There were few things hated more than a trip to church when I was very young. Most if not all of my childhood was spent in long, loud crowded church services that would consume the weekends with song, prayer and healing. It was all fascinating to a point (especially the casting out of demons), but the three or so hours of fundamentalist rituals would ensure that not even sleep would be an escape.
From time to time the choir would be amusing, but often the local church would be too loud, or the service too long to be of any interest to me. That was until revival time. For church goers the revival was that time when choirs and preachers from other places would visit your church (often spreading new best practices) that would eventually rub off on the home flock.
The traveling choir of the Reverend Gene Martin was one of the best around in the South during the ’70s and early ’80s. When he and his Gene Martin Singers would come to The Powerhouse Church of Deliverance in Greensboro, N.C. during summer revival, that would be the rare occasion where I would pay attention to his captivating message that was wrapped in song.
Gene Martin was (is) one of those ministers who got his start from the legendary A.A. Allen, a traveling evangelist who in the ’50s was way ahead of the curve with diverse racially integrated services in his inclusive tent meetings. He no doubt made others like Billy Graham reconsider their own racial biases in those early days before many big city churches in the South were truly integrated.
Music was a primary uniting force from which many racial inhibitions fell during that time. When the revival rolled into town, it was a time when the church would resemble the community as hundreds of people would gather just to hear Gene Martin sing. Even college students from the nearby liberal UNC Greensboro would find their way to the brown side of town just to attend one of the revival services.
Although I was a kid in those years from 1978-81 when Martin came to town, I knew there was something about his music that set him apart from the standard local gospel choir.
For one the production values were much higher than any local gospel music I had heard in person. The Gene Martin singers were made up of friends and relatives of Rev. Martin, but they were professionals who were in tune and who’s powerful voices needed no amplification to be heard. The harmonies they created on songs like Joy, Joy, Joy were not unlike the backup singers that were popular in Aretha Franklin’s music around the “Think” era.
Gene Martin’s voice itself recalled James Brown at time, but with the clarity of a backwoods preacher. Songs like “Jesus Knows’ and “God Has Been Good to Me” told stories that would be intros into his entertaining preaching routines. Put to music this narrative would inspire and prompt audiences to ‘shout’ in praise.
All of this came back to me recently as found an old Gene Martin album dated 1974 in my parent’s basement. After restoring it to listenable condition, I was surprised that the recording was actually a good one with production values that rivaled contemporary R&B music of the day. After the services, it was possible to buy records directly from Rev. Martin as well as any other merchandise he was peddling after church.
Today I’m too far removed from the old traditions of church revivals and traveling singers, but it’s a great selective memory to experience with old gospel records like Joy, Joy, Joy by Gene Martin and the Gene Marin Singers.