Gospel is the embarrassing country cousin of the contemporary music business. Yes, it’s related–common paternity is clear; much of what we know of as rock and soul wouldn’t exist without gospel roots. On the white side, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and other rockabilly pioneers got their start in little country churches; on the black side, there’s Lou Rawls, Wilson Pickett, Solomon Burke, Sam Cooke (The Soul Stirrers) and others too numerous to mention.
Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers
But why do they keep bringing up–religion? And what’s worse, it’s . . . Christianity, that most unfashionable of creeds. And the Southern po’ white or black kind to boot, which features glossolalia (speaking in tongues) and snake-handling?
Fun with snake-handling!
From a historical point of view, the answer is clear; without gospel, we’d all be listening to Pat Boone III and IV. The comfortable middle and upper classes don’t create roots music, they only imitate it. As man’s affluence increases he abandons the irrational; it’s not clear which is cause and which is effect, but upwards mobility accompanies the sloughing off of superstition like a salamander shedding its skin.
Salamander shedding skin: I saw it happen at the Lake of the Ozarks Aquarium!
But music taps into the irrational, as Nietzsche pointed out in The Birth of Tragedy Out of the Spirit of Music. So if you want good music, you’re going to have to put up with the superstitious types who produce it, and the case can be made that even the most jaded, atheist-agnostic of music fans would benefit from modest intake of the crazy wine of religious music. And I don’t mean a sappy encore of Amazing Grace by a bunch of White Punks on Dope.
Nietzsche, groovin’ to some Wagner.
A case in point is Raymond Myles, the protean New Orleans singer-pianist who died in 1998, shot down at the age of 40 as he walked to his Cadillac Escalade. A review of his only studio album expressed the embarrassed misgivings the rock establishment has for its religious roots: “It is out-and-out religious material, be warned.”
Myles was a local New Orleans story about to go national. A protegee of Mahalia Jackson who had recorded his first gospel song at the age of 12, he had opened for Harry Connick, Jr. at Madison Square Garden, and had signed with a major record label, although there had been some question about his wider commercial potential among record execs. He was too “flamboyant,” as Leo Sacks, the producer of his first full-length studio album, A Taste of Heaven, recounts. “Flamboyant” was code for gay.
One recalls Little Richard, another product of gospel who produced seminal secular music. “There’s a lot of pretty girls here tonight,” he would say in between-song chatter at live performances, “and a LOT of pretty boys!” The pansexual side of the black gospel community is at odds with the black ministers who denounce gay marriage, but–to go all Jesse Jackson on you for a moment–denunciation don’t mean refutation.
Myles was a big man with a big voice that he would slim down to a taunting whisper when appropriate. His piano voicings were unusual, with jazz-like colorings. He had a sense of humor that he didn’t turn off once he started playing, recalling another plus-size keyboardist with a jazz sensibility–Fats Waller–who loved a song with a laugh in it: Exhibit A: “Up in Harlem at a table for two, there were four of us; me, your big feets and you” (Your Feet’s Too Big).
Myles’ killer was never found so no motive was established, but those who knew him say he was known to cruise for gay sex in the trappings of his still-moderate success; big car, fancy clothes, a gold front tooth.
A documentary on Myles’ life produced by Leo Sacks, A Taste of Heaven: The Heartbreak Life of Raymond Myles, Gospel Genius of New Orleans, has been in the works for several years, but has yet to be completed as this is written.