Keeping a Faith : A personal look at contemporary gospel and spiritual soul music.
Given how much influence christianity and gospel music has had on the music we all love , its surprising how little attention in gets in discussions. I sense that very “English” rule at play here , never talking about religion and politics , especially when we’ve got white labels ,demo’s and re issues available to discuss . At the risk of scaring people off I think it deserves at least some acknowledgement, without seeking to present as any authority on the subject. Nor intending to provide a sermon or seek converts. We only have to read any biography of Soul legends appreciate the influence of the church . For some it has gone hand in hand with their ‘secular’ music careers.. Aretha Franklin..Curtis Mayfield ..Al Green, for others it may have been an eternal struggle between the two. Sam Cooke , Marvin Gaye. In recent years Gospel music has long since broken out of the confines of some outdated perceptions of happy clappy spiritual choirs announcing their allegiance to God , its transgressed and evolved into a range of music genre’s which are increasingly crossing over into both mainstream charts and soul dance floors.
I suspect I wont be the only person who may have but found myself listening to music with a message that saw me me through tough times, and opened my mind to keeping a faith as well as keeping the faith. I think it would be an injustice to ignore the driving force behind their material. To me dancing to Soul music IS totally a spiritual experience . Hearing messages of pain, joy, love, hope, .. to a groove that fills me up surrounded by other ‘disciples’. Whether you absorb the message , the music or both I have tried to provide some suggestions and sources to access spiritual music which might appeal to Soul music fans like myself.
Gospel and Christian music has become a huge business particularly in the US, where it accounts for 6.6% of music sales. It feeds over 600 specialist radio stations catering to an audience of 32 million listeners. Gospel specific music draws from and is often aimed at the Black Pentecostal churches who provide a potential market of 36 million. It has achieved crossover main stream success stories such as Ann Nesby, Mary Mary , Kirk Franklin and Bebe Winians. That success comes at a price , with close scrutiny and loud condemnation on any behaviours that are deemed un godly.
1994 Vicki Winians performed her ground breaking award winning ‘Dont throw your life away’ song using backing dancers. What would be considered a harmless display by todays standards received a stoney response reported in Billboard . Vicki was accused of shaming god and turning her back on the church. So great was the shame she felt obliged to record a taped apology which was sent out to 1,500 Gospel radio stations to ask for forgiveness. This struggle between strict adherence to religious codes and a desire to achieve crossover success goes right back to Sam Cooke who was forced to release his first solo record under an alternative name to avoid the backlash.
Gospel/Spritual music has long had a presence on the Northern/Rare UK Soul scene . Here I would like to acknowledge it with some of my own favourites .
Finding a Faith: Cool Notes personal Top Ten.
Sounds of Blackness. Optimistic .
This track saw me through some ‘moody’ years - which Im sure we’ve all experienced - and help lift my spirits and opened my mind to more like it. Released in 1991 , it went to number 3 in the US RnB charts and 45 in the UK charts . Under the direction of Gary Hines and with with the unmistakable soaring talent of Ann Nesby its an anthem of survival and hope that was the pave the way for more crossover inspirational dance music .
When in the midst of sorrow
You can' t see up when looking down
A brighter day tomorrow will bring
Kirk Franklin . Looking for You .
A single taken from his third album ‘Hero” in 2005 , reaching 4 in the US Billboard chart and winning a Dove Music award. It blew me away when I heard it first at the fantastic Soul Underground in Walsall where it seemed a popular favourite that never failed to fill the floor. A fresh funky cool track with an unapologetic tribute to finding salvation. A really crisp video has seen over a million hits on U Tube. Check out his other slower but innovative material as well. He has since become the Don of modern gospel.
Donald Lawrence and the Tri City Singers. Keep on Blessing Me.
A track from his 2002 EMI album Get Your Life Back and another favourite at Soul Underground back in the day.
Eddie Kendricks . He is a Friend of Mine.
A common favourite at many Modern soul nights. Great blend of strings and brass to sustain Eddie’s homage to his greatest friend. From the 1976 Tamla LP of the same name.
BeBe Winians . Thank You .
Perhaps the most renown member of a celebrated Gospel family. It would probably easier to list what he hasn’t achieved in his long career. Since emerging from Detroit with sister CeCe he has won numerous awards and worked with an array of performers across the musical spectrum. Developed his own Radio station, record label, performed as an actor, written a book about Whitney Huston, and spent 9 years developing a stage show of his life story. Its not come without trauma that included a divorce and allegation of domestic abuse and civil suit against a former manager.
This really uplifting solid groove from his debut solo album is a classic example of how Gospel has crossed over to provide us with infectious contemporary dance tracks and an inspired message of hope.
DJ Rogers . Love Brought Me Back .
This was a club classic in my Jazz Funk days, but its took me nearly 30 years to really appreciate what the song was about. It features Keni Burke, Patrice Rushen and Denise Williams . Released on Maurice Whites Kalimba label in 1978 and found on his album of the same.Gospel singer Helen Baylor did a credible cover on her 1996 album , but I favour the original.
Rance Allen Group. I Know a Man Who. (Gospel Truth. )
1973 Early release by Gospel greats. Superb mid tempo crossover track alerting us to someone who will accept us faults and all.
Yolanda Adams We Fall Down.
I came across this on U tube clip of the BMI 2010 Gospel music awards which saw Yolanda Adams deliver a sublime priceless tribute to fellow Gospel legend Donnie McClurkin whose moved to tears in the audience. A recognition of human frailty and faults but also one of hope and forgiveness. Written by Kyle Matthews and also features on Donnie Mc Clurkin’s Live in London album but Yolanda’s version clinches it for me.
Sonya Mc Guire Joy
From her 2009 My Journey Album , a class vocal diva from a Gospel family .
Alicia Myers . I want to thank you. Former singer with Al Hudson and the Soul Partners this much sampled track was on her 1981 debut album. An unashamed message of salvation and thanks to her God, but still got to 5 in US Billboard RnB chart and was a UK club classic .
Some popular gospel floor fillers.
A few spiritual/gospel gems that have received or deserve plays at soul venues across the UK over the years.
Oldies / Northern
The Gospel Classics . More Love.
I can’t remember where I heard this played but its two and a half minute stand out 60’s dancer from their 1968 Chess debut album ‘You’ve got to join hands ‘ Copies fetching up to £70 tells you of its popularity on the Northern scene.
Robert Banks Mighty Good Way.
I believe this Levine favourite was originally released on Verve and became a favourite at The Torch, and was latter released on MGM in 1967 .
Wade in the Water .Ramsey Lewis Trio.
Some might favour Marlena Shaws vocal version of one of the oldest Gospel spiritual songs that goes back as far as Fisk Jubilee Singers, which highlighted the ordeal facing escaping slaves fleeing north, but also references the baptism ceremony. For me this version edges its with raw piano sound underplayed with brass and the hand clapping tambourine.
Martha Bass . Since Ive Been Born Again.
This is another gem from the Soul Gospel 2 collection, delivered by the Mother of Fontella Bass in a no nonsense revival church style but with a distinct RnB riff . It can also be found on her Chess Checker LP ‘Rescue Me , featuring the gospel roots of her daughters classic hit.
Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes . Prayin.
1979 release on Source and a firm favourite on the Northern circuit Unmistakable rich vocals, infectious clap along rhythm and the Philly call for universal love. Whats not to like. !
Terry Callier . Be a Believer .
From his 1978 Fire on Ice album.
“If you find you’ve got to climb a mountain and you’ve never seen a mountain quite so high,
You can’t let that stone wall block your vision. Move up till your horizons touch the sky . Be a believer . “
I might be pushing my luck on citing this a dancer and a christian message but another gem from a musical genius who career shone with anthems to positivity, spiritual reflection and social change.
Mildred Clarke . Keep on Trying
This 1978 release on ABC can also be found on the Soul Jazz Compilation ‘Soul Gospel 2’ and as soon as it kicks in you know its made to be a ‘Crossover’ dance floor classic. It has shades of Ann Clark (No relation) and its no surprise to hear it was played by Richard Searling.
Finding Your Soul..
Miracle Of Love Nanette Welmans.
This woman has a remarkable talent and deserves much more exposure. She came to the UK from East Africa in the 1960’s . Her mother was an opera singer but Nanette want on to embrace big band and mellow jazz until she found her faith. She presents a lush blend of soulful jazz with a spiritual message . Vocally reminiscent of Kylie Audlist or Lisa Stansfield. Check out her LP’s “Come into my life ‘(1992) or “Its Personal ‘ (2005) which contain a few potential crossover dancers.
Ted Winn . Balance.
Former US Airman who went on to duet with Sheri Jones Moffet before developing his solo career . He achieved early success with Donald Lawrence Tri City Singers , but it was his joint efforts in ‘Balance’ from the 2009 album of the same name that saw him achieve real crossover status. A compassionate call to press pause on life and find a natural balance. A message ever more relevant in the age of Trump.
“Take some time to reflect , some time to reminisce . Appreciate the present, the future is a gift . Live your life with balance. “
Rance Allen Group Turn it around
Everything about this group screams class and distinction. Rance was preaching and performing since the age of 9 in his home state of Michigan . He and his 3 brothers went on to form the RAG in the late sixties and they went on to record for the Stax Gospel outlet with productions by David Porter .That brassy deep soul Stax influence has been evident in much of their work which went on to win numerous awards and Grammy nominations . Their 2 Live Experience albums have become gospel classics. “We care a lot” a track from their ‘Live Experience 2’ LP is pacy dancer which could hold its own at any Crossover event, as could ‘Smile’ from their Best of .. 1969 album on Truth Records . Also check out ‘I know a man who’ superb crossover dancer. I think this gospel ballad perhaps best shows off the richness of their talent , offering Gods hope to those in need.
Norman Hutchins . I Really Love You.
Another artist who was active in his Delaware church from the age of 12 and ordained by 21 . One of 12 children raised by a single mother he has gone on to achieve Master's Degree in Biblical Counselling and a Doctorate in Church Administration as well as 10 albums his his 20 year career. His faith saw him through a 6 month period of total blindness and renewed his commitment to God.
‘I Really Love You; comes from his 2014 ‘Where I Belong ‘ album on JDI records .
A simple unapologetic homage to God, but it hasn’t stopped it getting played by many Modern/Crossover Soul DJ’s . There is a clip on U Tube of the crowds reaction when Roger Williams played it to close his set at the Morecambe weekender which I was privileged to witness a real ‘hands in the air ‘ moment that Soulful gospel music can provide us if we allow it into our hearts.
Courtney Wilson .Worth Fighting for .
“You came because Im worth so much more.. I am your child and Im worth fighting for” . This comes from his 2nd album of the same name released on Motown’s Gospel label. Its won a Grammy nomination in 2015 and a Dove Gospel award and has clocked up 8.5 million U Tube hits at the time of writing.
RnB. / Neo Spiritual Soul
Avery Sunshine . I Got Sunshine.
Another child performer from the age of 8 , Denise Nichol White went on to train in Jazz and Classic music and perform in her home in a Philadelphia suburb. This track is off her debut self titled album released on Big Shine Records in 2010. Its unique quality reminder of how we can come through the darkest days with hope.
“If you're working every day
Two jobs for getting no pay
I know it's hard to see the light with darkness in your way
But listen let me tell you
What you outta do
Open up your mind and know the sunshine is in you “
Mary Mary Shackles.
Their debut single on Columbia Reached number 4 in the UK charts . At the time of writing had scored 14 million hits on U Tube and was considered a ground breaking event for what has been labelled Urban Gospel and helped open the crossover doors for the likes of Kirk Franklin.
Jamie Jones U Gonna Be Alright .
Neo Soul Gospel - A musical collaboration of Old school soul meets gospel music. 2004 Illuminate LP. A class act joining the dots between Curtis Mayfield and Jahiem .
Cynthia Jones. Love Jones .
Fom her 2008 Gotta Soul album on Kingdom Records . Given the orthodox expectations of the US churches I was surprised this sultry neo soul number slipped the net. The phrase ‘Jones’ alone refers to a “yearning” which has its roots in a New York back alley favoured by Beatniks heroin users . Non of this should detract from a solid Gospel pedigree coming from a church family, and an active involvement in charitable work and has won numerous Gospel awards. She’s also a passionate Biker and formed a Christian motorcyclist group called .. what else but ‘Soul Patrol’. !
When house music emerged it seemed a natural fit to deliver a spiritual message. Its roots in soulful dance , disco and often drawing vocalists from a church background. There is a popular strain of Soulful house that delivers inspired anthems of hope , change and inner peace without ever pledging any christian allegiance and which will help lift you through tough times.
Then there is Gospel house providing an unashamed homage to christ and the christian faith. Many a dance track will have a ‘Gospel Mix’ which offers nothing more than a nod to the influence and inspiration of the music. Devotional gospel house has proved an invaluable conduit to take the message to a wider audience and also offer their followers a chance to groove to Gods message. Here are just a few of my favourites.
The Goodfellas Feat Lisa Millet - Soul Heaven
This 2000 house track comes with minimal message but maximum groove to a promise of a Soul Heaven. Appears to be a UK/Italian production involving David Picciioni and his Azuli label which was later swallowed up by Defected Records.
Alexandra O Neal . Lord (Bah Samba Mix )
BKO’s 2006 Soulful House release reminded us of the quality of eighties legend Alexandra O Neal
Candi Staton - Hallelujah Anyway.
There are a number of mixes of this song. They all have some merit but I favour Frankie Knuckles Directors Cut released on Defected.
UK gospel , even more than its cousin on the Soul scene ,has had to live in the huge shadow cast by the clout of the US gospel industry . A leading website (www.britishgospel.co.uk ) is up for sale. Few past winners of the coveted MOBO Gospel awards have not achieved commercial crossover , others have been been marked by, disillusionment (Jahaziel) tragic death (Lavine Hudson) or retirement (Behive and Nu Life) . More recent winners appear to reflect the competing forces in the UK Gospel scene .Living Faith and Faith Child from the African tradition and The Guvnor and Victizzle popular on the the Reggae Gospel Sound systems .
The UK Gospel scene is equally struggling with the balance of its artists achieving commercial success without straying from the a righteous path of ministry.(Which all too often will mean the Pentecostal church). Former Gospel singer ,journalist and champion of UK Gospel Juliet Fletcher , provides an astute understanding of this in her blogs.
She describes a ‘simple exchange‘ in terms of paying for entertainment and a ‘Divine Exchange’ which is the add-on. Taking listeners beyond the pleasure of artistic experience into a power of a spiritual experience with God and Jesus. Despite all these tensions and obstacles there are some that feel in percentage terms the UK Gospel scene is matching if not exceeding its US counterparts in sales. It hosts annual awards, radio stations, regular concerts. It has progressed to its own sound systems and even club nights. All of this provides an almost parallel source of christian entertainment and provides a valuable conduit for those artists wishing to progress beyond the ‘divine exchange’
Some of those UK Soul artists who have their roots or inspiration in the church. These include Ruby Turner, Shaun Escoffery ,Corrine Bailey Rae and Beverley Knight . For those of you into Soulful-Gospel House I would recommend Lisa Mayers ‘Not Only Human’ . A more contemporary UK Gospel artist with huge cross over potential is Rachel Kerr whose talent can be found on her Soulful dance tracks ‘Surrender’ and ‘Stand Strong’ on Gridlock’d Records.Even this does not do justice to her versatility and range. It can be found in ‘All for You’. ‘Hold my Hand’ (Back to Music ) “Love Reign” where she reverts to what I guess are her gospel roots but with a modern spin.
News and views
Some websites both UK and international. I have to stress I do not endorse some of the often fundamental beliefs of the ministries behind some of these sources , which can sometimes vere from the unchristian as far as I understand it to outright bigotry and intolerance, particularly towards Gay people.
Juliet Fletcher is a veteran UK gospel singer and a leading commentator on all things gospel via the Keep the Faith web site. She has provided informed and invaluable analysis of the UK Gospel scene , and appears to be an advocate for taking the ministry to a wider audience. Her columns examine the tensions thrown up by these issues which are spiritual and commercial.
Gospel / Spiritual Soul Radio Shows.
Solar Radio Sunday 6 - 8 am .
This show has been running for a number of years and used to have a presenter who threw in news and debate on current spiritual issues as well as interviews with artists. Sadly this was dropped for a wall to wall recording of across the board spiritual music with no DJ , which allows listeners to embrace just the message or the music or both. Word the play list is put together by veteran Solar DJ Tony Monson who drops a mini gospel selection on his mid morning shows. The Sunday morning playlist provides a great mix that includes gospel house and soulful dance, RnB/Neo spiritual Soul and Jazz influenced gospel , and a few hand clapping classics from the musics roots. You really couldn't ask for a more extensive and innovative selection which has helped inform this feature. Ive long pleaded with Solar Radio to provide a play list to help promote these artists but have resorted to the invaluable Shazam app to deliver the details.
Premier Gospel UK
The Gospel Selection Theo Manderson and Soul Food with Nigel Ipinson- Fleming .
Premier Christian Radio has been running for 20 years . It broadcasts on MW across Greater London and Surrey, nationally on DAB, and on Freeview channel 725.and also via the internet with podcasts if you miss a show. They are aligned to the evangelical wing of the church but claim no formal links with a particular denomination and do not take a position on controversial issues but provide a platform for others to.
Greg Belsons Divine Gospel Show .
Greg Belson British DJ based in California. From his early residences in Surrey and South London playing rare soul and funk he went on to team up with Keb Darge in 1994 , Kingsize Records 1997 before moving to LA where he has established a reputation for unearthing rare vintage gospel/spiritual soul/funk records . He has also brought these records to clubbers in the US, Europe and the UK . Including tent events in Glastonbury . He has recently released a compilation the US Culture of Soul label.( Greg Belson's Divine Disco: American Gospel Disco 1974-1984 ) He also has a U Tube channel and Podcast of his radio shows. There’s no denying that he has unearthed and given prominence to previously obscure artists and songs in a similar way to the Northern Soul scene. The difference is the original Northern Soul records were rarely produced or inspired by a spiritual connection that appears absent from Greggs involvement .
Finding as well as keeping a faith.
Finding a faith is a sensitive and often very personal and complex issue which will be based on personal choices , circumstances and values which will evolve over different stages of your life. Spiritual soul music has provided me with a growing sense of strength and hope for the future. Its a journey that is still a work in progress and I am not going to suggest one path or faith is superior to another , or condem anyone who rejects a spiritual path. I have been inspired by Quakers who balance a belief in “something of God in everyone “ with a commitment to social justice . https://www.quaker.org.uk/about-quakers/our-faith I choose to attend my local Church of England services , who put Jesus’s message into practice locally and internationally, and a a kindly lot in need of a good tune. https://www.churchofengland.org/about-us.aspx
I have to make a loud recommendation to the books of radical London vicar Dave Tomlinson who adopts an inspiringly fresh and down to earth approach to christianity which touched a chord with me. You could do worse than to start with How to be a Bad Christian (and a better human being) or The Bad Christians Manifesto (Reinventing God)
Keep the Faith on all fronts. Peace and Love . Cool Notes.