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Family Affair: Listen to nine-year-old Sly Stone sing gospel with his family & future bandmates
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Sly Stone

Rarely does the phrase “children’s Christian rock” evoke anything more positive than a shudder, but Pentecostals often eschew the corniness pervasive to most modern religious music. Pentecostal gospel is the very stuff of rock ‘n’ roll, (hell, one of the churches my grandparents took me to had a Hammond B3 with a Leslie). It’s the sort of musical heritage that you can hear in the very bones of an artist like Sly Stone, whose religious family was encouraged by the church to worship in song.

In 1952, a family gospel group called The Stewart Four did a small, local release of their own 78, featuring “Walking in Jesus’ Name” (below), and “On the Battlefield,” which you can hear on Spotify. The group was made up of siblings Freddie Stewart (age 5), Rose Stewart (age 7), Vaetta (later “Vet”) Stewart (age 2) with little Sylvester Stewart, as always, leading them. (If you’re wondering how a two-year old could contribute to a band, I’ll mention that it’s not uncommon during Pentecostal services to just throw a baby onstage to dance or clap, especially during family performances.) Anyway, this is the family of the Family Stone, performing gospel—beautifully, I might add—as very young children. Sly is nine years old here, and it’s absolutely sublime.

Posted by Amber Frost | Leave a comment
Nina Simone: in the name of freedom

Eunice Kathleen Waymon was born 77 years ago today in the tiny town of Tryon, North Carolina. As Nina Simone, she’d go on to become the most powerful singer/songwriter of the Civil Rights era, blending the rawest aspects of jazz, blues, soul, and gospel into a unique style that buoyed her message of liberation.

As a generation of despots falls in the Middle East and people confront the forces of greed in Wisconsin, it seems apropos to recall what Simone bestowed on the world…

After the jump: Simone repossesses the Beatles’ “Revolution” and Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” in the name of avant-garde freedom blues…

Posted by Ron Nachmann | Leave a comment
Walter & Sylvester: The Reverend & the Disco Queen

If you’re like me, your atheism has been challenged by the sheer force of certain metaphysically oriented artforms. One of those forms for me is African-American gospel music. One of the greats of that genre, the Grammy-winning Rev. Walter Hawkins, died yesterday of pancreatic cancer. Hawkins had plenty of Billboard chart success leading his Love Center Choir. Significantly, he’ll also be remembered as head of an Oakland, CA church that wholly embraced and was supported by folks like disco singer, drag queen and gay icon Sylvester.

Hawkins’ initial success came as part of his brother’s group the Edwin Hawkins Singers, which had a crossover hit with 1967’s “Oh Happy Day.” According to Joshua Gamson’s The Fabulous Sylvester, the Legend, the Music, the Seventies in San Francisco:

Hawkins was one of those who left church, but as he grew older he started looking for a way to bring together “all those young people who I knew could not survive in a traditional church setting.”

One of those was the young Sylvester James, who was a well-known child gospel singer in his LA hometown before running away and eventually moving to San Francisco. By the time he’d arrived at Hawkins’ Bible study group-turned-church the Love Center, Sylvester had already done a short stint with local psychedelic drag performance group The Cockettes and performed with the then-unknown Pointer Sisters. When he tells the anecdote about Love Center members’ jaded acceptance of a prostitute into their ranks, Gamson notes: “They took the same attitude to Sylvester. His strangeness, when it was even noticed, was beloved.” In fact, the Love Center Choir would appear on numerous mid-‘80s Sylvester tunes, including “Call Me” and his cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Living for the City.”

When Sylvester died of complications from AIDS in 1988 at age 41, his memorial service was held at the Love Center. According to J. Matthew Cobb of Prayzehymm Online, the gospel industry and the black church in general has a lot of work to do with regards to its gay membership. 

Hats off to Reverend Hawkins. 

Get: Walter Hawkins and the Love Center Choir: Love Alive - 25th Anniversary Reunion, Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 [CD]
Get: Sylvester - Mutual Attraction [CD]


Posted by Ron Nachmann | Leave a comment