Got any James Brown, Al Green or Curtis Mayfield records in your collection? Still move to the message songs of Motown, such as the Temptations’ “Ball of Confusion” or Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues”? Ever suspect that “gospel crossover” went deeper than “Oh Happy Day” or thought that Funkadelic’s advice “Free your mind and your ass will follow” had something going for it? Then the testifying grooves of Born Again Funk will make perfect sense to you.
The opening track, “Like a Ship (Without a Sail)” by Pastor T. L. Barrett & the Youth For Christ Choir, has the same soothing, soulful quality as the Edwin Hawkins Singers’ smash; the piano and rhythm section roll beneath an undulating swell of reassuring voices, impossible not to sing along with. It is the kind of song that is instantly likable and inclines the heart to prayer. Then: “Begin a song to my God with tambourines, sing to my Lord with cymbals” (Judith 16). The driving drums, keyboards, bass, electric guitars, and assorted percussion instruments of evangelist Ada Richards’s “I’m Drunk and Real High (In the Spirit of God)” come celebrating. Her shouts a little rougher, her tone a little tougher, Sister Ada brings the gospel and the funk.
Between these two stylistic exemplars lie the thirty-six tracks of Born Again Funk and its companion in The Numero Group’s Good God! series, A Gospel Funk Hymnal. The latter was released in 2006, opening the book on releases from tiny labels in Chicago, Detroit, and other Midwestern cities; the former came out earlier this year with more of the same, expanding the range of material from 1968 to 1985.
“We’re coming on strong and staying along,” sing the Sensational Five, and the immediate staying power of this wholly-practical music is established. The grooves are infectious, the call-and-response vocals involving, the very sound of the tracks inviting—it’s Seventies radio the way it might have been had disco stayed on the dance floor. As lead vocalist Jessie Jeffcoat calls out each of the band members by name to anchor the Sensational Five Singing Sons’ “Share Your Love (With the Master)” you get the picture: Charles on syncopated drums, David laying down a thick bass, and James jamming with himself on overdubbed guitars: “Ain’t no harm to share your love….” These raw but professional performances stay true to the organic funk of JB, Stevie Wonder, the Isley Brothers, and so many more; it’s what would have been called “down home” at the time, the slickest sound that of the all-but-forgotten clavinet (on Sister Soul’s Gladys Knight and the Pips-styled stomper “Pray a Little Longer”).
Before you think you missed something, the producers of both volumes acknowledge that gospel funk as a genre “barely exists.” Neither the product of a particular label or A&R department, nor a documentable movement spread by self-conscious artists and auteurs, compiler Rob Sevier and his team present on these scintillating discs the results of “years spent sifting through bland 45s and LPs, searching for a few bars of God on the good foot.”
Another creative force at work in those same cities during this time period, producing exciting, inspiring music from shared margins, also crept across the country on vinyl from small, independent, black-owned record labels. Alternately known as “Afro-centric,” “Deep” or “Spiritual” jazz, this danceable and message-infused music from the melodic end of the free jazz movement shares with gospel funk a concern for carrying on Christian communities’ attention to the daily bread of its listeners. The aforementioned Pastor Barrett ministered at Mt. Zion Church in Chicago to Philip Cohran and other founding members of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. Their music, and that of like-minded artists, can be found on another recent compilation, Freedom, Rhythm & Sound: Revolutionary Jazz and the Civil Rights Movement 1963–82, from Soul Jazz Records in England.
The message on these two wonderful discs, carried by drums, flutes, trumpets, saxophones, organs, and group vocals, is familiar: the prophets’ call to care for the widow, the orphan, the self-esteem of the disenfranchised, the dignity of the human person and other “realities of African-American existence.” Gospel music’s association with the Civil Rights Movement is well known; that a “radicalization” of jazz was going on at the same time, often returning musicians to their roots in the church and its music, is less often remembered. Stuart Baker writes in the SJR set of a parallel turning away from “the mainstream music industry and its values—market-led forces, fame, hedonism” and toward a role for jazz musicians as artists and teachers, not merely entertainers. Jazz, like gospel funk, “became a means of involvement in the community rather than an escape from it.” While a heavy focus on self-determination and economic empowerment would lead to the Black Power movement at one extreme, necessitating the liberation theology of James H. Cone, less radical Christian musicians found in artists collectives, community groups, musicians associations, church-basement theater companies, and feed-the-people projects such as Operation Breadbasket offered plenty of opportunities to serve.
Two players in Cohran’s Artistic Heritage Ensemble (and members of Mt. Zion), Vernon and Maurice White, took his electrified African thumb piano (the “francophone”) and made it a central element of their band Earth, Wind & Fire. Listening to the music found in the Good God! series, you can almost see the worn jackets of those early EWF albums strewn across the players’ floor as they take inspiration from the successful group’s light funk. Similarly, the achievements of the Civil Rights Movement—and God’s role in them—manifested in the music and activism of the artists featured on Freedom, Rhythm & Sound, are celebrated amidst a roll call of Old Testament heroes in the Apostles of Music’s freedom-shouting “Look Where He Brought Us From” on A Gospel Funk Hymnal.
For those of us freed from the dusty debate over “contemporary” or “blended” worship, the idea of gospel funk is no stretch. While back in California for a few months, I worshiped with a Covenant church whose band featured not only electric bass—an essential instrument for both volumes of Good God! that makes frequent appearances on FRS—but a battery of funky drummers, chicken-scratch guitar, and a three-piece horn section. Players on the Fountain of Life worship team even took solos. And when congregants join the three lead singers in celebrating God’s goodness, they don’t just get down, they get down in Hebrew—sung to Latin rhythms.
While you won’t hear words like “chabach” or “barak” on these discs, you will respond to the exhortations of excited singers whose exclamations of “Great God a’mighty,” “Looky here” and “Waaaaaaiiiiiiit a minute”—interspersed with requests for a witness—cut through such tiresome distinctions as sacred and secular, bringing one’s attention to bear on the hot, sweaty, earthy place where God’s grace gets funky.
Here is a blessing that the discs’ compilers were slow to recognize. In the Hymnal’s liner notes, they are so hung up on the flaming swords that supposedly separate piety and pop culture that they cannot see the Spirit at work in all God’s creation. It seems remarkable to them that devotional sentiments can arise amid “hot, sweaty, earthy sounds.” Discussing the outstanding choir-and-trap-set track “Oh Yes My Lord” by the Voices of Conquest, they describe the recording as “a battle for who would be higher in the mix, God or the Devil.” Simply because they have a thunderous drummer?! This is like saying that instruments associated with rock ‘n roll, rhythm and blues, soul, funk, and hip-hop come with the Devil in their details. By 2010, Sevier and company have come to understand that for the musicians involved, the difference between sacred and profane is found in the troubled human soul; as the Fall is traditionally understood, it wasn’t the tree that was evil but what Adam and Eve chose to do with its fruit.
Those affirming, accepting words—“Yes Lord”—are repeated happily by the Hastings Street Jazz Experience on FRS. But these were, of course, tense times; and then as now, what is considered “spiritual” is not necessarily Christian but a mystical humanism, seeking transition from restiveness to rest on the higher ground of ethical perfection. This music can be edgy, angry, impatient in its defense of the human soul as something of intrinsic worth. Archie Shepp’s “Attica Blues” is a particularly insistent example:
The lyrics were written by drummer Beaver Harris in direct response to the 1971 prison riot and given to the free-jazz altoist, moving him in a funk direction. Such music reinforces Martin Luther King Jr.’s rejection of the establishment’s plea to “wait,” as does the Modulations’ flame-fanning “This Old World is Going Down” or the Pharaohs’ “Freedom Time,” another FRS jazz performance flowing from the same source as gospel funk.
Looky here. So often gospel music is heard as coming from a rarified stratus, somewhere between humans and angels, its conviction that Christ has already triumphed over the “Troubles of the World” seen as naïve, or worse, irresponsible. It is a great day when anyone can be reminded by such releases as these that gospel artists have had plenty to sing about before concluding, as the Horace Family does on A Gospel Funk Hymnal, that “God Will Dry My Weeping Eyes.” The desire to praise God with loud, crashing cymbals arises from the same urge to move as other forms of music that have gone the way of entertainment or diversion. The urge is right; what you do once you’ve donned those matching velvet-lapelled, bell-bottom suits is up to you. The glorified grooves offered here make spiritual jazz and gospel funk appealing choices, and the work of these diligent musicologists much appreciated. May you dance as David danced.
J. D. Buhl wishes to thank Heather and the fine folks at Fingerprints in Long Beach, California, for providing him with this great music—and so much more.