When Saved Stars Turn Back
Secular “stars” who find Jesus tend to burn hot and then burn out. The high of applause and lure of stage lights is a tough addiction to get past. Becoming a Christian is a journey, young Christians need time and patience and nurturing. But these stars run out and open a church. Start pastoring. They’ve been saved five minutes, can barely find Genesis in the table of contents. And people flock to their church because, well, they’re a star. What the unchurched person sees is a pattern of inconsistency among these conversions, which undermines the credibility of the conversion experience itself. Which, if you think about it, gives Lay It Down a whole new meaning.
But, likely most famously, Al Green. All top performers who
turned away from thriving careers in R&B music when they had a
conversion experience with Jesus Christ. Richard Penniman, an
evangelist and bible publisher rep, was quoted in an early-90’s
60 Minutes interview as saying that when he got saved, Long Tall
Sally, Miss Molly and all the rest got save right along with
him. He’d never sing those songs again. Donna Summer became born
again around 1980, saying in interviews she’d never sing
salacious mega-hits Love To Love You, Baby, Bad Girls, etc.
again. Summer became almost irritatingly fanatical about her
faith, eschewing the disco-era styles that had own her her fame
and conducting invitations to discipleship at her concerts.
Legend has it Al Green found the Lord after a violent encounter with a girlfriend who threw hot grits on him. Green left his still-hot R&B career behind, giving himself over totally to God, becoming an ordained pastor of the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Memphis in 1976. Wikipedia reports, in 1979, Green was injured while performing, and interpreted this accident as a message from God. He then concentrated his energies towards pastoring his church and gospel singing, also appearing in 1982 with Patti Labelle in the Broadway musical Your Arms Too Short to Box with God. His first gospel album was The Lord Will Make a Way. From 1981 to 1989 Green recorded a series of gospel recordings, garnering eight "soul gospel performance" Grammys in that period. In 1984, director Robert Mugge released a documentary film, Gospel According to Al Green, including interviews about his life and footage from his church.
Despite what I’d consider to be tremendously lackluster Gospel fare (Gospel music requires a special anointing to write it. Lots of R&B folk cut the occasional Gospel track, but few seem to appreciate the fact a song is not just a song), Green was nonetheless inducted into the Gospel Music Association’s Hall of Fame in 2004. I have to believe Green’s moderate success as a Gospel singer owes more to simple name recognition than actual good music; I thought his Gospel stuff was pretty lame.
Summer’s post-conversion stuff, for Geffen records, was also pretty weak, rootless new-wave stuff for the Blondie crowd. She seemed to miss the mark both creatively and spiritually, while giving unique insight into who she was as a person. I mean, nobody records an entire album of material they don’t like. It’s quite possible Summer actually was a closet new waver, that the Disco Queen era was imposed on her rather than an organic product of her artistic sensibilities.
She found her way back with the near-perfect eponymously-titled Donna Summer, which I urge you to go find on eBay or something (it can’t cost more than a few bucks). Most of us church folk may have skipped this record, seeing as how lame Donna Summer’s post-conversion work had theretofore been. But Donna Summer was actually part of a pantheon of R&B recordings made by Quincy Jones at the height of his Off The Wall-Thriller era albums that included George Benson’s Give Me The Night, The Dude, Patti Austin’s brilliant Every Home Should Have One (featuring James Ingram duet Baby Come To Me), and James Ingram’s It's Your Night. This was Jones at his prime, with his posse of writer/keyboardist Rod Temperton, who wrote most of the successful cuts here, Leon “N’dugu” Chancellor (that massive drum beat at the start of Billie Jean), and the brilliant Bruce Swedien, who defined the massive, thick Jones sound by recording over 100 tracks per song and painstakingly syncing several multi-track recorders together (remember, this was all pre-digital) into what he called the “Acusonic” recording process. These albums constitute a powerful legacy of the latter days of analog recording and actual musicians playing actual instruments, and Summers’ Donna Summer is routinely forgotten when this prime Jones/Temperton/Swedien Thriller period is mentioned.
What made Donna Summer magic, though, was Summer seemed more at peace with herself and with her faith than on previous efforts. She managed to find a mid-ground where she could explore her artistry without offending or compromising her testimony, proving the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Donna Summer is an excellent model for artists struggling to reconcile commercial music with personal salvation, as Summer (with the help of Quincy Jones' Thriller team) effortlessly crafted her best album in years. Donna Summer was a demonstrably R&B departure from Summer's previous new wave stuff, with Georgio Moroder (Flashdance)-style flourishes to, I suppose, please Ms. Summer and/or her international fans. Summer followed this up with her biggest hit to date, 1983’s She Works Hard For The Money, a positive and uplifting pop album that efficiently and pleasingly repositioned Summer as neither unprincipled harlot nor Jesus freak. Landing smack in the center, she became, at long last, a person. A person singing strong, fun, magical music that doesn’t offend us, that doesn’t contradict who she claims to be and in Whom she claims to believe.
Possibly as a result of is exposure on the 60 Minutes interview, Richard Penniman became, once again, Little Richard. Performing, first, Gospel songs without the makeup and outrageous hair, Gospel fame may not have been lucrative or satisfying enough for Penniman’s ego. He was soon making appearances again as Little Richard, in full Maybelline and wig, howling away to Tuti Fruiti. In subsequent interviews, Richard’s faith became increasingly less well-defined, ultimately becoming a kind of vague universal sense of something or another—a far cry from the specific and heartfelt Christian conversion of the 60 Minutes interview.
So, too, did Al Green slowly lean back toward R&B, dipping his toe in the water with a 1988 Annie Lennox duet for the film Scrooged. While continuing to perform fairly lame Gospel whenever I saw him on TV, and now pastoring Full Gospel Tabernacle, Green nonetheless drifted back toward his R&B roots, releasing Your Heart’s In Good Hands in 1995. His subsequent R&B releases have been hit-and-miss, garnering the occasional notice but otherwise forgettable. Al’s TV appearances began incorporating more of his old hits, including the classic Let’s Stay Together—which can be rightfully interpreted as a family-affirming song.
Lay It Down, his new release, shows major promise. It features painstaking production by the Roots’ Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson and features tracks with John Legend, Corrine Bailey Rae and Anthony Hamilton. My initial exposure to the project, however, wasn’t a good one. I caught what seemed to be an inebriated Green (always hard to tell with someone that jolly) embarrassing himself on The Late Show With David Letterman, warbling and hollering the title track—which has extremely lame lyrics. I mean, wow. Bad, phoned-in cliché lyrics. Green, heavier than I’ve ever seen him, seemed to strain to make the lines rhyme, with lots of gaps while the cliché music played on. The titular refrain, “Lay It Down,” did not seem to connect to the lyrics in any coherent way. The song seemed thrown together backstage during a commercial, made up on the fly. Too much was left to my imagination about what “Lay It Down” might possibly mean.
More troubling, the lyrics seemed to be about Al meeting a girl in a bar and trying to convince her to go home with him. Now, I’m probably getting that wrong because, hey, I’m old. But another minister friend of mine was watching as well and he got the same jolt: what on earth was Al doing? He’s, I mean, he’s a pastor for goodness sake.
Or, is he? Wikipedia says he’s still the pastor of Full Gospel, which leaves me stymied about the questionable morals of Lay It Down’s lyrical content. I’m not mad about Christians (or even pastors) singing R&B (check out Sunny Hawkin's brilliant Crazy on our Media Player), and I realize art needs to be interpreted as art. But the overall statement an artist makes should, at the end of the day, be consistent with his testimony. I was confused and disappointed by the sense I was left with, of an aging, stoned Al Green desperately clinging to secular fame (or perhaps needing the money). Though Letterman introduced him as “The Reverend,” there was absolutely no spiritual context to Green’s performance. Green himself was hidden behind dark aviators, grinning and running back and forth and seeming, well, like he was high on something. He, frankly, looked foolish. I felt so sad for him.
Lay It Down may very well be a very good album. The title track, at least Green’s live performance of it, didn’t seem to indicate such. And, were this a John Legend album, I’m not sure I'd care. But John legend doesn’t claim to be a church pastor. I might be a guy who works too hard at this, but I tend to judge the music I listen to by the character of the people singing it, Gospel artists most especially.
The overwhelming majority of Gospel CD’s on the shelves right now have severely inappropriate cover art—Gospel artists looking vain and self-absorbed. At a glance, precious few of these CD’s project a Christ like image or invoke a Christian sensibility. It’s all I’m The Joint. And most of these folks just look ridiculous—first and foremost Tye Tribbett, the apparent heir to the Kirk Franklin throne. Tribbet’s humble modesty on Life, his breakthrough release, has been supplanted by images that, I suppose, are intended to look playful but come across as creepy. Both Victory, and the new release Stand Out, feature Tye looking androgynously freaky. Stand Out’s cover makes the mistake of blinging—it seems all “Gospel” artists, having attained even modest success, shoot subsequent cover art displaying evidence of that success and wealth, while missing the point Jesus Christ had no wealth to flaunt, and would never—ever—shoot a photo like that. These guys look arrogant, self-absorbed and, well, stupid. Tribbett’s also got this Bugs Bunny thing going with his teeth and needs to close his mouth.
Neither the cover art for Stand Out nor Victory invoke in any way a mode of worship or a sensibility of Christian ethics. Both records seem to celebrate The Wonder That Is Tye. Life, on the other hand, seems to give the glory to God.
The big surprise, for me at least, is the involvement on Lay It Down of brilliant keyboardist/producer James Poysner. Poysner, so far as I can tell, is largely responsible for Tye Tribbett’s career. Tribbett’s groundbreaking Life, a kind of Gospel evolution of D’Angelo’s brilliant Brown Sugar, hit like the shot heard ‘round the world. It’s brilliance was in its unconventional structure and it’s simple, minimalist arrangements. Tribbett’s writing and vision, combined with Poysner’s soulfulness, created a rarity in urban Gospel music these days—a masterpiece. And that’s not a word I toss around. Tye Tribbett’s Life was one of the groundbreaking, cornerstone recordings in Gospel music history. One of the most brilliant Gospel recordings ever made.
Unfortunately, Tribbett has since devolved into a kind of poor man’s Hezekiah Walker, his two subsequent releases becoming increasingly shrill and increasingly about him. Noisy and overblown, with clichéd, hacked-out horn charts and just too much noise all over the place, Tribbett continues to miss the entire point of the record that made him famous. Which lends increasing suspicion to the distinct possibility the black church has fallen in love with Tribbett, when it was Poysner’s vision that actually made Life live.
Which brings us full circle back to Pastor Al. with Poysner and the All-Star team on board, Lay It Down might actually be worth a second chance (Al having blown his first with the freak-show Letterman appearance). I’ll be giving it a spin and reporting back, here, praying all the while that Al shows some small sense of his faith somewhere between the lines.
Secular “stars” who find Jesus tend to burn hot and then burn out. Donna Summer seems to not be discussing her faith at all anymore. Little Richard’s spirituality seems to be about universal yadda-yadda. So far as I know, Stephanie Mills is still a believer, and Faith Evans has sung with my choir in the past (and tends to include Gospel cuts on her albums). But, both Evans and friendly rival Mary J. Blige seem to claim Christianity while still recording songs about sleeping with men they are not married to and so forth.
All of which is very confusing and, frankly, hurts the cause of Christ more than it helps. What the unchurched person sees is a pattern of inconsistency among these conversions. So much so that I’d imagine the average non-believer, seeing a star confess Christ, now scoffs, “Yeah. Wait and see.” And they’re often right.
I’d have to imagine the high of applause and lure of stage lights is a tough addiction to get past. Becoming a Christian is a journey, not an instant-on thing. Nobody is perfect, and young Christians need time and patience and nurturing. But these stars run out and open a church. Start pastoring. They’ve been saved five minutes and they’re pastoring. They can barely find Genesis in the table of contents and they are appointing themselves responsible for the souls of believers. And people flock to their church because, well, they’re a star.
So, you have a young Christian, a new believer, finding his way in the glare of the public eye and beneath the weight of the pastorate. It is a recipe for failure. And, when these people fail, when they end of up stumbling around on Letterman embarrassing themselves, people around them question and even lose their own faith.
I honestly have no idea if Al Green is a Christian or not. If he is, if he’s still pastoring, well, shame on him. He looked ridiculous. Worse, he made us, our faith, our Lord, look ridiculous, too. Which, if you think about it, gives Lay It Down a whole new meaning.