PBS showcases fine gospel singing


If you watch and listen to "Going Home to Gospel with Patti LaBelle," you can hear them. You can hear Aretha Franklin and Sam Cooke. You can hear the Temptations and the Four Tops. You can even hear James Brown. I feel good.

This hour makes it abundantly evident that so much of our popular music was nourished by the waters of this important river that usually flows a bit beyond the edge of the media spotlight.

Just as most great rock and roll doesn't take place on arena stages or stadium Diamond Vision screens, but in hot, sweaty little bars and cafes, so gospel sings its best every Sunday morning in black churches throughout the land.

"Going Home to Gospel," which will be on Maryland Public Television, Channels 22 and 67, tomorrow night at 10 o'clock, is set, appropriately, in a church, expertly recorded and taped at the century-old Quinn Chapel in Chicago, the site, LaBelle notes, of speeches by Booker T. Washington, George Washington Carver and Martin Luther King Jr. that was previously a stop on the underground railway.

This is no religious service, it's more of a showcase for some of the stars of this infectious musical genre, but it makes clear where the name soul music came from.

Hostess and performer LaBelle, whose stunning vocal pyrotechnics can stop any kind of show, more than meets her match with this material. To see her use every ounce of her heavyweight talent to squeeze the emotion and meaning from her songs is more than worth the price of admission, which, in this membership drive time, ought to include a contribution to your favorite PBS station.

Like so many top black singers, LaBelle got her start singing in church, Beulah Baptist in Philadelphia, rising to soloist. She has often returned to her gospel roots during her nearly 30-year career as a professional singer.

Besides LaBelle, the biggest name among the performers is Edwin Hawkins, who accidentally became a full-time gospel singer when he put together a choir for a church convention in 1968 and it recorded the song "Oh, Happy Day," which became one of those occasional incursions of gospel into the pop music charts. He contributes a rich ballad to "Going Home to Gospel."

The Mighty Clouds of Joy, a 30-year-old group, demonstrates the traditional, straight-ahead approach, serious but still upbeat, while 14-year-old Deleon Richards introduces rap-like elements into her gospel rendition.

Top Chicago gospel artists Albertina Walker, the Barrett Sisters, Calvin Bridges and the Sue Conway Victory Singers round out the program, along with Debra Henry, a longtime backup singer for LaBelle making her solo debut.

No one disappoints, but if there is a breakout star, it's Ricky Dillard's New Generation Chorale and the other choir that backs up the singers. And that's as it should be because gospel music at its best is not one person singing in the spotlight, it's a church full of people moved and moving, a community experience of shared spirituality.

It's in the singing and movement of these choirs that this essential aspect of gospel is best captured as they are at once well-rehearsed and spontaneous, tight and enthusiastic. When they suddenly add their full volume voices to a soloist's sound it is a moment as powerful as anything electronic music can offer.

"Going Home to Gospel" could have been stronger if it had showed a bit of that old PBS educational spirit and included more history and context for the performance. There's a smattering but no real attempt to let you understand the sweep of this music, which, by the way, crosses racial lines.

There are plenty of white gospel groups, too, that, like the black ones, trace their roots to the rural South where Sunday morning church services provided a few moments of uplifting release from lives of grinding poverty. The white gospel groups generally flow into country music -- the Oak Ridge Boys -- as the black ones do into soul.

More importantly, gospel music stands in a long tradition of religious experience, of communities dancing, chanting, sweating and singing their way to mystical states of revelation.

For those who think church music is a pseudo-Bach melody and BTC a few self-conscious squeaks from a congregation whose eyes are diligently searching for the right words in the hymnal, "Going Home to Gospel" might be a mystical revelation in itself.

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