Mike Rimmer had a lengthy face-to-face with one of the pioneers of contemporary gospel, ANDRAE CROUCH.
There aren't many people who you could call a "living legend" in the gospel field but Andrae Crouch definitely qualifies! 2006 saw him celebrate 40 years of making music and a new album 'Mighty Wind' to mark the occasion. It was in 1966 that Crouch formed the vocal group The Disciples which stayed together until the mid '80s when he decided to record and perform as a solo artist.
My first memory of Crouch's music was as a newly saved teenager travelling around with a friend from church called Bob Sykes. He was always playing Crouch's music in his car and I have vivid memories of him yanking his stereo to full volume and belting out the words to "My Tribute" as we drove along. That was 1978 and it was the first time Crouch's music impacted me.
Of course, by the late '70s, Crouch had already established himself as a pioneer of contemporary gospel music taking the passion and inspiring lyrical strength of the traditional gospel of his roots and marrying it to the new styles of funky black music emerging in California and the Caribbean. I didn't know it at the time that his music had already crossed over from black church to white church and that he was one of the few artists to span both. I didn't know that there were over 600 different versions of "My Tribute" that had been recorded. I didn't know that even Elvis Presley had recorded an Andrae Crouch original.
'Mighty Wind' contains the classic Andrae Crouch sound with well crafted melodies, powerful uplifting lyrics and classy musical performances. Since the '70s he's surrounded himself with top class musicians and singers, often drawing on the best in the business. But then again Crouch himself has been hired by the best in the business to bring his vocal arranging skills to the table. The Andrae Crouch singers have worked with world class acts like Madonna, Michael Jackson and Rick Astley - okay, maybe the latter isn't world class but he's enjoyed the benefits of the Andrae Crouch singers. So have Paul Simon, Elton John and Stevie Wonder. Paddy McAloon of Prefab Sprout rates working with Crouch as the musical highlight of his entire career. Even if you're not a fan, you've probably heard his work from the soundtrack to The Lion King to Michael Jackson's "Man In The Mirror" from 'Bad' even though on the latter a misprint on the sleeve credited him as Andrea Crouch!
It's interesting that for an artist whose music would span black and white audiences, Andrae's first song was an immediate crossover success. "The Blood Will Never Lose It's Power" was an immediate worship hit in both black and white churches. Even on the radio, it confused listeners. In the '60s, radio was segregated into black and white stations and his song was played on both because white gospel programmers were convinced that he was white!
I met Andrae Crouch on a Tuesday morning in a hotel room in Nashville where, surrounded by his small entourage, I asked him some questions about different moments in his career over the past 40 years. I began with that first crossover hit song. "Well," he said, "it was actually the first time I'd ever written a song." He explained the circumstances. "If you remember the songwriter and performer James Cleveland, he had a memorial day at his house. I was just a kid. We went to his place and I looked at him through the pantry before they even knew I had arrived. There were musicians there and my twin sister Sandra and I were invited over because he had a children's choir. I was in the choir and I was nervous about meeting the people in his group."
Andrae remembers the day vividly. "When I first got there no-one was at the front door. So I just went in with my sister and we went through the kitchen and saw them in the backyard. They were out there barbecuing and making punch and things like that. So I looked at James and I said to myself, 'Boy, I sure wish I could write a song!' And this was the first time I had really asked God to give me that gift. Well, I didn't ask for the gift, I just said, 'I wish I could write a song.' I watched as they took the ribs they were barbecuing and put them over a big tub to pour the sauce over the ribs and all of a sudden, five minutes after, I prayed this prayer. When they poured that sauce my hearing went out and everything turned into slow motion. All I could hear was the blood splashing. It sounded like the blood of Jesus. And when they were pouring the sauce over these ribs I remember speaking the words, 'Oooh! It's blood!' Then I had a vision and I saw Jesus and people behind him."
He continued, "Billy Preston was with me and my sister, and I said, 'Billy! Come and play this!' And I played it first." He sang as he remembered, "'The blood that Jesus shed for me.,'" and then he continued, "And Billy took that and played it and I said, 'Oooh, that's not good.' My sister had been writing down the words and I took the paper and balled it up and just threw it in the sink. We threw it in the trash because I didn't think it was anything. I didn't understand what God was doing. It's like that most of the time still! My sister said, 'Andrae that's a good song!' She went to the trash can, picked it up and said, 'Play it again.' We started playing it some more and then all of a sudden I got into it and then when I opened my eyes everybody that was in the back came up and started singing it. They were crying. And the Lord just took that song and took it all around the world."
The writing of his first song wasn't the first time that God had moved
supernaturally to release creativity in the young Crouch. His parents
ran a dry cleaners but God was calling them to more significant
things. Andrae remembers, "My father knew that he was supposed to
preach but he would never tell anybody. But whenever he got behind a
pulpit he just testified, you know? He did prison ministry and street
ministry. People knew he was on fire and we knew my father had
something special because every time a holiday would come by and the
masses of people would come to get their clothes cleaned, if it was
five o'clock and church time he would say, 'You know what? We have to
close. Right down the street there's another cleaners.' At church
time; he always put the Lord first and that's all we knew. So he was
invited to speak at a little church in Val Verde, California. The
whole family got a chance to go. We were glad because it was new
scenery on a Sunday morning! When we got there I said, 'Oooh this is
where we're coming!' It was five people in there and they smelt like
cheese!" He laughed a rich deep laugh. "They smelt like cheese because
they were farmers. We were just kids and we would say, 'Ooooh wow!
What is this?!' But my father got behind that pulpit and he preached
like it was a thousand people out there. We bragged on him and we
said, 'Ooooh, listen to daddy! Daddy sounds like a real preacher.'"
That small church didn't have a pastor so via the local bishop, they invited Crouch's father to become the pastor of the church. In order to make sure he was making the right decision, Crouch Sr took the family back to the church for another visit and it was here that Andrae had a life changing encounter with God. "I got saved when I was nine," he remembered. "At the time I was 11 I stuttered real bad. I couldn't say one sentence. That Sunday my dad said, 'Andrae come up here.' I could never testify to anybody about my conversion because I stuttered. I wanted so bad to talk. So as a way of escape I would always just listen to music - gospel music. So that's the reason why he chose to pray for me. When it came time for him to preach that Sunday morning he said, 'Andrae come up here.' And I though, what does he want with me because he knows I can't talk? This was what was going on in my head. He said, 'Andrae, if God gave you the gift of music to play and sing for him would you do it for his glory all your life?' I said, 'Yeah daddy.' My father laid his hands on my head and said, 'God if you want me to preach, I'll do anything you want me to do.' Now he was going to do it anyway. I know that. But we just kind of said, oh he's playing, you know? But he was serious. But then I knew I couldn't play the piano and he shouldn't be making God decisions on me because I knew nothing about music. We didn't even have a piano! But when he laid his hands on me he said, 'Father if it's your will for me to preach and give up my business then anoint this boy to play music.' I went back to my seat. The next day my mother went and got a cardboard keyboard. You know where you learn the fingering and all? She said, 'I got something for you.' I said, 'What?' And she brought out that piece of paper. I thought, what is this?! But anyway, I got on it and pretended to play."
He continued, "So to make a long story short he called me up the next Sunday and said, 'Well if you're gonna play, play'. They started singing a song called 'What A Friend We Have in Jesus' and he called me up while they were singing it and I go: what does he want now? I knew he wasn't calling me up to play because I had never touched a real piano other than passing by and banging it. They started singing and my father said, 'Come up here.' And I went up there and he said, 'If you're gonna play, play.' He pointed down at the sustain pedal and said, 'This holds your notes.' And I said, 'Okay'. And then my ears popped. I heard something go *pop* and I found the tonic note, 'What a friend we have in Jesus.' I knew that was the key. I don't know how.well I do now. It was the Holy Spirit. And I just started playing."
Even today Crouch cannot read music. And yet he's spent 40 years writing, recording and arranging! After his father's death, in recent years he has spent a lot of time pastoring the church that his father pioneered. Even so he's been in demand for his music. And still God is inspiring him supernaturally. "I give all the glory to God because it's amazing!" he said simply. "To me, to be standing up somewhere. I mean, I've got a brand new album coming out and probably three fourths of the songs came when I was just standing in the pulpit in the middle of a sermon.bam! Like a laser beam. And out of all the millions of people in the world he gives ME a song. To me that's amazing! It still is, that process. And it goes to show you that he knows everything about us and he knows what we're doing and he cares for us. He just wants us to be in a place where we actually are willing to see his face, his countenance and to be blessed by his countenance."
For listeners unfamiliar with his work, 'Mighty Wind' sounds like the latest generation of R&P urban worship albums mixing gospel grooves with worshipful lyrics. With a stellar cast of singers like Crystal Lewis, Fred Hammond, Marvin Winans and Karen Clark-Sheard, along with a smattering of other singers that have featured on his solo recordings over the past 20 years, it's an impressive listen.
Crouch, who has been serving as pastor of the New Christ Memorial Church in San Fernando, California, explained to Christian Retailing magazine that there was a challenge in juggling his church responsibilities with the recording. "I had to divide my time and that was the difficult part," he said. "We ran into a few complications on schedules - me having to adjust my schedule, as well as the guests. But when God wants something to happen, it will happen."
The new project is only the latest stop on the 64 year old singer/songwriter's journey, one that may have been significantly altered if he had listened to the voices of self-doubt and intimidation. Crouch said that while growing up, "because my voice is limited and all of my favourites were these other more talented people, I didn't even want to sing. I thought, Why would anyone want to hear me? Then I thought about my favourite artists - I fell in love with them because of the sincerity that they had, not because they were the best singers."
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