IT WAS DARK inside Phillips Temple C.M.E. (Colored Methodist Episcopal) Church, except for the light coming from the stage. The church, in the black part of Berkeley, had previously been one of those cavernous old movie theaters. It seated 1,500 people and on this Easter Day, 1972, it looked full. The pianist was alone onstage, pounding out the opening with those glistening, ravishing gospel chords. In a little while we started singing, wordlessly and low – over a hundred of us standing in the lobby that late morning, ready to enter the church’s dark interior. “Ooh-ooh-ooh-ooooh-ooh-oooooooh … ooh-ooh-ooh-ooooh-ooh-oooooooh …” We were three gospel choirs massed as one – two all-black church choirs, and California State University at Hayward’s Afro-American Ensemble, which included a smattering of whites, including me.
The crowd could hear us inside, of course – that was the point, to build up the anticipation, the drama. We made them wait, and then, after the pianist signaled loudly and urgently on the keyboard, we came in, one by one, through the curtains at the back, starting up the aisles in a slow, rhythmic march, singing full out, “We’ve come to pra-a-aise his na-a-a-a-me! We’ve come to pra-a-aise his na-a-a-a-me!” Over and over, until we all made it to the stage and onto the risers. People in the audience were getting up out of their seats, applauding and calling out. Some of those near the aisles turned around to see us, shouting encouragement and reaching out to pat our arms and squeeze our hands as we went by. Choir and congregation together, we filled that great, dark space with glory.
In my mind I still often sing that song, and still replay that scene, 45 years later. I’m an aged Jewish dad living in an Israeli suburb, and on my way to and from work I’m likely to be going crazy in the driver’s seat listening to The Five Blind Boys of Mississippi, or the O’Neal Twins, or the Abyssinian Baptist Church Choir or whoever. I love all kinds of music but nothing gets in my blood like gospel. White gospel is gorgeous, too, but black gospel is the ultimate. I don’t think I was aware of that when I joined the college choir; R&B had always been my favorite music, I grew up on Motown and it went on from there, and I knew, of course, that all the great soul singers came out of the church, and that gospel was the source of their music. But I didn’t go out of my way to listen to gospel, and I certainly didn’t know what it was like to sing in a gospel choir.
It turned out to be not just a musical experience. I also saw people giving themselves to a freedom, an abandon, a wild ecstasy that I’d never known, and that still has a pull on me. I never joined a cult in the ‘70s, but I couldn’t help feeling some envy for those people who, as the saying went, seemed to be high on life, whose minds had reached a freer, certainly more joyous plateau than mine. I just couldn’t cut the rope; I couldn’t surrender my independence of mind, and didn’t want to. It was the same thing with gospel in this way – I had no desire to become a Christian, I just loved the music, and so I had no problem singing about Jesus because I knew I wasn’t going to “get the spirit” and lose control. But in those churches I saw people losing control, and I wanted that to happen to me, too, or at least something close to it – just without the Jesus part.
Then there was my lifelong affinity for black people. Part love, part adulation, part pity. I’d gone to school with them, played ball with them, fought and laughed with them, worked with them, known some of them very well, but ultimately I’d lived in a white, notably Jewish, America, apart from theirs. In culture and style, they were magic. I’d always wanted to get closer to them – but I’d also wanted to go on being who I was.
IN THE CHURCHES and halls where we sang I saw people screaming and crying, writhing on the ground. Once, when I was watching a choir from the audience, a song ended as they often did, with the energy cranked up so high that nobody could bear for it to end, so the music just kept going, the singers no longer singing but shouting, the piano player bashing the chords with all his strength, people in the audience falling out – and at one point the men’s section of the choir shuffled off the risers, their feet moving incomprehensibly, inhumanly fast. Their feet were moving something like mine do in my happiest of dreams, the ones where I find myself gliding down a staircase or escalator with a freedom and grace that I have known only in my sleep. There was one white guy among them and he went off the risers self-consciously in little clumping steps in time with the music; there was no way he could do that otherworldly shuffling thing. How could he? He wasn’t raised in a black gospel church.
In our college choir there were six whites and one Japanese-American along with about 20 blacks. The early ‘70s were a time of black militancy, but not at nondescript, vibeless Cal State Hayward. There was no black-white tension on campus, and so none in the Afro-American Ensemble. But then it wasn’t just the campus; it was also the particular black students in the choir: Nearly all had grown up in the church and many were still in it, so they were not likely to be black militants and tended to be very good-natured, friendly people (though by no means goody two-shoes types). I never felt a trace of antagonism from any of them because I was white; the pecking order in the choir was based only on musical talent, with Gregory Green at the top, in a class by himself, then Johnny, then Linda (more about them later), then the other soloists, then everybody else, including me.
What brought us six whites and one Asian to the choir? Two of the girls, as far as I knew, just liked the music and probably saw it as an exciting, exotic experience, which is basically what drew me. One guy was a recent exile from a Christian monastery looking for a new spiritual route. The Japanese-American boy was a piano player and singer, and in with the choir leaders. Then there was the fellow who’d gone clumping off the risers; it seemed the main if not only reason he was there was to look after his wife Linda, who was another story altogether.
A Christian like her husband, she was a soloist in our choir as well as in the Voices of Christ, both of which were directed by Helen Stephens, one of the leading lights in the history of Northern California gospel. Linda was an extraordinary singer, and blind. She sang as simply as could be, right on the beat, not changing or adding a note, no improvisation, just singing it straight every time – and once her singing literally made me shiver, which I can’t remember any other music ever accomplishing. She had a thin soprano that sounded fragile, yet didn’t break. Her voice had purity and innocence – and she killed audiences, black and white. Okay, maybe she got a point or two for blindness, but it can’t be we were all just imagining that tenderness and vulnerability, that beauty, and reacting the way we did because she was blind. The proof was on the Voices of Christ’s second album, “Fill My Cup,” with Linda singing the title song as evocatively as ever, and on record you didn’t know she was blind. I don’t know where she was from, but she sang “white,” musically and verbally, in a completely black musical setting, and there was no problem, no clash of styles at all. Her singing was so pure I think it would have fit in anywhere.
But a couple of years later I heard the Voices of Christ’s third album, “I’m Glad,” again with Linda singing the title song – and it was a disaster. Suddenly she was trying to sing black. She was playing around with the melody, she put a bit of the South into her pronunciation, she was trying to wail, she threw in “yes he did” a few times – and it was so inauthentic. She was trying to give the impression of being spontaneous, of surrendering to the freedom of the black way of singing – and every trill and every “yes he did” sounded rehearsed. Was this her idea? I can’t believe it was Mrs. Stephens’ idea; she was too serious, she had no tolerance for gimmicks and nonsense. But for whatever reason, Linda, the most real singer you could ever hear, started singing like an imitation black person. She couldn’t be herself, couldn’t stay herself, in that surrounding. Not even Linda.
NEITHER COULD TIM, the Japanese-American boy. He’d be rehearsing his solo with the choir and start wailing “oh lawd,” and it was just wrong. He’d get into the song and start carrying on at the microphone like Mick Jagger or somebody, and Mrs. Stephens would have to stop him – gospel singers, certainly hers, sang it very upright and dignified.
The ex-monk, whose name I forget, was about the squarest young man in the San Francisco Bay Area of the early ‘70s – short hair, straight-legged pants, a placid smile always on his plain-featured face, a perpetually pleasant, earnest man in his 30s starting over, trying to find his way, and he’d come looking in the Afro-American Ensemble. At first he tried to convert me to Christianity – he’d tell me what was coming over him, how in all those years as a monk he’d had to keep his vow of silence, and now he felt like a baby learning to talk, he was becoming a whole new person, a Christian in a way he’d never been before, he was discovering joy. After awhile, though, he changed. He’d attached himself to some of the young black people in the choir, and it turns out they were very cynical about religion, the church and its leaders – and the ex-monk adopted their attitudes and language. Now he no longer believed in Jesus or any other God. He denigrated the black preachers as phonies or “fags.” He’d begun to curse. One day he told me with that glowing smile of his that “nobody loves their children like a black man.” All right. So the ex-monk bit the dust, too – like me, he was drawn to this world because of its unsurpassed beauty and freedom, but ultimately he had to erase himself, or felt he did, to become a part of it.
Where was I in all this? I was one of the hoi polloi, a baritone with a pretty good voice, but that was it. My moment of glory came when Mrs. Stephens asked me to sing a couple of bars to see if I was getting it right, and I sang, and one of the black girls said, “Ooh, you’ve got a pretty voice.” Once I somehow got the crazy idea to suggest to Gregory Green, in passing, that I’d like to do a solo some time, maybe “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” the “Negro national anthem.” We were standing in a school rest room and as I recall, he smiled and said, “Yeah, that’d be great,” and headed out the door.
As for the spiritual or emotional side of gospel singing, I have to admit I was very pleased when, during the time he was trying to convert me, the ex-monk said he could see from the expression on my face that I was being carried away up there in the choir, and so why not take one more step and accept Christ? A couple of my friends who came to one of the concerts said the same thing – not about accepting Christ, but about the visible effect the music was having on me while I sang. All right, so I wasn’t Sam Cooke, but I wasn’t a completely hopeless, stiff-assed white boy, either; I did have at least a little bit of soul.
OUR COLLEGE CHOIR wasn’t as good as the Voices of Christ, who had about twice as many singers as we did (and who, as far as I’m concerned, were even better than the Southern California Community Choir, which was the headliner at that Easter concert I described, and was chosen by Aretha Franklin as the choir for her legendary “Amazing Grace” album, and was led by the premier gospel music figure of his generation, Rev. James Cleveland). But we were real good. We sang at churches around the Bay Area, and we shook those congregations, some of them white, some integrated. We lifted them like they weren’t used to being lifted. “You can come back any time you want,” a church leader said at the end of our concert, and the congregation laughed because it was such an understatement. We’d lit a fire in that place.
Our closing number was “Witness for My Lord,” with Johnny, a talented all-around musician and the unofficial class president, singing lead. By the end of the song, it was like we were flying: “My soul is a witness … my soul is a witness … my soul is a witness for my Lo-o-o-o-o-o-rd!” We had several soloists who were every bit as good as most R&B singers you’d hear on the radio. But Gregory Green was on a different level entirely. I don’t know if he wrote and arranged songs, and even if he did I’m sure he wasn’t as good at it as Stevie Wonder – but he was a better singer and a better pianist than Stevie Wonder. He sang baritone and tenor with equal genius, and did a brilliant falsetto, too. Power, grace, warmth, verve that reached ecstatic dimensions – he was the best singer I’ve ever heard, certainly up close.
Once we sang at Cal State Hayward’s main auditorium, which seated several hundred, and Gregory was at the piano, playing and singing “The Name of Jesus,” and the microphone went out. He just carried on singing without it – and it was like you could see his vibrato rolling out into the audience. He didn’t look like a star – thin and plain-featured with short-cropped hair and a hint of a mustache. He didn’t act like one, either, being awfully well-behaved and friendly. But around Mrs. Stephens he had this naughtiness about him – he’d obviously grown up as the golden boy of the church choir, adored by all the matrons, and it left its mark on him. He felt at home in gospel music. I have no idea what happened to Gregory. I’ve checked from time to time, and as far as I know he didn’t become a professional gospel or R&B singer; I like to think that whatever day job he held in the decades after college, he went on making magic in a church somewhere.
AS FOR ME, things would take a bad turn. The only reason I was going to college was to please my father, and one day I went to campus high on marijuana, the first time I’d ever done that, and, being under the influence, it became so palpable to me how much I hated being there, and I took myself to the administration building and dropped out of Cal State Hayward. I was miserable, lost, loveless, balled up inside. I started dropping in and out of college and working menial jobs, trying my hand at acting, getting nowhere. I’d studied journalism and done some freelance articles in the past, and one day I saw a notice that gave me an idea for one. Rev. Milton Perry, whom I’d never heard of, was coming to the Los Angeles Convention Center for a revival meeting – with special guest Rev. James Cleveland. I would go there as a writer, but at the same time I was tempted by the possibility that I would end up – to a limited, safe extent – being a participant, too.
On revival night in the sterile, harshly-lit conference room, there weren’t more than 20 people in the audience, all of them black. Cleveland opened the meeting with a song, which he prefaced by telling his listeners, “It’s not about Milton Perry, it’s not about James Cleveland, it’s about giving praise to Jesus.” The biggest name in gospel music showed up to sing and preach humility to an audience of 20 people.
Then Perry started preaching and singing in front of an instrumental trio, and soon the spirit started moving in the audience. A stiff, seemingly repressed black woman of about 40 sat by herself in a prim blue suit, looking like Shirley Chisholm or a Salvation Army lady. She didn’t move a muscle for the first 15 minutes or so – and then, in an instant, as the chords of the organ rose, she lost her mind, exploding out of her seat, shrieking like she was being slaughtered, convulsing violently and helplessly. It took a good while for her to calm down, with the help of a couple of other believers who’d gotten down on the floor with her to make sure she didn’t hurt herself. Afterward, she didn’t look so stiff or repressed anymore. She looked like she’d had history’s greatest orgasm, which in a way might have been what she’d had.
PERRY’S ASSISTANT TOOK over at the podium, telling the audience that at the end of the night the reverend would be calling people up who were suffering, and he’d heal them. “That young man in the blue shirt – I know you’ve had your eye on him, Reverend,” the assistant said. He was talking about me. Why did he single me out? I don’t think it had anything to do with my being white, it was the misery I’m sure I was projecting, one brought to the surface by all the shedding of misery and rising of joy in the room.
In a little while, the sermon and songs over, people started lining up to get healed. There weren’t many of us, and I’d been chosen especially for this gift, plus I was the only white person there, so what was I going to do – say, “No, that’s all right, I’m fine, you just go ahead without me”? It would be such an affront, such a betrayal of our instant fellowship, and such a mood-killer – I couldn’t do it. So I waited my turn. Perry was telling people one after another that they had agonizing pain in their legs, they had a debilitating intestinal disease, they were suffering terrible guilt and sorrow, and one by one they nodded their heads yes, many of the women crying. Then Perry told each one that they had to give their lives to Jesus, and were they ready to do that? And when they nodded or cried that they were, he suddenly smacked his palm on their forehead, and they fell to the ground, writhing, whimpering, wailing.
Now it was my turn. “Go on up there,” those around me urged. With everyone’s eyes on me, I stood before Reverend Perry – and felt absolutely nothing. I think he must have sensed that because he looked a little puzzled – he couldn’t get a line on me, couldn’t get a vibe about any ailing part of my body, which was an accurate reading because nothing was wrong with me physically, I was just visibly miserable and lost. So he worked with that. “You’re searching for your path, you haven’t found it. You have a great work ahead of you – but you have to make a very strong decision for Christ,” he told me. And I nodded my head. Then he slapped his palm on my forehead – and what was I going to do? I fell to the floor and started writhing and kicking my legs; maybe I made some noise, I don’t remember. After a decent amount of time, two or three minutes, I stopped kicking, lay there until they started helping me up and congratulating me on letting Jesus into my life. I thanked them, tried to look beatific, sat around until it was over, shook some hands and left.
That’s one journalistic article I sure as shit never wrote. And it was the last time I toyed with the flame of spiritual surrender, because I really do not want that fire to consume me, so who was I trying to fool?
SOME YEARS LATER I started to settle down – gave up acting, became a journalist, a supposedly serious person. I even became less miserable. But gospel music still drove me crazy. In the early ‘80s I went to a concert at the Greek Theater to hear the Walter Hawkins Singers and Al Green, who was then singing strictly gospel. Once again I was by myself, this time not the only white person in the crowd, but one of the very, very few. It was a midweek night, so the adult, workaday audience was pretty low-key. Walter Hawkins couldn’t rouse them, and Al Green hardly tried – until the last couple of songs. Al Green is a volcano, and when he finally erupted, I found myself jumping up out of my seat and shouting “yeah!” and “all right!” with everybody else. No playacting, no pretending to be anyone but who I was, no faking of unruly passion. Maybe that’s all the spiritual experience I was ever really looking for.
The last time I heard gospel music in person was before Christmas in 2005, in Israel, on the Jordan River near the Sea of Galilee at a place called Yardenit, where hundreds of thousands of Christians go every year to get baptized. I went there to write a story about the scene, but you didn’t have to have a special attraction to religious ecstasy to be affected by the spirit at that place. Congregations from Mississippi, New Jersey, India, Colombia and elsewhere were wearing white robes, waiting their turn to wade in and be reborn. As the members of a Toronto church, a thoroughly integrated procession of blacks and whites, entered the water in silence, the church’s trio of black gospel singers sang them on their way. It was sunset, and the hundreds of people sitting on benches waiting to go in stopped what they were doing and listened or sang along. I started singing too, out loud and free:
Precious Jesus, sweet rose of Sharon,
There’s peace and triumph when we speak His name.
Loving savior, my sunshine in the midnight,
My guiding star that’s shining all the day.
Since then, the only gospel music I hear is on recordings, usually when I’m driving alone. I’m standing up on the risers with the choir. The piano and organ sound the opening chords and they go right through you. In the darkness the audience is ready, they want it. The choir director looks at me, and I start making my way down through the rows of singers, who are shouting words of encouragement at me. I reach the stage and walk up to the microphone. The crowd is fired up. It’s Larry Derfner, the white phenomenon of black gospel music. They love me, they accept me as one of them. And we sound like heaven.