Calvin Bridges as told to JGM’s Bob Marovich
Looking back, I think God set me up to be in gospel music.
In the neighborhood where I grew up, on the West Side of Chicago, there was the Holloway Community Choir. I lived around the corner from them. I would go to their monthly musicals and be in such awe.
My mom was a member of Pilgrim Baptist Church, where Thomas Dorsey served as minister of music. Every first Sunday, she would take me to communion and to hear the choir. I watched all the pomp and circumstance, the procession, Professor Dorsey directing, and Pastor J. C. Austin. Austin was a dynamic speaker.
I also listened to the Thompson Community Singers and James Cleveland on records. I began attending programs at DuSable High School and Dunbar High School. The Swanee Quintet, the Davis Sisters, the [Mighty] Clouds [of Joy], the Highway QCs—everybody was on the same ticket. Omega Baptist Church, Mt. Pisgah Baptist Church—oh, there were such great programs, and they would always be packed! That whet my appetite for gospel music.
Reverend Walker gave me my first church music job when I was nine years old. I couldn’t play but one chord and three inversions, but I played that one chord and those three inversions! My second job as a church musician was for Rev. Singing Sammy Lewis, who had a church on the near North Side [of Chicago]. I was eleven years old, and just learning how to play the organ.
I began writing songs around the age of sixteen, but I started professionally in secular music. I wrote a lot of R&B and pop songs. I wrote “Sweet Melodies” for Linda Clifford, “In the Mood” for Leroy Hutson. While working with Jerry Butler in Chicago, I met Dee Dee Sharp, who was married to Kenny Gamble of Gamble, Huff, and Bell. I co-produced an album on Dee Dee, Happy ‘Bout the Whole Thing, and wrote songs for that.
I only got serious about gospel in the early 1980s, right before my experience with Albertina [Walker]. I had done one album with a choir called Spirit of Love that came out in 1979. That was probably my first writing of any note, because that album kept me touring for three years. I wrote “Save Me Lord” and later recorded it for the I AM label. I got a Stellar Award for Best Male Vocalist for that song.
“I Can Go to God in Prayer” came about on a Thursday evening. Deborah Clay, who was a member of the Spirit of Love Choir, her father had just been diagnosed with cancer. She called me very distraught. I spoke with her and prayed with her. After praying with her, I got up and went to the piano. I began to write the words, “Makes no difference what the problem / I can go to God in prayer.” I just wrote what was in my heart. God gave me a melody, and it all came together in under thirty minutes. I can’t take any of the credit for that whole experience.
I showed the song to maybe one or two people, but I knew Albertina Walker was getting ready to record. So I went to her home one afternoon and played “I Can Go to God in Prayer” and several other songs for her. She liked “I Can Go to God in Prayer” and we began to work on it and develop it. She was going to record it with Rev. Jerry Goodloe and the Lighthouse Baptist Church Choir.
Albertina and the choir did the song. I was on organ. Albertina was so masterful in her delivery. Her rhythm, how she paced the delivery, where she chose to hit high notes, where she chose to lay back—her whole interpretation taught me so much about delivering a song. As far as I can remember, we did the song in one take. At that time, though, I had no sense of what the song would become.
In fact, there was a little controversy over the song with the record label [Savoy]. I own the publishing rights to the song and some people—I won’t call any names—were not happy about that. But Fred Mendelsohn [of Savoy] said to leave me alone and go ahead and put it out.
The song began to climb the Billboard chart, and we began to travel. I toured with Tina for about two years. Every place we went, the song set the church on fire! Working with Tina gave me a platform, and I was so grateful that she liked the song. It became, at least in my mind, her biggest hit. I wrote the notes, but she sang the song!
God has blessed the song to be recorded by so many different people and to be popular for so many years. It was on the Be Glad album, which the Brooklyn Tabernacle [Choir] won a GRAMMY for in 2003. It’s been recorded by the Boys Choir of Harlem, Luciano Pavarotti, Bobby Jones. Alicia Keys used the song in her 2008 world tour. It is my biggest success in terms of popularity and the number of people who recorded it.