Sunday, December 16, 2007

The Twelve Classic Gospel Songs of Christmas

Merry Christmas, everyone! Here's a guest post from friend-of-the-blog Bob Marovich, a gospel music historian.

Looking for an alternative from the standard Yule music fare? Try these twelve classic gospel songs on for size. Use your favorite search engine to find reissue CDs, or maybe even the original vinyl, on which these songs can be found. Happy Holidays, everyone!

“Glory, Glory to the New Born King” - Angelic Gospel Singers (Gotham, 1950)
Philadelphia’s Angelic Gospel Singers, featuring Margaret Allison, hit it big in 1949 on their very first 78 rpm single, “Touch Me, Lord Jesus.” Riding high on their newfound popularity, they recorded “Glory, Glory to the New Born King” for Gotham the following year. Horace Clarence Boyer notes that the song became as popular in the African American community as “White Christmas” did in the white community. Even today, a gospel Christmas compilation without someone singing “Glory, Glory to the New Born King” is simply incomplete.

“O Holy Night” - Marion Williams (Savoy, 1959)
The legendary gospel soprano Marion Williams moved the Ward Singers up a little higher before stepping out on her own in 1958 to fashion the Stars of Faith from fellow members of the Wards aggregation. One year later, Marion and the Stars of Faith waxed a Christmas album for Savoy Records. On the album, Marion performs “O Holy Night” as a solo. While the entire song is a masterpiece, its finest moment comes at the composition’s emotional apex, when Marion launches one of her signature high-whoos, like a sonic rocket, heavenward.

“Christmas Morn” - Charles Watkins (Savoy, 1951)
Before Charles Watkins became a bishop, he was a gospel crooner, one of the smoothest male vocalists to ever grace the genre. His 1963 “Heartaches” was a gospel hit that would be covered by many artists, but 12 years prior, he recorded “Christmas Morn” for Savoy. “Christmas Morn” remains an obscure title, but that is unfortunate: the melody is every bit as unforgettable as Nat Cole’s take on Mel Torme’s “The Christmas Song.” Forget global warming: the polar ice cap began to melt when Watkins falsettoed “Merry Christmas to you” in the song’s final bars.

“Pretty Little Baby” - James Cleveland and the Cleveland Singers (Savoy, 1968)
A Christmas spiritual, sung slowly and with much gravity and passion by “King” James Cleveland, whose coarse, pious voice always seemed one beat away from a full-out cry. The Cleveland Singers increase and decrease in intensity in all the right places, making this one of Cleveland’s most perfect recordings. Given Cleveland’s prolific recording career spanning four decades, that says a lot.

“I’ll Be Home for Christmas” – Pilgrim Travelers (Specialty, 1953)
The Pilgrim Travelers were one of the finest a cappella gospel quartets of the Golden Era. They lent their voices to this popular Christmas song, which was as relevant during the Korean War as it was a decade earlier when sung about World War II soldiers missing loved ones at home during the holidays. The Travelers’ version, however, doesn’t seem nearly as optimistic about soldiers returning as did Bing Crosby’s 1943 classic, but instead seems to stoop under the weight and weariness of continued conflict. The steel guitar flourishes at the end, added presumably to brighten the arrangement, only thicken the fog of loneliness and despair.

“When Was Jesus Born” – Patterson Singers (United Artists, 1968)
The Patterson Singers were no strangers to Christmas songs, having performed a few for a special Christmas album produced in 1963 by Vee Jay Records. This recording, however, finds them across the ocean, in concert in Frankfort, West Germany, shouting this timeless spiritual at elite runner pace. The Pattersons’ rhythmic stutter during the litany of months at the composition’s center drives the audience into an understandable frenzy.

“White Christmas” – Vocalaires of Newport News, VA (Pinewood, early 1970s)
The Vocalaires male quartet, like the Ravens and Drifters before them, turn Bing Crosby’s zillion seller into a rousing, fun doo-wop. While the Ravens’ and Drifters’ recordings remain fairly faithful to the original, the Vocalaires sing the lyrics to a standard 50s doo-wop song structure, resplendent with playful booming bass lines and high harmonies. A tough-to-find recording, but well worth the search.

“Sweet Little Jesus Boy” – Wings over Jordan Choir (RCA Victor, 1948) &
“Sweet Little Jesus Boy” – Rev. Cleophus Robinson (Peacock, 1967)
Men and women of all races and creeds who grew up in the 1940s recall fondly the Wings over Jordan Sunday radio program, where they heard some of the most moving spiritual singing on the planet. Who better, then, to render Robert MacGimsey’s neo-spiritual than Rev. Glenn Settles’ Wings over Jordan? The Cleveland-based chorus sings the composition like a teary lullaby, with lovingly hushed harmonies.

Rev. Cleophus Robinson’s take on the composition two decades later, however, eschews the supplicant quietude and aims straight for the theme’s parallel to the plight of African Americans in the 1960s. Robinson’s gravitas on the line, “The world treat you mean, Lord/Treat me that way, too,” will raise the hair on the back of your neck.

“Jesus Christ, the Baby” – Six Trumpets feat. Maggie Ingram (Nashboro, 1961)
This Christmas gospel favorite introduced the sweet, girl-group soprano of Maggie Ingram. The Six Trumpets male quartet supporting Ingram chant “baby” (as in Jesus) in the background, though it sounds for all the world as if they are chanting “Maggie.” Ingram went on to form a successful family group called the Ingramettes, but she never again replicated the charmingly graceful performance of her debut.

“Follow the Star” – Edwin Hawkins, feat. Richard Smallwood (Birthright, 1985)
Richard Smallwood wrote “Follow the Star” and accompanied the Hawkins Family on their performance of it for their much sought-after 1985 Christmas album. “Follow the Star” features a chorus of beautiful, tight harmonies, crisp and invigorating as a starry winter night. A master of the expansive, emotional finish, Smallwood writes a real heart-wrenching coda for “Follow the Star.” It alone is guaranteed to elicit sighs of wonder and soul satisfaction.

“Joy to the World” – Stars of Black Nativity (Vee Jay, 1962)
Alex Bradford and the Bradford Singers, Marion Williams and the Stars of Faith, and Princess Stewart served as the original cast for Langston Hughes’ captivating interpretation of the Nativity. Like the Christmas Star, Black Nativity would soon be witnessed and marveled at the world over. “Joy to the World” was performed for the production by Professor Bradford and his Singers. It was a stroke of genius: the group’s over-the-top effervescence was perfect for this musical explosion of exaltation.

“Silent Night” – Mahalia Jackson (Apollo, 1950)
Franz Gruber and Josef Mohr wrote this Christmas chestnut in 1818, but when Mahalia Jackson wrapped her gospel tonsils around it 132 years later, you’d swear the two Austrians wrote the song expressly for her. Millions upon millions have crooned this carol, but few with the straightforward, heartwarming religious intensity of ‘Halie.

Copyright 2006 by Robert M. Marovich
Bob Marovich is a gospel music historian, radio announcer, and author. In its seventh season, Bob’s “Gospel Memories” program of vintage black gospel music and artist interviews airs live first Sundays from 3:00 to 7:30 a.m. on Chicago’s WLUW 88.7 FM, and streams live at Snippets of recent broadcasts can be heard at Bob is also editor of The Black Gospel Blog: He can be reached at

Saturday, October 20, 2007

New Route Home

New Route Home
Morris Robinson fuses old and new.

(5/5 stars)

by LaTonya Taylor

After several casual performances at friends' weddings, Morris Robinson slowly became convinced that God intended his bright, sonorous basso profundo for more. He pursued a career in opera, and, within remarkably few years, garnered comparisons to Paul Robeson and engagements with the New York Metropolitan Opera and the Boston Lyric Opera.

Going Home (Decca/Universal) connects gospel to opera through spirituals. The result is respectfully traditional yet confidently contemporary. "Go Down, Moses" is a shining example. A brooding orchestral opening (courtesy of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra) gives way to an urgent, declamatory chorus. The intensity builds as Robinson adds Hebrew lyrics, accenting the song's dual reference to enslaved Africans and the Israelites of Exodus.

Robinson's elegant rendering of Duke Ellington's "Come Sunday" captures the themes of God's sovereignty and human dignity characteristic of spirituals (though it's technically too new to be considered a spiritual in the classical sense).

Though each song retains its connection to the tradition of spirituals, the album includes several genres. "Walk With Me" is a mellow, jazzy interpretation of a Sunday morning favorite. Cyrus Chestnut's rolling jazz piano brings gospel-infused consistency to "Go, Tell It On the Mountain."

"Going Home" refers both to Morrison's return to his gospel roots and to ultimate hope. The album also includes a distinctively churchy "His Eye Is on the Sparrow" (hinting at Robinson's roots as a Baptist preacher's son) and an emotive "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child."

Paul Robeson wrote in his 1958 autobiography: "The great, soaring gospels we love are merely sermons that are sung." Almost 50 years later, Robinson's Going Home offers a clear recounting of the gospel. Many contemporary gospel albums assume the listener's familiarity with the Christian faith, and thus emphasize themes of celebration, gratitude, and perseverance. But Robinson's sequential grouping of "Sister Mary," "Take My Mother Home," "Were You There," and "He Looked Beyond My Faults" proclaims the gospel with unique vocal and thematic clarity.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Summertime, and the Living Is. . .

. . .Busy.

Welcome to the new readers who are stopping by. It's been a busy summer, and so posting (and work on has slowed.

It'll probably be a few weeks before I'm posting regularly again. In the meantime, feel free to poke around on the blog, to read some of the reviews and interviews posted on, or to subscribe (see the left side of the page).

I'll be back on the good foot soon.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Gospel Gal Sort of Answers Your Questions

According to my site statistics, a lot of readers come here as a result of very specific queries, or looking for answers to specific questions (And here I thought it was all about the incisive commentary and self-deprecating humor!).

Over the last few weeks, I've received some interesting questions through my contact page. And since I don't know the answers to these, I'll share them with you, and maybe we can help one another out. Leave a comment below, or contact me if you can answer these questions:

  • Where is Keith Pringle?
  • Did Joe Carter ever release any albums?
  • Where can someone buy a copy of Introducing Perfecting Praise? (Helloooo, reissue?)

All right, blogosphere, do your thing. Folks who know, check in. Hopefully, I'll have some credible information to share. . .but if I find out about that Perfecting album, I'm getting my own copy first!

Monday, June 25, 2007

Good Advice for Musicians . . .and Writers

" . . .You gotta really know yourself. Find out what season you're in. If you're in a season of learning, focus on that 'til God changes it. Find out what season you're in, find out your strengths, find out your weaknesses, and strengthen those weaknesses. That's what you need to do before you step out anywhere. And make sure your skills are tight . . .If you don't have the music to back it up, you can forget it . . .and write good songs. Write songs that tell stories. Don't just write a loop."

--soul man Frank McComb, interviewed by Tavis Smiley

Thursday, June 21, 2007

In the Meantime, Right On

A couple of summers ago, I spent lots of time working on a review of Michael Eric Dyson's Mercy, Mercy Me: The Art, Love and Demons of Marvin Gaye. I bought more Gaye bios than was reasonable and immersed myself in them--and in his music. I talked to my Dad for some of his memories and insights about Marvin Gaye, and logged lots of coffee shop hours on this manuscript.

I wrote this manuscript on speculation for a critical review journal. Although it was never published, I enjoyed writing it. I enjoy spending time with different subjects, learning as much as I can, then trying to bring all those parts together in an article. So now, I'm posting it here. I figure it'll give you something to chew on while I finish working on In the meantime, right on.

Gaye, like many R&B/soul singers, had gospel roots. I know of at least two gospel artists who've produced enjoyable versions of his songs: Ray Bady's Mission K.O.B. (Keep On Believin') album includes a summer-cruisable interpretation of "Mercy, Mercy Me," and Sara Renner brings back a Marvin Gaye-Tammi Terrell classic, "You're All I Need to Get By" on her 2004 album Elements of the Journey.

Know about other gospel-related covers of Gaye's work? Tell me about them.

Before Tower Records closed, I got a super-cheap copy of Jason Miles' What's Going On? Songs of Marvin Gaye. It's a nice tribute.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Take 6 Loves Ella

Tonight, We Love Ella: A Tribute to the First Lady of Song premieres on PBS' Great Performances. Check your local listings to find out when the program airs in your area.

The concert, recorded in April 2007 (Fitzgerald would have celebrated her 90th birthday this year) features performers including Patti Austin, Natalie Cole, George Duke, Jon Faddis, Quincy Jones, Dave Koz, Ledisi, Monica Mancini, James Moody, Ruben Studdard, Take 6, Nancy Wilson, Stevie Wonder, Lizz Wright, and Wynonna.

Take 6 performed "How High the Moon" with Patti Austen, and, from last year's Feels Good, "Just In Time." I love tribute albums/programs, and, because I love Ella Fitzgerald and jazz, I'd be interested in this program, even if Take 6 hadn't been part of the event. A few years ago, I taped one of my favorite Fitzgerald quotes to my computer monitor:

“Just don’t give up trying to do what you really want to do. Where there is love and inspiration, I don’t think you can go wrong.”


P.S. Speaking of cool tributes, Imani Winds, my favorite wind quintet is releasing a Josephine Baker tribute album in a couple of weeks.

Friday, June 01, 2007

J Moss On 'That Breathing Thing'

When I read this Associated Press interview with J Moss, I laughed so loudly a coworker came by to see what the big deal was. Hats off to Aimee Maude Simms for asking one of those questions that, as an interviewer, you want to ask, but may or may not have the guts to.

The relevant excerpt:

"Associated Press: Sometimes when you sing, you do that breathing thing. You could almost think of it like the way preachers breathe ....

Moss: I don't think that's what you're referring to.

Associated Press: Or it can get sensual there, too.

Moss: Right. ... I get so many e-mails! It's so funny. People are crazy. They e-mail me it's like: "J! I love your album, but I had to turn it off," and I'm thinking like, why? What's wrong? What did I do? "Oh my goodness, you know, all that breathing you was doing!" ... That's just me. I wrote R&B for so long. Everything was about vibe. I breathe on the beat. I inhale on the beat, exhale on the beat, I make certain sounds. It's just all a part of the J Moss make up. And I've heard people say that if you're a real worshipper, that carries, or requires a certain degree of intimacy about yourself."

About Gospel Gal

A sneak peek at the "About Me" section on (Coming Soon!)--and just in time for Black Music Month . . .


I believe in gospel music.

As a little girl, I would slip one of my father’s James Cleveland albums from its paper sleeve and place it carefully on the turntable. I’d lift the arm, feeling a twinge of anticipation as the turntable spun to life.

I’d place the needle gently on the wax disc, and then, as soon as I heard the soft, electric crackle coming through the speakers, I’d scurry to the middle of the living room floor in my sock feet. Our performance was about to begin—James’ and mine, that is—and I didn’t want to miss my cue.

When the music started—a joyous, thunderous explosion of instruments and voices—I’d spin around with the record, arms outstretched. I’d sing and spin, spin and sing, until I collapsed in a sweaty, delighted heap, slain in equal measure by dizziness and the Spirit.

Church was a staple of our family life, and so, in a small yellow church building with polished wooden pews and cool concrete walls, I learned to join my high, clear soprano with other young voices. The choir was where we learned how to be good church members—how to stand together and sit at the same time, how to pay attention and give our best. Every fourth Sunday, the Angels Without Wings sang, all starched white tops and navy bottoms, itchy tights, tight ties and earnest faith.

I loved the way we all felt around the music—the way Dad and the deacons led the whole church in hymns and spirituals, trading the lead and adlibbing around each other with such ease and joy that I thought they were all brothers. I learned to accept the icy nervousness that chilled my hands whenever I was asked to sing a solo—Jesus, use my voice, help me do this right—as part of the process of sharing myself, my gift, with this church, with these people who loved me so.

During those years, it’s fair to say, the music saved me. Or pointed me to Jesus, who did. I kept hearing, in the music, that Jesus wanted my heart. He didn’t just want my voice, he wanted my life, all six years of it. And he was insistent: Not tomorrow, today. So the next time the invitation was given, Mom took my hand, and together we walked the very short distance from the deaconess’ pew to the altar.

Years after that trip to the altar, I interviewed a theologian who described music as “a conduit to altered realities.” Immediately, I wished that I’d thought of that phrase, because it encapsulates, with accuracy and elegance, how gospel music serves me—it conducts me. It moves me toward something—a place, a state of being—that is real, but is also beyond where I presently am. It goads me toward a deeper spirituality, a deeper Christian faith, and somehow fills the gap between the place where I am, and the place I aspire to be.

The music compels me to testify, by faith, of faith—to bear witness to the not yet, even in the here and now. The joining of my voice with others reminds me that I am meant to become a person of faith in community, and that resisting community is like trying to sing all of the vocal parts by myself. I learn, from the music, to rest, and to quiet my angst-ridden striving and steady my chilled fingers. I discover that if I can prepare my heart and voice, I can relax into the song, trusting that I will know what to sing when the moment comes. I am reminded, through the spirituals, what it means to keep my mind on heaven and my feet on the ground. I am joined, across generation, class, and denomination, to other singers, all of us on that same journey through the “not yet,” all of us on our way home. I’m given a language for trust, for hope, for repentance and joy.

And so, having been served, I am driven to serve the music. To immerse myself, like a good Baptist girl, in the stories of the people who, like me, believed and believe in gospel music. When I do, I discover and rediscover what it means to be human and complex, to be shaped by time and to transcend it. I am forced to resolve contradictions between sanctified sainthood and original sin—in others and myself. I am convinced that no issue, no matter how current it seems, is truly new. And I’m often saying, in conversation, “You know, I think there’s a song about that.”

Gospel is also a lens for viewing the world. In searching out stories, I become sociologist and historian. And I’m compelled to tease out the theology behind each song I hear. Theological concepts like redemption, sanctification and eschatology are enacted, like drama, often through a single repeated phrase.

The more I immerse myself in gospel music, the more deeply I understand the world outside of it. As I follow the music—gospel, as well as other forms—I’m given a path toward understanding people outside of my cultural context. My favorite questions to ask, whenever I’m learning about people of different time periods, cultures or faiths, are “What does their music sound like?” and “What do they sing?” And the best way to get to know someone—and to figure out what he or she believes—is to borrow his or her iPod.

As a writer, I find myself drawn not only to the usual stories—leads readily gleaned from press releases or reworkings of classic themes—but also to the quirky, unusual stories where gospel (and The Gospel) pop up in unexpected, occasionally uncomfortable places and forms. I find that those are the stories that challenge me most, the ones that make me most curious and bring me the most joy. And, like those songs I sang growing up, they are the stories I feel the most urgency to share. My hope is that my gift, and my curiosity, can serve others, the music, and my craft.

Jesus, use my voice.
Help me do this right.


I love the phrase "already but not yet." Although I refer to this idea in this essay, I can't take credit for it. Similarly, I am indebted to Dr. Barbara Holmes for her description of music as "a conduit to altered realities."

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Unreflective Joy: A Little Dab'll Do Ya

Frequent readers of this blog know that I strongly disapprove of the use of gospel music in advertising. (New readers can catch up here, here and here.)

A quick review: I share the sentiments Dr. Barbara Holmes of Memphis Theological Seminary expresses in her book Joy Unspeakable: Contemplative Practices of the Black Church:

"Exuberance and social consciousness are only the most obvious contributions that the black church has to offer a history of human spiritual engagement. . .[W]hen these charismatic practices are deemed to be the quintessential expression of black worship, our view of the black church is reduced to caricature.

"The myth of unreflective joy is reinforced by the use of black worship to sell commerical products. . . .My discomfort with commercialized uses of Africana worship traditions is exacerbated by the implicit respect given to other ethnic traditions. Although I am aware that advertisers have free reign in a consumer-driven culture and that very little is sacrosanct, I also note that I have never seen a Muslim cleric touting the detergent that keeps his robes fresh, orthodox cantors singing antacid ads, or an American Indian emerging from a sweat lodge with a name-brand deodorant in his hand.

" . . . Moses Berry shares his grandmother Dorothy's caution about carelessly offering precious communal wisdom to the wider world:

'If you share something sacred with people who won't respect it, they will try to reduce it to something that they can understand, and miss the sacredness. Therefore . . .don't let them know about your church music because they'll turn it into dance music or look at it like "folk music," and miss the point that it's the music of suffering people that lifted them from earth to heaven. It's not merely an art form.'"

Like Dr. Horace Clarence Boyer, I think these uses of gospel music are part of the downside of gospel's increased mainstream popularity. Still, I want to believe that sacred music can be shared with those who will treat it and its religious roots respectfully.

But this hasn't been the best week for that.

First, I saw an oddly sensual commercial for Lipton White Tea that features the spiritual "This Little Light of Mine." As far as I can tell, it doesn't have a whole lot to do with spirituals. Or with tea, for that matter.

Then, I discovered Nivea's new campaign for their Goodbye Cellulite product. The ad (and website, which you can see here) features a "Goodbye Cellulite Choir."

From the product description:

"Praise be for NIVEA body Goodbye Cellulite. Containing L-Carnitine, this smooth, non-greasy formula moisturises and visibly smoothes dimpled skin. . . .Smooth NIVEA body Goodbye Cellulite on problem areas such as thighs, buttocks and stomach once or twice a day and you could be enjoying visible results in just 4 weeks.

And that is something to sing about!"

(No, it's not. Consider yourself warned about the content of the video.)

This is beyond annoying. It's scandalous. Whether or not you take a look at the campaign website, it's easy to see why some people in the UK's gospel community have called the campaign "racist and blasphemous." From the "shouting music" you hear upon clicking to the dancing, raunchy lyrics (shades of Saartjie Baartman/"Hottentot Venus," anyone?), and stereotypes you can read about in the "Meet the Band" section, it's one ugly misrepresentation of black music, black worship, and black Christians, specifically black Christian women. (There's not much I can say about the Goodbye Cellulite Hip-Hop Band video, because it actually resembles some of the mainstream hip-hop videos I've seen.)

According to news reports, the ad agency approached Ken Burton of the London Adventist Chorale to assemble a choir for the ad campaign, and he refused. "The context of having black people walking around slapping their hind thighs in a church whilst people shout Hallelujah (which means I give highest praise to God) is highly blasphemous,” he told the online magazine United By One. (It's worth noting that Burton doesn't object to the use of gospel music in ads, but is concerned that the context be respectful.)

The Voice reports that Beiersdorf UK LTD (which manufactures Nivea products) released a statement saying “The campaign was not intended to show disrespect to either the genre or faith of gospel music, or to any part of African culture but rather a celebration of gospel music and its joyful attitude.” A representative of Staniforth, the PR agency that worked on the campaign, added that " . . .the use of gospel music was intended to create a fun and joyful atmosphere."

A particularly flagrant perpetuation of the myth of unreflective joy. Apparently, it didn't occur to anyone in those organizations that gospel has religious and cultural significance--that it's more than fun music to be appropriated for any commercial purpose.

Finally, I'm particularly troubled by the (mostly black) crowd of actors and actresses who sang for the ad and filmed the scene. Beiersdorf and Staniforth couldn't have made this mess without their complicity. Where's their sense that the living artifacts of African(-American) culture are not to be shared recklessly?


In the next day or two, I'll be writing a polite letter of protest to Beiersdorf UK LTD, submitting a copy to the Nivea Products website, and contacting Staniforth, the PR firm that worked with Nivea on the campaign.

Video Pick: Sing, Sister, Sing!

This last week, I've been enjoying Gayle F. Wald's Shout, Sister, Shout! The Untold Story of Rock-and-Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe. (Look for a review here in the next week or two.)

I've been interested in Tharpe's life for a few years now, and I'm taking my usual approach to learning about a musician/artist: immersion (a Baptist thing, maybe?). Friends of mine recall the Summer of Marvin Gaye (2004) and my James Brown Period (summer 2006-present). I bought a 4-CD box set of Tharpe's work just before Tower Records' demise, and I've been listening to her music as I savor Wald's book. This video is of a 1960s-era performance on TV Gospel Time with the Olivet Institutional Baptist Church Choir.

Here's an NPR report on Sister Rosetta Tharpe, featuring an interview with Wald, Maria Muldaur, and Marie Knight.

My take on the project Shout, Sister Shout: A Tribute to Sister Rosetta Tharpe.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Kayla Parker-Tolbert passes away

"For me, the goal is always a song you can sing forever, a song that will mean something to people of all kinds."

--Kayla Parker-Tolbert, who recently passed away.

I first heard Kayla Parker-Tolbert's rich, agile lead vocal in the early 1990s on Marvin Winans' Introducing Perfecting Praise. I remember being amazed by the range she displayed on "Now Are We." For a long time, I couldn't figure out whether I was hearing one voice or two--one low, one high. I also thought "Perfecting Church" was a powerful cut.

Since then, I've enjoyed her work with Vanessa Williams, Tim Bowman, CeCe Winans, and most recently Vickie Winans (though she's been on many, many other albums). And I've longed for her to make a solo album. I keep a short list in my mind of artists I'd love to see move from the background to the forefront, and Kayla Parker-Tolbert was at the top. As it turns out, she was working on an album for release this year.

She had one of the most beautiful, versatile voices I've heard, and I can't believe she's gone.

Here's a YouTube video of Kayla Parker singing "Now Are We."

Read the Black Gospel Promo release on Bob Marovich's blog, where I learned about her passing.

Find out more about Kayla Parker-Tolbert on her website, and on a MySpace page dedicated to her.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

A Good Musician Is Hard to Find?

Recently, The New York Times and PBS' Religion & Ethics Newsweekly each reported on the difficulty many African-American churches face in finding and retaining musicians who are familiar with traditional gospel music.

Samuel Freedman's NYT piece identifies several reasons for this trend: The growing influence of hip-hop among younger musicians, a decline in the types of school music programs that employed church musicans, and a commercial marketplace more friendly to gospel musicians, giving them more options for their gifts. There's even some discussion of the ways the popularity of "name it and claim it" theology has affected this issue (Though I think it overestimates this factor--prosperity theology isn't considered mainstream evangelicalism. Still, it is interesting--and, I think, fairly rare, though not inaccurate--to hear African-American churches described as evangelical.)

Although I appreciated this piece, I didn't appreciate the faintly disapproving tone the people interviewed seem to have toward younger musicians (though I respect their scholarship). I left with the sense that they view younger musicians as shallow, mercenary hip-hoppers who aren't really interested in serving God with their music ("just another gig.")

I wonder if there's a more significant generational angle that's not being explored here. After all, there's a great deal of great gospel that's been produced since the 1960s and 1970s, which Freedman calls "contemporary." I guess that designation is historically accurate, in the same sense in which the 1950s are seen as the Golden Age of gospel. Still, for someone who grew up in the hip-hop era, Edwin Hawkin's "Oh Happy Day" is "classic" gospel. And Cleveland's music, though groundbreaking, relevant and interesting, is not seen as contemporary. For people in their 20s and 30s, contemporary gospel is early BeBe and CeCe Winans, The Winans, Commissioned, Vanessa Bell Armstrong, The Clark Sisters, etc.--largely music produced in the 1980s. I'm wondering if part of the issue is that these pastors and potential music ministers have conflicting, generationally-driven ideas of what constitutes an appropriate repertoire. There's a bigger shift going on here, I think.

Bob Abernethy's Religion and Ethics Newsweekly piece deals more with the question of preservation, which I find compelling. How can churches make sure that traditional gospel music and the spirituals tradition thrive? Again, I don't think it's necessary to set hip-hop and hymns in opposition--I disagree with Dr. McMillan's statement that people are more likely to remember hymns than hip-hop--but I do think Dr. Simpson makes an important point: younger people do need to receive exposure to and training in traditional music, if it is to survive.

For me, the questions that need to be explored are:

  • How can churches make sure they expose young people to traditional music and the spirituals, with the goal of encouraging and cultivating musicians for the future? What might that look like? Could it involve providing music lessons at the church, or sponsoring music lessons for young people who seem to have musical gifts?
  • Given the generational issue I described above, do you think churches should be more open to a broader group of gospel sounds? For example, might worship services include spirituals, traditional gospel, praise and worship, and maybe even holy hip-hop?
  • Can church musicians have artistic freedom, or are they expected to stick to a specific type of songs? If so, why? In my opinion, part of trusting a musician and respecting his or her skills and calling should involve working together to make sure the music ministry not only serves current ministry needs and goals, but also gives the music minister the freedom to grow, stretch, and take the congregation new places, musically and spiritually. (For one example of this, read my interview with Byron Cage.)
  • Should churches try to offer more competitive salaries in hopes of recruiting and retaining skilled music ministers? In my opinion, this wasn't addressed well--or fairly--in these two pieces. Do churches offer reasonable salaries for the kind of commitment they require?
  • What other issues do you see here?

Finally, this week's poll question: Does your church employ a salaried music minister?

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Rediscovering Commissioned

A couple of weeks ago, I started listening to Praise and Worship: Commissioned, one of several Verity Records/Legacy Recordings compilation albums featuring gospel music of the 1980s and 1990s.

This album reminded me what a significant part Commissioned has played in my life. Like Take 6 and the Winans, this group's discography is part of my soundtrack. Number 7 was one of the first albums I bought for myself, and somewhere in my apartment is a well-worn State of Mind cassette. I did lots of step aerobics to Matters of the Heart ('cause it was the 90s, that's why), and I made the 5-hour drive from my college campus to my first job interview listening to Time and Seasons.

During the group's heyday, Commissioned really had the total package. A combination of innovative production techniques and an urban R&B sensibility that drew from the male quartet tradition. Incredible songwriting that was very emotive, relational and contemporary.

Commissioned is so beloved because their music provides a soundtrack for those of us who are learning what it means to have faith permeate every part of our lives. Commissioned's music helped us hear what relevant everyday faith sounds like, Monday through Saturday, more directly than a lot of more traditional gospel music. It bridged the gap between the celestial and the temporal. The deacons may have raised "A Charge to Keep" from the front row pew on Sunday morning. But on your way to work, you could fight rush-hour traffic while bobbing your head to "Be an Example." Same concept, different language. And it wasn't superficial, the way some contemporary gospel can be. Put in a Commissioned disc, and you hear a lot of honesty. You hear wisdom earned through struggle. You hear frank dialogue with God, and the language of joy, celebration, repentance and dependence.

The music is especially powerful because while it's open to everyone, it offers an aural paradigm for a particularly masculine way of doing faith. (I wouldn't describe it using the idea of muscular Christianity, but I sense an intersection there. )My sense is that the men of Commissioned demonstrated a way of being Christian that young, cool, urban African-American men could relate to. Their music integrated values that many see as feminine--or typical of feminine/"feminized" religiosity (collaboration, expressiveness, emotiveness, vulnerability, humility, spirituality) in ways that are very masculine. (Parenthetically, I sense some of these same intersections in the music of jazz vocalist Kurt Elling.) Commissioned made room for a contemporary, masculine form of gospel that shaped not only a generation of young Christians, but young Christian men: a way to see themselves openly questing after God and pursuing faith, without having to wear a choir robe or a dark suit, or speak Christianese.

As I observe the ways that Christians are currently discussing ideals/ideas about masculinity and femininity, and consider the ongoing discussion about homosexuality in the gospel music community, I appreciate Commissioned's inadvertent contribution to the discussion. Musical gender work, as it were.

Because I listened to Commissioned during my formative years, listening now gives me an especially meaningful gift. I am reminded of what it meant to have innocent faith--to internalize the tenets of faith so that they became part of me before I truly needed to believe them with actual faith. As I sing along, I remember when trust was so very easy, and answers always seemed to fit. I am returned to myself, and returned to first love and belief. I am given a language for faith and repentance and hope.

After listening to the compilation, I pulled out my copy of the Commissioned Reunion live recording, and it's been in heavy rotation for the last couple of weeks. Even though it was their last hurrah, it's an excellent introduction to this groundbreaking group. And if you didn't get to see this incredible concert (and I did!) you'll feel like you were there. The excitement and energy stream from the speakers. A DVD of the initial recording is also available.

In response to a friend who asked what my favorite Commissioned song is, I generated a list of about 20 favorite songs. So I'm using that question to debut a new feature for the weekly poll (it's on the left side of the page). Weigh in by voting for your favorite song--and let me know why it means so much to you by posting a comment. If I haven't listed your song ("Oh, that's my jam!"), post about that, too.


Get acquainted with Commissioned--or download some of your old favorites--at Rhapsody's Commissioned page. Check out Google's Commissioned page to view their discography. has several articles on Commissioned, mostly focused on 2002's Reunion tour. This article offers a good overview of the broad impact group members have had on gospel and mainstream music.

Although I didn't pay it much attention when it was initially released, this week I'll be listening to Mitchell Jones' Still Commissioned.

If you're aware of a Commissioned tribute site, let me know by leaving the URL in the comments section.

Sites to Savor: An Amazing Site About "Amazing Grace"

Thursday, the Library of Congress launched a new web site devoted to the history of the hymn “Amazing Grace.” Like Sweet Chariot: The Story of the Spirituals, it’s a multimedia website and history project.

The audio collection and database is in the Guiness Book of World’s Records as the largest collection of recordings of a single musical work. It's comprised of 3,049 recordings of the hymn and was donated to the Library of Congress by collectors Allan Chasanoff and Ramon Elozua. The site includes a searchable database of collection materials.

Other resources include a timeline outlining the history of the hymn (written in 1779), an article tracing the spread of the hymn throughout England and the U.S., and discussion of its role in shape-note singing. These resources draw heavily from the work of music journalist Steve Turner.

So far, I’ve only spent a few minutes clicking around, but I’m really impressed by its breath and magnitude. It’s a site worth savoring during an afternoon at the coffee shop, or enjoying in small sections. I took a minute to skim some of the articles and listen to a version of this English hymn recorded in 1950 by Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Lottie Henry. I’ll definitely be back for more.

(Hat tip: Friends of the Negro Spiritual)

Friday, March 30, 2007

Gospel Gal Gets Behind the Mic

This Sunday morning (April 1, no fooling!), I'll be joining Friend of the Blog Bob Marovich during his monthly Gospel Memories broadcast. You can listen to the broadcast live this Sunday, April 1, from 3:00 - 7:30 a.m. Central Time US on Chicago's 88.7 WLUW, with a real-time webcast at I'll be there about 6:15-ish, with my radio voice and a bag of my best vinyl to share. In the meantime, check out a podcast segment of Bob's March program at

UPDATE: The last hour and a half of Bob's April 1 program is now online. You can hear our conversation--and some of my good old gospel--including Harry Belafonte's very swingin' version of "When the Saints Go Marchin' In" (1957)--by checking out, then going to "Gospel Memories Program Archives." Our conversation is in the second of the two program snippets from the April 1 show. There's also a really great interview with L. Stanley Davis, one of the great scholars of gospel. Enjoy!
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Tuesday, February 27, 2007

They Signed You, Bill!

Today, Congress passed Senate Resolution 69, "[R]ecognizing the African-American spiritual as a national treasure." It was agreed to without amendment and with a preamble by Unanimous Consent.

Of course, you already knew that the spiritual is a national treasure. But here's the text of the resolution, which you can read for yourself here:


Recognizing the African-American spiritual as a national treasure.

Whereas since slavery was introduced into the European colonies in 1619, enslaved Africans remained in bondage until the United States ratified the 13th amendment to the Constitution in 1865;

Whereas during that period in the history of the United States, the first expression of a unique American music was created by enslaved African-Americans who--

(1) used their knowledge of the English language and the Christian religious faith, as it had been taught to them in the New World; and

(2) stealthily wove within the music their experience of coping with human servitude and their strong desire to be free;

Whereas as a method of survival, enslaved African-Americans who were forbidden to speak their native languages, play musical instruments they had used in Africa, or practice their traditional religious beliefs, relied on their strong African oral tradition of songs, stories, proverbs, and historical accounts to create an original genre of music, now known as spirituals;

Whereas Calvin Earl, a noted performer of, and educator on, African-American spirituals, remarked that the Christian lyrics became a metaphor for freedom from slavery, a secret way for slaves to `communicate with each other, teach their children, record their history, and heal their pain';

Whereas the New Jersey Historical Commission found that `some of those daring and artful runaway slaves who entered New Jersey by way of the Underground Railroad no doubt sang the words of old Negro spirituals like `Steal Away' before embarking on their perilous journey north';

Whereas African-American spirituals spread all over the United States, and the songs we know of today may represent only a small portion of the total number of spirituals that once existed;
Whereas Frederick Douglass, a fugitive slave who would become one of the leading abolitionists in the United States, remarked that spirituals `told a tale of woe which was then altogether beyond my feeble comprehension; they were tones loud, long, and deep; they breathed the prayer and complaint of souls boiling over with the bitterest anguish. Every tone was a testimony against slavery and a prayer to God for deliverance from chains.'; and

Whereas section 2(a)(1) of the American Folklife Preservation Act (20 U.S.C. 2101(a)(1)) states that `the diversity inherent in American folklife has contributed greatly to the cultural richness of the Nation and has fostered a sense of individuality and identity among the American people':

Now, therefore, be it

Resolved, That the Senate--

(1) recognizes that African-American spirituals are a poignant and powerful genre of music that have become one of the most significant segments of American music in existence;

(2) expresses the deepest gratitude, recognition, and honor to the former enslaved Africans in the United States for their gifts to the Nation, including their original music and oral history; and

(3) encourages the people of the United States to reflect on the important contribution of African-American spirituals to United States history and to recognize the African-American spiritual as a national treasure.


I'll be celebrating by listening to one of my latest discoveries: Umoja, a CD by Imani Winds, a wind quartet that includes some spirituals in the group repertoire. I'm also enjoying their most recent release, Imani Winds.

(For a reminder of how a bill becomes a law, click here. It's too bad there isn't one about how a bill becomes a resolution. Anyway, the clip will also remind you where you first heard the title reference.)

Is it Just Me . . .

Or do parts of Kierra Sheard's "Have What You Want" sound a lot like parts of D Train's "Keep On?"

Happy 110th Birthday, Marian Anderson!

Today, the Marian Anderson Historical Society marks the 110th birthday of its namesake. Hear the famous contralto's voice, learn more about her life, and get information about the society's program for scholars here.

Last week, my godmother gave me a copy of Songs and Spirituals by Marian Anderson. On vinyl! Here's a quote from the liner notes:

"[The spirituals] are my own music, but it is not for that reason that I love sing them. I love the spirituals because they are truly spiritual in quality; they give forth an aura of faith, simplicty, humility, and hope."

--Marian Anderson, 1897-1993

image credit:; photo by Carl Van Vechten

Monday, January 29, 2007

An Avatar . . .and a Spiritual

Some of you may have noticed my nifty new avatar in the "profile" section at left. "Gospel Gal" comes courtesy of Design-Her Gals, a company that allows users to create a gal to print on stationery, mugs, business or calling cards, aprons, et cetera.

It's a fun, creative concept, and I was so excited to discover this company--and not just 'cause it's made up of fellow gals! Through its Gal-to-Gal Foundation, Design-Her Gals donates 5 percent of every sale to organizations that help women with Stage 4 breast cancer.

So many families have been affected by breast cancer, including my own. My mom was diagnosed with breast cancer 9 years ago.

I will never forget the visceral terror and grief I felt when I called from college to plan a weekend trip home, only to find out that I needed to go home. To me, "Mom" and "home" are overlapping concepts. And our family's experience with breast cancer caused me to relate to the spiritual "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child" in a way I hadn't before. I knew that, without Mom, I would feel lost in the world. Homeless. De-centered, as if I'd lost something grounding that gave me a sense of reference.

In writing about this spiritual, Arthur C. Jones calls it "Arguably . . .the most important of the songs [Africans in America] passed on to us; it is probably not coincidental that it is one of a handful of African American folksongs that has survived sufficiently well to make itself known even to those with little or no familiarity with specific songs in the spirituals tradition."

He explains that although slave children often experienced this kind of pain, "the experience of the 'motherless child' . . .provided a frame of reference from which one might describe the severity of one's inner sufferings. Even one who had never been physically separated from mother could sing, during particularly trying times, 'Sometimes I feel like a motherless child,' assured that others in the community would understand intimately the precise level of pain associated with the difficult life experiences to which the singer referred. To announce, in song, that a life event made one feel 'like a motherless child' was to equate the pain associated with that event with the extreme torment occasioned by the 'daily, yea, hourly' occurrence of mother-child separation." (from Jones, Arthur C. Wade In the Water: The Wisdom of the Spirituals. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1993)

I'm deeply grateful for these songs of the ancestors that give me a language for understanding and expressing myself in times of joy and fear. I am separated from these slaves and former slaves by several generations and social strata, yet their wisdom and the faith they bequeathed me provide inspiration and sustenance.

I'm grateful that Mom is a breast cancer survivor of several years, and one with twice the energy of a woman 25 years her junior (specifically, that would be me).

I'm grateful, too, for opportunities to support important causes like breast cancer research. So I'm not going to keep this fabulous find to myself. I encourage you to click on the Gospel Gal in this post to make your own gal, or a gal for an important woman in your life. Tell them Gospel Gal sent you by to make a small push toward a big goal.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Coming Soon . . .


Some of you are aware that, the blog, has served as the "beta" site for, the dream. As I mentioned in my first post a couple of years ago, I've always had big plans for this website.

Over the last couple of months, I've started to work and plan more steadily toward the next phase--a more traditional-looking site where I'll put some of the interviews and reviews I've done, and where my future work will appear (If you just can't wait until then, or you reeeally want to read some of my older material, well, click here).

Watch this space for an announcement when the redesign is launched, or subscribe by typing your e-mail into the space on the left sidebar. Leave a comment about the kinds of coverage you'd like to see. And get ready to spend even more time talking and thinking together about the music we love.



Sunday, January 21, 2007

Trudy Pitts and 'Mr. C'

I often run into interesting music stories I'd like to share with my readers. But between a lot of busyness lately (and working on--wait for it--a full-scale relaunch of, a lot of those great stories have piled up in my inbox.

Here's one of those stories:

Trudy Pitts and 'Mr. C,' Partners in Music: A beautiful story of life, love and music between jazz organist Trudy Pitts and drummer Bill Carney, who have been together for 50 years. I love hearing stories like this. Listen to their gentle disagreement about their anniversary, their unabashed, everyday romanticism and their description of "instant improvisation." I enjoyed Ms. Pitts' interpretations of "Jesus Loves the Little Children" and "Jesus Loves Me." You can hear more of their music on the NPR site, buy their CD here, and find out more about them (and hear even more clips) here.
image credit:

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Stellar Awards Recap

As always, is on the case. Here is the list of Stellar Award winners, and here is the recap of last weekend's festivities. To find out when the awards will be airing in your area, click here.

Book Review: The Gospel According to the Beatles

Review by LaTonya Taylor

Veteran music journalist Steve Turner explores the spiritual paths of the Beatles—both collectively and as individuals—in this deftly and densely reported combination of cultural history, comparative religion, and biocritical insight. "The gospel of the Beatles is not found in their conformity to an orthodox creed," he notes, "but in their hunger for transcendence."

Turner begins by reporting the furor that erupted over John Lennon's infamous (and widely misunderstood) 1966 comment that the Beatles were "more popular than Jesus now," then compares the Fab Four to magical, shamanistic storytellers who shared the insights they gained through their spiritual explorations with an audience enmeshed in political, cultural, philosophical, and religious upheaval.

Turner wisely avoids the temptation to force the Beatles' hope for freedom, unity, and peace into a Christian mold. Indeed, Turner focuses heavily on their use of drugs and forays into Eastern religion and the occult in search of enlightenment and spiritual insight. Still, Turner thoughtfully demonstrates ways the Beatles' search reflects the continuing influence of Christianity: "They were skeptical and even dismissive of the church, yet many of their core beliefs—love, peace, hope, truth, freedom, honesty, transcendence—were, in their case, secularized versions of Christian teachings."

This review first ran in Christianity Today magazine. Related articles and links

Updates on Pilgrim Baptist Church . . .and Pilgrim Baptist Church

Regular readers know that I was deeply grieved last year when Pilgrim Baptist Church, where Thomas Dorsey pioneered what we now call gospel music, was severely damaged in a fire. I'm writing to offer a correction and some updates.

First, the correction: In this post, I wrote that that Pilgrim Baptist Church in Chicago is the church that appears in the movie The Blues Brothers--in the scene where James Brown is the church pastor. That was incorrect. There are actually two different churches, both named Pilgrim and both founded in 1917, and both in Chicago. (That sound you hear is me pounding my head against the keyboard.)

Now, the sad part: That Pilgrim Baptist Church (which was called Triple Rock Church in the film) was damaged in a September 2006 fire. More here and here and here.

Finally, the update: The Chicago Tribune reports that Mayor Daley is helping raise funds toward rebuilding Pilgrim. Um, the first one. (Here's the Sun-Times' story.)

And, a promise: speaking of the Godfather of Soul, I had the pleasure of attending what I didn't realize would be one of his last concerts. Naturally, I took notes, and of course I'll be sharing with you. So, stay tuned . . .or subscribe, and you'll get an e-mail once I've posted my thoughts.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Two Songs for Dr. King

If I Can Help Somebody

If I can help somebody as I pass along
If I can cheer somebody with a word or song
If I can show somebody they're traveling wrong
Then my living shall not be in vain.

If I can do my duty as a Christian ought
If I can bring back beauty to a world up wrought
If I can spread love's message that the Master taught
Then my living shall not be in vain.

Then my living shall not be in vain
Then my living shall not be in vain
If I can help somebody as I pass along
Then my living shall not be in vain.

--a favorite song of Dr. King's, famously recorded by Mahalia Jackson.


Tell Him Not to Talk Too Long

If you're around when I meet my day
Don't want a long funeral
And if somebody delivers the eulogy
Tell him not to talk too long.

Just say I tried to feed the hungry
Tried to love somebody
If you're around when I meet my day
Tell him not to talk too long.

Put my casket on an old wagon
Drawn by two fine mule
Bury me in my hometown, Atlanta Georgia
Tell him not to talk too long.

Tell him not to talk too long.

--Mary Lou Williams' 1969 interpretation of a famous speech of Dr. King's. You can hear it on Mary Lou's Mass.

More here on Dr. King and the arts.

image credit:

Happy King Day, friends.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Hershey's Dark Chocolate Gets Harder to Swallow

In a new commercial for Hershey's Dark Chocolate, people cheerfully unwrap chocolate bars with an especially joyous rendering of "Oh, Happy Day" in the background. If the voiceover is to be believed, we all have a reason to rejoice: Because dark chocolate is high in antioxidants, it's good for us.

Apparently we are to put down the remote and get to singing, swinging, making merry like Christmas and unwrapping healthful, delicious dark chocolate bars as quickly as our greedy little hands allow.

Granted, there are plenty of good things to be said about chocolate. It's good for baking. It smells nice. And dark chocolate is good for you. (But you knew that.) But I've never equated chocolate and religious ecstasy. (That may be because I so rarely have the really good stuff.)

OK, so I'm having a little fun here. But regular readers of this blog know that the use of gospel music in this way troubles me.

Part of it is that I hate hearing music I love used to sell stuff, period. I am not thrilled by the "It's a Wickes House" (Brick House) commercial advertising a local furniture store. I did not approve when "I Feel Good" was used to sell laxatives. (No, Godfather! Please!please!please!) And I regret that I owe my first exposure to the Four Tops' "I Can't Help Myself (Sugarpie Honeybunch)" to a Duncan Hines commercial.

But although each of those songs is meaningful to me and my fellow retro-licious pop culture nerds, not one of them is expressly religious. These aren't songs meant to celebrate God's goodness, to proclaim truths about his work in the world, or to encourage his people in the way "Oh, Happy Day" is. And that particular song is incredibly meaningful. Not only because it revolutionized gospel music, but also because, to me, it's a story of how God can use young people to change the world when no one's looking. It's a song that transcends culture and genre, one that never gets old to me. (Perhaps there's also some irony in being critical of the way a song known for moving outside church walls is, well, being used outside church walls.)

More generally, I'm troubled when I hear gospel music used in commercials (more examples here), because I think it trivializes the music, and, by extension, Christianity as it its practiced by African-Americans. It's another of those instances that makes me pause and consider what this music means in the public imagination. I realize, also, that African-American religion isn't the only form of belief taken less than seriously. Consider the casual use of the word "karma," or the widespread practice of yoga without much regard for its Hindu roots (I've got friends on both sides of that one, but I'm just saying).

It's not as though this is an uncomplicated issue. Gospel music is directly and indirectly involved in the selling of many things. Gospel music, for example. And movies, both decent and not-so-great. People (cough) get paid to write about gospel music. Marketers are realizing that it's just good business to take gospel music and its listeners seriously. There are labels, charts, ratings, etc. that all have do, in some way, with gospel music as a commodity. After all, when you read a gospel music review, the bottom line, nestled somewhere between all of the historical context about this particular subgenre and the literary allusions and the carefully nuanced phrases, crafted just-so, is someone's assessment about whether or not you, Dear Reader, should burn or buy, should pick or pan.

Gospel music is just so inextricably linked to African-American culture--and to African-American religious culture, that its simultaneously visible and invisible in our culture. It's everywhere, from the tragic melisma of American Idol (Ever started a run and realized you couldn't find your way back home? Mmm-hmmm. You know who you are.) to the hair-raising testimonials of those Tresstify commercials.

So sometimes I wonder if moments like this--when gospel music is distanced from its Christian context--aren't just part of the tradeoff for the music's mainstream acceptance. They may be inevitable. But that doesn't make them easier to swallow.

It looks like the spot isn't yet on the Hershey website. But keep an eye out for it. And let me know what you think. And if you're interested in another blending of music and chocolate, check out The Chocolate Vault.

More on Ahmet Ertegun and Jubilee Gospel

As I promised when I last posted, I contacted friend-of-the-blog Bob Marovich with my question about Jubilee, a gospel label founded in part by the late Ahmet Ertegun. Here's what he said:

"Here is what it says in the liner notes of the Jubilee Gospel reissue CD, written by Opal Louis Nations: 'In 1946, [Jubilee Records co-founder Jerry] Blaine started up the Cosnat Distributing Corporation with a $6,000 loan from his brother Ben. Cosnat handled a host of small, independent labels, including National. Some time during this period, Herb Abramson and Ahmet Ertegun started a label called Jubilee, with the firm intention of issuing Afro-American gospel music - as the name of the label would suggest. Jubilee put out a pair of singles by the Two Gospel Keys (Emma Daniels, vocals and guitar and Mother Sally Jones, vocal and tambourine) as well as two by the great Sister Ernestine Washington, and Blaine distributed these through Cosnat. The records sold poorly, and the rights were sold to Moses Asch of Folkways Records. Blaine bought Jubilee from Abramson in 1947, and his first releases were extremely good sellers....'"

'Nations goes on to report that those good sellers were Kermit Schafer's famous "Bloopers" LPs and the Orioles' "It's Too Soon to Know." The latter was the proverbial shot heard 'round the world that launched the vocal group craze, which later morphed into what we know as the doo-wop sound.

'According to Hayes/Laughton, the Ernestine Washington platters were recorded in NYC on either January 2 or 4, 1946 with Bunk Johnson's Jazz Band, and are:

Jubilee 2501: Does Jesus care?/The Lord will make a way somehow
Jubilee 2502: Where could I go but to the Lord/God's amazing grace

The discography goes on to say, however, that the Jubilee records were never issued. They were issued on the Disc label instead after the purchase of the matrices by Mo Asch.

'The Two Gospel Keys 78s were also recorded in 1946, but again, Hayes/Laughton says the records were never issued on Jubilee but rather on Disc after the matrices were purchased by Asch. They would have been:

Jubilee 2503: You've got to move/This world is not my home
Jubilee 2504: I want my crown/We're gonna have a good time'"

(By the way, the Hayes/Laughton reference Bob makes is to an item on my wish list:
Gospel Records, 1943-1969: A Black Music Discography (Paperback) by Cedric J. Hayes, Robert Laughton. If you check the price, you'll know why it's on my wish list. )

Bob's knowledge on these matters is why I'm always happy to give him a shout-out (OK, that and the fact that he links to me!). He's the host of Gospel Memories on Chicago's WLUW (88.7 FM, or listen online).

Here's a Washington Post article with more info on Ertegun and his love for jazz. It also mentions Washington's historic U Street, where I recently spent time following another deep, abiding interest of mine: Good Cake. Mmmm.