Sunday, February 19, 2012

Showbiz Gospel

Somedays, he murmured to himself, somedays.

This morning, a bit after the store where I work opened, there were three of us in the front end. Two young women and myself. The two women were talking. As I walked the few steps from my register to where they were standing, I began to hear what they were saying. They were looking at the cover of People magazine, which of course had the Whitney Houston story splashed across its cover. The magazine had, I had gratefully noticed, used a glamour shot of Ms. Houston from when she was young, beautiful, and on top of the world. I first heard the younger woman, all of 18 years, saying that she'd heard of her but didn't really know who she was. The other woman, who I'd guess is in her early 20's and who recently moved here from upstate near Burlington, said that she knew her big song was "I Will Always Love You", but she couldn't remember how it went.

After watching the webcast of Ms. Houston's funeral service, I had commented that I now wanted to change my plans. I'd long ago given up any idea of a funeral, and had noted that I wanted to be cremated and have my ashes blown in a few people's faces. Now I'm thinking of being sent off to my final resting place by a 100+ voice gospel choir. (Okay, I'm kidding, but gosh, would it ever be a fun time for my friends.)

This isn't really something new, though. I've long had a thing for gospel, though I've never really collected it, read up on it, or studied it. It goes back to, well, I suppose it goes back to the hymn sings I loved to attend when I was young. I sang in a youth choir (I think I posted a picture about a year ago). I especially loved the sound of a hundred voices resonating in a wooden church. You haven't heard Amazing Grace until you've been in the center of such a church and such a group. But Methodists don't sing Gospel. Methodists are, in the words of Norman McLaren's A River Runs Through It, "Baptists who can read". Methodists have summer camps, and in those days camp would hold a last night  pledge your soul to the Lord campfire, and there was always an older black woman present, singing gospel tunes while you signaled your pledge by "throwing your faggot on the fire". Needless to say, these observances made me very nervous; I always kept a watchful eye that they weren't coming for me.

Maybe it was the Hall Johnson Choir in the movie version of The Green Pastures. Maybe it was shows on tv. Or, maybe it was the Broadway musical Purlie. Or the Gospel film whose name I can't remember (was it just called Gospel?) that we distributed when I was at Films, Inc. Whatever. Show-biz Gospel. When I first started looking for a place to live in New York City, which would have been 1972, there was a new rock musical which opened on Broadway called "Dude". It was written and staged by the guys who had created "Hair". It was a disaster. Clive Barnes, the critic for the New York Times, had commented that if  it had another two weeks to work on its problems, it could have been a great show. I went to see it. It was uneven, but it was also wonderful. I ended up becoming friends with the brother of one of the creators, who passed me in for the rest of the very short run.  See, what most of the critics didn't get was that the loose story line was a continuation of the story of the main character from Hair. Except, in this case, the role was played by two black guys; a very young Ralph Carter and, as his older self, a Gospel singer named Nat Morris. Also in the cast were a few other singers with Gospel backgrounds: Nell Carter, Salome Bey, Delores Hall. The music had a sort of rock country feel, but as the show came closer to closing, the Gospel singers took over. During the final performance, young Ralph Carter decided he wasn't going to be shown up by the older Dude, and he vocally let loose. The rest of the show took on the aura of a revival meeting. It was a wonderful night to be there.

In 1985 a show opened called "The Gospel at Colonus". It was the Oedipus story, told as Church. It was freakin' fabulous. The role of Oedipus was portrayed by the Five Blind Boys from Alabama. The Messenger was a then less well known Morgan Freeman. The Chorus was performed by the choir from the Abyssinian Baptist Church. It was, happily, recorded for broadcast on PBS. I taped it, and still have it in my Betamax collection of stuff. All that's in storage these days and last time I checked, there was trouble with the Betamax. I haven't seen the tape for about 10 years now. So, while thinking about it, I checked You Tube. And they have a promo clip! So here's a sample of one of the most unusual and most enjoyable shows ever produced on Broadway; I hope you enjoy it!

No comments: