Gospel music at St. Stephen's and Calvary Baptist

A seven-minute stretch of repeating the phrase “I just can’t stop”

St. Stephen's

“Those of you who don’t go to church, don’t think we’re funny when we clap and shout,” said Ann Murray to us who had come to hear an afternoon of gospel music. “’Cause when we get to clapping and shouting and so on, all we’re doing is what the Lord wants us to do.”

Two or three voices said ‘‘Amen" to that.

One of the emcees of the show, Murray went on to introduce the first act while some members of the audience walked up and down the aisles between the rows of folding chairs, greeting friends, chatting with neighbors. The rental hall, which was next to a church on Franklin Avenue in Southeast San Diego, looked more like a gym than an auditorium. On the hardwood floor, two basketball courts were outlined in red, and on the walls two sets of backboards and rims were bolted to padded braces. From the windows high on one wall, bright yellow light slanted on part of the audience and brightened Sunday suits and gowns.

Spiritual Kings, 1949: Edward Graves, Willie Ross, Exton Hullaby (top row), Marvin C. Hine, Willie Pitts (bottom)

Spiritual Kings, 1949: Edward Graves, Willie Ross, Exton Hullaby (top row), Marvin C. Hine, Willie Pitts (bottom)

The concert, to quote from the flier that had circulated for weeks before, was to be a “Sensational Spiritual Musical,” presented by the Mighty Gospel Revelators, a local group of fourteen years’ standing, whose guests would be the Mighty Kings of Harmony, from San Bernardino; the Soul-ettes, from Los Angeles; and the Miltenettes and the Imperials, both from Las Vegas. Of these, only two groups expected to be paid for the concert, and their fee was only $200 per group, for gas and expenses. The admission price was just four dollars at the door, or three dollars for a ticket bought beforehand at Dean’s Record City, the Queen May Beauty Shop, or Geno’s Drive Thru Bar-b-cue. The price had been lowered from five dollars in hope of attracting more people. This afternoon’s turnout looked to be about 150, not counting, however, all the performers who sat with the audience.

After Murray’s introduction, the Mighty Gospel Revelators came out of a side door on stage and opened their set with “God Has'Smiled On Me,” a cut from their next album. Immediately the audience began clapping along to the heavy beat, which managed to be solemn and lively at the same time. “God has smiled on me/ He has set me free/ God has smiled on me/ He’s been good to me/ A lamp unto my path is He/ Without Him I would fall/ I don’t know what He is to you/ Oh, but He is my all and all.”

C.W. Dean, Exton Hullaby today

C.W. Dean, Exton Hullaby today

The Revelators perform in a style which many people would characterize as Motown, with the lead singer accompanied by tight harmonies from the back-up group, who stand to one side. The Revelators would characterize their style as gospel. The back-up singers, all of whom wore almond-colored three-piece suits with pink shirts and brown ties, were Lester Logan, Sr., who is the founder of the group; Clifford Robinson, who also plays rhythm guitar; and Millard Stacy, the utility man who can sing baritone, tenor, or a slightly higher tenor called fifth voice. Stacy came to the group of late when one of the original members, Sammy Graham, became the pastor of a small church in Arizona. Graham sings with the Revelators on special occasions and intended to join them today, but had called to say that his van had broken down in El Centro. Standing behind the back-up trio was the band, which consisted of a lead guitarist, bass guitarist, and drummer.

The lead singer, Osefine Washington, is a tall, full-bodied baritone with a gold-capped tooth, and was wearing a brown plaid business suit. As he sang, looking sometimes out to the audience and sometimes down at his feet, he held one hand on high and opened it, palm out, whenever he gave more expression to his voice. By the time they’d finished the number, a woman in the second row who was wearing a lustrous white dress was also standing with hands raised high, swaying and singing along. Cynically, I thought she was one of the other performers who was waiting her chance to go on, and was out in front to support the opening act so that they would support her when her time came, but I was wrong. She never got on stage; she was only one of us.

Mighty Gospel Revelators: Lestor Logan, Sammy Graham, Clifford Robinson, Osefine Washington

Mighty Gospel Revelators: Lestor Logan, Sammy Graham, Clifford Robinson, Osefine Washington

“People ask me,” said Washington when the song was over, his hand held up to stop the applause. “People ask me, ‘How come you go on singin ’ after twenty-six years? Don’t you get tired? How can you do it?’ And I say, ‘No question about bein’ tired — I just can’t stop. I can’t stop singin’ and praisin’ the Lord.’ ”

Washington came to San Diego twenty-six years ago and has been singing with gospel groups ever since, not for strut or trade, but because he and his fellow singers see themselves as performing a ministry through their music. A group like the Revelators is the bedrock of gospel. The members’ common interest is church. “You go to church and you sing, and afterward you talk to people about singin’, and then people get together on their own and sing, and that’s how a group gets formed,” said Logan, explaining how he formed the Revelators. Even when it charges for performances, the group makes, at best, only gas money. Neither have the two albums recorded by the Revelators made them rich or famous. The singers have daytime jobs to support their families: Logan supervises the laundry at the naval base exchange in National City; Robinson inspects aircraft groundwork at North Island Naval Air Station; Stacy is a postal worker; Washington is a foreman with the city’s Parks and Recreation Department. Over the years, the singers have performed in Oakland, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas; in Arizona, in Texas, and in their home states of Florida, West Virginia, and Mississippi, where singing and preaching have traditionally been one and the same.

Rev. George McKinney:  “I’m not very musical myself — though all of my five sons are.”

Rev. George McKinney: “I’m not very musical myself — though all of my five sons are.”

On the night before this recent concert in Southeast San Diego, the Revelators had played at the Marine prison on Camp Pendleton. They played outdoors on wrestling mats laid down for them in the prison’s courtyard, with a few dozen inmates seated in front. During a break in the music, the inmates heard the chaplain’s obligatory sermon, but from the Revelators’ point of view, the music was itself the message. “We sing gospel because we love it,” Washington had told me a few days before going up to Camp Pendleton. “We love it, and that comes through to the people who hear it, and then they start listenin’ to the message, and they let the music guide them away from the way they been goin ’ and into the right road from then on.”

A paradox, on the other hand, is that the beat and bump of gospel music have been known to take the performers from the “right road” and put them in the fast lane of stardom. The young musicians who play behind the Revelators, for instance, don’t sound as though they’ve learned all their tunes from Broadman’s or the New National Baptist hymnals. “All these guys tryin’ to sound like George Benson and Wes Montgomery,” said Robinson, the Revelator who plays rhythm guitar. He cocked his head toward the musicians who were tuning up one Monday evening at the Revelators’ regular rehearsal, which takes place in the Friendship Hall next to the New Hope Friendship Baptist Church on Harrison Street, near the Coronado Bay Bridge.

Rev. Glenn Jones:  "Gospel music is as sacred to the black church as the Gregorian chant and the anthem are to the white church.”

Rev. Glenn Jones: "Gospel music is as sacred to the black church as the Gregorian chant and the anthem are to the white church.”

“I don't blame these guys for wantin’ to sound contemporary,” said Robinson. “I use a lot of jazz chords myself; I like a kind of jazzy sound, but we draw the line at guys who try to play our style of gospel and make it sound like the blues. The bluesy sound don’t go with gospel; it’s just no way the same.”

Washington stepped over to hear what Robinson was saying. “Now, this guy,” said Robinson, teasing, “this guy don’t even go for a little jazz. He’s a pretty hard person to swing with. You could be going along, thinking you doing great, and he’s got his nose turned up.”

Washington, who was smiling, just kept on smiling. He said that a number of rock and roll musicians have gotten their training behind the Revelators, and nodded toward the young lead guitarist who was rehearsing with the group that night for the first time. “Once they get good, they move on out, and we take another guy in. It don’t matter if he’s not too good, ’cause we can teach him to play our way.”

“The thing is.” added Robinson, “we rely on spirit to help us perform our music. That’s how gospel is. A lot of it don’t take that much training; if you can feel it, you can play it. But to play in rock and roll, you got to be good, and so the kids go to gospel music for training.”

That was a generous thing to say, given the feeling among bedrock gospel folk that performers who leave gospel to play in nightclubs are cutting themselves off from their religious as well as their musical training. Washington remembers sharing a bill in San Diego in the late 1950s with a group called the Soul Stirrers. They were one of several big-time gospel groups — among them, the Pilgrim Travelers and the Dixie Hummingbirds — who came through town in the Forties and Fifties. The Soul Stirrers’ lead singer was Sam Cooke, who later became a rock and roll crooner (“You Send Me”), and who came to no good. “The way I heard it,” said Washington, “was he was killed by his lady-friend in a motel in Los Angeles. He was outside her door, in the hallway, trying to get in, and she shot him through the door.”

Washington stopped and seemed to look hard at something in the distance. “I was offered a chance to leave gospel and go into rock, but to tell the truth, I never could sing it. Somebody else maybe thought I could, but I knew better, ’cause I knew I didn’t feel it. Now, Jesus I can sing about because I know Him. personally.”

St. Stephen's

St. Stephen's

With all sincerity, Washington believes the music he sings has given him a better life. ‘ The songs do something to you where you are better able to endure,” he said. “Whatever people say to you, whatever they may do, you can meet them with a smile, take things as they come — look around and take a joke.”

He said that not long after he'd come to San Diego from the South, in 1958, with his wife and two children, he was out of work, and was determined not to go home to his mother, who had warned him against coming West and had as much as told him that he was not going to establish himself.

“I’d get up in the morning, see my wife and kids waitin’ on me,” he said, “and I’d go out, no jobs to be had, and come home and lay out listenin’ to songs on records. I remember one night the name of it was, “Through the Years I Keep on Toiling,” and it says: “Through the years I keep on toiling/ Through the storms and the rain/ Patiently waiting on my savior/ To come again/1 am waiting on You, Lord/I am trusting on Your word/ And when the gates swing open/ I will walk in.’ “And the next morning I have an idea to go to the civic center. And when I get down there they have already taken all the applications for the day. But I say to the person there, ‘May 1 see the supervisor?’ And out she comes: Miss Moore.

“And I say, I know you’re not supposed to take more applications, but would it be so bad to stretch it some for me this time?’

“And she said, ‘Surely not.’

“And from that application I started my twenty-two years with the city, for which I’m now up for senior supervisor. And whatever people may say, I know I couldn’t have done it but the way I did, through these songs that I have come to know all my life.”

The acquaintance began when Washington was a boy in West Point, Mississippi, a rail junction serving cotton lands on the state’s eastern plain. Four missionary sisters — that is, local women doing good works for the church — asked young Washington to help them with the services they conducted on the hill farms round about. One of his first memories is that of setting off along the red dirt roads, at dusk, to round up other boys for a makeshift choir. Later he had some instruction in singing with the glee club of Northside High, in West Point, but never learned to read music.

Church music was practically all he knew, and all one needed to know in West Point to be an entertainer. When the choir met at church to practice, an audience came, too. When Washington and friends got together to sing at his house, neighbors came to sit on the porch, and neighbors up and down the road sat out on their porches, until the music was over and everyone went to bed. It wasn’t until later years, when Washington had moved to San Diego and had begun to sing with various small groups, that he came to think of himself as a gospel singer. Before that he’d been a singer, period, whose training and repertoire had come from his Baptist church.

During Washington’s childhood and youth (he was born in 1934), the term “gospel” was just beginning to represent a style of interpretation brought to black church music and singing. Before then the term “spiritual” music applied to the sorrow songs created by enslaved Southern blacks, or sometimes adapted from English-American hymns and rendered in the black tradition and style. (Sometimes the use of white hymns was ironic; the famous “Amazing Grace” was written by an English clergyman who, before his own salvation from sin, had been a sea captain trading in slaves.)

In the late 1800s, spirituals achieved wide attention from white audiences in the United States and Europe, largely on account of the celebrated chorus of Fisk University, an all-black school in Nashville, Tennessee. Otherwise, spirituals and the more conventional church music of American blacks was confined to the camp meeting and the Sunday service.

Gospel came about when country folk — with their field hollers, their sorrow songs, and their manner of responsive singing between preacher and congregation — moved north to cities and were influenced by the already secular sounds of blues and jazz, and took these variations with them to church. Gospel was the holy equivalent of city jazz. Both were marked by sophisticated harmonies, improvisation, jubilation, and emotionalism, sometimes brought about by strict control of the music and technique, sometimes by abandon.

But jazz was not looked up to by many proper, churchgoing black people, so its counterpart gospel was shunned along with it. Although it flourished in a few established churches, notably Pilgrim Baptist Church in Chicago, this new gospel music found its place among the evangelists — the holy roller who sang in the storefront churches of cities and the brush-arbor meetings of the countryside.

As with spirituals, gospel music reached wider audiences in America as more people discovered that this church music was original, heartfelt, and above all, entertaining. Soon it was on the radio, and by the 1940s small gospel groups were traveling around the country, singing in churches as well as halls, and motivating the local talent.

One of the earliest and best-known groups in San Diego was the Spiritual Kings, who were together between 1947 and 1960, and of whom only two survive; they are Exton Hullaby and C. W. Dean, both of whom sing with the sanctuary choir at Bethel Baptist Church on Clay Avenue in Southeast San Diego. Dean, who owns the city’s premier gospel record shop, Record City, on Churchward Street near Imperial and Euclid avenues, remembers listening all the time to the new gospel sounds on the radio when he was a young man in Anderson, Texas, and later in San Diego. It happened in 1947 that two patrons of the Groves Brothers’ Barber Shop, Willie Pitts and Rev. Edward Graves, got to talking one day about forming a group. “They didn’t sing in the shop,’’ said Ervin Groves, standing by his barber’s chair the other day, his retired brother Hartman seated nearby, dressed like a country mayor, in dark suit and suspenders, looking out the sidewalk window onto Imperial Avenue. “No, nobody sang in here, but we did have a big radio and we’d listen to music, gospel and all types.’’

Pitts and Graves got in touch with a baritone they knew, Willie Ross, and together they held their first rehearsal at Ross’s house on Dells Drive. Ross had invited his neighbor across the way, Exton Hullaby, a tenor, to come and see what was going on, and beginning that night they were a group, with Hullaby as emcee and manager. A few years later C. W. Dean was invited into the group to sing baritone and help Hullaby with the bookings and other arrangements.

They played a few concerts in Los Angeles and Las Vegas, one in Carlsbad, several in El Centro, and sometimes traveled as far as Arizona and New Mexico. They took turns traveling in their own cars, usually leaving on Friday night and returning late Sunday. Working only for a percentage of the gate receipts, never for a guaranteed amount, the Spiritual Kings did not make enough money for its members to quit their regular jobs, but they had a large local following, and they took pride in their musicianship.

“We sang a cappella,’’ said Dean last month in his record shop. “We’d take turns rehearsing in each other’s house, and when we worked on a new song, the guy singing lead would arrange the other voices behind him either in his own way or in the way it sounded on a record. We sang and sang and sang. The only time we used instruments was when we recorded, of which we did two songs, both on forty-five. Actually we did four songs, but I don’t remember the flip sides. We did ‘I Have a Dream ’ and ‘Amazing Grace.’ ”

If the Spiritual Kings themselves made little money, they were willing to make money for churches in town. They sang at the building-fund concert for the Mt. Zion Baptist Church on Greely Avenue, at a benefit concert for the Missionary Sisters of the Methodist Church, and at dozens of similar functions. Said Hullaby, who is now a deacon at Bethel Baptist Church, “As emcee for the group, I would tell people that we were not out to entertain them, but to spread the gospel. And I think we spread a lot of it, too.’’

The Spiritual Kings were fortunate to have performed during the heyday of gospel music in San Diego, when the form was still new and appealing, but not so commercial that ministers turned against it. The Spiritual Kings went as far as anybody could go without turning professional or leaving town; they were a draw in their own right, and they shared the stage when the national groups came through. In 1954 the Kings performed with the Spirit of Memphis and the Dixie Hummingbirds at Memorial Junior High, where the audience was expected to number 1000.

The Mighty Gospel Revelators were not so fortunate; by the time they formed, in 1969, the heydays were over — even though gospel was and continues to be the most popular form of church music. The national groups became much too expensive to bring in for a church-hall concert to headline over the local talent, and besides, by 1969 the church choirs were all singing gospel in the style that, twenty years before, would have been considered too avant-garde for proper church singing. Why hear a local, independent quartet sing gospel when you had it every Sunday from the youth choir in your own church?

“When was the last time we played up at Calvary?’’ said Robinson to Washington that night at their rehearsal. He was speaking about Calvary Baptist Church, on Crosby Street just east of Interstate 5, near the Coronado Bay Bridge. Calvary has one of the largest and richest congregations in the community.

“I don’t know,’’ said Washington. “Seems it was a wedding about a year ago.’’

“That long?’’ said Robinson. “I’ll bet it was.’’

“Oh, we don’t play at Calvary no more,’’ said Washington. “Them and all these other churches — they don’t need us, now they got their building funds all completed.’’

“That’s the truth,’’ said Robinson. “They don’t want to hear that, but that’s the way it is.’’

Whatever the reason, most of gospel music today is performed by church choirs whose style may range from raucous to refined. Most gospel music in San Diego is the opposite of what good churchgoers held it to be fifty years ago. They saw it then as brash entertainment; today it is a regular part of the Sunday service.

“I feel that gospel music is as sacred to the black church as the Gregorian chant and the anthem are to the white church,” said Rev. Glenn L. Jones, who directs the youth and young adult choirs at Calvary Baptist Church. “Therefore I don’t feel that gospel music should be taken out of a sacred setting.”

On a typical Sunday morning, at Calvary’s eleven o’clock service, the choir composed of youths and adults files into the sanctuary where the congregation of 900 or more fills the long pews, while Jones waits alone in the middle of the choir box behind the pulpit. The choir wears blue-and-white robes with the initials “CBC” monogrammed on the left shoulder; the crowd of richly dressed people, the ushers with their spotless white gloves, the dominant, carnation-pink color of the church and the faint odor of bread baking at the Sunshine plant on the other side of Interstate 5, give the proceedings an air of abundance and well-being.

After the processional, Jones leads the choir and congregation in a hymn, calling out the words for those who don’t know them, and beating time with a movement of his right hand that switches back and forth as neatly as the escapement of a watch. Throughout the service, the singing is expressive but tightly controlled, with emphasis on the lyrics and their message. To gospel music Jones gives a form of his highest affection — respect.

On the other hand, he takes gospel out of the church by teaching a class at UCSD in the performance of gospel music. The student choir meets on Tuesday evenings in the main lecture hall at Mandeville Center, 150 voices strong. Beginning next year, students must audition to take the class, but even so the grading will continue to be based on attendance, which makes the class “aGPA booster,” Jones said. No matter: Jones’s purpose, apart from teaching vocal technique, is to make the students realize that gospel music is more than bump-tempo and rhythm; it is music with a message.

Indeed, it is by the message of gospel music that Jones explains his reason for teaching outside the church. “If you’re going to be effective in singing this type of music,” he said, “the message has to reach your heart; it has to be part of your life. You're singing about Jesus, about Him whose story is the gospel — the good news of all time. Your talk has to match your walk, is what I'm saying, or else gospel will just be another style of music to you, personally, and that’s just how it will sound coming out of your mouth.”

I asked Jones how he felt about evangelizing — if that was the right word for it — in a public university. “I feel I could justify it,” he said. “If I am going to teach the class the nature of this singing, people will have to recognize that the songs are Biblical; there’s no way around it.”

As is done in many black churches, Jones teaches his UCSD choir the gospel tunes orally, without sheet music, working out the soprano part first and following with the alto and tenor, and adding a bass line if necessary. Although about half of the students are white, they tend to dominate the bass and soprano sections, which by and large are weaker than the alto and tenor sections, according to Kenneth Anderson, who accompanies the choir on the piano. They are weaker — that is, until the choir performs in a church, as it did last May 15 at Calvary Baptist, before a very supportive audience.

“The spirit of gospel music helps non-singers open up,” said Anderson, who, in addition to being a senior at UCSD, is the music director at Mt. Olive Church of God in Christ on Federal Boulevard. “The singers need energy from the audience, and in gospel, they get it.” He said the UCSD choir sounds its best in its climax number, “I Really Love the Lord,” which is simple but fervent, and which, at Calvary Baptist, affected an audience “that wasn’t afraid to be moved.” Not that moving the audience is ever the purpose of the music, Jones notes primly in a paper he wrote for the National Association of Negro Musicians, and which he reads aloud to his class. “I am not saying that an emotional experience will not result from the choir’s rendition ... but it should come because of . . . Him whose name is being proclaimed . . . and not as a result of rhythms and chord progressions.”

Nor should it come from the bit where everyone claps and sways in time to the music. “All that choreography,” said Jones, “is extraneous to gospel music. I tell my choirs, ‘If an individual feels moved to clap his hands in time to the music, fine, but I won’t impose that on all the members of the choir, because I can’t tell them what to feel in their hearts.”

Jones acknowledged, however, that each denomination, each church, and each congregation has its individual style of worship, and that gospel music serves all of them. The Methodists and Baptists, he generalized, are more or less alike, somewhat restrained, while the Pentecostals and the Church of God in Christ are more “charismatic,” with more rocking, swaying, and improvisation. “The Catholics,” he mused, “are all over the place — sometimes very subdued, sometimes going in for foot stomping and everything in between.”

At eight o’clock on a recent Sunday morning at St. Stephen’s Church of God in Christ, on Imperial Avenue near Fifty-third Street, the sanctuary was crowded with 400 people or more, not counting the twenty-six-voice choir behind the pulpit. Another 400 were expected for the eleven o’clock service. Where the singers at Calvary Baptist were accompanied by piano and organ, here in addition were drums, an electric bass guitar, a lead guitar, a saxophonist who doubled on the flute, and a few tambourines in the audience. In the racks behind the pews were no hymnals, only donation envelopes.

At the beginning of the service the minister greeted the congregation and made a few announcements while the choir, in blue-and-gray robes, filed in behind and the musicians finished tuning their instruments. It was like the beginning of a concert where the announcer comes out to address the audience, while behind him the stage is distractingly alive with performers. The service lasted two hours and twenty-six minutes, of which a little under two hours was given to music. The sermon, which occurred toward the end, took twenty-five minutes and was accompanied by the organ.

Part way through the opening song, the congregation was on its feet. We rose and sat down eleven times during the service, five times on demand and six times spontaneously, in addition to the time that we were ushered, row-by-row, past the offering baskets at the front of the church. Choreography was not much apparent: the choir swayed together a bit, but otherwise everyone went his own way. When someone felt especially moved, he or she raised up arms in a wide V. By far the most active person was the woman in the back row of the choir who was communicating the words of the songs in sign language for the deaf.

The musical climax was “I Just Can’t Stop Praising the Name of Jesus,” which had us on our feet for a seven-minute stretch of repeating the phrase “I just can’t stop.” The emotional climax, though, was quieter: the christening of an infant girl, Stephanie Marie, to whom the congregation sang a simple, unaccompanied tune, “Jesus Loves the Little Children of the World,” against the counterpoint of a watery snore from a pew toward the back. “Jesus loves the little children of the world/ Be they yellow, black, or white/ They are precious in His sight/ Jesus loves the little children of the world.”

I noticed three or four whites in the congregation; they seemed a part of it, seemed comfortable. In a remark a few days before the service, the pastor at St. Stephen’s, Rev. George McKinney, had wondered how comfortable blacks are in white churches where there is little or none of the responsive, exuberant style that has been the black tradition. McKinney, who is trim as a captain, and who carries himself with a military-erect bearing, cited The Black Bourgeoisie, by E. Franklin Frazier, to say that blacks, as they make more money, tend to disassociate themselves from the old-time preaching and join white churches, but not fully assimulated, find themselves in limbo. “This is where gospel music is so important,’’ he said, carefully. “Its purpose has been and continues to be as an institution of healing — a kind of church in itself, a ministry in itself — that helps to energize, and focus, and motivate the black people, wherever they may be.’’

St. Stephen’s has formed its own recording company, Stephanos, which has produced an album of songs by the St. Stephen’s youth choir, and another by Rev. Clarence Agard, Jr., who is an associate minister at Greater Jackson Memorial Church of God in Christ. “We established Stephanos to promote the local talent,’’ said McKinney, “and secondarily to extend the church’s ministry through song.” He smiled. “I’m not very musical myself — though all of my five sons are.”

I asked McKinney what stopped talented young people from leaving the church and cashing in their musical training on commercial music. He gave the expected response — that’s it’s tragic to see how most of the time the young musicians get caught in pressures they can’t handle; how difficult it must be for young blacks to adapt to having so much money and temptation; what a tragedy, for example, for Natalie Cole, with five hit albums behind her, to stumble into emotional troubles.

I said, “Natalie Cole? How could she not handle the pressure? Her father did.”

“Nat King Cole’s father was a Baptist preacher,” said Rev. McKinney.

Someone knocked at the office door, then began to push it open, sliding away the attache case that McKinney had set in front of it to discourage intruders. It was his son Gregory, who is twenty years old and a student at Grossmont College. He was wearing a T-shirt, track shoes, and warm-up pants. “What did you want me to do today. Dad?” he said.

“Sit down for a minute, son.”

McKinney explained that Gregory was on the verge of becoming a professional musician. D. J. Rogers, the rock-gospel artist with five albums to his credit, hires Gregory on occasion to play bass guitar in his back-up group, at one hundred dollars per concert. Rogers comes to San Diego regularly to look after his ranch in East County and thus is a member of the St. Stephen’s congregation, but spends most of his time near his recording studio in San Jose. Gregory hopes to transfer from Grossmont to San Jose State, where he’ll major in music and where he’ll also be near Rogers’s studio.

I asked Gregory if he’d like to make his living someday with the music he’d learned in church. He looked over at his father, who was tilted back in his chair, hands folded across his belt. “I would prefer some day to be paid for performing, since, you know. I’ve been playing all this time for the church; so being professional is something I do think about.” His father nodded but said nothing. Gregory took that in, then said, “But on the other hand. I’m a realist. I’m not going to drop out of college or anything to become a musician, ’cause I’d rather stick with what I got right now.”

I said something about nothing ventured, nothing gained.

“Well,” he said, “money can’t buy happiness, and I’m happy what I’m doing right now,” which must have sounded too pat, because he added, “And anyway, I already played in a club, so I know a little what it’s like.” “Oh?” his father said. “You never told me that.”

Gregory said some friends asked him once to fill in for a bass player at a teen club in El Cajon.

“That’s the first I heard of it,” said McKinney.

“I really didn’t sneak out — I just didn’t say where I was going that night.”


“That one time.”

“I see,” his father said.

I thought of the remark by Martin Luther, who was not only the first Protestant, but, in a sense, the originator of gospel music, when with his own pen he adapted popular songs to sacred meanings. “The Devil,” he said, “has no right to all the good tunes.”

Gregory stood up. “I got to get going, Dad. What did you want me to do?”

McKinney wanted him to clean up around the church, and added, “It’s really getting to be a mess; I appreciate your help this morning.”

Before he left, Gregory told me about D. J. Rogers’s latest cassette tape, A Legend, on which Gregory’s name appears in the credits — his debut in recording.

A moment later he was walking down the sidewalk with a push broom across his shoulders, being about his father’s business.

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