When Beyoncé sang “Precious Lord” at the Grammy’s this year, numerous commenters declared that she had taken the awards show to Church. On my Twitter feed at least, those commenters were met with thorough skepticism. “I have been to church,” my Twitter feed said, “and Beyoncé at the Grammy’s is not it.”
The skepticism reminded me of Anthony Heilbut’s great book, The Gospel Sound: Good News and Bad Times. First published in 1971; the paperback edition, with addendums, is 40 this year. Heilbut, a Jewish atheist, is a passionate advocate of the classic gospel sound, and a keen critic of the way it gets watered down for and by pop. He’d no doubt see Beyoncé as falling prey to the “gospel-gargle” — “the overly busy, annoyingly mannered style” that was common in gospel even in the 70s. “The excessive virtuosity defeats its own purposes,” Heilbut says, “whether of expressing spirit or asserting self.”
In contrast, Heilbut champions the older singers: Mahalia Jackson, of course, but also performers less familiar to the mainstream, like Sallie Martin, Dorothy Love Coates, R.H. Harris, Julius Cheeks, and Heilbut’s dear friend, Marion Williams. The Gospel Sound is about their artistry and how that artistry has been forgotten even as its created vast swaths of the pop landscape.
Many critics of Beyoncé’s Grammy performance argued that the mega-star had essentially stolen or usurped the performance of Ledisi, a less well-known soul singer who performed “Precious Lord” for the film Selma. That story — of gospel’s innovations being taken into the spotlight, while the original performers languish — is repeated theme throughout The Gospel Sound. “The white man robbed me all my life,” Heilbut quotes Dorothy Love Coates as saying, “and now the black man’s doing it. They all treat us like dogs and puppies, like we didn’t have no sense.”
R.H. Harris is almost forgotten today, but Heilbut argues that his falsetto trills, which Harris picked up by imitating birdsongs in his native Texas, “traveled from gospel to soul to the Beatles,” — showering money and mass popularity on everyone but Harris himself. Ira Tucker of the longtime quartet the Dixie Hummingbirds “anticipated all the frenetic workings of souls music;” Heilbut argues, and Tucker himself adds, “Shoot, what James Brown does, I’ve been doing.” Marion Williams gave Little Richard his “oooooo!”; Rosetta Tharpe taught Chuck Berry how to play guitar. Mahalia Jackson and the church taught Elvis to dance —originally, Heilbut recounts, “Some churches exiled [Mahalia] for her rocking beat, others for her “snake-hips.”
Jackson did of course enjoy great success. But she was only able to do so, Heilbut says, by abandoning her snake-hips for a less raucous performing style, and by sprinkling her real gospel songs with numbers from what Heilbut calls the “inspirational dung heap” like “Rusty Old Halo.” To take gospel to pop is to lose gospel; Beyoncé can’t take the Grammys to church without losing the church. For Heilbut, gospel is “simply the only music sung by people in terrible conditions about those conditions, in an attempt to get out of them.” In comparison, “rock and soul are for the children. Gospel, like blues and jazz, is the music of grown-ups.” Gospel is the real thing; the spirit inspiring American music — though that spirit is often abandoned, and its proponents and singers forgotten.
For Heilbut in The Gospel Sound, then, that gospel sound is authentic, pure, and simultaneously treasured, threatened, and disdained by the secular world. His book, though, also has a quiet counter-narrative, one perhaps less inimical to Beyoncé and what she was trying to do at the Grammys. Because, while Heilbut presents gospel as an origin, he also sees it as part of American music more generally.
Classic gospel didn’t spring out of nothing; on the contrary, its creators were very familiar with other contemporary styles, especially jazz and blues. Thomas Dorsey, the composer who wrote “Precious Lord,” started his career as Georgia Tom, a pianist who performed often off-color blues with Ma Rainey and others. Later, Dorsey occasionally preferred white country renditions of his songs to those of gospel performers. For their part, great gospel singers like Mahalia and Willie Mae Ford Smith were familiar with, and inspired by, great blues singers like Bessie Smith. Heilbut notes that Ira Tucker’s performances with the Dixie Hummingbirds often echoed jazz variations; Tucker himself says that B.B. King personally introduced him to the recordings of Django Reinhardt. R. H. Harris may claim that birdsong was his primary inspiration, but he also listened to Texas blues and hillbilly music. Sister Rosetta Tharpe recorded a rousing hillbilly boogie with country singer Red Foley — rockabilly before Elvis.
Heilbut is not entirely on board with some of the latter examples of musical cross-pollination — he sees the Staple Singers’ mix of blues guitar, quartet harmonies, and pop as “an appealing novelty, if not the stuff of gospel legends,” and seems a little regretful when talking about how the new (circa 1970) choirs “sing Motown tunes and Thelonius Monk chords.” But like it or not, there’s no getting around the fact that gospel and the wider world of music have never been mutually exclusive. Someone out there — James Brown, the Beatles, Duke Ellington, Johnny Cash (performing a Dorothy Love Coates tune) — is always taking pop to church. And, for its part, the church is always listening to jazz, blues, soul, and even rock for new ideas and new ways to worship. The Grammys certainly wasn’t the first time that Beyoncé went to gospel for material.
Heilbut’s goal in The Gospel Sound is to shine a light on a group of immensely talented singers and performers who are often erased from music history — to try to return gospel to its rightful place at the center of the story of American music. In doing that, he honors the music’s accomplishments, its uniqueness, and its difference, whether Sallie Martin’s quick jerk in performance as the spirit moves her or Marion Williams’ amazing run from deep voiced bass up to falsetto “ooooooh!” But returning gospel to American music also means revealing what’s not different about it — showing how it fits within a musical landscape where jazz and blues and soul, and country and pop and rock too, blur into each other at the edges, influencing each other and being influenced by each other. Beyoncé’s Grammy’s performance had a Vegas showbiz feel to it, it’s true — but, as Heilbut chronicles, Clara Ward and the Ward Singers were tearing up Vegas in sequins before Beyoncé was born. On television, at Vegas, at the Grammys, and in church too — the gospel sound is everywhere.