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No Break in the Clouds of Joy : Lead Singer Joe Ligon Does a Mighty Fine Job Without the Need to Go Secular

October 07, 1994|BUDDY SEIGAL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It is a voice of unconstrained power and authority, a rampaging storm so forceful, so full of raw emotion and energy that it charges a room with unshakable electricity. It is a voice possessed of such muscle and abandon that it can actually frighten with its intensity, as if the sounds being produced were something a bit more than merely human.

Joe Ligon is not a name that frequently comes up when discussing the great vocalists of the 20th Century, and this is an injustice. But Ligon, lead singer with the Mighty Clouds of Joy, has devoted his life to performing the sanctified rather than the secular, and so has limited his recognition to fans of gospel music and scattered, lucky pop fans.

But if the general public largely remains ignorant of Ligon's gift, many pop artists have been hip to him for years. The Mighty Clouds of Joy, who sing tonight at Orange Coast College, have played and/or toured with the the Rolling Stones, James Brown, Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, Al Green and Jimmy Buffett.

Ligon's influence is particularly pervading in the work of Four Tops lead singer Levi Stubbs--who, for all his excellence and reputation for vocal sinew, sounds meek when compared to Ligon's fire and brimstone ferocity.

"When the Mighty Clouds of Joy started out, we came along with the Four Tops and the Temptations," Ligon said in a recent phone interview. "We'd be in a town at the same time. They'd come to hear us, and we'd go to hear them. I think all the Motown groups liked the Mighty Clouds of Joy, and I think they'd borrow things they heard in gospel music, and vice-versa."

The Clouds were formed in Los Angeles in 1957, began recording for Peacock Records in 1962 and hit the road (where they've spent most of their time) in 1963. Original members Ligon, Elmo Franklin and Richard Wallace remain, with Michael McCowan and Wilbert Williams having replaced the deceased Johnny Martin and Jimmy Jones in the past decade.

The group's style was always frenetic, even by gospel standards; a sweat-soaked cyclone of sound so fierce that if the subject matter weren't Christianity, they surely would have been accused of being profane by morality watchdogs of the '60s. Ligon, in particular, seems to get absolutely lost in the passion of the moment, as he shrieks, wails and testifies with a heaven-sent zeal.

"I sum it up the way Mahalia Jackson does," he explained. "She said that there's a feeling you can only get from gospel music. Gospel is described as spreading good news; you're singing about a feeling you can't get in any other kind of music. There's a certain spirit that overtakes you, especially if you came up in a religious family, like I did.

"I compare myself to how Mahalia felt when I sing 'Amazing Grace,' 'Precious Lord Take My Hand'--those great hymns. I couldn't get that feeling singing 'My baby left me' or 'I got the blues today.' "

*

Ligon, 58, grew up in Troy, Ala., the product of a gospel-singing father and a preacher grandfather.

"I grew up with gospel music in my blood and on my mind," he said.

Ligon is also a fan of early hillbilly music.

"I used to listen to WLAC all the time when I was a child," he said, referring to the radio station out of nearby Montgomery. "Growing up, I heard people like Roy Acuff, Little Jimmy Dickens, Red Foley and lots of bluegrass music. On WLAC, they played country for a while, then gospel music--the Soul Stirrers, the Fairfield Four, the Golden Gate Quartet, the Dixie Hummingbirds, the Swan Silverstones, the Five Blind Boys, the Sensational Nightingales."

The Mighty Clouds of Joy used the traditional styles of the old-time gospel groups as a base but took their sound way beyond anything heard before in gospel, with added energy and fervor. The group's funky, unrestrained style is designed to appeal to pop and soul fans as well as the gospel faithful.

"When we do an album, we think of people who like secular music as well as gospel and who might buy Mighty Clouds of Joy albums," Ligon said. "When we do an album, we try to reach the majority of the people, not just gospel fans. We were one of the first groups to record what you call 'contemporary gospel,' but we didn't get credit for it, although we really started it. We were doing it before Andrae Crouch did it."

*

While Crouch remains perhaps the most high-profile, financially successful proponent of contemporary gospel, Ligon does himself a disservice in comparing their styles. The Clouds remain a raw and exciting attraction, while Crouch often leans to popular style.

The Clouds worked for a month last year with Paul Simon at New York's Felt Forum, and, according to Ligon, the musical relationship will continue.

"He and I are working on a record together; it'll be out on Intersound Records in March of 1995, and I'm very excited about it," Ligon said. "He's writing a special version of 'Bridge Over Troubled Waters' for me to sing. When we played the Felt Forum with him last year, it was packed every day for 28 or 29 days. Fantastic!"

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