The Gospel according to Bobby Jones

By DeNeen L. Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 3, 2010; E01

Bobby Jones is the cool cat of the gospel music industry: rose-colored glasses, wavy black hair, fine suits, wingtips, hat sometimes slanted slightly to the side, as he snaps his fingers and glides across the stage singing gospel -- real smooth.

Right now, the cool cat of gospel is backstage at BET headquarters in Northeast Washington, preparing to tape the entire 30th-anniversary season of "Bobby Jones Gospel," the first nationally syndicated black gospel television show. The pace of the filming is fast, and Jones is unflappable as his assistants flit about, preparing him to go on camera.

An assistant slides a comb through Jones's hair. Another folds a baby-blue tie into a perfect knot around his neck. Jones spins around to face the mirrors in his dressing room, as a third assistant clips a stray thread hanging from the jacket button of the singer's gray suit. The suit comes off to get re-pressed. Even if it is a gospel show and church people are supposed to be forgiving, the camera isn't.

As he preens, Jones explains his longevity in the gospel industry, and how he really doesn't have much national competition, even so many years later. "I find that amazing," he says. "Now, can you build a network and, 30 years later, still have no competition?"

Then Jones says something you suspect many in his churchgoing audience do not know:

"I'm not a big fan of organized religion," he says.

The statement hangs there in the dressing room, as the assistants flurry about.

Jones repeats himself. He is not the cool cat now, but a very serious man, as wise as befits a 72-year-old PhD in theology known as "Dr. Jones."

"I am much more than the music," he says. "All they know is, I say, 'Ladies and gentlemen,' and welcome who is going to be on the show.

"They don't know the depth of me."

A few minutes later, Jones stands in his beautifully pressed gray pants as assistants button his crisp white shirt. Someone holds the jacket for Jones to put on, and then the assistants brush his suit. Hand him a mint. Jones grabs his signature rose-colored glasses.

He heads for the stage, then turns and jokes:

"Does this suit look as good on me as I would like?"

For 30 years this fall -- an eternity in television -- Jones and his Sunday variety show have been offering up a mix of church talk and full-throated gospel music, alive with big choirs in big robes swaying. Jones has managed to dominate gospel television in much the same way Dick Clark and Don Cornelius presided over televised pop and soul.

But gospel wasn't a familiar idea to the boy growing up in Henry, Tenn. In the Methodist church of his childhood, Jones sang lead in the choir, but the songs, he says, were "standard hymns." They didn't dig deep, strike the core or soar with the kinds of protracted finales that can bring a person to tears. Didn't move up and down scales, promising victory over oppression, if you could just hold on to faith, hold on just a little while longer.

A radio revelation

Jones was nearly an adult before he heard his first gospel song. He was at the kitchen table one Sunday when, as Jones tells it now, the most beautiful song he had ever heard came on the radio. Its title, he would learn later, was "Too Close to Heaven."

"I couldn't get over it," he says. The kitchen was one of three rooms in the tin-roofed house where young Bobby lived with his parents, sister and brother. His parents picked cotton as sharecroppers. "They made a living, working for white folks. They treated us like slavery times, really. They called my daddy 'Boy.' " There is the slightest edge in his voice.

Jones's father was illiterate, and his mother had gotten only as far as the eighth grade. But Jones aimed high for himself. In school, "I was always kinda smart," he says. "I skipped grades." He went off to Tennessee State University at the age of 15.

"We were poor. I didn't know how I was going to pay for school." He heard on the radio that a church needed a piano player. "My aunt," whom he lived with as a student, "had a piano and I taught myself to play. I went and applied and the lady hired me." He knew only two keys. "My mother wondered, 'When did you start playing the piano?' I said I taught myself." He played for the senior choir throughout college. "I might have graduated to three keys, but I was really good with those three keys," he says, laughing.

He earned about $5 a Sunday -- tuition at the time was $40 a quarter.

Jones graduated from Tennessee State at 19 and later received a master's in education and three doctorates -- in education, the humanities and theology.

Jones spent years teaching elementary school in St. Louis and in Nashville, where he became a community activist and helped organize Nashville's first Black Expo, an exposition highlighting historical contributions of black people in Nashville. Not long after, he organized a community service show, featuring gospel.

His skills as a host caught the attention of local television executives, who were looking for more minority programming. "There were very few black programs on television in Nashville," Jones said. "They asked if we could put together a 30-minute gospel show in Nashville." In 1976, Jones created a pilot called "The Nashville Gospel Music Show." It was an instant success. Four years later, Robert Johnson, founder of Black Entertainment Television, decided to acquire Jones's show.

Jones is credited with pioneering gospel music's exposure on television and introducing more gospel artists to television than any other host. Among them: Ricky Dillard, Vanessa Bell Armstrong, John P. Kee, Shirley Caesar, Hezekiah Walker, Mary Mary, the Williams Brothers, Dottie Peoples, Kirk Franklin, Fred Hammond, Donald Lawrence, Albertina Walker and Dorothy Norwood.

Jones was a "liaison for our music to the world," Dillard says. "We weren't professionals when we began. . . . Dr. Jones is the main reason gospel is still standing and in the eyes of the world today."

In 1989, Jones's show "Video Gospel" debuted on BET as the first national television show for gospel videos. He also hosts "Bobby Jones' Next Generation" on the Gospel Music Channel and "Bobby Jones Presents," broadcast on the Word Network. His radio show, "Bobby Jones Gospel Countdown," airs on American Urban Radio Networks in 147 markets throughout the world. Jones also pioneered the mixing of traditional and contemporary gospel on one program.

"Dr. Jones has managed to find cable outlets from the beginning and has become one of the only venues of older artists and up-and-coming artists. That is why he has succeeded," says Robert Darden, an associate professor of journalism at Baylor University and author of "People Get Ready: A New History of Black Gospel Music."

Aside from religious viewers and gospel fans, "Bobby Jones Gospel" appeals to people who appreciate good singing, but don't "want to sit and watch MTV videos where clothing is optional," Darden says. "Here, you just have great singers." The show has a television audience of more than 630,000 weekly, according to BET. The median age of viewers is 54.

"Bobby Jones Gospel" gives new gospel artists instant credibility, Darden says. "They can say, 'I've been on 'Bobby Jones.' He has been around long enough that he has a good reputation in the gospel industry. He is a little different than so many hosts because he is a bona fide artist."

Jones's 1983 rendition of "I'm So Glad I'm Standing Here Today," recorded with Barbara Mandrell, won a Grammy Award for the best soul gospel performance by a duo or group.

Jones's role has become even more important as the debate rages over contemporary gospel, some of which incorporates hip-hop beats, rap and less-modest singing attire. But Jones says contemporary gospel needs to be respected.

Gospel music has always evolved to meet the needs of people, he says. "These kids coming up today, singing contemporary, have no idea what we experienced," Jones says. "Their songs are more about praising God. The traditional songs were more about oppression and depression. But everything must change. It's the same thing with music."

Church 'commercialism'

Backstage between shows, Jones is sitting in his dressing room in a fire-red shirt and gray pinstriped pants. He's eating a salad, careful not to get lettuce between his teeth. He is about to explain why he is not a big fan of organized religion.

"I don't want to offend any viewers," says Jones, who has been married since 1998 and lives in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and in Nashville, where he attends a Baptist church and directs the Nashville Super Choir.

"I believe in Jesus," Jones says. "I am a Christian. But some practices that happened in organized church are questionable just for me." He says he doesn't believe in the "commercialism" of some churches. (During the taping of the anniversary show, Jones asked members of the audience how many went to churches that have more than 7,000 members. Some raised their hands. "How many of you know your pastor?" he asked. It was a serious moment. But then the show moved on.)

"There was a point in my experience in church where I witnessed a lot of situations I didn't think were parallel to the Christian belief," Jones says. "Even with gospel music today, I think there is a form of commercialism.

"People who watch me would never believe I think that way," he says. "When I look at God, I see a force beyond man, beyond an institution. I see that force as understanding the behavior of men, knowing -- because we have a brain -- we can make other decisions."

Jones says he created the religious talk show "Let's Talk Church," which debuted on BET in 2002, "so I could have a platform for people like me who could voice what they feel about the role of the church."

"I have a doctorate of theology, humanities and education." But, he says, "sometimes the church gets in the way of developing the mind."

"I wish I could see the love that Jesus preached in our church communities. There is some, of course, but I would like to see more," he says.

But the conversation must end -- it's showtime.

Jones reaches again for his rose-colored glasses, cane and hat.

"We are moving, Dr. Jones," a producer announces.

Jones maneuvers the dark corridors of backstage, through black curtains, up the steps.

A choir pours onstage in powder-blue robes and matching powder-blue shoes.

The camera swings. The organ pounces. The audience rises to its feet.

The purple curtains part and Jones moves to center stage. There is a church lady wearing lemon yellow sitting in the front row next to a church lady in orange. Their hats are huge churchgoing hats. The cool cat of gospel with some not-so-predictable religious views descends the stage to shake their hands.

The cue cards flash. Jones is in command, loving the eternal spotlight.

Bobby Jones Gospel

The 30th-anniversary season begins at 9 a.m. Sunday on BET.

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