They have opened for or toured with Paul Simon, Ray Charles and the Rolling Stones. They were the first gospel quartet to appear on Soul Train and one of the earliest to don bright costumes and choreograph their stage moves, a practice that earned them the nickname “The Temptations of Gospel.” They even had a disco hit with their 1976 single “Mighty High.”
For nearly a half-century now, the Mighty Clouds of Joy have adapted their sound, style and repertoire to keep current with emerging trends even as they have remained steadfast to gospel music and the classic quartet format.
In recognition of this fusion of persistence and innovation, BMI will be saluting the three-time Grammy winners at its ninth Trailblazers of Gospel Music Awards Luncheon at Rocketown Friday [January 11].
“We’ve been singing together as a professional group for 46 years,” said Joe Ligon, the Clouds’ lead singer and cofounder, by telephone recently. “Recognition like this makes us feel that we have some kind of importance with the career that we’ve had. It makes you feel like all your work, your travel and your singing, hasn’t been in vain.”
Being honored with the Mighty Clouds of Joy at BMI’s invitation-only event are award-winning singer Vanessa Bell Armstrong and Pastor Marvin Winans.
Quartet model endured
Black gospel music was at a crossroads when Ligon and the late Johnny Martin formed the Clouds in Los Angeles in 1960. The golden age of quartets like the Soul Stirrers, the Pilgrim Travelers and the Swan Silvertones was in its twilight years, with star soloists like Sam Cooke and Lou Rawls crossing over from gospel to pop. Even powerhouse singers who remained in the gospel fold such as Shirley Caesar and Marion Williams were abandoning the vocal groups that nurtured them to pursue solo careers.
Through it all, including the ascendancy of mass choirs, the Clouds have stayed the course, proving that the classic quartet model was durable and elastic.
“We were making our first record, ‘Steal Away to Jesus,’ and they told us it was too short,” Ligon explained. “The owner of the record company said to me, ‘I like your song, but can you make it a little longer? Maybe you could do a little build-up, a little talk before you start singing?'”
Hence the origin of what has come to be known as Ligon’s “preaching” style of singing, a declamatory form of gospel shouting inspired by Julius Cheeks, the lead vocalist of the Sensational Nightingales who would also prove a major influence on the late Wilson Pickett.
“He was my idol,” Ligon said of Cheeks, who died in 1981. “I saw him in Los Angeles before I ever made a record. He was very emotional. He would run across the stage and jump. He would do all kinds of stuff when he got on stage and I said, ‘I want to be like that when I start making records.’
“Later, I got to meet him and even got to make a record with him. That was one of the highlights of my life.”
Clouds upstage Godfather
Another highlight of Ligon’s career came when the Clouds were on a bill at L.A.’s Shrine Auditorium with James Brown and almost upstaged the Godfather of Soul.
“He wanted an opening group and he wanted it to be a gospel group, so he called us,” Ligon said. “He had seen us at the Apollo, but I don’t think he really knew how devastating and powerful we could be on stage. They used to call us housewreckers.
“Anyway, that night we were doing so good opening his show that he actually told the road manager to close the curtain when we were in the middle of one of our songs.
“The road manager said, ‘I can’t do that to them.’ But God bless him, James Brown, he went and pulled the curtain on us. We were bringing down the house and he couldn’t take that.”