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The Gospel Truth : Traditional Beat Rings Strong in the Heart of Black Culture

December 25, 1987|DAVID WHARTON | Times Staff Writer

The choir at Calvary Baptist Church is swaying to a gospel beat. The women are dressed in red and white. The men wear tuxedos with bow ties that Mona Wilson made specially for this night.

"Sing it! Sing it, Ernestine!" someone calls out as Ernestine Robinson starts into her solo.

It's cold in Pacoima on this December evening, but inside the sanctuary things are heating up. Women in long coats and fancy hats are clapping and laughing. Babies are crying. A man in the back row cools himself with one of the cardboard fans that Rucker's Mortuary has placed in all the pews.

The music goes strong for more than an hour, tunes like "Why Do the Heathen Rage?" and "Not 'Till I've Seen Jesus." Jesus was born to die, the choir sings.

"The black Baptists do sing gospel," congregation member Helen Dennis says of this music.

Beat Is Strong

Every fourth Sunday, the Calvary choir puts on a show for anyone who wants to listen. They sing some spirituals and hymns, but mostly it's traditional black gospel, said music director Ella Lane. The beat is strong as soloists sing at the top of their lungs. The audience claps and even stamps its feet in time.

"Gospel music is the experience of a people that Christ has brought a mighty long way," Lane said. "It's the music of our people."

There are a handful of San Fernando Valley churches that regularly present black gospel. Most of these churches are black Baptist congregations in the East Valley, places such as Mt. Zion Baptist Church in San Fernando and Christ Memorial Church in Pacoima, where Grammy award-winning singer Andrae Crouch, the pastor's son, grew up on gospel.

"There is some good music out our way," said Sammie Calloway, the organist at Greater Community Baptist Church in Pacoima, where the choir performs after services on the first and second Sunday of each month.

There is even a predominantly white Baptist congregation--First Baptist Church of Van Nuys--that sings some black gospel.

"The congregation is predominantly white, so we tend to cater to that. But we try to throw in a little of everything," said Steve Amerson, the minister of music at First Baptist. "What we do includes black gospel, though we only have a couple of black people in our choir."

Church music directors say the rhythm and melodies of black gospel are bringing in people from outside their congregations, some of whom are more interested in music than religion.

"They can get into the beat, not the message," Lane said.

Said Amerson: "Music has always drawn visitors, people who are not accustomed to going to church. It's kind of accepted that people will come to church to hear the music when they won't come to hear a sermon. That's OK. It's an outreach. Music is a major part of what worship is about."

And gospel appears to be attracting a larger audience away from church. Last year, pop musician Paul Simon hosted a gospel special on HBO. There was also a four-day gospel festival in MacArthur Park featuring groups like the Mighty Clouds of Joy, Mother DeBarge and her children and the O'Neal Twins. Promoters said they organized the festival to show people that gospel "has spawned popular music as we know it today."

At the Beverly Theater, the play "The Gospel Truth," starring Jennifer Holliday as the wife of a minister who clashes with his children, recently ended a successful run.

"Gospel is probably as powerful as music gets," said Verne Bryant, acting chairman of Pan-African Studies at California State University, Northridge. "While religion is part of it, there's certainly that human spirit that is touched that goes beyond the religious. I suspect you will see it become much more significant as an entertainment."

Gospel is not that far off from widely popular styles of music, he said. The songs of Whitney Houston, Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin are deeply rooted in gospel. Gospel and blues have virtually inseparable origins, Bryant said.

First Baptist's Amerson said he thinks record companies have begun taking more care with gospel, producing records with a sound quality similar to that of popular music.

But the best gospel isn't playing on top-40 radio.

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