The 75-year-old lead singer and last original member of the Mighty Clouds of Joy jumped right into a medley of some of the group’s Grammy award-winning hits, including “Pray for Me” and “I’ve Been in the Storm Too Long.”
Long before African Americans worshiped in multimillion-dollar sanctuaries or owned recording studios, Ligon and other quartet men barnstormed across Dixie singing about the Lord and serving hope to a generation of blacks oppressed by segregation. At the same time, they suffered the sting of racism.
“There were times, even if you wanted to stay in the Holiday Inn and had the money, they would tell you they didn’t have any rooms, and we could walk around and see the empty rooms,” said Ligon in an interview before his performance this month. “There were other times when we wanted to eat, you couldn’t go to the front door of a restaurant, you had to go around the back to get your dinner.”
Ligon and Johnny Martin, a fellow classmate at a Los Angeles high school, formed the Mighty Clouds of Joy in the mid-1950s. Performing in tailor-made suits and tight, four-part harmony, the group would grow to include Leon Polk and Richard Wallace.
According to musical historians such as Bil Carpenter, author of “Uncloudy Days: The Gospel Music Encyclopedia,” gospel quartets, with their emphasis on vocals and later vocals with light instrumentation, served as a training ground for many secular musical groups, including the Temptations and the Four Tops. Famed singer Sam Cooke started out as the lead singer of the Soul Stirrers, a gospel quartet out of Chicago.
In 1960, the Mighty Clouds recorded their first album, and over the next 50 years they won three Grammys and became the No. 1 selling gospel quartet of all time. But to really appreciate the contribution that the Mighty Clouds and other gospel quartets have had on black America, one has to look well beyond entertainment.
The rich and sonorous history of gospel quartets could be glimpsed at Mount Calvary, where quartet men exchanged hugs and life stories from the road in the church basement and Rosetta Thompson, the undisputed impresario of gospel quartet, collected ticket money in the lobby.
“Quartet music has a sound of its own. It has that driving beat. It is a sound that was generated from the South,” said Winston Chaney, the morning host on WYCB (1340 AM) and the concert emcee.
Chaney said the music is also popular in northern cities because many African Americans from the South who left for better jobs during the Great Migration brought their ways of worship with them.
Ligon said his group performs from Thursday to Sunday with only a two-week break for Christmas, mostly in cities and towns in Southern states such as Mississippi, which is home to two groups that were on the program, the Canton Spirituals and the Jackson Southernaires.