies and felt like, Wow, this is like first-century Christianity. It's a church where two or more are gathered in his name. So, I began reading more and more about Christianity.

Around that same time, my younger sister Elizabeth became a Christian, and an evangelical Christian. At first, I argued with her about that. But then I saw how Christ was changing her life. She was always a wonderful person, but she became just amazing. Her transformation wasn't a theoretical notion for me, it was right there in front of me, and that had a huge influence on me. I've dedicated this book to her.

How did coming from an intellectual background affect your journey?

As I felt myself more and more drawn to Jesus and to Christianity, I began reading a lot of Christian theology. I read a lot of conservative and liberal Christian writers. And because I come from an intellectual background, it's easy for me to get mired in theological disputations and nuances. I think it was, in a certain way, how the enemy was sort of attacking me.

How so?

The enemy knew that I could stay in an intellectual debate about Christian theology for the next 140 years, and that would keep me away from the heart of Jesus. Jesus said you have to come to me as a little child, and that passage had tremendous, tremendous meaning for me. I realized that what I really needed was to go to those churches, go to that music that first attracted me when I was a little boy. So I began going to African-American churches almost exclusively. And that's where I was the most comfortable.

At a certain point I realized, I don't have to be a guest. I didn't have to be a person with my nose pressed to a window. I could go in, and I could pray, and I could praise the Lord. And I certainly felt the music, and I loved the preaching of different kinds. Just as I love John Coltrane, or Otis Redding, or Sam Cooke, or Miles Davis, there's a certain African-American voice that has a musicality to it, that is, the preacher's voice. And so, I wanted more and more of that.

How did that lead you to write Messengers?

Even though I love books, I'm more inspired by people than by books. When preachers talked about the word, I would think of the Living Word. It's enormously interesting to me that Jesus didn't write, other than the one thing he wrote on the ground [John 8:6-8], and we don't know what that was. Jesus was the living epistle. So, I wanted to go around and hang out with people who could minister to me, and who could share the essence of what their Christian message. I wanted the living word. Nothing moves me more than people, and living testimonies.

That desire to hear testimonies led me to people like Noel Jones, who is very intellectual, yet he's old-school in his kind of rhetorical genius. Mable John's story became the first chapter of the book, and she also became a pastor of mine. She baptized me in an African-American church in Inglewood. I love Marvin Winans, and Donnie McClurkin, and I went to meet them. I also wanted to meet Calvin Butts in New York, and Peter Gomes at Harvard. Many of the people in the book are well-known, but there are also are people I met along the way. I'd hear of someone through word of mouth and go to his church and he'd become part of the book. Women have always been able to minister to me in a unique and powerful way, so the book has lots of women in it.

What's also interesting is that the people in the book come from a variety of theological perspectives.

I really wanted to avoid theological disputation of the kind I was talking about before. My idea was that every reader should be able to kind of read any of these chapters and be ministered to, without feeling alienated, and without people arguing their positions. I just wanted it to be entirely positive. And, to be honest, I wanted to be ministered to.

My attitude was, give me what you have that's gonna help me get closer to Jesus. Let me feel Jesus in you. It was a wonderful opportunity to have person-on-person ministering to me. And I learned that my gift, for being a ghostwriter, and for channeling voices would really serve me well. I would put it all in the voices of the ministers, singers or musicians. I try to get out of the way and to let you, the reader, feel as though these people are talking to you one-on-one—which is what every good ghostwriter needs to do.

You join hearts with that other person. So, that's why this book, to me, was such a blessing. It enabled me to deepen and solidify my relationship with Christ, and learn so much, but also utilize the skills that I've honed as a ghostwriter.


Here's a link to my review of Messengers.

image credit: ritzwrites.com

Friday, May 05, 2006

Story Behind the Song: "Oh Happy Day"

by LaTonya Taylor

"Oh, happy day
When Jesus washed my sins away."

“It’s amazing that God would take a simple little song like that and do what he’s done with it,” says Edwin Hawkins, the man behind one of gospel music’s best-loved hits.

Hawkins first encountered the old-time Baptist hymn as a child listening to the legendary Philadelphia-based gospel group The Davis Sisters. He later rearranged the song and taught it to the Northern California State Youth Choir, a community choir of teens and young adults he founded with friend Betty Watson. On a bus ride home from a Church of God In Christ youth convention, the group decided to keep singing together.

In 1968, they recorded Let Us Go Into the House of the Lord on a two-track machine at Berkeley’s Ephesian Church of God In Christ, hoping to sell 500 copies of the custom LP at community concerts. “Oh Happy Day” was just one of the eight songs on the album. “Oh Happy Day was not our favorite song to perform,” Hawkins says, chuckling softly. “It just happened to be one of the songs we sang.”

The album received some gospel radio play, but its popularity soared in 1969 after a DJ at San Francisco’s KSAN radio played “Oh Happy Day.” Within weeks, the single was playing across the country, and more than 900,000 copies of the single had sold. “Oh Happy Day” became a major crossover hit, reaching No. 4 on the U.S. pop singles chart. The newly christened Edwin Hawkins Singers were invited to perform on shows like American Bandstand, and in churches, festivals and clubs.

With its gently rolling soul groove, soft Latin percussion, rich lead vocals by Dorothy Morrison and swelling, full-bodied chorus, the song revolutionized the sound of gospel music, paving the way for the contemporary movement that followed.

Though beloved now, “Oh Happy Day” was controversial at the time. A group of local pastors petitioned to have it pulled from rock radio, and many Christians criticized the group for performing in mainstream venues.

“We thought, Why would we just spend our lives singing to each other?” Hawkins says. “Those that don’t know Jesus are the ones we should be singing to and telling about Jesus Christ.”

Today, Hawkins trains choirs and musicians through his annual Edwin Hawkins Music & Arts Seminar, encouraging younger artists whose work challenges traditional boundaries. He celebrated the song’s 30th anniversary with an album featuring a club remix of the Grammy-winning hit. When he travels to Europe or Japan, he’s often surprised to find groups of singers who love “Oh, Happy Day.”

“I think that it’s not just the song, but the gospel itself that transcends all racial barriers, language barriers, all of that,” he says.

image credits: Capital Entertainment