The story of ‘How They Got Over,’ is a documentary ﬁrmly rooted in African-American gospel music. It chronicles the rise and fall of quartets from gospel’s golden era and was shown to a packed cinema audience in London’s west end, featuring artistes such as Sam Cooke and The Soul Stirrers.
The ﬁlm formed part of the annual Doc’n’Roll Film Festival and among the contributors was Viv Broughton, owner of Premises Studios in east London, gospel music archivist, and author of the book, Too Close To Heaven: The Illustrated History of Gospel Music:
After the screening a lively Q&A session followed with Viv co-chairing proceedings. He said: “‘How They Got Over’ is the untold story of black gospel quartets such as the Dixie Hummingbirds, the Blind Boys of Alabama and the Mighty Clouds of Joy.
The rare archive footage and interviews with some of the great surviving voices, is sometimes heartbreaking, always uplifting and often deeply moving. A truly inspirational ﬁlm documenting some of the most astounding vocal music you are ever likely to hear.” The heartbreak experiences for many gospel artistes in America decades ago, was clearly evident in the documentary.
Non-payment of fees promised and wide-spread, ruthless exploitation. Time and again, gospel artistes would spend their own money on transportation on long journeys to venues where they were invited to perform to a secular audience. But at the end, after hours on stage, energy spent, they were left stranded and hungry because they were not paid.
Those who were business-savvy, fared much better but often at a price which many in the church would call sell-out. Some crossed from gospel to secular and achieved ﬁnancial success. For example, Sam Cooke, whose decision would have been viewed as very controversial when he started writing and performing secular music, and became a household name internationally.
From his success he formed his own label, SAR, in 1959 but clearly never forgot his gospel roots. The ﬁrst group he signed was the Soul Stirrers, whose career had declined after Cooke’s departure from the group to the secular arena. The SAR headquarters at 6425 Hollywood Boulevard, was also home to several other gospel artistes.
Commenting on the documentary, former Songs of Praise producer and owner of a south London music production company, Roy Francis said: “The ﬁlm was a very good watch with the balance between the narration and the music performance. In music documentary ﬁlms like these, there’s often never the right balance between the music and what’s being said. I’m pleased the ﬁlmmakers have immortalised these great artistes whose music, the history of rock ’n’ roll, pop and gospel music owe so much to.”
By Ionie Benjamin