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Running With Cheese

a cappella gospel, early music, tremolo guitars, lactic solids, the Heavenly Lights, vocal workshops, music publications, recordings and other associated musical projects...

8th Gospel Tour

Tony Backhouse - Thursday, October 09, 2014

Now back in the Napier routine after 6 weeks in the USA directing the 2014 Gospel Tour, and catching up with myself. The trip was excellent in many ways. The first few days were spent in San Francisco, where I found a great flat white (Jane on Fillmore) and learned that a rough equivalent in California is a cortado, also called africano or short latte. And Jules Older took us to Glide Memorial Church where music was 90% of the service and the late lamented Robin Williams was mentioned more than Jesus. 


After that, Vancouver, where I met up with dear friend Kristina Olsen and her fiancé Robert (they’re now married, congratulations you two), met up with fellow singers and choir directors Marcus Mosely (Sojourners) and Brian Tate (City Soul Choir) and ran a workshop - which turned out beautifully, attended as it was by Brian Tate and other fine directors like Dawn Pemberton, Karla Mundy and Patti Powell and some other great singers - it sounded wonderful. And joined my generous host Marc Lindy on the Gospel Train radio show - thanks Lindy as always for the business end and the bottom end. 

Los Angeles 

Los Angeles was the rendezvous point for the Gospel Tour, and about half the group turned up a few days early to get over jet lag, and spent the time exploring Marina Del Rey & Venice Beach. (High point for me: cycling from Venice Beach  to Santa Monica - I don’t know, it just felt good, lovely day, good bike seat.) Unfortunately Marianne had to fly back to NZ just after the GT meet & greet, so it was with very mixed feelings that I carried on with the tour.


We flew to Memphis for Labor Day weekend when both the Memphis Music & Heritage Festival AND Stone Soul Picnic Gospel Festival take place. Plenty of action down Main Street, where I heard some very tight & soulful R&B and some aggressive gospel. The tour’s first event as such was at Bethlehem MBC, where we sang on a wonderfully humble and loving program. Just so you know, it’s not all like Sister Act, and I’m drawn to the older and smaller churches where they sing a more traditional repertoire, where there’s a depth of experience that comes through every word. I’ve been going to Bethlehem since 1991, thanks to my friend Mae Barnes, and I never fail to be effected by the feeling there. Don’t ask me to put it into words - loving kindness is close. 

Rev. James Johnson and wife at the Piccadilly

The group sang at Bethlehem again on Sunday morning, and then had lunch at the Piccadilly Cafeteria on Elvis Presley Blvd with the pastor James Johnson and other church members. Candied yams, yessir. (10 days later, we learned that Rev. Johnson had passed away - a shock, and I now value the time we spent together more than ever.)

Moments of Joy workshop

Other events in Memphis included a visit to the National Civil Rights Museum, Slave Haven and a workshop with the wonderful Moments of Joy. The peak moment with the Moments was hearing them sing a ‘Dr Watts’ - this was something I specifically asked for, but it exceeded my expectations. A brief explanation: a Dr Watts is a hymn sung in a drawn-out, melismatic, ‘surge’ style, where everyone sings in sort-of unison - I find it very powerful, and again, words fail me. As they did on that Tuesday night in Memphis when the Moments sang ‘I Love the Lord’. I wasn’t the only one in tears. 

I also caught up with old friends (my mentors really), the staunch & wise Doug Seroff (hard at work on a book with New Orleans chum Lyn Abbott on the blues) and Prof. David Evans (currently recording traditional music in Ethiopia) over some beignets at the Arcade. Drove round Memphis in Doug’s car listening to. Bembeya Jazz National. And had unbidden moments of sheer happiness walking around Memphis on my own - the tour was going well, there’s good coffee at Bluff City Coffee, I feel sort of connected to Memphis (having spent more time here than anywhere in the USA) - whatever, I don’t know, just felt good. 


Next stop Chicago, where we got off the plane and went to a choir rehearsal at First Church of Deliverance, a church that’s significant in several respects. Designed by the first African American architect in Chicago, it’s a gorgeous streamline modern building. It was also the first church to have a Hammond organ, and there are four Leslie cabinets along the back wall. The founding pastor Rev. Clarence Cobb was influential in his time not only as a helping hand to migrants from the south and a social justice advocate, but he also wrote the gospel song How I Got Over still the theme tune for the church. The 50-60 voice choir was strong, led from the piano by the very engaging James Bryson. (The arrangements have a slight European/classical tinge compared to the sound we heard in Memphis.) 

The next morning, the classical tinge is explained at a workshop given by Prof. Johari Jabir, who explains it as the influence of Rev. James Cleveland’s choral style. (Cleveland is generally credited with inventing the modern gospel choir, with his 1962 arrangement of Peace Be Still cited as the key recording that inspired the move towards more formal - as opposed to traditional and congregational - choral singing.) A great workshop, a great teacher, and the opportunity to learn Peace Be Still

Other high points in Chicago: the workshop with the Douglas Singers (Lakeisha is a goddess - what a director! thanks for singing Shine On Me to us) - as is always the case, any event is seen as an opportunity to worship by the African American church folk, and one song turned into a moving testimony and things got very intense. Just when you think things have peaked, the feeling in the room turns a corner and new experiences await. 

Shirley Douglas, just one of the INTENSE soloists of the Douglas Singers

Then on Sunday, the exceedingly loud Sweet Holy Spirit Church - the sight of a girl signing for the deaf in the congregation was not encouraging, her presence implying that one would end up in her section if one attended this church regularly. Loud, forceful and riding exultant key-changes, the music was great - if you could stand it. 

Our visit there was however brief, as we were due at Cosmopolitan Church of Prayer. Cosmopolitan, although founder Father Hayes passed recently, maintained the same loose and exciting spirit under the new pastor, Derail Smith. The band was cooking, the service threatened to self-immolate at any point, members were running round the church, every time a lull was reached, the band snuck in under it as if they couldn’t help themselves and joy took over again, and again...our group had to go for lunch at Heaven on Seven to recombobulate after that. 

Cosmopolitan's choir the  Warriors

I had time to see the excellent Magritte exhibition at the Chicago Arts Institute and to have a good yarn over something grotesquely sweet at Magnolia Bakery with the very engaging Bob Marovich, another music historian (whose book on Chicago gospel will appear next year).

New Orleans

Last stop on the tour was New Orleans, where I feel pretty much at home. not that I know it that well, but I’ve been here a lot in the last 25 years. We attended a rehearsal with Jeffrey ‘Butter’ Pelrean and Created To Worship, a funky young choir, and that led to us mingling to sing a couple of songs together. 

Leading Glad To Be In The Service with tour group and CTW

And to carry on with that good feeling, the only thing to do is go to d.b.a and hear the Treme Brass Band (saucy as all hell) and then dance in the streets to another brass band busking on the corner. The funkiest version of Its All Over Now ever. (We later got to a couple of second lines - small, but so joyful. New Orleans brass bands fill me with such happiness.)

'Its all over now', 

Second line in Louis Armstrong Park.

The next night a workshop at Ebenezer BC with my lovely friends Pamela Landrum and her charismatic son, Rev. Jermaine Landrum. This family can sing - Pam’s low notes (when she demonstrated the bass part) were astounding, and Jermaine’s soprano Ab was no less thrilling. More than the richness of their voices, Pam and Jermaine’s energy and vivacity are astonishing - they’re unstoppable. And they taught us some great songs, including Milton Brunson’s very sweet and huge Keep Your Loving Arms Around Me. And they put on supper for us - fried catfish, potato salad, greens etc. You know that southern hospitality is not a myth, right? 

We sang at an African American elementary school early one morning. What remains with me is the scariness of these tiny kids intensely pledging their allegiance to America - such ferocity of intention was eerily redolent of fascism. I’m not big on nationalism. But then the kids' funky slapdance/chant as they moved to their seats was all joy...

The last day of the tour was the big church day: 9 am at my friend Rev. Malcolm Collins’ Pressing Onward BC, where he preached like thunder & honey; 11 am at Pentecost BC; and midday back at Ebenezer BC, where we sang in public for the last time. After singing All Night All Day & Come Out The Wilderness, we joined the Ebenezer Radio Choir to sing Keep Your Loving Arms Around Me, as Jermaine conducted and his sister Jonté Landrum Thomas sang lead. (Jonté can sing. Aretha didn’t come out of nowhere - this tradition breeds any number of awe-inspiring soloists, and Jonté’s one of them.) Under Jermaine’s inspiring direction and fabulous energy, this song turned into a moving and seriously mind-blowing experience. As a finale to the tour, I couldn’t have wished for anything better. 

Re Jermaine with (L-R) nephew Earl, chour member Tara, sister Jonte - getting serous tambourine on

Our last group event was dinner at our hotel (the Saint Marie has a very good restaurant, folks) where we skyped Marianne back in Napier and sang Keep Your Loving Arms Around Me to her. Her skill and diligence in organising the logistical bits of the tour were faultless, and it’s a real shame she couldn’t be with us. 


I stuck around New Orleans for a few days, catching up with yet another music historian, the wonderful Lyn Abbott, and other friends, and went to San Francisco for a week, where I caught up with the lovely Audrey Auld (and other friends), saw Chanticleer at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (gorgeous), Meshell Ndegeocello at the Great American Music Hall (walls of sound,mostly tracks from her new CD, and an Australian drummer Abe Rounds), and attended the Saint John Coltrane African Orthodox Church. I’d heard about it for years, and went with curiosity and not high expectations, but it turned out to be a very warm, soulful and uplifting place: a tiny storefront, where Archbishop Franzo King plays tenor and drums, his wife sings, and his daughter (the pastor) plays bass, along with three horns, guitar, harmonica and keys and percussion. An wild hour and a half of hard out jazz, fully committed honking and wailing, interleaved with some prayers and a couple of loosely sung gospel songs started the 3-hour service. Had to go back to Jane on Fillmore for a flat white after that. 

As ever, I’m bowled over by the generosity & love that my friends and connections in the USA consistently show me and the groups I take. Thank you to: Mae Barnes, Sarah Barnes, Delores Montgomery, Belva Armour, the late Rev. James Johnson, the Moments of Joy, Deborah Flagg and the choir of Christ MBC, James Byron, Prof, Johari Jabir, the Douglas Singers and Heavenly Kings Jnr., Allen Cathey and Cosmopolitan BC, Ivan Lee, Jeffrey Pelrean and Created To Worship, Pamela Landrum, Rev. Jermaine Landrum, Lois DeJean, Jonte Landrum. Thanks also to Ali Duffey, Mari Kornhauser, Jole Seroff, Jules Older, Audrey & Mez, and a huge thank you to the Tourettes (Jules, Julie & Linda) for admirable tour-wrangling, and to all who came on the tour for your enthusiasm, hard work and singing. And a huge thank you again to Marianne for her many hours of splendid work behind the scenes.