For Andrae Crouch, the message remains the same. It's the medium that's changed.
He helped change it.
Crouch, the trend-setting singer who modernized gospel music in the early '70s by pumping it up with an infectious soul beat and wrapping it in slick production techniques, has sustained his share of brickbats from old-liners, but he's also become one of the most popular gospel artists in America. He'll perform at Constitution Hall tonight with his sister Sandra, Keith Pringle and others.
"I think it's beautiful to see the message riding on a different color horse sometimes, without losing its impact," Crouch said during a recent Washington stopover.
At 38, Crouch is a gentle bear of a man, sustaining the hip, street-smart image developed in the early '70s when he and his songs both started reaching across the artificial barriers that define black religious music as gospel and white as inspirational. No black gospel artist since Mahalia Jackson has attracted such racially (and denominationally) mixed audiences.
What's galling to Crouch is that many of the black gospel stations consider him too progressive, too r&b, and thus freeze him out as well. And since the pop stations still run scared of anything with gospel undertones, unless it's sung by a born-again pop star like Donna Summer or Bob Dylan, Crouch's sales figures and popularity are remarkable when weighed against the obstacles.
"It's easier for a secular artist to do something in the name of Christianity than it is for a gospel artist to do the reverse," he says. "A lot of [secular] artists put out a gospel tune, it may not even say God or Jesus, but radio will accept it, they'll play it."
"When other people do my songs, they're called inspirational; when I do them, they're called gospel, so it has to be color. Today it's worse than it's been. This system should not exist in the house of the Lord."
When Crouch emerged from his preacher father's Los Angeles church leading his Disciples he was more of a crooner than earlier gospel singers -- he's been called the Johnny Mathis of gospel.
"I want my music to be about how Andrae Crouch felt about God in the '70s and the '80s," he says.
In the '60s, Andrae Crouch was just another slight baritone voice in the choir at Crouch's Temple, but he was already displaying a talent as a writer for the choir. His first group, the COGICs ("for Church of God in Christ"), included Billy Preston, Gloria Jones (who in 1977 was involved in the car crash that killed her paramour, English rock star Marc Bolan), Blinky Williams (later with Motown), Edna Wright (later in Honey Combe) and Andrae's twin sister, Sandra, now a huge star in her own right.
"We were just teen-agers in church, 13, 14 years old," Crouch recalls. The COGICs did an album that included "The Blood Will Never Lose Its Power," a song that is now in the New Church Hymnal. "We did that album in an hour and 45 minutes because we wanted to go to the beach."
His divergence from tradition may be rooted in his early listening habits, Crouch says.
"My mother's father was Jewish, and my father is from Texas. She listened to popular music, people like Percy Faith, but my father's music was get-down, feeling music, so it was a fusion. I didn't really buy a lot of records or know who a lot of people were until years later."
After the COGICs record and the formation of the Disciples, "people started inviting me here and there in the early '70s." Two disparate groups listened to his contemporary gospel sound: Jesus freaks on the white side and charismatic revivalists on the black side.
The new music appealed to both camps, and provided the impetus for Crouch's growing popularity, as did several gospel hits, "I Don't Know Why Jesus Loved Me" and "Through It All." At first, his concerts attracted mostly black audiences sprinkled with whites, then mostly white audiences sprinkled with blacks. Now it's often half and half.
In 1981, he became the first gospel artist to sign with Warner Bros., and recorded "Don't Give Up," which later won a Grammy. "A lot of church people thought it was going to be a regular pop album," Crouch laughs. "People put thumbs down on it at first and more secular people bought it but some gospel people say it's one of our best albums."
Using members of the rock group Toto, the album included the festive Brazilian song, "Waiting for the Sun," and a cut titled "I'll Be Good to You, Baby."
"When people saw that title, they went 'oh oh, he's gone.' But in parentheses, it said 'A Message to the Silent Victims.' It was a story of God talking to an aborted child. And 'Hollywood Scene' was about young boy hustlers, and also about the problem of a series of child murders in Atlanta, Georgia. It was a comeback on people who say God hates people with alternative life styles. He hates what gets man in trouble, but He loves man regardless of what you go through. I wanted to let those people know that God loves them.
"Three years later, people are finding that 'Don't Give It Up' was a gospel record. I want people to listen to the record and make it a part of their lives even if it doesn't have something your choir director would choose to perform on a Sunday morning. It's just good music."