BMI to honor gospel trailblazers the Mighty Clouds of Joy

From the Tennessean, Sunday, 01/06/08

BY BILL FRISKICS-WARREN
Staff Writer

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.”

About Bob Marovich

Bob Marovich is a gospel music historian, author, and radio host. Founder of Journal of Gospel Music blog (formally The Black Gospel Blog) and producer of the Gospel Memories Radio Show.

7 comments

  1. I am laughing so hard reading Joe’s story about James Brown. It was wonderful. Brown should have known Joe Ligon loves the audience and he gives all he’s got.

    The first time I heard “Steal Away” as a young teen, I was hooked on the Clouds. I am still hooked. I love them, old and new.

    Congratulations Joe. And a “way to go” for Vanessa.

    Thanks Bob for publishing this article.

  2. Thanks for your comments, Ducky! As you well know, James learned his moves from gospel quartets, so it makes his curtain-closing escapade all the more enjoyable for its irony! Happy New Year!

  3. Happy New Year to you too Bob, and to your family.

    I believe this will be a great year for all.

    I stayed up late last night telling myself I could stay up to listen to your program. At Exactly 4:00am EST, I dozed at the computer. So, I turned it off and went to bed, thinking to myself, I should have gone to bed early and gotten up at 4:00am.

    (smile)

  4. I hear you! Thanks for trying, though! I’ll have 70 minutes of the show up on iTunes in a few days.

  5. Hi There,

    I’m very much hoping you may be able to help me or guide me to where I might find more information.

    My mother and I are planning a trip to Chicago this summer and, at some point last year, she had read a blurb about a Gospel Hall of Fame located downtown in the Loop area. (Unfortunately, she does not recall *where* she read about it.)

    In my searches to try to turn up any information about it, I saw mention of a collection being donated to the main branch of CPL (in 1991?), however when I called them this morning, the librarian said that, although they did receive a donation, the library merely provides access to the recordings, but it is not set up as a display or exhibit. He also mentioned their Jubilee Showcase collection and a sheet music collection, but neither of those are what my mother was interested in.

    Her remembrance was of an exhibit that was located in a stand-alone location (perhaps a house or building?) and featured some of the various luminaries of gospel. (From the way she described it, it sounded somewhat along the lines of the “Hitsville USA and The Motown Sound” exhibit they have at Greenfield Village in Michigan, if you’ve ever been.)

    Does any of this ring a bell for you?

    Thanks in advance for any help you can give.

    –xari.

  6. p.s. I’ll either check back here for your answer or, if you would, you could e-mail me at xarienne(at)gmail.com.

    Thanks! –xari.

  7. Xari, thanks for writing. Your mother saw an article in the Chicago Tribune regarding the Rev. Dr. Stanley Keeble’s efforts to establish the Chicago Gospel Music Heritage Museum. The article was featured on TBGB (below):

    http://blackgospel.blogspot.com/2006/05/amazing-disgrace.html

    While the CGMHM board still exists (I’m a member), we have yet to establish a site, largely because of the difficulty of securing sufficient funding. Nevertheless, we continue toiling on, and hope someday soon to have a permanent structure in Chicago to honor the legacy of the city’s gospel music pioneers and legends.

    You can be sure that when it happens, TBGB will be on the story!

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