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Fifty-two years! Whether it be a friendship, marriage, business partnership, or practically anything involving human relationships, that is an extraordinary length of time for something to endure and thrive. The Mighty Clouds of Joy, founded in Los Angeles in 1960, has remained the premiere gospel quartet and is still performing at the same electrifying level as they did when Eisenhower was president. They performed for two nights at a very appropriate venue: the beautifully renovated Hayti Heritage Center, once the home of the St. Joseph’s African Methodist Episcopal Church congregation.
As I mentioned in an unrelated previous review, one of the perks of this avocation is being exposed to live performances of artists and musical genres that I’d probably not attend on my own. A gospel quartet concert is one of those. There has always been a strong relationship between pure gospel music, rhythm and blues, and even rock music; and huge musically popular figures like Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin – and many others – began as gospel singers. So, it wasn’t as if I was unfamiliar with the gospel sound, but going back to the authentic roots of this very influential form was an ear-opening experience. It was gratifying to see that the audience was almost evenly split between music lovers of all races and backgrounds.
Joe Ligon is the only remaining member of the original group from 1960 and it is abundantly clear that he is in charge. He is slightly frail and would sit down every other song, but once he got that microphone it was as if he were twenty years old again and performing for the first time. The other singers of the current lineup are Ron Staple, Mike McCowin and Ewing Williams, who also doubles on guitar. The backup band consisted of Ronald Clark, bass, Ulysses McKiver, drums and two unidentified keyboard players. The fact that there even is a band with the singers is counter to the prevailing practice in the 1950s because gospel quartets should perform a cappella, except for perhaps an organ in the background. In any case, this band was loud – almost painfully loud, and I’ve been front row for The Who and Led Zeppelin.
Music and religion has always been closely intertwined. Bach often inscribed “for the glory of God” at the end of his manuscripts and nearly all cultures have used music as an indispensable partner in religious services or rituals. Authentic gospel music takes that one step further where in the tradition of African-American churches it is nearly inconceivable to have one without the other: the music, the words, the gospel and the congregation’s participation are all indivisible parts of the whole experience. Being a somewhat repressed, Jewish white boy from Brooklyn, I was certainly not as demonstrative as many in the audience, but that certainly does not mean that I didn’t thoroughly enjoy and appreciate the immense and exhilarating performance that I witnessed.
There was a lot of variety in the songs performed: beautifully harmonized slow and churning exhortations, to raucous and unrelenting testifying. But whatever was sung, the words always had a religious underpinning; no secular love songs here, or anything to do with “relationships.” In reading stories about some of the Mighty Clouds’ performances in the past decade, I found they have at times presented a more R&B inflected concert, but there was none of that this night in Durham. This was Saturday night church at its most primal and authentic.
Ron Staple had several smooth, almost sensual solos as well as some unstoppable fiery musical preaching to the congregation. Falsetto registers have always had a place in gospel as well as R&B and 60s soul groups (e.g. Eddie Kendricks of The Temptations), but Mike McCowin’s solos reached stratospheric high notes that approached dog whistle territory. As seems to be the norm, the bass singer/player seems to get short shrift. Ewing Williams laid down a beautifully deep and dark vocal foundation for the rest of the group yet he was not featured the entire evening. But, we did get to hear some really cool guitar licks from him.
Kudos go to Duke Performances and director Aaron Greenwald for bringing The Mighty Clouds of Joy to our area and enabling the opportunity to experience a legendary group that has influenced so many performers.