In the '40s and '50s, gospel singers beat a path to the door of the Rev. W. Herbert Brewster. Mahalia Jackson, Clara Ward, Sam Cooke, Marion Williams, Rosetta Tharpe -- they all eventually showed up at East Trigg Avenue Baptist Church in Memphis to learn Brewster songs.
Jackson had a million-selling record of Brewster's "Move On Up a Little Higher." Ward had a million-seller of "How I Got Over." Cooke's recording of "How Far Am I From Canaan" with the Soul Stirrers sold several hundred thousand copies, big numbers for records in those days.
Not known outside gospel circles, Brewster was honored here over the weekend by the National Gospel Symposium in a program at Zion Baptist Church, 4850 Blagden Ave. NW. He was given the 1980 Mahalia Jackson Memorial Award.
"Mahalia was a great singer," he said in an interview before the tribute.
"She came to Memphis once and heard 'Move on Up.' I had written for our church choir and our soloist, Queen C. Anderson. Well, Mahalia and her accompanist, Theodore Frye, recorded it and took it back to Chicago. Next thing I knew they had taken it to Apollo Records and Mahalia had a big hit. tThey claimed they wrote it.
"Same thing happened with Clara. She told people she wrote 'How I Got Over.' But I didn't hold it against them. I wasn't seeking fame."
Brewster, 81, a ramrod 6-foot-2, is still full-time minister at East Trigg Church after pastoring there 50 years ("They're talking about retiring," he said. "I'm not even thinking about retreading."). Elvis Presley attended church there regularly in the '50s.
"I'll never forget the first time I saw Clara Ward," said Brewster in his rich baritone. "It was in the late '30s. She was just a little tyke, about 10 or 12. Came up to me at one of the pageants I'd written and asked if she could sing during intermission. She and her mother and sisters were having a hard time. They were hungry, had no transportation. But she sang and the people went wild over her."
The Wards became so popular in Memphis they stayed there several months a year. And subsequently, they contracted for Brewster to write a song a month for them. Out of this partnership came "Surely God is Able" and "Weeping May Endure for a Night."
"Many people don't know how songs are born," Brewster said with a smile. "I went to a church service one night. I didn't have the greatest respect for this man's preaching ability. But he did a job that night. He took as his text God is Able. He talked about Daniel and the fiery furnace. Jonah and the whale. And Moses.
"I said to myself, 'I'd better take some notes on this.' I sat there and sketched out the song as he preached. That man talked about how God is able from Eden to Calvary.And the Ward Singers did it. Marion sang the lead. Man, she could walk on that song."
Brewster has written more than 200 songs. He is in the pantheon of gospel songwriters whose work is treasured all over the Christian world. He also puts great emphasis on ministerial training (Brewster holds two degrees). One of his former students is the Rev. C. L. Franklin, father of Aretha Franklin.
"I claim that a gospel song is a sermon set to music," he said. "It is good news, glad tidings and the story of salvation through Christ." Many of his lyrics come directly from biblical texts. Gospel historian Tony Heilbut said some of Brewster's lyrics marry "the beat of Count Basie to the theology of St. John of the Cross."
Brewster said his songwriting ability is an inherent gift. His father sang by the shaped-note method and his mother taught him hymns. He also remembers his maternal grandmother, an ex-slave.
"I was about 4 when I woke up one morning and I heard her singing an old spiritual," he recalled. "She was crying. She was talking about working in the fields. I didn't understand what was going on. And she told me her soul was happy even though she'd been sold on an auction block. I think that experience burned the importance of song in my heart."