Saturday, May 11, 2013

The Gospel Truth

Music was all around me when I was growing up.  There were several bands on my block.  I learned a lot just by sitting outside of a house where a band was rehearsing, listening and trying to look through the window.  In my West Philly neighborhood, we heard a variety of sounds. 

At the "Cruise's" house there was an RnB band called "Projection 101."  They played the hits of the day (circa 1970's) -Frankie Beverly's Raw Soul, Kool and the Gang, Mandrill, Black Heat, etc.  Projection 101 played everything except the songs made popular by singing groups (Motown,The Delphonics, Blue Magic, etc.)  It wasn't considered cool by us young bloods to be in a back-up band for singers. We liked bands that were bold, brash and loud. These were the kind of bands we aspired to. Projection 101 also had cool equipment - big plush amplifiers and a PA system (Shure Vocal Master.)  We were impressed and, yes, the band was great.  When they played a tune, they would play all the changes in the song just like the record.  My own band, "Supernatural," would just play the hook/motif over and over again.   

On the other side of the street was Mr. Blake's band.  Mr Blake was from the Islands.  Trinidad?  Haiti?  We had no idea.  His music was strange to us, but it had a great groove.  Although we couldn't see a thing through the grated covered windows, it always sounded like they were having a good time. It was Calypso music for sure.

Then there was Sunday.  Gospel music was not a part of my own family life, but it was a part of life in the neighborhood.  Every Sunday morning, on into late afternoon, 
Ms. Scarbrough would blast Gospel music for the whole community to hear.  She would also cook a HUGE social breakfast. It was your lucky day if you were invited for any reason. Stacks of pancakes, scrambled eggs, sausage, scrapple, bacon, biscuits, rolls, grits, along with weird things such as tripe, were set out to share.  This was an event.  If I got invited, it was due to my buddy and band mate, John.  Ms. Scarbrough was his grandmother, and John lived with her.

Sometimes after the Sunday feast, John's uncle, Mr. Coboy, would rehearse at the house with his Gospel band.  We would try and hang out in the living room where they were playing. The band had our attention for a number of reasons.  First, the bass player had the biggest amp we'd ever seen.  I didn't have the ears to know if it sounded good or not, but you could FEEL it and you could hear it blocks away.  Big amps were things to dream about.  Our little band rehearsed in Ms. Scarbrough's basement. We used to tear apart trashed stereo systems to extract the speakers and then wire all the speakers together, thinking it would make us louder.  We had the speakers hanging all over the basement.  It looked cooler than it sounded, but we didn't care.  Another thing we noticed about the Gospel band was the weird "old dude" guitars they played.  For some reason, it seemed that most guitarists in Gospel groups preferred Fender Mustangs and Jaguars, and wearing sunglasses, even if they were rehearsing in a dark house.  As far as we were concerned, if we didn't see a Stratocaster or a Les Paul, it just wasn't cool.   
                                                          Jaguar                          Stratocaster                      

And there was one other thing that disturbed us about the Gospel band.  We didn't quite get the entertainment part of what this band was doing. They'd start a song with a rumble from the bass and drums, then Mr. Coboy (the singer) would start growling with a monologue: "I woke up this morning with a temperature of 105. I said 'help me Lawd, help me Jesus…"   We were stunned.  Mr. Coboy had just been sitting at the breakfast table eating a pound of scrapple. How could he stand there and lie like that?  We didn't get it.  But, then they'd have the whole house and neighborhood rocking. I had no idea what I was experiencing, but it all stayed with me.  I was very, very fortunate.

Recently I was asked to perform at a Unitarian Church. I found the church unusual because they play every kind of music, from the Jackson 5 to "They Might Be Giants". Of the seven songs I played, I had the opportunity to play a few Gospel tunes I liked. Here's one: "Just Closer Walk With Thee"