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A Place to Sing About

Margaret Douroux is a revered gospel teacher. Her goal: an L.A. center celebrating a musical form that has inspired devout and secular alike.

October 16, 2006|Larry Gordon | Times Staff Writer

It is Wednesday night on East 99th Street in Inglewood, just a block from Hollywood Park racetrack, its card casino and other earthly temptations. Overhead, jetliners roar on their descent into LAX.

But none of that seems to register with Margaret Pleasant Douroux as she sits at the keyboard inside the green-carpeted and wood-beamed sanctuary of Greater New Bethel Baptist Church and starts to rehearse the congregation's choir.

"When the Lord says move, mountains shake, valleys quake ... When the Lord says move, you've got to move."

The 16 women and two men are practicing one of Douroux's many songs. After work and dinner, the choristers look tired. Their harmonies aren't meshing, their pronunciations aren't crisp. But excuses aren't good enough for the 65-year-old Douroux, a nationally revered -- and a bit feared -- teacher and composer of the gospel art.

"Come on, altos ... come on, tell us!" she shouts, acting at times like a sergeant with exasperating recruits and then like the encouraging grandmother she is.

Gradually, and then suddenly, the harmonies meld and become beautiful. Thrilling, actually. It doesn't matter that airplanes thunder or some singers are absent. The choir members, swaying and waving, sing from the heart, and Douroux seems pleased yet unapologetic about working them hard.

After all, she stresses, singing gospel is a form of prayer.

"The music ministry is so crucial to the black church. I'm kind of protective of it," Douroux, the daughter and sister of pastors, explains later. "I want it to be as special as I think God would want it to be."

Her catalog of more than 200 songs ("Give Me a Clean Heart," "Trees," "Mercy That Suits") landed her in the International Gospel Music Hall of Fame. Six of her pieces appear in the interdenominational African American Heritage Hymnal.

At a recent gospel convention in Dallas, more than 300 musicians lapped up her humorous, stern and deeply religious lectures like freshmen before a storied professor. Music experts on university campuses have included her and her traditional style of gospel in their research.

"Every Sunday morning, some church somewhere in the United States is singing a Margaret Douroux song. She is that prominent," said professor Jacqueline Cogdell DjeDje, chairwoman of UCLA's ethnomusicology department, who has written about gospel music.

But one goal still eludes Douroux.

For more than 20 years, she has tried to establish what she calls Gospel House, a museum and concert hall in the Los Angeles area that would celebrate music that has nourished black churches and deeply influenced the secular world, from Motown to Broadway, since the 1920s.

"It's a rich heritage," she explained. "It has been a strong foothold for black America for its entire history, and it is one of the truest art forms of America."

Though her plans have been stymied for decades, she and her nonprofit Heritage Music Foundation continue to press for Gospel House. "I'm really, really hoping," she said. "I have to pray that God will lead me to the right spot."

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Douroux grew up in a family, neighborhood and time that left her with a deep respect for tradition and an ache for its losses.

Her father, the Rev. Earl A. Pleasant, was a singer who toured with his friend, gospel superstar Mahalia Jackson, before he founded Mount Moriah Baptist near the Coliseum. Her mother, Olga, who died in July, organized choirs and taught her five daughters and one son to play piano.

Douroux, a shy organist, gradually took on choir leadership at the church in the 1960s, eventually succeeding her mentor, Thurston G. Frazier, who had been music minister there and who founded the well-known Voices of Hope choir.

She wrote her first song, "Give Me a Clean Heart," in 1970, and it caught on after Frazier introduced it at a national gospel convention.

Douroux studied music at Cal State L.A. but never intended it as a career. She earned a master's degree in education at USC and worked as an educational psychologist in Los Angeles schools.

In 1963, she married Donald Douroux, a now-retired brick mason. He plays electric bass at church and is, she says, a "genius" with sound systems. (They have a daughter, Mardy, and three grandchildren.)

After the 1974 death of Douroux's father, a painful schism at Mount Moriah caused the Pleasant family to leave the church. Her brother, also named Earl A. Pleasant, became pastor at Greater New Bethel, where she later took over the music.

"It was like a bird pushing us out of the nest," Douroux said of her father's death.

Douroux got a boost outside black churches in the early 1980s when Tammy Faye and Jim Bakker recorded her "We're Blessed" and "If It Had Not Been for the Lord on My Side." Because her husband earned a good living, she soon quit her school job to pursue music further.

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