Here at UrbanFaith, we believe that the recent past is a neglected element of black history. Jelani Greenidge, worship musician and music connoisseur, took a look back at some of the most momentous gospel music recordings of our era.
Go Tell Somebody, Light Records, (1986)
I can’t talk about back-in-the-day gospel music without talking about Commissioned. For my parents’ generation, their watershed gospel songs, the ones that strike them with nostalgia, are the Walter Hawkins or Andrae Crouch recordings from the late 60s and 70s. But for me, a (formerly) young member of Generation X… it’s Commissioned, all the way. And man, does this one take me back.
It is tremendously fitting that this song opens with a Fred Hammond bass lick, because Fred was one of the main creative forces of the group, alongside keyboardist and arranger Michael Brooks. And though the album from which this sprang was not their first, it was the one that really put them on the map.
One of the funny things about growing up black in Portland, Oregon is that even though there was a tightly-knit black community in my area, we were a lot smaller in number compared to other cities. And certain trends, dance moves, fashion, etc. took longer to show up here.
Consequently, there were a lot of cultural gaps in the overall awareness of my peers, especially my white peers. There were things they just didn’t understand that I thought would be obvious to everyone. (I mean, didn’t everyone grow up in my family? Oh wait…)
Nowhere was this more apparent than with my enthusiasm for the music of Commissioned. In the late 80s and early 90s, when a new era of male R&B groups was dawning, led first by New Edition and then later Boyz II Men, I kept hearing over and over, not only in their music but also in interviews and liner notes, that virtually all of them had been inspired, on some level, by Commissioned. (It was either them or Take 6.)
So why were Boyz II Men mega-famous, and not Commissioned, my pubescent mind wondered. And the answer came to me, many years later, as I pondered the meaning to the song that had been my jam for so long.
See, in the chorus, when the guys sing, “Victory, victory shall be mine”… that’s God talking. It’s not a celebratory, name-it-and-claim-it type thing. It’s actually a challenge to remain calm and not take matters into our own hands.
Hold your peace, vengeance is mine / enemies will bow down in due time / hold your peace, I will fight your battles / victory, victory shall be mine
Hezekiah Walker & The Love Fellowship Crusade Choir
“Christ Did It All”
Live From Atlanta At Morehouse College, Verity (1994)
So here’s a fun little experiment. Go to any black-owned barbershop, predominantly black church, or inner-city parachurch organization. Head into the office, conference room, or other common gathering place. Then play this song. And count how many people stop whatever they’re doing, and say, “THIS IS MY JAM!!”
(I’m guessing the over/under here is five.)
Now, for as long as there have been black people filling churches and singing in choirs, there have always been uptempo songs that make people move, jump, and clap. But this one always comes to mind for me when I think about about classic choir jams, and I think some of the following attributes combine to make this song and recording excellent.
First, there are two complementary, essential pieces – the choir enunciates its consonants well, and the mics are properly placed to pick them up. It might seem like a little thing, but without proper enunciation and mic placement, “Christ did it all” sounds a lot more like “rice did it all” (which I suppose could be a great parody version for the US Rice Growers Association, although, if I were them, I would go with the brilliant standard in misheard lyrics, “We Bring the Sacks of Rice On Trays”)
Also, the excellent blowing of Kim Waters on alto saxophone. This might’ve been the first contemporary choir recording where the saxophone was so front-and-center, featured prominently in the B-section of the chorus. (It’s a shame that this was excluded from the video, but it’s there in the commercially recorded audio.)
But mostly what makes this song such a jam is the infectious energy of the choir. In a lot of today’s contemporary gospel, the choir is simply there in support of a lead singer (or in some cases, a worship leader shouting exhortation).
But here, the choir itself is the star – which is great, because such a group of people singing in such spirited praise with so repetitive a chorus creates a sense of critical mass, not unlike the gravitational pull of a singularity, which then creates a reverse-supernova effect, where everyone in immediate range gets sucked in and starts singing along. Even Christopher Hitchens, if he were in the building, would’ve gotten swept up and singing along, even if only ironically. This galvanizing effect is one of the reasons why so many unchurched liberal white people love seeing African-American choirs sing gospel music (after all, such a singularity is also known as a black hole… okay, this analogy has officially gone too far).
“Christ Did It All” is proof that songs need not be wordy or full of lofty language in order to be theologically significant. Just like “Snakes On A Plane,” the whole point and concept of the song is embedded in the title. This is probably why so many black churches were able to have church services for so long without having printed hymnals or projected lyrics. You just stand up, watch, listen, and sing along. (Try doing that with “Lord When We Praise You with Glorious Music”… never gonna happen my friend.)
So while singing this song every service for a year might get old, and you might not want all of your songs at church to have this quality, it’s still true that songs like “Christ Did It All” can be an essential part of a churchgoer’s musical diet, because the lyrics are immediate, simple, and personal:
Christ did it all, all, all / Christ did it all, now I am free / Christ did it all, I’ve got the victory / And most of all, I have eternal life / Christ did it, He did it all
The vamp is driving, the band is kicking, it doesn’t change keys 47 times, and it’s only four minutes and twenty seconds. This makes “Christ Did It All,” a classic gospel throwback in my book. Just make sure, if you pull this one out at church, that you explain what “it” is.