The state of Gospel, as reflected in the Bobby Jones Gospel Countdown. For a weekly glimpse over the pigmentally darker side of the fence, you probably can't do better than having Jaimie Rake guide you through the numbers of our brothers and sisters in Christ.
The biggest gospel countdown show on the radio? If the genre inferred is gospel of the soul variety, not Southern, the frequent tagline for The Bobby Jones Gospel Countdown is true enough. And if it has any competition, I'm unaware of it.
Jones is, as you may know, a personality who's become something of a tastemaker in the music he rep's not only with the aforementioned radio show, but a TV showcase that's been on cable's black-oriented BET channel for over 20 years and occasional singer, choir director and Lord-only-knows-what-else. If nothing else, he's a heckuva businessman and a big fish in a relaitvely small pond.
The size of the body of water Jones occupies only seems to be getting smaller, too, as speciality indie labels take slices of its market share and the same majors who have staked their claims in cCm lay claim to much of the radio play given to the music. One might think there would then be more attempts to cross over acts from contempo' Xian fans' attention to soul gospel and vice versa, but, per the old cliche' about churches on Sunday morning, the churchified radio band remains a pretty segregated place, too.
But for a weekly glimpse over the pigmentally darker side of the fence (not so much a peek for me, as I catch some of soul gospelly gal Yolanda Adams' syndicated morning show and programming in the format in Milwaukee and Chicago thruoghout the week too), you probably can't do better than a couple hours spent with Jones DJ'ing through the top 20 of the music that makes for his livelihood. Below is an overview of his chart from early February 2012. This performs the double duty of offering a composite of the state of mainstream commercical Afrimerican church music as well, as much of what becomes popular congregationally first became popular on the air (and vice versa in roughly equa measure nowadays, it seems).
What trade publication or whatever else he uses to determine art positions he doesn't say, and my correspondence asking for same has gone unanswered. That aside, let's countdown with Bobby, OK?
20)My Testimony-Marvin Sapp http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mEv6KdGmESY
It looked for a long while like Fred Hammond would be the most successful soloist to emerge from influential '80s-'90s R&B gospel vocal group Commissioned. Then Sapp's "Never Would Have Made It" became a humongous general market adult R&B hit, and if now-labelmates Hammond and Sapp consider themselves in compeition, it's plenty fiercer now. Per this lead single from his forthcoming album, Sapp continues to excel at the big, personal balladic story song. His testifying here consists largely of telling us the Lord brought him through. Fine, but no mention of atonrement for sin? Uh, OK, I guess, but his sterling bari' can sell a song no matter how substantive or not. Expect this to go ot #1 in due time.
19)You Are-Kierra Sheard http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BuJCGtaKlw4
So many Clark Sisters and spawn therefrom..ach ! Kierra, I believe, is daughter to Karen Clark Sheard and went by Kiki for a middle name when she was on EMI Gospel. Gal has grown up some and seems to be taking the stomping dance beat of her mom's old sibling act's big '80s club and R&B crossover smash, "You Are The Sunshine," into even harder stompiness, using multiple names for the Almighty and a kind of trad' choral gospel/soft prog rock hybrid for the match of mass vocals to electric guitar fireworks. Rather sweet, but I'm wondering who the bishop is she's shouting out to in this recorded-live-in-Chicago piece.
18)So Proud-Brian Courtney Wilson http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UHqvQNPwhJE
How many Beach Boys fans stumbled upon this Wilson's work until he started using his middle name? He has added his midle moniker since he signed to the gospel division of Matthew Knowles' (Beyonce's dad's) Music World label, and he's shown a fair deal of artistic maturity since his days as a teen phenom on Malaco in the '90s. The context of this midtempo mature R&B excursion may partly be set in church and Bible reading, but not so much about He who should be worshipped there. The titular pride seems more about one's earthly family than the one of God. Still, it's once again proof that some of the better black male vocalists in the U.S. aren't turning away from the church to get into worldlier music, I suppose.
17)Jesus-Le'Andria Johnson http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FVgXOBpXybk
Where to start on this recent top 10 by the third season winner of the American Idol gospel cousin, Sunday Best? Johnson's impressaive alto starts off fine with a lyric about looking in the mirror to find religion staring back her at her. Evocative, yes? A reference to throwing her hands up to the law could be either about being found in criminal activity by the po-po and/or the classic Reformatiion distinction between the Gospel and its comdemning complement (the law, that is; don't they teach you anything in Sunday school!?). She loses the plot some in the chorus by saying of the titular second person of the Godhead "Call Him what you want." Ah, no, His name's the song's title, yes, La Le'Andria? In the second verse, she goes on about not being good enough for God's best, to which I'd say, "Join the club, and recognize His sovreign grace, why don't ya?!" Ending the number with the first few lines of the Our Father and interjecting Jesus' name's either an ackowledgement of two-thirds of the Trinity or, at least as likely, an outworking of heretical Oneness theology as articulated by black pastors such as T.D. Jakes. Johnson gives this doctrinal hot mess a lovelier performance than it deserves and it likely sounds great on urban adult contempo' radio, where at least half of this week's chart entries have also been played.
16)Can't Live-Genita Pugh http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DHT3mDEs6yU
I've seen at least one other music vid of hers, and I must say, the blonde locks she exhibits in the video linked above give her a distinctive look. And dressing every one from her backing clasical string players in white is a sweet move to invoke heavenly images. But, still, we're talking about remaking an R. Kelly song. Yes the R. Kelly who married (and was anulled from not long thereafter) an underage teen and who had to spend a tidy sum on lawyers to defend himself from charges over some seriously kinky carnality he engaged in-maybe you saw Dave Chapelle's spoof on it-with lassses about as young as his erstwhile wifey. As with soul gospel's continuing lionization of posthumously accused boy rapist James Cleveland (whom I'm not saying wasn't a creative musician and brilliant marketer), the point of generating royalties to such a performer as Kelly (again, he's good at what he does.. . musically) in the name of musical ministry truly escapes me. Again, however, Pugh can sing, and she sells it, however misguided the source of the song.
15)A God Like You-Kirk Franklin http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QPDkhZoB84E
Franklin's likely one of the few names here familiar to a good many strictly-cCm fans. And his debut album nearly 20 years ago has stood as a great work on which he's built to make him a doiminant name in his field. He gives good interview (whch he gave me early on in his career), and, even if he associates with some shady figures (see the Jakes reference above), he sems like one of his field's good guys, occasionally excoriating some of the black church for its excesses in places where it may be the least expected, such as the Theological Baloney Network, i.e. TBN. For a man whose recorded work largely consists of talking over and between the choirs he ably leads and composes for, he's done well. But AutoTune? On a gospel song? Thanks, but no. Really. Your otherwise jaunty bouncing could have done wthout it, Kirk.
14)After This-J.J.. Hairston And Youthful Praise http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zPkzxuxsk3o
If Hairston's related to a certain gospel market magazine publisher who in the '90s expected me to ask a record company to pay for a story for her magazine about one of that company's artists (that label's publicist never returned my call about it;I don't blame her), I'm not going to hold it against him. A cursory websearch reveals no connection, but I could be wrong. On a less contentious note, this is a catchy little thing, with a disco pump to it, though infused with the triumphant chording of certain 1980s inspirational cCm and black praise&worship music. There's going to be glory after whatever "this" is, so let's hope it's a believer's earthly life, and not some temporary struggle, which he promised the lot of us who are His, OK?
13)One More Time-Zacardi Cortez featuring John P. Kee http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f4PNiXtCV2g
Newcoming tenor with a unique, not-soon-to-be-forgotten name throws down with bass-leaning baritone established choirmaster/soloist in an earnest, choir-backed prayer of a song. Cortez looks a a mite like the late "Maestro" Thomas Whitfield, which may play in his favor nearly as much as his wail of a voice. This derives from one of Black Smoke International Records' numerous compilation longplayers, so here's hoping for a full set soon by the man who's apt to challenge Zac Brown as the most popular z-named guy in popular music.
12)Put It On The Altar-Jessica Reedy http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z1XmahtUuv0
Aw, this is cute. In a good way. Another Sunday Best alum (season two runner-up) delivers a Scriptural principle of reconciliation and release in the guise of danceably throwback retro '80s-styled R&B that still manages to evoke golden age gospel gals such as Clara Ward and Rosetta Tharpe. Luminescently poppy, this, and that's no dis. I hope to high heaven she won't be consorting with any word-faith/Jesus-only/narcegesis heterodoxy peddlars, but even if she does, there's no denying this smoothly insidious nugget.
11)Nobody Greater-Vashawn Mitchell http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cyRv-tbGJ1Y
Per my above observation regarding the lack of crossover from the realm of soul gospel to cCM, how could this not have been remade by some white worship leader and his or her praise band (or team?) by now?! Better yet, why hasn't this been pushed to cCm radio in its original wonderful form?! It's 2011's most-played song in its primary format (though it reached the upper 20s on urban AC stations, too), it's free of theological weirdness, there's some question as to exactly who wrote it, but oh, how it builds and crecendos! Bonus points for the video, which manages the thorny negotioation of fitting in a choir and making it seem, more or less, natural. Chris Tomlin and Louie Giglio, when y'all can tone down some on your copping from late '80s U2 and concoct something this grand, give me a call, 'K?
10)I Feel Good-Fred Hammond http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HQaZtJp_5bI
I've a bit of trouble calling this really a gospel song, but knowing 1) that Hammond's latest album is a 2-CD rumination on the intersection of earthly romance and Godly devotion and 2) from having interviewed him a couple of times that he loves him some Stevie Wonder (and, I'm guessing, Donnie Hathaway), I'm going to cut him and gospel radio some slack on this one. Though sharing the title of a famed James Brown song's subtitle, this is far breezier the Soul Brother #1 song you may be reminded of. It's a bright squall of quiet storm R&B that reveals just how much general market urban music could have gained had leading Commissioned, fronting his Radical For Christ choir and navigating a productive solo career not been Hammond's passion. In the same way it saddneded me to hear that Mavis Staples is a regular at President Obama's old Chicago black liberationist church, it troubles me to know of Hammond's association with Jakes' congregation. But when he's singing something so delightfully cheery (and theologically/doctrinally free of worry), I shan't complain.
9)Let The Church Say Amen-Andrae' Crouch featuring Marvin Winans http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Amv5UmSB2Bg
Crouch was arguably the first artist to bridge the cultural and racial gulfs that separate Afrimerican church music from cCm, back when the latter was still called Jesus music. As decades have advanced, he has hewed closer (or at least has been marketed) to the former. Strangely enough, the sibling vocal group which the pastor with whom he's paired here, on a whallop of a congregational encourager number, had their time in the contempo' Christian limelight as well, though it's questionable whether they would have had they not some R&B radio success and the providential fortune of being able to collaborate with believers in the general market such as Michael McDonald. Since there's already a Tollbooth review of Crouch's The Journey, on which this appears, I'll only add that this is arguably the most traditional song on this week's countdown (as it will likely be for a long while), he and Winans make for an inspired duet and, per the song they sing so passionately, if the thema lines up with the biblical cannon, I have no problem with the people in the pews saying "Amen!" to it.
8)I Smile-Kirk Franklin http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z8SPwT3nQZ8&ob=av2e
After Mitchell's entry at #11, this must be the longest-running song on the survey. It made #1 here last fall and on urban adult contepmo' radio earlier ago than that. Heck, I think it was already on the tally several weeks before my visit to Donnie McClurkin's conference at a Milwaukee church where the gospel DJ at the city's highest-rated R&B station mentioned how it was in high rotation for him at the time. That time was last May. Franklin's long been good at being catchy, and he doesn't disappoint here. If only it were as much of a gospel song as merely happy song and weren't accompanied by such an intermittently unsettling video (I hope that's a lighting effect and not pink lipstick Franklin's wearing). Around the time this song was climbing the chart, I started reading of the spread of "bubblegum gospel" on some blogs related to black church, gospel music and related matters. Trusting Franklin meant well, even as he oddly dedicates the number to recession and depression and other banes, I can't say the catagorization's not entirely inappropriate.
7)I Won't Go Back-William McDowell http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wN-eJq8wFEs
Praise & worship music, as it's come to be known in the majority-white church and which has a major root in the Jesus hippie moement of the late '60s-early '70s when simpler and more repeitive songs were often favored over statelier hymnody, took a while to take hold among Afrimerican congregants. But over the last 20 years or so the genre has become a solid fixture in many such church bodies. McDowell, vocally, is as good an exponent of soul gospel P&W as any, with a strong, versatile baritone. Melodically, his latest single majors in anthemic melodic surge and more minimally traces a tale of redemption and turning away from life before redemption. Arranged differently, this could, perhaps, pass muster on a Hillsong album. And I'd probably still prefer McDowell's rendition.
6)Be Still-Yolanda Adams http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=03GQiPaa69I
Eighteen years ago, tall, comely drink o' water Adams put on one of the more ministerially fulsome concerts in my experience, one where she probably talked/preached at least as much as she sang; not unlike the case being the same at Christianny rock and hip-hop shows I've attended where the music-to-non-musical-ministering ratio was similar, I didn't mind. Since my seat for her set was fairly far back in the venue, her being easy on my eyeballs didn't figure that prominently into my multi-faceted appreciation of her performance, either. In the years that have followed that bravura gig, she has become a bit of an R&B star, most notably with 2000's "Open My Heart" and currently hosts the weekdaily syndicated morning radio show I mentioned above. And there's where my difficulty with Adams begins, love her singing voice though I do. If the consistent perogative of Obama apologetics isn't irksome enough, bumpers (that's radio jargon for those show ID's that lead into or out of a segment of programming) by word-faith strange fire bringers such as Creflo Dollar is. Moreso, however, there's an often cavalier attitude toward historically and grammataically orthodox and proper exegesis of Scripture and Adams' own attitude toward the ministry aspect of her musical career. The latter is well exemplified by her once mentioing a letter she'd received from a struggling church that wanted to bring her in for a concert. She laughed at the idea that she was asked to do so on a free will offering basis. My love/"what the..?!" relationship with Adams doesn't prevent me from acknowledging that her current single is a swell smidgen of inspirational soft R&B/smooth jazz where La Yo' acquits herself prettily. Whether I'd want to see her in concert again, however, remains to be seen.
5)I Hear The Sound (Of Victory)-Maurette Brown Clark http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-BUPiNi6uc8
Is that real brass or the facsimile of it I heard so often on gospel choral albums in the '90s? Either way, it's employed in a setting where arguably underrated alto Brown Clark leads a choir above a driving arrangement that subtly references fusion jazz and more trad' gospel, with a spiralling lil' guitar figure toward the end. Since the lyrics aknowledge early on that Jesus' blood makes her a victor positionally in the preesnt and fully in heavenly glory, I'm unsure what more kind of victory she needs nor why she needs to pray harder, but it's very much a jam and probably sounds wondrous led by the right songleader with a snappy band behind him or her on a Sunday morinng.
4)Spiritual-Donald Lawrence http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qjXrygUrnBs
Back in the mid-'90s when I'd the bright (?) idea of wanting to team up with a couple of DJ friends (non-believers, but I won't chase that rabbit trail just now) to produce club remixes of cCm and gospel acts, Lawrence gave me time of day enough to engage me in telephone conversation about the possibilities of reworking music by the group Company, a male vocal group whose lone album for a general market major label he'd produced. It beats me now how I got his number, but that he'd talk to me was a bit heartnening. Several years later, I'd see him and his choir on the same bill as Jaci Velasquez at a charity fundraiser show in Milwaukee. The review in the city's daily paper was rapturous over Lawrence's tight peformorance and the emotional wellspring he tapped to the flooding point among many in attendance. Me? I got a weird vibe, which was vindicated not many years later by his collaborating on an album with Chicago area prosperity gospel preacher Bill Winston (whose church, it should be noted, does seem to do a fair deal of material good for his commuity with a plethora of business/ministry ventures, but "positive confession" is still more Norman Vincent Peale than Paul of Tarsus). Lawrence and his choirsters going on here about how believers (I'm assuming) are spiritual beings having natural experiences, not natural beings having physical experiences, on the surface sounds suifficiently on-point, but there's something vaguely creepy, like metaphysics, about it, too, just as there is about his current longplayer's previous single "YRM (Your Righteous Mind)." But, he has a way with melody and arrangement, and "Spiritual" is a simmering piece of slow-burning funkiness, regardless the possible eisegesis undergirding it. And with real horns! I'd wonder how this would play in my church, but on the radio, in struictly aesthetic terms, it's a winner.
3)Still Able-James Fortune & Fiya http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GFrVZCYVkrY
Being a youthfully handsome bald fella leading a co-ed vocal ensemble with a great name has served James Fortune well for several years now. He and Fiya ("fire," y'know?) have largely served slow, churchy numbers with shiny R&B underbodies about God's faithfulness and the faithful's perseverence for their radio singles, it seems. This one follows the model of what I've heard from them since I saw them assay "You Survived" at the Gospel Music Workshop of America to-do in Milwaukee in '05 and their previous #1 hit on this show, "I Believe." It's big, it's resonant, catchy and primed for congregational use that I'd suppose it's already receiving. If ever I happen to hear it on a TBN share-a-thon, I might cry, and those wouldn't be tears of joy. Oh, and per the link, what's with the shininess emanating from Fortune's underarm on the album cover?! Hmmm...
2)I Need Your Glory-Ernest Pugh http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l3IHrP8_Kak&ob=av2e
Is it at cross purposes to say in the same steamrolling vocal showcase of a song that you want the Almighty to show you His glory and power and to quote his earthly baptizing cousin, John, about how you want more of Him and less of you? Pugh (no relation to Genita at #16, or so says the interweb) makes that combination of sentiments work on this blustery, hooky, worshipful recent #1. One might wish for a couple more verses, but this builds to a couple of nigh amazing high notes from Pugh's sweet tenor. He also cuts a dashing figure in the vid in his white suit and violet checkered bow tie. And making a studio video for what sounds to be a live recording's certainly a uniqure twist, though having everyone in the clip follow Pugh's lead by dressing in white reminds me of those old Snickers TV ads with people waiting on Saint Peter in heaven's vestibule.
1)In The Middle-Isaac Carree http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uxtdql1Crsc&ob=av2e
Why an I not bugged by the processed background vocals on this number as I am on the entry by the man at #15 for whom Caree is still singing background himself? Maybe because this knockout by a former member of Men Of Standard, the '90s-'00s group who were arguably the heirs to Commissioned's seamless gospel and R&B confluence, sounds at once like a salute to Prince somewhere between Controversey and Purple Rain yet organically contemporary and from a sincere and humble place with a minimumum of flash appeal. The video showing Carree not dressed up in the least hanging out with his band and friends he loosely leads in the gospel slide dance epitomizes a rejection of the glitz the black church and the soul gospel scene connected to it seems to adore (were there a Vickie Winans song charting this week, I'm sure I could have written a master's thesis about that). Carree's encouragements to praise the Lord in the middle of trials and his identification with his listeners ("If you cut me/I'm gonna bleed") adds to a cross-generational appeal that must make it a smash on gospel skate nights and a most unassuming club banger. With Mssrs. Franklin and Pugh chart-blocking him for more than a couple of months, it's gratifying to see this top Jones' survey, wherever he gets his airplay info'.
Most of the above links are to the full-length versions of the songs, but even wth two bonus cuts-an up & comer and an oldie-The Bobby Jones Gospel Countdown comes in at two hours. It's less depending on the station where you hear it and how long commercial breaks run. That I'm a countdown show fiend in the first place likely helps his cause by me, but even for all of my frustrations with the genre/format it represents, Jones' show will remain appointment listening for me when ever I'm able to catch it.