New Southern Rock Baptist Church trembled with people shouting, clapping and crying for Jesus as the Southern Gospel Singers slowly made their way down an aisle singing an old spiritual.
"I am redeemed! Bought with a price! Jesus has changed my whole life," sang 10-year-old Geoffrey Hankins as old men in green suits hummed in the background. "If anybody asks you just who I am, tell them I am redeemed."
Gospel fans at the church in Northwest's Petworth section shouted their encouragement: "Go 'head! Go 'head! Thank you, Jesus!" The Southern Singers smiled all the way out the door, where big buses idled and their passengers, gospel groups such as the Sensational Nightingales, Burning Bush, the Burden Lifters and the Sunset Jubilaires, waited their turn to croon for the Lord.
But down in the church basement, singing for Jesus was cold, hard business. Gospel artists counted their take from selling tapes, CDs and pictures. Female fans in body-hugging outfits trolled for "quartet men." And two powerful gospel promoters, wearing loud dresses and big hats, faced each other but refused to speak.
Over the last two decades, Rosetta Thompson, a 59-year-old beautician, has gone from wielding a curling iron to controlling the microphones as Washington's top promoter of gospel quartets such as the Canton Spirituals and the Mighty Clouds of Joy. On any given night, Thompson's shows might pack a horse arena in Upper Marlboro or a storefront in Northeast Washington, as crowds young and old gather to hear quartets that blend street-corner harmony and foot-stomping gospel.
But Thompson's dominance over the local gospel market will be challenged today when her erstwhile "close friend," Vi Pointer, a 50-year-old limousine company owner, will stage the gospel equivalent of the Super Bowl at the Charles County Fairgrounds.
Vickie Winans, Dorothy Norwood and Shirley Caesar are among the headliners at an event that will feature more than two dozen traditional gospel groups including the Singing Disciples, the Gospel Pearls, and Bill Hardy and the Gospel Soul Brothers. She'll even have a gospel comedian called Sister Cantaloupe.
Not to be outdone, Thompson has chosen the same day to promote a concert less than 15 miles away at Serenity Farm in Benedict. Thompson seeks to appeal to a younger, more diverse crowd with a racially mixed lineup including Cece Winans (Vickie's sister-in-law), the Swanee Quintet and contemporary spiritual groups such as Jars of Clay and Brother's Keeper. She, too, is offering a gospel comedian.
"It's hard to choose," said Vera Burrous, a Silver Spring schoolteacher and gospel circuit mainstay called "Shouting Vera" and known for big hats, tight dresses and color-coordinated shoes and fingernails as loud as her voice. "I may try to go to both."
Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn may sell more music at the Wal-Mart in Waldorf, but come this weekend, Route 301 will be clogged with Shouting Veras and other gospel regulars who are thrilled by the popularity of their favored music but worried that the business is getting too competitive.
Pointer had hoped that Thompson would either stay out of Charles County this weekend or join her in a co-production. "Every time she has had an event, I have supported her," Pointer said.
Thompson denies any intent to invade her competitor's turf. Thompson, who is black, insists she is only helping two white country music promoters--Franklin Robinson and his daughter-in-law Dawn Robinson--who want to put a diverse mix of groups on stage in the name of racial and musical harmony.
The Robinsons began hosting country music festivals and other family events on their 400-acre Serenity Farm two years ago. When she ventured into gospel music, Dawn Robinson said, she wanted to break out of the music's segregated tradition.
But Pointer, whose company, Best Gospel Promotions, is hosting "A Family Affair," the day-long festival at the Charles County Fairgrounds, said of Thompson, "She should have told that white man that she couldn't be on his event."
The music industry has always been riddled with turf battles, but gospel's new mix of inspiration and commercial success has become particularly volatile as the music suddenly is turning church people into millionaires.
Across the country, promoters like Thompson have traditionally called the shots in staging gospel shows, which were often offshoots of church programs. But as gospel's popularity soars, more players are entering the picture. In the Washington area, concerts are staged by cultural powerhouses such as the National Park Service and the Kennedy Center, as well as by individuals like Thompson and prominent ministries such as Jericho City and the National Church of God, some of which have sanctuaries as big as sports arenas.
"Christian music has become a big part of the larger music industry and can't be ignored," said Gary BonGiovanni, editor of Pollstar, a music trade publication. He noted that this year marks the first time a gospel artist has made it into the Top 50 list of concert revenues. Kirk Franklin and the Family netted $5.9 million in ticket sales during the first six months of this year, ranking 26th nationwide. "He even did better than Marilyn Manson," BonGiovanni said.
What was once a music industry backwater, in which quartets roamed the country barely making their meal money, is evolving into big business. Traditional black quartets are teaming up with contemporary artists who have more crossover appeal to reach a racially mixed audience. The result is that "gospel music sales have doubled over the past three years," said Datu Faison, who tracks the gospel industry for Billboard magazine.
Pointer said she expects about 15,000 fans to pay $17 each for her event; Thompson anticipates about 5,000 people will pay $30 each to attend her concert.
Washington has become one of the nation's most competitive radio markets for gospel, which is heard full time on three area stations as well as on weekend morning shows on FM stations such as WHUR, WKYS and Majic 102.3 (WMMJ). Full-time gospel stations such as Heaven 1580 (WPGC-AM) and WYCB-1340 now promote concerts.
Still, BonGiovanni isn't certain that Washington can support two major gospel concerts on the same day. "It almost seems bizarre," he said. "Both will do less business than if they [had] coordinated the dates better."
But Winston Chaney, WYCB's morning deejay, believes "gospel is big enough in this area to handle two shows."
Rosetta Thompson may speak in soft tones, but from her long gray Lincoln Town Car to her shiny French hairstyle, there are few meek things about her. She sometimes appears onstage at the Show Place Arena wearing a sheer black evening gown and gold slippers.
Thompson said she would have been happy to work with Pointer, but concluded that her rival was secretly plotting head-to-head combat. "They didn't want me to know that they were having their concert," Thompson said, adding that she had heard that Pointer "was going around telling people that she was going to blow me out of Washington."
As for rumors that one or the other of the women changed the date of her concert, Pointer said, "The Lord spoke to me and said, 'Bring my people together.' "
The roots of the feud between Pointer and Thompson lie in a business that has long struggled over the contradictions between faith and profit. In the 1950s, when black church folks in the segregated South had few entertainment options other than radio and occasional visits by touring gospel groups, hundreds of quartets and larger groups hopscotched around the country, some looking only to spread their faith, some more committed to their own pocketbooks.
"I have been singing for 53 years, but I wasn't always singing for Jesus. I didn't know Him," said Joseph "Jo Jo" Wallace, lead guitarist for the Sensational Nightingales. "In those days, women were crazy for entertainers. There was no problem getting a woman."
Wallace lamented that concerts rarely feature a minister who offers a prayer or an invitation for people to come to Jesus. Instead, he said, musicians are often driven by cash, which is how many of them are still paid. Groups whose records are selling well can make up to $10,000 a night, while less prominent musicians might settle for $2,000.
Thompson believes Pointer is gunning for her business. "When she saw our fliers, that's when the fire started, that's when we butted heads," Thompson said. But she also offered Pointer an olive branch: "I have no animosity towards her. Gospel music is big enough to have two concerts on the same day."
One artist said all will be well today. "Washington, D.C., is the new capital of gospel music," said singer Dorothy Norwood, who will appear at the Charles County Fairgrounds. "There is enough room for everybody. I just praise God for it all."
CAPTION: Members of the congregation at Southern Rock Baptist Church in Northwest Washington raise their hands to the music of the Sensational Nightingales at a gospel celebration.
CAPTION: The Southern Gospel Singers, with Geoffrey Hankins, 10, at center, sing their way out.