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A Heavenly Reference to Chicago’s Gospel Music History

CBR_Logo2A City Called Heaven:
Chicago and the Birth of Gospel Music

by Robert M. Marovich

Transformative artistic movements don’t just appear, fully developed. They arise over time out of a complex web of interconnected people, places, history, circumstance, raw talent, and society’s readiness to accept them.

In A City Called Heaven: Chicago and the Birth of Gospel Music Robert M. Marovich ploughs deep and wide to connect all of Gospel’s variant threads from the late nineteenth through the early twenty-first centuries.

To say that A City Called Heaven is meticulously researched inadequately credits Marovich’s thoroughness. The nearly 150-page-long notes, index, and appendixes section is a good indicator of how much information the author troved and then masterfully knit together. The song index at the book’s conclusion lists about 400 titles, plus the page in the text that each appears.city heaven 9780252080692

This is a who’s who of international stars like Mahalia Jackson, who graces the cover, big congregations, and other major local and national industry players.

But its beauty and practicality as a definitive reference source on Gospel music lies in the book’s additional depth, in the attention also given to the unique contributions of countless small and medium-sized players and their accompanying details. Marovich strives to give credit to everyone—amateur, semi-professional, and professional singers; choir directors; accompanists; songwriters; musicians; quartets and quintets; sheet music arrangers and music publishers; music shop owners; television executives and personalities; and promoters who collectively used live appearances, records, radio, and ultimately television to share Gospel music with Chicagoland, the nation, and the world while developing it into a modern sound.

After a long and arduous, not-always-linear process, the world embraced it.

The text is densely penned, scholarly, and fact-laden. Readers will quickly lose count of the number of names, dates, and places chronicled.

Wondering when singer Albertina Walker’s parents migrated to Chicago from Georgia? Marovich’s got that. (Between 1915 and 1920; she was born in Chicago on Aug. 28, 1929).

Or the date that the Gay Sisters—Evelyn, Mildred, and Geraldine—first recorded with Savoy Records? The cut from that session that reportedly sold a million copies? (March 21, 1951; “God Will Take Care of You”)

How old was Milton Brunson when he organized the Thompson Community Singers in the basement of St. Stephen AME Church? What year was that? How many members were in the original group? And what was the church’s street’s address then? (Nineteen; 1948; 40; 2000 West Washington Blvd.)

A City Called Heaven begins by laying out the parallel journeys of those who ran Chicago’s large, deliberative Protestant churches—that had classically-trained choirs and professional choir directors—and the migrant preachers and street-corner musicians who came from the South during the Great Migration and founded storefront, communal churches that encouraged exuberant congregational participation.

“The worship style of the established protestant churches in the urban north was dramatically different from what migrants practiced down South,” Marovich writes. “The northern worship style tended to reflect the refined tastes of its upwardly mobile middle-class membership.”

“Not finding a comfortable home in the Old Landmarks, migrants created their own ‘islands of southern culture,’ establishing churches that welcomed newcomers and encouraged congregational participation.”

By the 1930s, these two styles became interwoven. Marovich tells you who was behind that—in detail.

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Author Bob Marovich

The author gives special credit to a “nexus” of five people—Thomas Dorsey, Malahia Jackson, Sallie Martin, Theodore Frye, and Magnolia Lewis Butts—for being at the forefront, in the 1920s and ’30s, of the melding of these two styles into a modern Gospel sound that incorporated the best qualities of both—emotive and stirring with deep African roots, but also polished and professional.

By the mid-1930s, “Ebenezer Baptist Church was filled to overflowing whenever its Gospel Chorus sang,” Marovich writes. Moreover, “migrants at other churches were eager to have gospel choruses of their own, and their influence was no longer insubstantial.”

Chicago’s deliberative protestant churches had no choice but to acknowledge Gospel’s popularity. If they were to grow their congregational ranks, they had to have a Gospel choir.

“… if indigenous folk music could help increase membership and tithing, it could not be ignored.”

In any industry, rising stars need to know someone who can get them a gig, or just encourage their emerging talent. In the twentieth century, if you were in Chicago and wanted to rise in the Gospel music industry, the people you needed to back you were often right down the street—worshiping every Sunday at your church or at a church within a few blocks’ radius. Mahalia Jackson, for instance, worked as a demonstrator for Dorsey, singing his sheet music compositions on Bronzeville street corners beginning in 1930 and later travelling the country with him “as one of his chief demonstrators.”

A City Called Heaven is a rich timeline of firsts, including groundbreaking moments like the formation of the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses, which still exists today, at Pilgrim Baptist Church in Chicago in 1933.

Important mentions include that in 1926, classically trained singer and pianist Arizona Dranes recorded the first Gospel record at Chicago’s OKeh studios.

Marovich follows the evolution of Gospel’s accompaniment as first piano and then organ, guitar, and then drums backed singers. Similarly, the author traces the rise of gospel choirs in Chicago churches, followed by a move in the 1940s and ’50s to quartets and other small groups, and finally the movement back toward large choruses.

And Marovich traces the career trajectory of Gospel singers like Sam Cooke, who crossed the controversial line into secular music, which artists often did as a way of financially supporting themselves and their families. Born in Mississippi, Cooke migrated to Chicago with his family in the 1930s and went onto sing with Gospel groups like the Soul Stirrers. He founded commercial success in secular tunes like 1957’s “You Send Me.”

Finally, as the twentieth century progressed, Gospel stars from Chicago became part of the historical fabric of the Civil Rights Movement. Mahalia Jackson sang at both the 1963 March on Washington and at the 1968 funeral of Dr. Martin Lutheran King, Jr.

A City Called Heaven is a Bible of where Gospel and has been, where it’s going, and who’s been at the wheel in a century of melding and shaping. An essential new reference.

Four-Star Review

April 2015, University of Illinois Press
History/Music
$29.95, paperback, 488 pages
ISBN: 978-0-252-08069-2

—Reviewed by Karyn Saemann

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Music + Communism: A Love Story

CBR_Logo2The Orphan Sky
A Novel
by Ella Leya

In the broad scope of an epic journey, Ella Leya’s The Orphan Sky begins with a fairy-tale innocence, a picture-perfect world of a privileged child with a rose-colored gloss of naiveté standing between her and communism. Leila is a piano protégé and the daughter of near-royalty in Azerbaijan. Her parents and her community shield her and groom her to be a good communist daughter, an international star, and a comrade who shows the Western world the ideal product of communism. Sent on a mission to test her loyalties, Leila meets Tahir, a boy who knows what truth is.

orphan sky 9781402298653Leila makes for a remarkable heroine because she isn’t one in any of the traditional senses. She makes choices that lead her down unheroic and anticlimactic paths. She abandons and betrays those she loves to save her own skin, more than once. She doesn’t seem particularly smart, and her innocence is the product of blindness to the world around her. It is not until her story is nearly exhausted with highs and lows that propel the plot forward at suspense-genre speeds that the reader comes to understand that Leila is real. She is not a heroine to place upon a pedestal, but she is a survivor who patches together a soul after it is slowly and systematically ripped apart by her crumbling world.

Author Ella Leya, a composer, native of Azerbaijan, and current Chicagoan, keeps a tight ship. Many avenues open up where she could have dwindled and dove into character history that would have weighed down the story. Leya is a writer made of sterner stuff, and she does not succumb to this all-too-common error. Instead she paints sweeping portraits of the culture and people of Baku in the 1970s. Enough backstory exists to secure the reader’s understanding of the plot, but Leya does not rely on past events to build her characters. She builds them in real time with the pace of her novel. This allows readers to become intimate with the characters, however uncomfortable that intimacy might make them feel.

There are no easy outs in The Orphan Sky. Each corner the plot turns strikes chords of realism, avoiding clichés and making unpopular decisions. These chords resound throughout the novel in a beautifully rendered, dark and modern fairy tale, more aligned with the darkness found with the Brothers Grimm than Cinderella. Leya leaves treasures of folk tales along the way, just a melancholy line here or a brief tale there, that link her characters to a bigger world and a fuller past.

The Orphan Sky carries its sadness well. The dark times do not dim the passages of a nearly pristine light; rather, they brighten them even more. While students of music may rejoice in the soulful descriptions of Mozart and Bach, those who simply enjoy listening along to the rhythms can feel and see Leila playing as well. The passages that describe her ascent to the stage, walking into the spotlight, and, instead of being overwhelmed with fear, owning the fear and the stage, place moments of climax throughout the story that build suspense in chapters that could have fallen flat. The moments of music outlive the moments of heartache, each as poignant and authentic as the next and each leaving the reader feeling full.

Leila and her antihero Tahir each need something from the other. Leila needs to see her music in colors and vibrant scenes. Tahir needs rhythms of jazz to carry his brushstrokes. While Leila and Tahir need colors to play and music to paint, so too does The Orphan Sky need readers to think. The story engages active readers who appreciate an intricate work of literature, and it rewards them with a wealth of suspense and intrigue, not to mention a swoon-worthy love story. Ella Leya reaches to the heart with The Orphan Sky, a grasp that’s not likely to let go of its reader for some time.

Four-Star Review

February 2015, Sourcebooks
Fiction
$24.99, hardcover, 336 pages
ISBN: 978-1-4022-9865-3

—Reviewed by Mindy M. Jones

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One for the Road

CBR_Logo2Song of the Fool:
On the Road with Stephen Kellogg
and the Sixers
by Hunter Sharpless

As a nineteen-year-old college student, Hunter Sharpless emails the manager of a little-known band and pitches to her a proposal: He would spend a few months on the road with them during one of their cross-country tours and write a book about them and his experience. Sharpless is surprised when he not only gets a response at all, but that the response is, in general, encouraging. He is even more surprised when, ultimately, he is invited to join the band on the road.

So begins Sharpless’s musical and literary odyssey, which he recounts in Song of the Fool, part tribute, part music biography, part travelogue, part diary, part memoir.

sotf-front-coverThis thin volume is arranged in five parts, each part focusing on one of the four band members of Stephen Kellogg and the Sixers as well as on its manager. The book begins with Stephen Kellogg (aka “Skunk”), the leader and frontman of the band, whose roots are on the East Coast. Kellogg features prominently throughout the book, even those parts ostensibly dedicated to his bandmates. Perhaps this is because he is the frontman, perhaps because he might have a larger personality than the others, perhaps because the author might feel closest to him.

In focusing the book on each member of the band and its manager, Song of the Fool unfolds as glimpses into relationships with these individuals, four guys and one woman of varying ages from varying places, but all of whom are dedicated to the band and its music. Sharpless is, in more ways than one, the odd ball out. Not only is he only vaguely familiar with the Sixers when he pitches his road-trip idea, but he is not much of a musician to speak of, has never been on the road, and is far younger than the youngest band member.

And, yet, he somehow fits in. The members of the band become something like older brothers, guys in whom Sharpless sometimes confides, who sometimes confide in him. During their months on the road, they share stories about women, wine, and song. They share hotel rooms. They share cramped quarters in a dingy van nicknamed “The Bear.” It seems only natural that a certain intimacy would develop; indeed, it would have been odd if something like friendship hadn’t developed during the months-long, cross-country road trip.

Sharpless, who lives in Naperville, captures those relationships, noting how they evolve over the weeks and months they all share on the road. He tells, for instance, of his affection for “Goose,” of his fear of “Boots,” and of his admiration of Skunk. We feel Sharpless’s self-conscious awkwardness as he struggles to find his place among the band members, a temporary interloper who is not quite reporter, not quite groupie. We feel his youthful naïveté as he muddles his way through pick-up lines, watching as Boots ends up with the women he eyes while Goose urges him on. We feel his frustration when, after long drives and sleepless nights, he bickers with band manager Jessica about taking inventory of merchandise the band sells during its gigs.

Song of the Fool also serves as something of a backstage pass, revealing the band when it’s not performing, chronicling the hours spent in that cramped van, nights in mid-priced hotels, and poorly attended performances held in small music venues. We see the band loading and unloading and loading equipment again and again. We see them driving hours on end from one gig to the next, stopping at brightly lit gas stations in the middle of the night, tanking up on gas and filling up on Pop-Tars. We see them goofing around, witness to the brotherly banter of friends and musicians who have known each other for a long time.

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Author Hunter Sharpless

What we don’t necessarily see, however, is much of a revelation or turning point that marks Sharpless’s journey as a young man or as a writer. We don’t necessarily see Sharpless evolve from awkward, unsure nineteen-year-old to a more confident, mature version of himself. We don’t necessarily see what drives Sharpless to take this strange trip or what he ultimately got out of it.

Although an interesting travelogue of a band on the road, Song of the Fool could have gone much deeper, reporting not just on the Sixers and their behind-the-scenes antics but examining more closely what this strange trip meant for and did to Sharpless. That’s not to say that this debut work is without merit. There is some honest, raw feeling here. There are some well-written scenes that expertly capture place and time and mood. But in the end, some readers might still wonder what Sharpless’s intentions were with this book. Was it to see what it would be like to travel across the country in a cramped van with a bunch of strangers? Was it to explore America in an unusual way? Or, was it just to write a book? Any book? To write a book so that Sharpless could, indeed, call himself an author rather than just an aspiring wrier?

Song of the Fool leaves the reader wondering what Sharpless hoped to get out of this adventure, but that doesn’t mean the book isn’t worth the read. Although this is no Almost Famous, fans of Stephen Kellogg and the Sixers will appreciate the backstage pass into the often lonely, sometimes silly off-stage world that colors the lives of so many musicians. Readers who are curious about what writers go through when aching to become published also will find some unique insight in these pages. Whether this Song is music to everyone’s ears, though, is, perhaps, another matter.

Two-Star Review

September 2014, Resource Publications/Wipf & Stock Publishers
Memoir/Music
$19, paperback, 147 pages
ISBN: 978-1-4982-0072-1

—Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen

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