march 2011

black gospel blog

Bob Marovich's Gospel Picks

mclemore…making the most of a second chance at life
Shawn McLemore
Blacksmoke Music Worldwide
Available at

Most gospel music enthusiasts know Shawn McLemore as one of the three authoritative gospel tenors on James Fortune & FIYA's chart-topping smash hit, "I Believe."

On that single, McLemore's piercing, tough tenor voice complimented James Fortune's declarative delivery and Zacardi Cortez's traditional style. Together, they eked every available ounce of utility from "I Believe," and it's still on Billboard's Gospel Singles chart to this day.

The "One Percent Miracle" in the title of McLemore's latest solo album, his fourth, refers to his July 2010 heart attack, when the doctors gave him a one percent chance of recovery. Not surprisingly, the artist, having recovered, peppers the album with messages of God-given hope in the midst of life's trials.  He affirms that no matter the problem, God can fix it. In fact, "it's already done."

"I Believe" is included on the album, as is "Miracle," a song and performance cut from the same cloth. "Been So Good," one of the album's best tracks, is an up-tempo hand-clapper with holy dancing at the conclusion. "Any Minute Now" showcases McLemore's instinct for the preacher's cadence as he testifies about a God whose help is just around the corner. Venturing into urban R&B territory, "My Praise" sounds a bit out of place in the midst of meaty gospel selections, such as "Mustard Seed," which benefits from Men of Standard-esque harmonies.

Throughout the album, McLemore proffers simple statements cut from, or destined for, church vernacular, such as "If I have the faith/God's got the power" and "transform your misery moments into miracle moments."

One Percent Miracle Any Minute Now benefits from a battalion of top-shelf producers, including Aaron Lindsey and Ay'ron Lewis, all of whom work their magic from a handful of Houston studios. It is a strong gospel album fueled by the heartfelt delivery of Shawn McLemore, brought back from the precipice of death and making the most of his one percent miracle.

Picks: "I Believe," "Miracle," "Been So Good."

hillard'...guiding an audience from arm-waving praise to hushed prayer and back again'
Preashea Hilliard
Blacksmoke Music Worldwide
Available at

To Preashea Hilliard, "LOL" means Live Out Loud.

And loud--in energy, enthusiasm, volume and message--is exactly what her debut project, Live Out Loud, exudes.

The Houstonian vocalist is the youngest daughter of Bishop I.V. and Lady Bridget Hilliard of Houston's New Light Church, where the CD was recorded live in April 2010. Preashea smartly assembles songs from talented writers such as Deitrick Haddon, Israel Houghton and Kurt Carr, and contributes a few of her own compositions, to create an impressive debut album, produced by Grammy Award-winning Aaron W. Lindsey.

The first portion of Live Out Loud contains thunderous musicianship, a real brass section, and background vocalists backing Hilliard, her melodic voice at times possessing the tight, lyric vibrato of Streisand and some of the songbird's soul-centered drama. Selections such as "He's Able," "Fresh Fire" and "Lift Up Your Heads" (by Aaron Lindsey and James White, not the Coleridge-Taylor hymn) establish a powerfully charged atmosphere from the get-go.

Preshea Hilliard, 'Oh How We Love You'

It is only during "Redeemer," a lovely gospel song teaming Hilliard with her godmother, CeCe Winans, does the temperature cool to a reverent, prayerful mood. It is as if the audience, lifted from their seats by the extroverted tempos, awaiting and acknowledging redemption, could finally settle into a more mellow worship frame of mind. One of the mellow worship ballads in this section, "Oh How We Love You" is a fine example of Hilliard's songwriting: a textbook P&W ballad with a memorable melody.

From there, Hilliard and company offer dynamic arrangements of praise and worship pieces. Later, Bishop Hilliard contributes an exhortation prayer and launches into a simple sing-a-long melody on "Jesus I Love You."

Preashea Hilliard's recent appearance at the popular South By Southwest music festival undoubtedly introduced her to many new gospel enthusiasts.  On Live Out Loud, "Pastor P." shows she can guide an audience from arm-waving praise to hushed prayer and back again.

Picks: "Redeemer," "Fresh Fire," "He's Able."


watkins'inspirational poetry'
Lisa 'Selah' Watkins
Lisa Watkins
Available at

I am not well schooled in inspirational poetry--though in 2009 Poet Keith Ferguson shared with The Black Gospel Blog the vibrant religious spoken word community that exists nationally--but even I can figure out that Lisa "Selah" Watkins definitely belongs in this community.

Her spoken word CD, Look At You Loving Me, is a demonstration of her provocative poetic skills, with music backdrops that run from conventional to edgy.

Like a Beat poet, Selah, born in Washington, DC, pours out verse like water from a pitcher, consonants and vowels rolling rivers of sound as the music encourages her like an appreciative audience. Throughout this project, Selah's message is that Satan is the enemy--not individual people, situations or races--and that God is the true king.

In fact, "Black History Month" challenges listeners to keep in mind that God is the real mover and shaker, and that if Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. or Rosa Parks hadn't assumed their ordained calling, God would have sent someone else in their place. It's a message that will make some listeners uncomfortable or even disturbed, but if one thing is certain on this CD, it's that Selah clearly stands by her statement to keep one's eyes on the ultimate king, who "taught Michael Jackson how to dance and Nancy Wilson how to sing."

A humorous interlude is "Chain Letters," on which Selah rants about friends who send her email chain letters with warnings that breaking the chain brings bad luck. She notes, appropriately, that misplaced confidence in such chicanery could actually backfire and turn people away from God.

The title performance is the testimony of a person who turns from drugs, casual sex and disinterest in church and religion (though she prays for her sports teams to win) to a disciple with a mission to spread the word. That's what Selah does on Look At You Loving Me. Her website, "Pause and Think," aptly sums up the project's point of view.

Picks: "Look at You Loving Me."


swingin'...the greatest gospel music you never heard'
Various Artists
Fog City Music Group
Available from

Gospel historian and compiler Opal Nations stays close to home this time, scouring his San Francisco-Oakland stomping grounds for a variety of vintage gospel sounds. The result is Swingin' on the Golden Gate, Volume 2, a two-CD, 53-track compilation featuring 53 different artists.

Soloists, quartets, choirs, preachers and groups are equally represented on the compilation, which focuses on gospel's Golden Era of the 1940s through the 1960s. While a smattering of better-known Bay Area artists are included--among them Revs. G.W. Killens and Louis Narcisse, and the Rising Stars and Paramount Gospel Singers--the great majority are amateurs, church groups and local professionals who sang the glory down well before the Hawkins Family burst on the scene with "Oh Happy Day." (Narcisse, by the way, is absolutely buoyant here leading the hand-clapping congregational song, "Glory Glory," from 1959.)

Deserving special mention are a young Sly Stone, who sings and plays guitar on "Walking in Jesus' Name" from 1952; and Mabel Henderson, whose huge voice nearly matches the largesse of COGIC chirpers Ernestine Washington and Emily Bram. The rich, vibrant thousand-voice National Baptist Convention choir, under the direction of Jules Haywood, renders a stunningly breathtaking version of "Unclouded Day."

On "I'll Make It Somehow," Brother Green's Southern Sons cast their sound in the Soul Stirrers mold, while Tommy Jenkins and the Mountain Stars render "Travelin' Shoes" in a capella jubilee fashion, like a west coast chapter of the Golden Gate Quartet (with the Golden Gate Bridge for added provenance).

The 45s and 78s reissued here may be the sole surviving aural examples of an artist's work. Nations does his best cleaning up the sound quality of the well-worn and rare records featured on the compilation.

And speaking of the Hawkins Family, Nations confirmed that the Dorothy Morrison who sings "I am Free" with the Combs Family is the same Dorothy Morrison who led "Oh Happy Day?"

Besides short bios on some of the featured artists, the liner notes provide brief histories of the African American church in the Bay Area and its quartet tradition.

In case you were wondering, Volume 1 is a compilation of blues, doo-wop, jazz, and R&B from the Bay Area, released as a boxed set by JSP Records last year. On Volume 2, Opal Nations' Fog City provides a sampling of the greatest gospel music you never heard.


spence'...taking his message to the streets to save souls'
J. Spence
Diversity Music Group (2011)

Released in April, Ascension is the third solo project by J. Spence, a Christian hip hop artist from Buffalo, NY.

Inspired by Luke 24, J. Spence has taken his message to the streets to save souls. Not surprisingly, Ascension emphasizes the importance of discipleship and evangelism to, as the artist articulates on "Peculiar," "fulfill the book story."

J. Spence credits Jay-Z and Mali Music as influences, and the album's clever beats bear this out, especially "Friend Like Me," which has for a backdrop the zoot-suited, big-band Broadway soundtrack from the popular animated film, Aladdin. Similarly, "The Price is Right" borrows the familiar theme song of the game show for its support while J. Spence spits about Jesus who "paid the price" and "fronted the bill." "Waiting" samples snippets of uncredited female gospel singing.

J. Spence, 'Pray,' from his album Ascension

"So In Love," featuring Kyria, Mahogany Jones, Choson, and Houston Knight, Jr., is a love expression, duly wrapped in a romantic melody, and directed to Jesus whose unconditional love is priceless.

The most poignant of the album's fifteen tracks is "Pray," on which J. Spence tells the story of a single mother at wits' end, and the equally distraught father. "Just pray" is the mantra and motto, though J. Spence seems also to employ the stories as cautionary tales and to evoke sympathy for the players' circumstances.  In other words: there but for the grace of God go I, so be careful of the stones you throw.

Overall, the rhymes on Ascension are crisp, easily to follow, straightforward, and the variety of beats and rap rhythms give the album added vitality. J. Spence is a Christian hip hop artist who knows his craft and has, to quote one of the tracks, "Life, Strength and Swag."

Picks: "So In Love," "Pray."


perryPower Pop and Power Praise
Bobby Perry and RAIN
Solaria Records (release date: June 21, 2011
Available at

Bishop Robert C. "Bobby" Perry II is pastor of The Kingdom Church in Boston, and RAIN (Royal Agents Influencing Nations) is his gospel singing group. Conquerors is Bobby Perry and RAIN's sophomore release.

The title track, which features a guest lead by Natalie "Girl Director" Wilson, possesses a powerful staccato marching beat that fits the ensemble's lyrical declaration to "fight the enemy." The flammable mixture of buzzing rock guitars and drums on "Conqueror" also predominates on the album's propulsive first single, "Say Yeah." RAIN even rocks an urban AC beat effectively on "Alright."

From there, the power pop fades as Perry and RAIN move into power praise mode, unleashing from their arsenal a talent for the "slow burn:" that gradual increase of volume and vigor by vocalists and musicians, who begin with a delicate melody and conclude with in-your-face explosive intensity.

EPK for Bobby Perry and RAIN's album, Conquerors

RAIN has a tight, professional sound, plenty of fine vocalists from which to choose (in addition to Wilson, Jason Nelson and Major Johnson-Finley guest) and benefits from fine production and direction.

While no song stands out in particular, two ballads--"My Jesus" and "One Voice"--showcase the group's finest characteristics: delivering sweet harmonies and fine melodic runs. "One Voice" also features a lovely soprano lead whose dynamism alone sells the song.

"I Am You (The Father's Song)" is a personal tribute to father, acoustically performed. In a genre chock-a-block with mother songs, this track is a refreshing discovery.

Picks: "My Jesus," "One Voice."


marovichBob Marovich is a gospel music historian, radio announcer, and author. In its seventh season, Bob's "Gospel Memories" program of vintage black gospel music and artist interviews airs live first Sundays from 3:00 to 7:30 a.m. on Chicago's WLUW 88.7 FM, and streams live at Snippets of recent broadcasts can be heard at Bob is also editor of The Black Gospel Blog.


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