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."