Out-of-body abandon

If rock 'n' roll is the devil's music, why did it take so much from gospel? The screaming guitars, the whisper-to-a-howl vocals, the wild dance steps, the commitment and passion. If you're interested in seeing how much the secular and divine have in common, you've got to check out one of the longest running and most dynamic gospel quartets still on the scene, the Singing Stars.

Seeing Stars: "You've got guys playing guitar, singing, doing dance steps," says guitarist and manager Sam Williams. "Our kind of music is pretty involved." Photos by Steve Mann.

The Singing Stars have been performing together for more than 40 years, and are known both for guitar-driven sound (as many as three guitars on stage at any moment) and on-point choreography. The musicians are also snazzy dressers. Originally based in New York but now largely relocated to the South, the group packed 'em in for multiple daily shows at the Apollo Theater in its mid-'60s heyday, and continues to perform around 100 shows a year to loyalists of the gospel-quartet style. 

"I actually wish we could do more shows," says Sam Williams, guitarist, manager and the member of the current lineup with the longest tenure. "Our kind of music is pretty involved. You don't just have guys singing; you got guys playing guitar, singing, doing dance steps. It's better for the show if you keep out there and do it a lot. It makes the groove work better."

The gospel-quartet show circuit tours to a dwindling-but-devoted group of fans, specializing in heartfelt, soulful and uninhibited music that drives both audience and performer to the kind of out-of-body abandon that puts both in touch with something larger than themselves. A glance at the sponsoring trio of Black Box Studios, Harvest Records and low-power local station WRES shows the event's cross-demographic appeal.

After reaching its commercial peak in the '70s, the audience for quartet music dwindled as commercial taste in gospel music moved towards more contemporary and choral sounds. But the quartet scene (a term that seems to have more to do with the style of music presented than the number of performers in an act) still survives on its own unique and enthusiastic circuit, built largely on multi-act package shows with five or six other acts, called "programs."

"It's kind of like the gospel version of the chittlin' circuit," says photographer and co-promoter Steve Mann. Mann has been a vocal champion of quartet music for years, bringing many shows to Asheville in the '90s and visually documenting programs. Many of his excellent photographs of the Singing Stars can be seen at Harvest Records this month.

When asked whether or not he had any qualms about playing a largely secular, "night-club" venue like the Grey Eagle, Williams expressed no such reservations.

"I like playing a bigger room better than a small room, because there's a whole lot more room to move. Hard to do your steps when people are right up in your face," Williams says. "But as far as playing in a rock 'n' roll room … Back in the '60s we used to play on the same bill as rock 'n' roll acts and it wasn't any problem. You'd go up the river with gospel, and down it with rock 'n' roll. I don't see a big divide. You got to see the whole picture. Most songs are about love anyway, and that's what we need more of in the world."

"Going to a gospel quartet program can be a lot like watching baseball," says local filmmaker Chris Bower, who, along with Mann, is doing preliminary work on a documentary about this unique music scene. "You're waiting for someone to hit a home run. And when the spirit hits, it changes into something beyond a good time. And the Singing Stars always hit it. They go somewhere together and it turns into this free-form trance-jam. They do that every time I've seen them."

The lead singer and founder of the Singing Stars was gospel legend Tommy Ellison, known affectionately by quartet aficionados as "the Gospel Superstar." Before starting the Stars, Ellison was in a number of legendary gospel groups, including the Soul Stirrers with Sam Cooke (Ellison expressed regret when Cooke went secular). Ellison died in 2009, and was too ill to perform with the group for some time prior, but the Singing Stars have continued the tradition. They've even brought in singer Billy Hardy, an original member inactive for many years, to fill out the lineup.

Whether you're a believer in the message the Singing Stars share in their music, or if you just believe in music that reaches for something higher by digging deep into the depths of the soul, this show promises to deliver.

"They're just incredible performers and musicians," says Mann. "It's just extremely soulful, fun and positive music. Anyone I've ever encouraged to come to a show, even if they have reservations at first, are won over by the end and ready for the next one. When you see great quartet music, you can see where rock 'n' roll came from. The rock 'n' rollers all copped their best moves from gospel acts. The first guy to jump off stage and into the audience was a Dixie Hummingbird."

As Bower says, "They'll be preaching, but there won't be a sermon."

[Whitney Shroyer co-hosts the Ms. Sockford pageant in Rockford, Ill., every March.]

who: The Legendary Singing Stars
what: Outstanding gospel quartet, presented by Harvest Records & Black Box Photography
where: The Grey Eagle
when: Sunday, March 28 (6 p.m. $10/$12. www.thegreyeagle.com)

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