Will deeper worship be one legacy from lockdown? Steve Goddard hopes so
As the grey-haired lady stepped up to the microphone at Earls Court, I wasn’t expecting much. Being 12 at the time – and from the quiet Home Counties – I had no idea who she was. Even her dramatic biography (she was the product of the rape of her teenage African-American mother) failed to create much more than passing curiosity.
But then, with a smile as wide as the banner that read ‘I am the Way, the Truth and the Life’ behind her, the 68-year-old launched into ‘His Eye Is On the Sparrow’. Never mind our little feathered friend of a million suburban gardens. With a smokey voice that sent shivers down my spine, Ethel Waters swooped up and down the blues scale with the grace of a golden eagle.
The year was 1966, and for four brief minutes I was swept away from a world of Sunday morning pews and endless Gregorian chants. I had been baptised with total immersion into what was then known as ‘Black gospel’ – at a Billy Graham crusade in London. Yes, I had enjoyed the 2000-strong choir, led by Cliff Barrows, and, star-struck, had even been privileged to meet Cliff Richard backstage. But Ethel had invaded my soul.
Three years later, the Edwin Hawkins Singers de-constructed and re-built ‘O Happy Day’, taking what is now called southern gospel to No.2 in the UK mainstream charts – an unprecedented achievement. Billy Preston, fresh from his escapades on a London rooftop with the Beatles, scored another gospel-based hit with ‘That’s the Way God Planned It’.
Gradually I became aware that, behind Waters, Hawkins and Preston lay a legacy I knew little about, but one that had inspired so many of the chart songs I loved. Indeed, when searching for ideas, Elton John, one of the most successful songwriters of the past 50 years, still admits to being strongly influenced by the genre. “Gospel, soul and country – that’s my favourite kind of music,” he told the BBC. “That’s where my heart is, in soulful, joyful gospel.” And record producer, Brian Eno, though an atheist, said recently: “The basic message of gospel is ‘everything’s gonna be alright’ and that’s a fantastic message. All these songs, even the ones that are quite gloomy, they’re really saying ‘it’s gonna be alright, you’ll get through’. That’s the message I want to hear.”
Five decades after that first encounter, and like millions of others in lockdown,
I needed to hear something that took me out of the gloom of being forced
to postpone the Christian Resources Exhibition (CRE) in October 2020 – because of the pandemic. One night in May, a clip featuring Billy Preston at the Hammond B3 organ, on a song called ’You Can’t Beat God Giving’, popped up seemingly from nowhere on my YouTube feed. I realised it must have been recorded some time ago because Billy, who could make the B3 testify, wail and growl – and who had become one of my all-time musical heroes – died in 2006. Gathered round an organ and piano, and singing along in an intimate atmosphere, were dozens of people I didn’t recognise. And boy, could they sing. The sense of family, of traditional storefront church, was palpable: the kind most of us can only dream about.
YouTube recommended more songs from the same session, featuring a stack of gifted artists I had never heard of: the Barrett Sisters, Pastor Ralph H. Goodpasture, Joe Ligon, Kitty Parham, Doris Akers, Richard White, Isaac Whittman, Richard Smallwood, Dorothy Norwood, Mildred Howard and Robert Anderson. Here were songs that did exactly what Brian Eno said: reached deep into your soul and told you everything was going to be all right.
No wonder, in our difficult days, these historic sessions are currently winning thousands of views. We can thank Mr Fixit, gospel music’s Bill Gaither, for having the foresight to put this bunch of ageing but glorious pioneers into a studio and letting them just… sing. It all took place some 30 years ago, but feels as fresh and vibrant as if it were recorded yesterday.
As owner of CRE, I am always looking to encourage and promote upcoming artists of all ages, representing a wide variety of musical genres. But, as I read the biographies of the artists I had stumbled upon here – most of whom are now in glory – the joy they share surely comes out of the trials they faced as pioneers on the road, in those dark days of the Green Book and segregation. That’s what communicates beyond the melodies, harmonies and infectious musicianship: joy beyond pain.
Ethel Waters could sing like an angel. Billy could play as if his very life depended on it. But their personal lives were troubled. Perhaps a lasting legacy of lockdown will be a deepened sense of worship – beyond the trials and tribulations, we have hope.
Everything’s going to be all right.
After a 30-year career in journalism and public relations, Steve Goddard bought the Christian Resources Exhibition in 2016. The next two exhibitions will be at CRE South-West 2021 at Westpoint, Exeter (17-18 March) and CRE National 2021 at Sandown Park, Surrey (12-14 Oct). For more info, visit www.creonline.co.uk