Pastor Donald Gay
On a Glorious Day
The Sirens Records (release date: March 15, 2019)
By Bob Marovich
Like amber, Pastor Donald Gay’s On a Glorious Day preserves the sounds and stories of Chicago’s traditional gospel music and church community.
Pastor Gay has been in gospel music since knee pants (a photo on the back of the CD booklet depicts Donald as a tyke, sitting atop a piano and flanked by his older sisters Evelyn, Geraldine and Mildred). As the Gay Sisters, Donald’s female siblings posted a significant gospel hit in 1951 by modernizing the hymn, “God Will Take Care of You.”
Indefatigable, Donald continues to lead the congregation at Prayer Center Church of God in Christ (COGIC), a church his mother, Fannie Gay, founded in 1959 on the city’s South Side. Since 2007, he has made a series of records for Steven Dolins’ The Sirens Records, a label that specializes in recording the piano and organ in a variety of American roots styles.
What is immediately evident from listening to On a Glorious Day is how Donald’s voice gleefully walks the line between secular and sacred. Had he not dedicated his life to the Lord and become a pastor, Donald could easily have been a success on the nightclub circuit. His baritone voice falls somewhere between a blues shouter and a jazz craftsman. He gives the soulful sneering croon of Al Green a husky covering and dips into the bass register like Basie singer Joe Williams. He makes singing sound as fun and effortless as Hank Aaron made playing right field.
Cliff Dubose accompanies Donald by channeling the late Geraldine’s lithe but effusive Erroll Garner-style of piano playing. With Geraldine, as with Dubose, the left hand makes the piano dance while the right hand cranks out Dixieland jazz ornamentation. As with Elsa Harris’ recent The Sirens release, I Thank God, Curtis Fondren plays the drum and Richard Gibbs handles much of the organ work on the album (Glenn Chambers fills in on the instrumental, “Another Chance,” written by Fondren and Donald’s son Gregory Gay; nephew Donald “Bosie” Hambric plays guitar on the track).
The song selections are traditional or traditional-sounding. Donald records Dorothy Love Coates’ “You Can’t Hurry God” and three songs originally recorded by the Gay Sisters: “I’m Going to Walk Out on Jesus’ Name,” the COGIC chestnut, “I’m a Soldier,” and the aforementioned “God Will Take Care of You.” On “I’m a Soldier,” son Gregory joins Elsa Harris as a background vocalist, while “God Will Take Care of You” benefits from Jocelyn Buchanan’s soprano notes. “Thank You Lord,” credited to Chicagoan Bryant Jones, himself the product of a gospel legacy family, has a funky feel reminiscent of Walter Hawkins.
While many of the songs have that infectious rollicking COGIC tempo, Donald also delivers slower-tempo gospels such as “I Must Tell Jesus” (another Gay family recording of yore) and “Jesus You Brought Me All the Way.” Playing freely with the tempo, he improvises like the gospel soloists he grew up admiring. As the experienced musicians they are, DuBose, Gibbs, and Fondren follow Donald wherever he travels.
The final half hour of the 75-minute CD is given over to an interview with Donald about the Gay family, the Gay Sisters, the family’s relationship with Sonny Rollins and Dizzy Gillespie, and his own life and career. Having interviewed Donald a couple of times, I know that he has a vivid memory of gospel’s golden age and relishes telling humorous and more serious anecdotes about the family and the gospel artists he has met. He does that here with a vibrancy that makes those thirty minutes go by quickly.
If every church sounded as enjoyable as On a Glorious Day demonstrates, there would be standing room only at Sunday services nationwide.
Five of Five Stars
Picks: “I’m a Soldier,” “I’m Going to Walk Out in Jesus’ Name”