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Bringing the Gospel to D.C. in Tight Harmonies

By Hamil R. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 18, 2005; Page B03

Bibleway Temple was filled with spiritual fervor and hundreds of joyful souls Saturday when a caravan of legendary gospel quartets and quintets rolled into the District to deliver foot-stomping rhythms and street-corner harmony wrapped in spiritual showmanship.

The Mighty Clouds of Joy, the Highway QC's, the Sensational Nightingales, Lee Williams and the Spiritual QC's and the Swanee Quintet headlined the 2005 "All-Star Salute to the Pioneers of Gospel," an event that served as a tribute to performers who have been singing for decades in high school gyms, churches and any cavernous venue with an electrical outlet.


Percy Griffin of the Swanee Quintet sells a song to the audience at Bibleway Temple. (Hamil R. Harris -- The Washington Post)

"We love what we do. We love it, man! It's my life," said Joe Ligon, lead singer for the three-time Grammy Award-winning Mighty Clouds of Joy, as he stood in the foyer of the Northwest Washington church that was filled with men offering music, videos and plenty of hugs for their adoring fans.

Unlike modern gospel artists, whose projects and appearances are tightly scripted by record labels, the groups bypass green rooms, bodyguards and star treatment to press the flesh. Many fans grew up on this raw spiritual art form born in the South.

"It is very important to keep traditional gospel going because it is what is keeping us alive," said Rosetta Thompson, the event's promoter. Her husband, Horace, is lead singer for the Sensational Nightingales, a Grammy-nominated group that has been performing and recording since the 1950s.

For the Thompsons, who live in Mitchellville, gospel music is a family affair. She sings, he sings and their children and grandchildren sing. Thompson is a beautician and owner of a hair salon, but she exchanges her curling iron for a microphone on the weekends, when she works as a gospel singer and concert promoter.

At this concert, the groups were graded for their ability to stir up the crowd with a mix of testimony, sweet-toned ballads and hard-driving rhythms.

And they had to look the part. At 77, Spencer Taylor wears every strand of his hair pulled into a ponytail. He strutted on stage sporting a purple suit and joined in tight harmony as his group performed a mix of such crowd favorites as "Meeting on the Old Camp Ground."

People rocked and shouted in the pews until Percy Griffin of the Swanee Quintet asked them to pray for James "Big Red" Anderson, the group's lead singer, who is seriously ill in an Augusta, Ga., hospital.

Lee Williams, lead singer of the Spiritual QC's, had no problem pumping things back up with "Come On Let's Have a Good Time." Williams sang so hard that his eyes were bloodshot, and he was drenched in sweat when he walked off the stage.

Williams said that though such performances are draining and the traveling is hard on him and his family, he keeps going. "Before I started to sing, I was a truck driver, so my family has gotten used to me being on the road. I have been on the road constantly for the last 36 months," Williams said.

The Mighty Clouds of Joy closed out the five-hour program. When the sound system malfunctioned, lead singer Joe Ligon paused and blamed the problems on "the Devil." Then he belted out his hit song, "I've Been in the Storm Too Long." And with that, the concert was over.

While fans left Bibleway Temple with tapes, photos and plenty of memories, the quartet men were just beginning their workweek.

Horace Thompson was up at 6:30 a.m. yesterday, after about five hours of sleep, to make a bus trip to Burlington, N.C., where the Highway QC's and the Nightingales were to perform last night. The groups will return to the Washington area in the middle of the week. Next week, they will perform across Virginia.

"Gospel singers are like that Energizer rabbit," Horace Thompson said. "We just keep going and going."


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