Outside of perhaps the Zion Harmonizers, gospel music pretty much exists under the radar for most OffBeat readers, regular New Orleans club goers, and people that buy New Orleans music. Sure everybody goes to the Jazz Fest’s Gospel Tent at least once, but that’s really the extent of the interest.
Let me tell you a little story. When I first moved here from Canada in the late 1970s, I regularly attended the monthly gospel programs promoted by Reverend—later to become Bishop—Herman Brown, at the I.L.A. Hall, Booker T. Washington Auditorium and Municipal Auditorium. One evening I was especially devastated by what I heard at the Auditorium at a show headlined by Rev. James Cleveland. It also dawned on me I was the only white person in a building filled with 3,500 gospel music fans. The show ended at a respectable time, and still in a trance, I later strolled into Tipitina’s, where an unnamed band—particularly popular with Tulane alumnists—was playing. I told the doorman/bouncer, Stanley John—an entertaining Trinidadian who occasionally played congas with Professor Longhair, and the only black person in a room of 250 people—where I had just been. He laughed and said, “Why you wanna come and hear this shit for then mon?” Stanley was dead on right. I wasn’t a musical snob, but I wondered why those people were at Tipitina’s, and not the Auditorium hearing REAL music?
Anyway, I recently got a CD reissue on the CaseQuarter label by Reverend Charlie Jackson called God’s Got It that is REAL music, and if someone didn’t make a big fuss about it, it might well remain under the radar. Jackson is a singing preacher who lives in this area. If you had put an electric Fender guitar in Charlie Patton or Son House’s hands and told them to sing about the Lord, you’d get a close approximation of his style.
Jackson was born into a religious family near McComb, Mississippi 71 years ago. He began playing the guitar at the age of ten, playing the blues like “Baby Please Don’t Go” during the week, and spirituals on Sundays. His mother threatened to take his guitar away if he kept playing blues, but as you can tell from his playing, he never lost the feel for the blues. Eventually, Jackson left his parents farm to tend cattle in nearby Magnolia, Mississippi, before moving to Kenner to work at Moisant Airport. He stayed with his brother in Houston for two years, but in the mid-1950s he returned to Louisiana and settle in Amite. It was in Amite that he established himself in the local gospel community. One evening, at a local church, Jackson performed on a program with the famed Two-Winged Temple guitar evangelist, Elder Utah Smith. Jackson fell under the influence of Smith, who’d made records and was popular in Southern gospel circles
Smith was a man who could only be compared to the master showman, Guitar Slim. Smith donned angel wings and strolled down the church aisles with a long cord connected to his amplifier, playing his instrument between he legs and behind his back. The righteous Ernie K-Doe once told me an amazing story about seeing Smith once at the Two-Winged Temple—located where they eventually built the St. Thomas Projects. Someone hooked Smith up to an invisible cable connected to a system of pulleys and lifted him into the air. He appeared to fly back and forth across the church and didn’t miss a lick! Even the never to be outdone K-Doe admitted he couldn’t beat that piece of showmanship.
Jackson married in 1965 and eventually settled in Baker, Louisiana. He continued to perform on local gospel programs and bought 15 minutes of air time on Sunday afternoon at WXOK in Baton Rouge and at small station in Amite—where he performed, offered prayers, read obituaries, and announced upcoming spiritual programs. Around 1970, Jackson performed at a program in New Orleans and befriended a member of the New Orleans Chosen Five, Isaac Haney. Jackson wanted to make a record and Haney suggested contacting a former deejay, Robert Booker, who owned two labels: Invicta, an R&B label, and Booker, a gospel label. Booker liked Jackson’s show stopper “Wrapped Up And Tangled Up In Jesus” and backed it with “Morning Train.” The single got lots of airplay on the black AM stations in the area on Sundays and sold enough 45s to recoup Booker’s investment. Jackson’s debut was followed by one of the most intense two-siders of all time, “God’s Got It” b/w “Fix It Jesus.”
Jackson didn’t use “church changes” on these recordings, rather he played intense musical patterns more closely tied to the blues than spiritual music. While he was singing about the Lord, he approached the lyrics like a blues shouter. Like John Lee Hooker, he created a percussion sound by kicking a block of wood. These recording were sparse and primitive but, they were deeply moving. A stroke in 1972 slowed down Jackson and he only accounted for a single and a four-song EP over the next five years. The EP was especially fascinating as it contained “Testimony of Rev. Charlie Jackson,” where he told the story of his stroke and “Something To Think About,” which was a political statement about the civil rights movement.
Robert Booker got out of the record business in 1975. Jackson had no outlet for his recordings, so in 1978 he launched the Jackson label. Jackson recycled “Wrapped Up and Tangled Up In Jesus” and “God’s Got It”—with different flip sides, and he also recorded Laura Davis, a talented spiritual singer from Port Allen, Louisiana.
By the 1980s, Jackson’s music was being discovered by collectors and gospel fans far from Louisiana. The Curlew label released a cassette of Jackson’s material that garnered a favorable review in the New York Times. Since 1990, he’s brought his music to Chicago and Europe and in 1997 made a CD for the St. Paulus label. Unfortunately, Jackson suffered a second stoke last year and he now has difficulty speaking. He does still perform at churches and on gospel music programs.
This won’t be the easiest CD to locate, but you can obtain a copy from CaseQuarter at P. O. Box 1163, Montgomery, AL 3601-1163. Their email address is www.aumfidelity.com/casequarter.html. Be the first on your block to get this CD. You won’t be disappointed.
Note: A day after last month’s OffBeat appeared, I received a phone call from Lonesome Sundown’s daughter! Sundown of course was the subject of September’s Masters of Louisiana Music feature. She thanked me the point of my embarrassment about making a fuss about her Pa. In our conversation I learned she lives in my neighborhood, her mother drives a streetcar, and Sundown’s mother is still alive in Donaldsonville. More later.