Shirley Caesar: Queen of Gospel talks new title, new music

Shirley CaesarBy Libra Boyd
Gospel Music Fever

It was 1977, just months after Shirley Caesar signed a reportedly lucrative contract with Roadshow Records, that Ebony magazine called her “the queen of gospel music.”  By then she had been in the business more than two and a half decades–sweeping cities like a whirlwind with the famous Caravans, preaching to and praying with saints and sinners as a fiery evangelist, and earning RIAA certified gold records and the coveted Grammy Award as a cutting-edge solo artist.

Thirty-five years and ten more Grammys later, it became official in April:  Pastor Shirley Caesar was crowned Queen of Gospel Music (see related feature), and her accomplishments continue to surpass those of her female contemporaries.  Given her consistent presentation of the gospel and her onstage and offstage persona, one may correctly assume that Pastor Caesar considers the distinction to be a vehicle for even broader ministry.

Sitting in her spacious office at Raleigh’s Mount Calvary Word of Faith Church where she pastors, the lovely living legend, decked in denim, explained what the symbolic title means to her.

Bishop Harold Williams and Pastor Shirley Caesar“Mahalia Jackson was our first queen of gospel, and then it moved from there to Albertina Walker,” points out Pastor Caesar. “Of course, two years ago, Albertina Walker passed away, and the mantle has been handed down to me; however, I don’t want to be a queen in mere words. I want my life, my knowledge of where I’ve been in gospel music, to be able to show other young singers the way into it.”

“They’re out here on the outskirts, and it looks real green over there [in the industry],” she reasons.  “And so they don’t know they’re gonna really have to go through something.  I want to share with them some principles–some things that will keep them from making the same mistakes that I made.”

With amalgam of experience, talent, accolades that are far too numerous to name, a business degree, and the Holy Spirit’s anointing, if there’s anyone who’s capable of such an undertaking, it’s Pastor Caesar.  And one way that she is continuing to point the way is through her music.  The veteran gospel singer has more than a score and a half of recordings in her catalog, and she is about to add yet another to be released in August, tentatively.  One tune she cannot resist recording again is the perennial favorite “No Charge.”  (“After hearing about Dr. Creflo Dollar’s daughter, I think she needs to hear this song again,” says Pastor Caesar.)  She is also including a remake of her self-penned “Holy Boldness,” which was a smoker with the Caravans 47 years ago, and a new track she wrote that she’s especially excited about, “It’s Nice to Be Nice.”  The multi-talented Kurt Carr has also written several tracks and serves as the project’s producer.

The petite powerhouse knows her audience extremely well and says they can expect songs in the traditional vein “with a contemporary flavor.” She is more specific in the video on her Facebook page however, revealing that the album will have “country gospel, traditional gospel, as well as contemporary gospel, [and] praise and worship songs.” And while there may be a surprise or two, what listeners will not hear is anything that compromises her integrity as a representative of Christ.

“I’ve been pitched a song…it’s called ‘Hey Mr. Lover.’  It’s about a couple who has seemingly fallen out of love, and the wife is saying, ‘Hey Mr. Lover, will you love me again?  Will you be my best friend?’  But I’m not gonna record it [for this album] because I know many times, those that you think would be amenable and friendly toward you in doing that–” Pastor Caesar stops just short of completing her thought before adding, “I pray that I’m still a representative of Pentecostal persuasion, and I’m just afraid to take that chance, so I will not have songs like that on there.”

Gospel’s queen acknowledges that she was even initially hesitant about her hip-hop collaboration with then-Tonéx on the radio hit “I Know the Truth.”

“I was leery about rapping,” she admits, “but because [the song] had nothing negative in it, I tried it.”

“I’m hoping and praying that the Lord will give me a million seller or a 500,000 seller,” appends Pastor Caesar.  “I’d like to have all of that, but not at the expense of losing my following.”

Without a doubt, if there’s a formula to Pastor Caesar’s longevity, it is her commitment to ministry and consistency that her fans can count on–both of which are admirable attributes of a royal lady.

Nonetheless, she earnestly maintains, “‘Queen’ is nothing but a title.  I want to be a blessing.”


_____________________ 

If you’re in the Raleigh area, Pastor Caesar invites you to worship services at Mt. Calvary Word of Faith Church, located at 3100 Sanderford Road.  The church website is mtcalvarywordoffaith.orgHer preaching ministry is also televised on Raleigh’s CW22 affiliate WLFL every Thursday morning at 5 AM EST.

Additionally, you are invited to the 40th Annual Conference of Shirley Caesar Outreach Ministries to be held August 6-10, 2012, at the church.  All seats are free; more information is posted on the church site.
Click to Enlarge

Related Stories
“A Celebration Fit for A Queen!”
“Shirley Caesar on Today’s ‘Singingest’ Women, Whitney, and the Big Screen” 
“Rev. James Herndon of the Caravans–No Coward Soldier!”

Cheylaine Murchison: Rising artist with "a desperate generation in mind"

By Libra Boyd
Gospel Music Fever

With Stellar Award winner Maurette Brown Clark at the helm of the judges’ panel and a demo recording package with M.Y.R.O.H. Music Group at stake, Cheylaine Murchison emerged as last year’s winner of the gospel singing competition “Sunday’s Showcase.”  The competition was presented by NC’s Greater Cleggs Chapel Missionary Baptist Church to find the area’s next Christian singing sensation.

In the year since her win, Cheylaine has been on a journey–both to complete her recent CD, which she debuted at this year’s “Sunday’s Showcase” in April, and to minister from a deeper level to as many as the Lord will allow her to reach.

I caught up with Cheylaine to hear more about her journey and her passion.

Libra:  You emerged as the winner of the 2011 “Sunday’s Showcase.”  What has your year been like since then?

Cheylaine:  My year has been amazingly blessed. I have been given such a wonderful opportunity, and being able to do what I love in this capacity has been spiritually and mentally rewarding for me. Everything from meeting and working with new people, to enhancing my writing skills, and even learning the business side of the music industry has contributed to this beautiful experience. I have spent quite a bit of time writing lyrics and working in the studio, both of which are somewhat new endeavors for me. So, it has been a learning experience as well. I am just so grateful to be in this position. A year ago,  I could not have imagined this for myself, but today I feel as though I am one step closer to my destiny.

Libra:  Part of being the showcase winner was the opportunity to record, and your project was released in April.  Tell us about your CD and the musical style we will hear.

Cheylaine:  The name of my first project is titled Journey to Me. It basically reflects my journey to find out who I am in God and who He intended for me to be. It includes six tracks. I wrote the lyrics for all six tracks, which for me, was a feat in itself. All of the songs are based on scripture.  But most of all, it is real music. It’s uplifting, it’s heartfelt, and is intended to reach a variety of people. You can expect to hear worship, praise, and contemporary tracks as well. I wrote these songs with a desperate generation in mind. People do not want gimmicks and tricks anymore. They simply desire to experience and know the power of God, and I hope that my music will help them do just that.

Libra:  Who were your musical influences growing up?

Cheylaine:  Oh wow! I love music, so my influences are endless. My parents brought me up listening to gospel artists such as Timothy Wright, Walter Hawkins, and Milton Brunson. As I got older I spread my wings a little. Some of my favorite gospel artists were, and still are, Mary Mary, Kirk Franklin, Isaac Caree/Men of Standard and Kim Burrell. I think they all are wonderful examples of artists who really know and own their craft. I appreciate the consistency and authenticity of artists like Fred Hammond and Yolanda Adams. Vocally, I get a lot inspiration from Jazz artists and crooners. Vocalists like Brandy and Chrisette Michele challenge me technically to be a better singer. The list could go on, but these are just a few that have contributed to my style.

Libra:  That’s quite an impressive and diverse list.  As a rising artist, what are your music ambitions?

Cheylaine:  My biggest dream is to reach the masses. I want to take this as far as it will go. That includes traveling and ministering to those all over the world, as well as ministering locally. I hope to make music on a much larger scale and that this is the first CD of many. And if anyone hears my music and walks away changed or blessed, then I will have succeeded at what I set out to do, with the help of God.

Libra:  Amen!  Along with the larger platform is the need to remain grounded in and covered by your local assembly.  Would you like to shout out your church?

Cheylaine:  I serve faithfully as a praise and worship leader, Sunday School teacher, and youth president at Hood’s Chapel United Church of God, where my leaders are Bishop Philmore and Evangelist Diane Hester. We are located in Lenoir, NC–this is basically the foothills of the mountains in western NC. I love my little church on the hill!

Libra:  How can GMF readers get your CD?

Cheylaine:  Currently, we are only selling physical copies of the CD, meaning you have to get it from me or another individual selling CDs for me. The price of the CD is $7. In special cases, I have mailed the CDs to individuals who are out of state or much further from the Raleigh-Durham area for $10. So, this is an option as well. We are hoping to make the CD available on iTunes in the near future.
_______________________________

GMF readers who would like to book Cheylaine or obtain a copy of her current six-track CD Journey to Me can contact her at cheylainebooking@gmail.com.  Here’s a snippet of one of her tracks, “Sacrifice.”

Shirley Caesar on Today’s ‘Singingest’ Women, Whitney, and the Big Screen

Shirley CaesarBy Libra Boyd
Gospel Music Fever

Ever since she was twelve years old, Pastor Shirley Caesar has been living and singing for Jesus.  More than six decades later, the multi-award-winning petite powerhouse shows absolutely no signs of slowing down.  To the thousands who follow her ministry, it seems she not only gets better with age, but more youthful. Pastor Caesar’s ageless beauty, high energy, and lightning quick moves across stages and pulpits all over the world are unparalleled, but it’s her unmistakable sound, unapologetic consistency and unwavering spiritual conviction that have catapulted her into a class all by herself.

Ever since she was twelve years old, Pastor Shirley Caesar has been living and singing for Jesus.  More than six decades later, the multi-award winning petite powerhouse shows absolutely no signs of slowing down.  To the thousands who follow her ministry, it seems she not only gets better with age, but more youthful. Pastor Caesar’s ageless beauty, high energy, and lightning quick moves across stages and pulpits all over the world are unparalleled, but it’s her unmistakable sound, unapologetic consistency and unwavering spiritual conviction that have catapulted her into a class all by herself.

The day I spoke with Pastor Caesar, she was prepping for a relatively light task among numerous undertakings: performing and guesting as co-ringmaster for the UniverSoul Circus in Raleigh, where she resides.  She was also discussing plans for McDonald’s GospelFest 2012, at which she will perform Mother’s Day Weekend in Newark, NJ.  This year’s theme is “Honor Thy Mother.”  It is a theme that’s dear to Pastor Caesar’s heart, for she has always been very candid about her relationship with her own.

“I watched my mom,” Pastor Caesar told GospelFlava.com a few years ago. “She didn’t teach me by word. She taught me by actions. I watched Mama and I watched her feed other folks. I saw my mom give second hand clothes to others in the community. I learned giving and sharing and through that I learned what true ministry is.”

Certainly, Pastor Caesar’s regard for her mother is evident particularly because she has recorded more “mama” songs than any other gospel artist, including her personal musical tribute “I Remember Mama.”  (“Don’t Drive Your Mama Away,” “Faded Rose,” “I Love You Mama,” “Everyday is Like Mother’s Day,” and the country-turned-gospel classic “No Charge” are also part of her mama-themed catalog.)

For “The First Lady of Gospel,” however, ministry is filled with encouragement, admonitions, and old-fashioned mother wit–not just concerning respect for the family matriarch, but for nearly all of life’s twists and turns.  Her anointing to pack a song with power that transforms may very well be the reason she has collected eleven Grammys, something she considers to be her greatest accomplishment aside from salvation.

 
Caravans

It was probably that very same quality the late Albertina Walker noticed when she invited a then-teenage Caesar (pictured at far left) to join the famous Caravans in 1958.  By no means was Walker’s group short on talent, but it was young Shirley Caesar’s vim and vocals that helped them soar to new heights.  Fast forward to 2012: if Pastor Caesar had the role of recruiting for an all-star lineup similar to the Caravans, who would she pick?

“Oh wow!  Let me tell you, one of the singingest women I know is Yolanda Adams–I would pull her out there in a heartbeat,” she declares.  “I like Kim Burrell.  I like…now we’re talking gospel, right?”

“Right,” I clarify before appending a second thought, “or if you would like to pull someone from– ”

“Aretha Franklin!” she exclaims without hesitation.  “Yes, yes, that’s my girl.  And my goddaughter who now sleeps was Whitney Houston…oh an awesome young woman gone too soon.”  Pastor Caesar pauses wistfully, but quickly resumes, “There are many other voices out there, and I would include myself right in there with them–you know we have to give [audiences] some traditional gospel…and Vanessa Bell Armstrong, yeah, I would pull her in.  And if it’s still gospel, Gladys Knight and Patti LaBelle!  Wow, don’t get me started with gospel singing and women!”

Pastor Caesar also has high praise for the industry’s newest vocalists.  “We have some powerful young singers out there too that recently won [BET’s] Sunday Best.  I’d pull them in too; those are some singing women.”

Not surprisingly, the Gospel Music Hall of Fame inductee has performed with most if not all of the notables she mentioned.  Is there a dream collaboration that remains?

“Andraé Crouch. I’ve always wanted to sing something with him,” she says.  “But I’d like to do some more on the big screen; I’d like to do some acting.”  To date, Pastor Caesar’s movie credits consist of appearances in The Fighting Temptations, The Unseen, and a cameo in Why Do Fools Fall in Love?  She has also starred in musical stage plays and guested on sitcoms over the years.

For the living legend, acting is not a mere extension of her remarkable career.  Rather, it is yet another means to present her message, her music, and her Messiah to the masses.

 
____
 
McDonald’s GospelFest 2012 is set for Saturday, May 12, 2012, at the Prudential Center in Newark, NJ.  Tickets can be purchased at www.ticketmaster.com.

Lee Williams comments on his health, thanks fans for prayers

GMF founder and editor Libra Boyd spoke with Lee Williams this weekend.  Gospel’s iceman was prepping to greet fans, perform a concert later that evening, and promote the Spiritual QCs’ new CD, Living on the Lord’s Side.

Followers of his ministry can’t get enough of Williams and his group’s soul-drenched gospel.  It’s only natural that fans have become concerned by the ongoing questions surrounding his health.  GMF wanted to hear straight from the source if he plans to call it quits with the QC’s anytime soon.

“That’s not my choice,” offers the debonair frontman of few words.  “That’s not up to me; that’s up to God.”  While the decision does not rest with him, he adds that he intends to sing for as long as God allows him and the group to carry the much needed message of hope and encouragement.

And all the rumors about his health?

“If I had a nickel for every time someone has asked me that,” he asserts, “I wouldn’t have to sing anymore; I’d be a rich man.”  Pointing to heaven, he maintains, “That’s not up to me either.  Like I said, as long as He lets me…”

Williams wants his supporters to know that he genuinely appreciates their concern and prayers, and he looks forward to coming their way to have a “good time.”

Rev. James Herndon of the Caravans—No Coward Soldier!

 

By Libra Boyd
Gospel Music Fever

CaravansYou could say that Rev. James Herndon is still sweeping through the city.  You’d be absolutely right.

As a member of the famous Caravans, he composed some of the ensemble’s biggest hits and was the accompanist throughout what many consider to be the trailblazers’ glory years with Albertina Walker, Shirley Caesar, Inez Andrews, Delores Washington, Cassietta George, and Josephine Howard.

 
On this particular summer afternoon, however, an unpretentious Rev. James Herndon strolled into the neighborhood restaurant, sharply dressed in a dark double breasted suit and a light fedora—complete with the side feather. He had just attended the funeral of one of his choir members.  After we greeted one another, he settled into the booth and removed his hat.  Over unusually tart strawberry lemonades, we conversedhe, sharing memories of the Caravans and James Herndon Singers as well as his views on today’s gospel music, and I, enjoying the journey back in time.
 
Libra:  Rev. Herndon, I am really honored that you made time to talk with me today.  I know you’re very busy and “free time” is not something you have.
 
Rev. Herndon:  Aw. Well you know, people don’t have to have an interest in you at all; there are so many other folks that could capture one’s attention, so it happens to be that I’m just blessed in that respect.  I was kind of pleasantly surprised when I went to Albertina’s funeral, because I hadn’t been there [Chicago] in probably 30 years. I went there not knowing who might even still remember me; but I was pleasantly surprised.  There were gobs of people who still remembered, and that was a rewarding feeling.
 
Libra:  Why do you think they would’ve forgotten?
 
Rev. Herndon:  Well it’s been so long.
 
Libra:  Well, it has, but your contributions to the Caravans as a singer, writer, and musician have had such a lasting impact….I always say that Golden Era gospel music was to gospel what the Motown era was to popular music.
 
Rev. Herndon:  Yes, and all of them [the groups] had their distinctive styles and you knew—you could hear the introduction to a song—and you knew who it was before they even started to sing, because everybody was so distinct.  You could hear voices and you knew right off the bat who it was, which is not that easy to do nowadays.  I still have CDs from the Davis Sisters, the Roberta Martin Singers, the Caravans, the Harmonettes, Dorothy Love, Alex Bradford—all of that era.
 
I guess having written and having worked with people who were writing, I’m so used to when message was important.  Now there’s not much message; it’s more about being artistic, doing commercial type things, and things that more mimic the other side of music than the church.
 
Libra:  Who were some of your influences?
 
Rev. Herndon:  My inspiration was Dorothy Love.  I have not, to this day, run into anybody who could tell a Bible story in a song like she could!
 
Libra:  Dorothy Love Coates crafted some extremely catchy lyrics filled with stories and metaphors.
 
Rev. Herndon:  She did.  They [her lyrics] were unique….I guess that’s what gave them so much impact.  She was a powerful woman too.  She could tear a church all to pieces—she wouldn’t leave anybody standing!   
 
And another thing about Dorothy Love, she could spit out words a mile a minute, and you could understand her; nobody else had that ability.  We all worked at being articulate, but to go through the number of words that Dorothy Love could go through and get them all in there—and you could understand them all—that tells me that her message was the most important thing.  And [today] some of these young folks can stretch out a word so long and make so many curlicues that you forget what the word was.  To me, that’s not message; method maybe, but not message.  It’s got to be about the message for me, because if I don’t have a message, then I don’t have a song.
 
Libra:  How were you introduced to music?  I gather you’ve been doing this all your life.
 
Rev. Herndon:  All my life—even before I could play or anything like that—as a child, my mom and sisters and brothers used to tell me about how whatever we sang in church on Sunday morning is what I would sing all week long.  I never did sing much of any other kind of music growing up; now I’ve listened to other music and I’ve enjoyed it.  I enjoy Aretha because she sounds like gospel to me.  I enjoy Gladys Knight; she sounds like gospel to me.  I love those people who have that gospel flavor, because even though they may be singing something different, there are still many things I can learn from listening to them. It’s different today with all the rap and profanity; I can’t deal with that.  Don’t get me wrong: it’s not that I haven’t heard profanity—of course I have—but I guess my point is that at this age, I’ve heard enough of it.  When I’m supposed to be enjoying music, I want to hear music.
 
I started playing the day my mom bought the piano.  I was something like 11 or 12 years old.  I just sat down that day, and I knew what I wanted to hear; so I’d get one part, then two parts, then three parts, and put ‘em together, and it just evolved from that.
 
James Herndon at pianoLibra:  Did you have any formal training?
 
Rev. Herndon:  I did very little because being a kid, it was easier for me to just go ahead and play what I wanted to play than it was to learn.  I regret that, but as a kid a lot of times we don’t always make the best choices.  In the process of years, I have still learned a lot.  I can actually sit down and read a sheet of music; I can’t always immediately play it, but I can, if I take the time, read music.  I remember once when I was with the Caravans, we had been chosen to audition for a play on Broadway, Tambourines to Glory, and they didn’t send us the music until two days before we were supposed to leave going to the audition; but somewhere in the car, between New York and Chicago, I took those sheets of music and I taught them the songs in the car.  I could read [music] pretty well.
 
Libra:  Wow.  You mentioned being in the car.  I hear that the Caravans used to travel in just one car, six deep.
 
Rev. Herndon:  Oh yeah, we had a six-passenger car and all of us were in there.  All of us could drive and we shared the driving.  We didn’t have the setup these young people have nowadays.  Many times I’ve heard young people make comments about church or about some stages of gospel music—“I don’t like that” or “That’s for old folks”—and I just have to stop and ask, “Who do you think kept the church going until you got here?  The church wasn’t born the same day you were, you understand?”  Somebody had to keep it alive, and that grandma and grandpa and all those folks that you don’t like to hear sing anymore kept the church going.  And those folks learned more by accident than most others learn on purpose!  They didn’t know any music, but they learned to sing—and they sang.  If they couldn’t do anything else, they could sing.  And I tell young people they have not heard a song, nor will they ever in their lifetimes hear a song that will live as long as “Amazing Grace.”  It doesn’t get any better than that!
 
In spite of all those hits that people thought we had, some of our best performances were things that we never rehearsed.  Just out of the clear blue, inspiration would hit somebody in the group, and we’d take off with it.  And we were great with hymns.  We knew hymns because we were church people; we had been raised in the church, and no matter how supposedly famous we were, we never got away from that.
 
Libra:  Now what year did you join the Caravans?
 
Rev. Herndon:  [I joined in] 1959.
 
Libra:  Who else was in the group at that time?
 
Rev. Herndon:  When I first joined, it was Albertina, Shirley, Inez, and Deloresjust four of them.  Over the years, for one reason or another, membership changed.  For example, there may have been times when one was sick and there would be someone that we used in that place.  For instance, Dorothy Norwood was not a part of the lineup that the public really fell in love with, got to know and appreciate.  [She was in] the early group of Caravans.  [Then there was a period when] she did a short stint with us while Albertina was in the hospital; Dorothy substituted for Albertina then, but Albertina came back.  You see her [Dorothy] now, but she wasn’t a part of any of [the recordings] you heard with Shirley Caesar, Inez Andrews, and Albertina; she wasn’t in the group then.  She wasn’t on “I Won’t Be Back No More.”  She wasn’t on “Walk Around Heaven All Day.”  She wasn’t there then; she didn’t do those songs with us.  Now Dorothy has always written music for [the Caravans], but she hasn’t always sung with them. 

Libra:  You raise a valid point, Rev. Herndon, because for the Caravans’ “Keeping the Legacy Alive” tour following Albertina’s passing, the Norwood/Andrews/Caesar/Washington lineup was billed as “The Original Caravans.”  This is misleading—in fact, historically inaccuratebecause none of these ladies are actually original members.  The original members were ladies whose names are most likely unfamiliar to today’s gospel audiences.

 
Rev. Herndon:  The Caravans were around long before they reached their pinnacle of success.  Albertina and a group of ladies sang background for Robert Anderson, and then she decided with this group of ladies, Why don’t we do our own thing? and that’s when she formed the group called the Caravans.  Now the first time I saw the Caravans, there was Elyse Yancy, Charlotte [Nelson] was the musician, Albertina Walker, Bessie Griffin, and I think maybe Iris Christmas.  That was way back; I was still in high school.
 
Libra:  So, how did you become a part of the group?
 
Rev. Herndon:  The year after Shirley joined, they lost their musician and Shirley knew me.  Eddie Williams was their musician; he was a dynamite guy.  He’s the one who sang “Lord Keep Me Day By Day.”  He played on the original stuff—“Mary, Don’t You Weep,” “I’m Willing to Wait,” “Running for Jesus” and all those songs—and I came behind him and I’m on the other things after that.  He was a great singer, great writer, and great musician.  Before Eddie, James Cleveland had been with the Caravans, but that was years before—and don’t get me wrong, they were good!  They just had not found that right niche for the public…that particular “thing” that worked on a nationwide level with the public at that point.
 
Libra:  You came along after Eddie Williams and also wrote some key songs for the group.  “I Won’t Be Back No More”—we call it “Sweeping Through the City”—was a mega-hit, and is still one of the Caravans’ signature numbers.
 
Rev. Herndon:  Yeah, “No Coward Soldiers,” “I Won’t Be Back No More,” “Where Is Your Faith in God”—a whole lot of songs.  For the years I was with them, I was one of the primary writers…and believe it or not, somewhere somebody appreciates that [music].  I still get royalties from that stuff, as old as it is, and believe it or not, it is very well played in foreign countries.
 
Libra:  Is there a song that you wrote that took you by surprise with its success?
 
Rev. Herndon:  I had an idea about “I Won’t Be Back No More,” but I didn’t think it would just explode like it did.  I mean that thing was instantaneous; and believe it or not, we sang that song for probably better than a year before we even recorded it, and people were just having a fit over it.  Then the record came out, and it got into areas that we may not have been yet, and so it just became number one overnight.  But I never realized it would get that big.  I guess that one and “Mary, Don’t You Weep” have been around longer than any of the others.  Those two just keep hanging around.
 
Libra:  Did you and the Caravans know at the time how huge you were?
 
Rev. Herndon:  No. No, we had no idea.
 
Libra:  When did you all realize the extent of your fame?
 

Rev. Herndon:  I guess it was toward the end of the time I was with the group.  When it got to the place where you could take practically any large venue in this country and put James Cleveland [as well as] the Caravans [on the same program] and we could pack it with standing room, and turn folks away, then I sort of realized how big we really had become, but it never changed me.  I’m an old country boy; I don’t know how to be anything else. And the bottom line is: I don’t wanna be.  I’ve never thought of myself as talented; I still don’t.

Libra:  What do you call it? 

Rev. Herndon:  Blessed maybe. Not exceptionally talented and certainly not above anybody else, because there are so many younger people who can certainly out play me.  That was something the Caravans always said: Never get too big for your britches because God has young folks still flipping burgers at McDonald’s who can out sing you.  We always were aware of that.  We ran into some tremendous talent when we were traveling, for example, the Williams Brothers.  They didn’t have a record then; they were still kids, but those boys could sing their socks off!  They could sing then, and they’re still doing it!  I remember one time Whitney Houston’s mama had a group called the Drinkard Singers.  Yessss, Lord!  They had a version of “Sweet Hour of Prayer” that would drive you crazy!

Libra:  I’m sure your traveling with the Caravans made for a lot of vivid memories.  What’s one of yours?
 
Rev. Herndon:  (Laughing uncontrollably) I remember one occasion, and if I’m not mistaken, it was our anniversary in Chicago…yeah, it had to be because they had just gotten these new beautiful dresses and the Caravans were always known for their dress…yes ma’am, they were always dressed to the hilt.  They had on this beautiful orange, and they were singing.  Inez used to do a version of “Through the Years I Keep On Toiling,” but she had this movement she did when she said, “I’ll walk in.”  When she did that, she went one way and her wig went the other!  (Laughing again)  But that wasn’t what was so funny: The people didn’t laugh.  It just got quiet. 
 
Libra:  Oh my goodness.  They were probably stunned like I am now!
 
Rev. Herndon:  Everybody wanted to [laugh], but they were being so respectful, ya understand.  It got so quiet in there you could hear a pin fall.  Inez kept right on singing, and they tried to get [the wig] back up there some kind of way, but I was just through! (Bursting into laughter yet again)
 
Libra:  You were with the Caravans eight years, and even after you left in 1967, you were in demand as an accompanist—along with Jessy Dixon, Geraldine Gay and others.
 
Rev. Herndon:  Yes, and I played on all of Inez Andrews’ albums after we left [the group].  Then, I had my own group based in Chicago.
 
Libra:  Yes, the James Herndon Singers….In fact, I must ask you about one of the songs that your group recorded in the 1970’s.  There’s an arrangement of the hymn “One Day”—
 
Rev. Herndon:  Yes, that’s mine!
 
Libra:  You arranged that?
 
Rev. Herndon:  Yes, I did.
 
Libra:  It’s a very smooth cut and a little different from what many had heard from you up to that point.
 
Rev. Herndon:  I like it til this day.  That’s one girl and two guys [doing the background vocals] on that recording.
 
Libra:  What was your inspiration for that arrangement?
 
Rev. Herndon:  I was driving through Chicago, and there was something on the radio and the musical pattern stuck in my head.  The more I thought about it, those words just seemed to fit perfectly into the pattern; so I put the two together.
 
Libra:  I notice that several of your compositions contain narratives.  Eugene Smith used a similar approach to some of the Roberta Martin Singers’ songs and James Cleveland did the same while with the Caravans.  How did this become part of your style? 
 
Rev. Herndon:  Well, talking is something that has always come naturally to me.  Even when I was in high school, anytime my teachers needed somebody who could just get up and ad lib, they’d call me.  But [in singing and writing], there were times I felt like in order to make the message clear, it needed a little bit more than I could put into the lines of the songI didn’t have that Dorothy Love talent, ya know—so that’s why I would do that.  It helped to make my message clear.
 
Libra:  What current artists do you listen to?
 
Rev. Herndon:  I loved Walter Hawkins.  He could sing his socks off!  I love to hear Richard Smallwood; he’s a marvelous writer, and I commend him because he is more of a message writer than you find among many of today’s artists.  I do love most of what I hear from Donnie McClurkinKirk Franklin has some dynamite music, but his best music is not what gets played on the radio.
 
Libra:  They’re all phenomenal pianists too.  Speaking of which, many fans were hoping to see you and Eddie Williams reunite with the ‘Vans onstage when they resumed performing together in recent years.  In fact, we’re still hoping…
 
Rev: Herndon:  I’ve had several people to tell me that, but this is one sad fact: When people think of the Caravans, they only see the singers.  That’s a shame because on every record, you heard the musician before you heard anybody; the first thing you heard was a musician, and the last thing you heard—on every record—was a musician.  To many people, we don’t count….And I’ve thought about other groups….The Davis Sisters’ musician was related to them, but you never hear anybody talk about Curtis Dublinexcellent musician.  When you hear people talk about the [Roberta] Martin Singers, you never hear anybody talk about Lucy Smiththe woman could play her socks off, organ or piano….Musicians are the least appreciated folks in the world; it shouldn’t be that way, but it’s the truth. 

Libra:  As a musician, I do understand, but please know that won’t stop us [fans] from still hoping to see that happen. (smile)

Rev. Herndon, thank you again for sharing your afternoon with me.  Your fans have been posting your recordings on YouTube, and those who’ve been asking about you will be glad to know that you are still going strong.

Rev. Herndon:  Well, you know somebody kills me off at least once a year! (Laughing)  I’ve had people to tell me, “You know I heard you were dead!”  No, I’m still here, and I’m a more active evangelist now than I was when I was traveling; of course that’s because I’m more available to do that now.
 
 
While feeling under-appreciated may be a sobering perspective of many musicians, Rev. Herndon continues to be in high demand as a preacher, singer, and accompanist.  He maintains a rigorous schedule and currently serves as Minister of Music for six choirs in NC’s Triangle area.
_________________

Related Story
Rev. James Herndon and chorus present concert of gospel pearls (includes video clip of the 2011 concert)

Donnie McClurkin opens up about his father

Donnie McClurkin

When GMF spoke with Pastor Donnie McClurkin recently, we asked him to talk to us about his father or father figure as well as the impact his/their presence has made on the ministry.

“Well, there are two,” he concedes.  “There’s a father and a father figure.  My bald-headed, pot-bellied daddy…he is my hero and my friend.”  Donnie’s playfulness makes apparent the close bond that now exists between he and his dad, Donald McClurkin, Sr.  “He is my roommate.  He lives in my house with me–and I emphasize my house.  No matter what he says, it’s not his!”

Pensively, McClurkin, father of two himself, continues, “I didn’t understand him growing up.  He wasn’t the best of fathers, but none of us are [and] I’m finding out as a father.  He made many mistakes, but all of us fathers do, and I’m finding that out as a father too.”  It is quite clear, however, that he holds the elder McClurkin in high regard.

“Now in my older age, my 77 year-old daddy lives in my house and we–in 10 years–have never had an argument…because I respect my dad, and I would never speak ill to him,” McClurkin asserts.  “I would never raise my voice to him….My dad is my heart,” he confesses, on the verge of tears.

“Now my father figure was a man by the name of David Winans.”  The Winans to whom he refers was the patriarch of the Winans gospel music dynasty, fondly known to most as Pop.

“Now everything spiritual that I needed to know?  I got that from him.  Pop Winans was my example of a holy man who loved his family: loved his wife more than his children, loved his children more than life, and loved God more than all of them.”

McClurkin headlines McDonald’s Gospelfest, talks about competitiveness in gospel music

By Libra Boyd

Shaundria Williams contributed to this feature

This is the second of a two-part feature with pastor and singer Donnie McClurkin.
 
Donnie McClurkin
“If you take a drive through any community, you will see the golden arches,” speaks Donnie McClurkin of the most recognized fast food chain in the world, “and if you drive through any community, you will see the entity of McDonald’s…has been wise enough to discern that the real pulse of the community is the church.”
 
McDonald’s Gospelfest returns to the New York Tri-State area on Saturday, June 18, 2011 at the Prudential Center in Newark, NJ.  The auditions are complete and competitors are preparing to share the stage with some of the biggest names in Gospel including Kirk Franklin, Bishop Hezekiah Walker, James Fortune & FIYA, Bobby Jones, Bishop T.D. Jakes, and the one and only Donnie McClurkin.
 
The competition, originated in 1983, showcases talent in several categories ranging from soloists and choirs to dance, step, groups, instrumentalists and gospel rappers. 

McClurkin is headlining this particular talent competition, and he will soon be seen in the judge’s chair on another.  McClurkin, who has signed onto BET’s Sunday Best again this season, recently talked with GMF about the McDonald’s Gospelfest, competition in gospel music, and some of his favorite new artists.

GMF:  Please explain the appropriateness of competition in the body of Christ.
 
McClurkin:  I don’t see it as competition.  I see it as iron sharpening iron.  I don’t see it as us competing; I see it as me being able to draw from you or critique you.  If you’re doing something right, I want to learn from it; if you’re doing something wrong, I gotta critique it and I gotta tell ya, “Hey, hey, that’s not gonna work.”  Even with Sunday Best, we’re sitting there…a thousand people come past us in every city, and [we’re] sitting there going, “Next!  Oh my God, no–don’t ever sing again!  Please, don’t ever–”  It’s all in fun, but it’s also to make sure people stay in their lane and in their place. So from that level, there’s no competition.  
On the level of myself…Fred Hammond, Kirk Franklin, CeCe Winans, Kim Burrell…there’s no competition.  Donald Lawrence–no competition.  We sharpen each other, and we sit back and wait to see who’s coming out with what CD…and it inspires us to go in and do more.  So that keeps the fresh move in the gospel industry, musically.  It keeps us on our toes and it makes sure that we get the best of quality, because we don’t compete, we compel and we push one another to do better.
 
GMF:  Along the lines of iron sharpening iron, who are some of your favorite up and coming artists?
 
McClurkin:   There’s a girl named Preashea Hilliard; she’s got a great CD!  “Fresh Fire” is one of the greatest songs.  Then you’ve got Forever Jones–the whole family–mother, father and kids.  They’ve got a great song out called “He Wants It All.”  There are some great artists coming up that you have never even heard of like Brittney Wright, people like Maurice Griffin, and even Duward Davis, and the list goes on…LeAndria Johnson…they are the new guys coming up and it’s our job to make space for them….Kirk Franklin is pushing Isaac Caree, and I’m taking Andrea Mellini and pushing her.  So, all of us are taking artists and pushing them; Donald Lawrence took DeWayne Woods and Sheri Jones-Moffett.  We’re bringing up these new artists, putting them out in the foreground, so that we can disappear one day.
 
GMF:   The Gospelfest takes place Father’s Day weekend.  Talk to us about your father or father figure and the impact he has had on your ministry.
 
McClurkin:  Well, there are two. (Read McClurkin’s complete response Father’s Day weekend right here on GMF, where he’ll talk openly about his biological father.)
 
GMF:  Beyond the gentlemen that are featured in the Gospelfest, will there be community leaders that will be honored as men of valor?
 
McClurkin:  Possibly.  We always do something for people who’ve passed away like Walter Hawkins and Albertina Walker; so some people will be honored.
_______________________________
 
Tickets for McDonald’s Gospelfest can be purchased at the Prudential Center Box Office or through Ticketmaster by calling 800.745.3000, or at www.ticketmaster.com. For further information, please call the McDonald’s Gospelfest Hotline at 866.898.7772.
 

Donnie McClurkin talks church, fame, and relationships

By Libra Boyd
Gospel Music Fever
Shaundria Williams contributed to this feature

Donnie McClurkinThis is the first of a two-part feature with pastor and singer Donnie McClurkin.

Donnie McClurkin is a giant in gospel music.  From his early days of recording with New York Restoration Choir to his solo albums that have achieved gold and platinum status, the singer/songwriter/musician is among the most gifted male vocalists of our time.  Yet, while McClurkin’s singing virtuosity is unmatched and draws audiences of thousands, the multiple Grammy winner spends more time these days discussing another calling that is dear to his heart: being a pastor.
 
For ten years, Donnie McClurkin has also been known as Pastor McClurkin, shepherd of the flock of Perfecting Faith Church in Freeport, NY.  It is a calling that he fully embraces, and he recently spoke with us about a vision to which he is wholeheartedly devoted.  McClurkin’s music reaches across cultures, denominations, and generations; he envisions the same impact for his church and churches across the globe as well.
 
“What I see the Lord doing is tear[ing] down all of these divisive walls–tear[ing] down the walls of culture and race, tear[ing] down the walls of denomination, tear[ing] down all of these walls and teach[ing] us how to function with one another…that’s what I see God doing in the ministry he’s given me and the ministry of a few others,” McClurkin explains.  “There’s no victory, there’s no power, there’s no real accomplishment in the division,” he continues.  “Jesus said the house that’s divided against itself cannot stand–so why did we turn around and start dividing the house?”
 
The pastor’s passion for unity over traditionalism, oneness over denominationalism, is glaring.
 
“With denominations…we have made [the church as a whole] everything that God said He did not want it to be,” he asserts.  McClurkin is confident that when churches align with the purposes of God, they will experience unity that will cause the gospel to be preached freely with its effects far reaching.
 
“[God] never ordained the gospel to be preached in the church,” he declares.  “He ordained the gospel to be preached in all the world, on the streets where the people are.”
 
If McClurkin comes across emphatically, it’s because he is all about the people.  Everyday people.  Commoners.  Persons from every walk of life and upbringing.  He himself carefully avoids the trappings of fame in order to be an effective servant among the people that he leads.  This down-to-earthiness, he believes, allows him to strengthen relationships with his members, all the while pointing them to Jesus rather than himself.
 
“My church doesn’t see me as ‘Donnie McClurkin’; they see me as Pastor.  My church doesn’t really hear me in concert because I do very few concerts in New York [where the church is].”  McClurkin recalls the time one of his young members became aware of his renown.  “One of the 17 year-olds came to me two years ago…and he said, ‘Dog, Pastor, I didn’t know you rolled like that!’ And that’s the key–that I make sure that I am not an icon to them, [but that] I’m a servant to them.”
 
McClurkin has often spoken of leaving the music industry.  The tone in which he speaks on the subject even nowadays enigmatically suggests that a superb vocalist, with both gospel and mainstream success, is a misfit for the business and ready to bow out.  When McClurkin considers the next ten years for instance, he remarks, “I see me being iconically spoken about and never found musically, because I’ve hung up my musical ‘cape.'”  Accordingly, McClurkin looks forward to devoting himself entirely to his pastoral duties and to developing ministries across the country.  Not finished with his thoughts on being iconic, he grapples with the notion again, this time further emphasizing his need to relate to people from all walks of life.
 
“In the music world people serve you–it’s about visibility,” he expounds.  “How many people have your CD, how many awards do you win, how many platforms of great renown can you stand on, how global is your ministry, how commercial is your appeal.”  Then he elaborates on his personal convictions.
 
“See, I’ve never been iconic. I don’t like the hoopla; so I travel without an entourage.  I don’t believe in all this security stuff; I don’t like the stuff….I like to sit behind the scenes, and I like to serve.”  Sensing that he still hasn’t qualified his aversion to fame, McClurkin opens up even more about his disinterest in the fortune, glitz, and bling that so frequently accompany celebrity status.
 
“I don’t receive a salary from my church–never have in ten years, not a red Abraham Lincoln penny.  I don’t have a car–forget about driving a luxury car–I don’t even have a car.  I don’t live in a gated community; I live in the ‘hood in Lakeview, where people throw beer cans over in my yard!  ‘Why Donnie?’ Because that’s where the people live, and if I’m a servant, I’ve got to live where the people are.  I can’t drive around in a Bentley and see people taking the bus to church….It may be lawful, but it’s not expedient to me,” he says flatly with a biblical reference to 1 Corinthians 10:23.
 
Dog, Pastor, we didn’t know you rolled like that!  This is McClurkin’s point precisely.
 
“As a minister, you can’t serve me; I gotta serve you!”  In pastoring, he says, “It’s gotta be ‘how low can you go and how high can you lift somebody else?'”
 
 

Next week, Donnie McClurkin talks to GMF about McDonald’s GospelFest and what he really thinks about competition in gospel music.

North Carolina adds its name to roster of recording mass choirs

By Libra Boyd
Gospel Music Fever  

In a time when many choirs are taking a back seat to church praise teams and ensembles, North Carolina Community Mass Choir (NCCMC) is emerging as a fresh voice in its subgenre.   NCCMC (not to be confused with the North Carolina Mass Choir of the early 1990’s), may not be on your radar like Mississippi and Georgia Mass, but it certainly has an impressive team of singers and industry notables at its helm, starting with its visionary Dr. Thomas L. Walker. 

Walker is the pastor of Rocky Mount’s Ebenezer Baptist Church.  He is also a notable gospel singer, perhaps best known for his circa 1980 smash hit album One Day At A Time, which earned gold record status.  It was he who formed the choir in 2008 to sing for the National Black Caucus, at the request of Congressman G.K. Butterfield.  NCCMC was under the musical direction of James Bellamy and award-winning songwriter and super-producer Ray Braswell, Jr. (Keith “Wonderboy” Johnson & the Spiritual Voices, F.C. Barnes, Ministree, and others).  According to Braswell, who is the choir’s current president, NCCMC had a different moniker at that time.

“The choir was originally named The Promise Choir until leadership changed and I sought after reconstruction for the choir’s growth,” comments Braswell.  “Then I met with Malaco’s producer and artist, Darrell Luster of Durham, and great songwriter, Brian Foster of Henderson.”  

Darrell Luster, formerly of Charles Johnson & The Revivers and The Sensational Nightingales, is the choir’s CEO and primary lead vocalist.  Foster, who is also a musician and leader of the praise and worship group Josiah, is the vice president. Since its founding, NCCMC has performed on Bobby Jones Gospel, and has provided vocals on projects by The Sensational Nightingales (Live in Rocky Mount), Darrell Luster & F.C. Barnes (“He Won’t Change”), and Lil’ Blair & The Fantastic Heirs.  

More recently, the 30+ member choir completed its own debut recording, and according to Braswell, there is something on it for gospel music lovers of all kinds.

“We are taking choir music back to the roots to bring back the traditional sound,” he says.  “Our CD is full of traditional, praise & worship, and contemporary music, so it’s not just for the seasoned saints. It’s definitely for all listeners.”  

NCCMC is currently seeking additional voices as it preps for the upcoming CD release and a DVD recording. Braswell invites interested singers to choir auditions on Saturday, May 28, at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Rocky Mount.  Click the flyer above for details.

Raleigh-Durham radio personality uses voice to inspire on, off air

Carolyn Pettiford-Ryals

By Libra Boyd
Gospel Music Fever

Carolyn Pettiford-Ryals lights up the WNCU-90.7FM airwaves nearly every Sunday morning with traditional choir and quartet gospel music.  As co-host of “Hallelujah Praise,” the Raleigh-Durham radio personality believes in using her voice and popularity to encourage her listeners–a weekly audience of more than 40,000, not counting the online streamers.

Last year, when God spoke to her about inspiring and uplifting women in a personal and more intimate way, she heeded; the result was a retreat called “It’s You And Me.”  Following the first successful event, Pettiford-Ryals received testimonies from women whom she says were “released from emotional hurt and bondage.”  She sensed that the fellowship must continue, and that healing was to become its primary focus.

“[It’s for] healing souls and healing the broken-hearted,” says Pettiford-Ryals.  “Sometimes you’re in bondage emotionally and you can’t tell people what you feel.  In the retreats, there is freedom to share your experiences and how to get through them.”

The atmosphere is relaxed and supportive–it’s a safe haven.  In fact, one of the ground rules is that what is shared within the sessions is held in confidence among attendees.

“Some of the things [disclosed] are so personal, that in order for healing to take place, the people have to know this is a safe place to open up,” expresses Pettiford-Ryals.

Each topic of discussion is decided through prayer.  Grief, sickness, and betrayal are among the topics that have been covered so far.  Last year, a health segment was implemented to bring awareness to women’s health issues.

“With each retreat, I plan to implement a little more.”

Pettiford-Ryals adds, “The retreats are so powerful!  People don’t even want to leave the room to go to the restroom….the Spirit is so high and it rests so sweetly.”

The next “It’s You and Me” Women’s Retreat is set for this Saturday, May 7.

Place:  Millennium Hotel
Time:  9am – 4pm (breakfast bar is 9-10am)
Registration: $30 per person

Click the flyer for more details.