Tony Cummings traces the long and event-filled ministry of one of gospel music's leading figures, BISHOP PAUL S MORTON
Light Records recently released an album titled 'The Singing Bishops' showcasing a long held tradition in African American churches, bishops who also demonstrate powerful singing talent. But though Bishop G E Paterson, Bishop Walter Hawkins and the others on the package do indeed have arresting, soul-stirring voices, it is Bishop Paul S Morton who probably has the strongest voice of all and who has enjoyed a veritable stream of successful albums down the years. But, of course, there are many more dimensions to Paul Morton's ministry than being a best selling gospel singer. He leads churches in New Orleans and Atlanta, is president of a seminary and head of a scholarship foundation, he writes best selling books, he broadcasts a national daily cable TV programme and has become one of America's most significant prophetic voices regaling against injustice wherever he encounters it. Not that prominence in America's national Church has come easily to the 58 year old church leader. He has suffered a nervous breakdown, seen his church building smashed by Hurricane Katrina and been diagnosed with colon cancer, which is now in remission.
Paul Sylvester Morton was born in Windsor, Ontario, Canada on 30th July, 1950. He was the seventh child of nine born to Bishop C L Morton and Evangelist Matilda E Morton. He was the youngest boy and had two younger sisters. Early on, young Paul Morton showed an exemplary talent for music. He said, "When I was five or six my father would stand me on the chair and say, 'my baby can sing.'" Ministering and music were with young Paul Morton from the beginning. "My family told me that it was prophesied before my birth that I would carry the mantle of my father and preach the Gospel with a special anointing." Music was always around young Paul. His mother was a great singer/musician and choir director. At a young age, he sang with three of his brothers and two of his sisters in a group called the Zionettes. His older brothers were in a group called the Senior Progressives. Paul S Morton founded the young singing group, The Junior Progressives, with Paul the only Morton in the group. He graduated from the prestigious Patterson Collegiate and the St Clair College in Windsor, Canada. He excelled in music and majored in accounting, but his calling was sure. God called him to preach the Gospel in 1967.
He told journalist Monica Watkins, "I really knew I was called to preach. I was trying to fight it of course. I started preaching at 16 years old, so you know it just was not cool to preach at 16 back then. It's a little different now, but I knew that that's what God wanted me to do, so I really had to. My father would stand me on the chair at five years old, so I always knew that I would sing, but a lot of preachers would say, 'well, either you gotta preach or you gotta sing; you can't do both.' I didn't believe that God gave me that gift to hide it. I said I was gonna use them both. Hey, I'll just break the mould. I want to do what God told me to do, so I enjoy both sides."
To Morton's amazement, God told him to relocate to New Orleans. Morton told Charisma magazine, "It did not seem to make sense. I asked the Lord, 'Why would you send me to the South, where I know nobody?'" Although he was reared in the Church Of God In Christ, Morton says God led him to visit Greater St Stephen Missionary Baptist Church in New Orleans' Uptown district. Six months later he became assistant pastor, drawn to St Stephen's Baptist emphasis on salvation and the Word. In 1975 the church's senior pastor died and Morton, at 24, was tapped as successor. He later married the pastor's daughter, Debra. At the time that Morton took over the pastorship, the church had 647 members. Over the years through a mixture of passionate evangelism, powerful preaching and Morton's gift in music, the church has experienced spectacular growth.
In 1991 the Rev Paul S Morton began his recording career, cutting the album 'Jesus, When Troubles Burden Me Down' for Onyx International Records. Said Morton, "My first producer was Thomas Whitfield. He was a man ahead of his time. He was so 21st century, so I think with his music I stayed in the flow as it relates to keeping music relevant, and that's what I still endeavour to do in my music ministry. Whatever you do, you have to always be open to positive change. The message stays the same, and that's the way it has been for me, but just relating to people and how you sing and how you do it, different beats, the different songs that you can sing, but always leading people to the answer. And the answer is Jesus. So the message is really the same."
In 1992, Morton's church changed its name to Greater St Stephen Full Gospel Baptist Church Fellowship. Morton convened top church leaders, including Kenneth Ulmer of Faithful Central Bible Church in Los Angeles and Eddie Long of what was then New Birth Baptist Church in Atlanta, to found the Full Gospel Baptist Church Fellowship, seeking to meld the best of the black Baptist and Pentecostal traditions. With his newly named church choir, Paul recorded an album for Ichiban Records, 'God's Got Those Healing Hands' and the following year made another, 'We Offer Christ', for Blackberry Records. It was Morton's first gospel hit.
With Morton as presiding Bishop, the Fellowship held its first national conference in 1994 when 25,000 descended on the Louisiana Superdrome. The following year a sermon album, 'Dealing With Impossibilities', was released though it was years later when re-issued by Light Records that it began to sell well. Also in '95 the Fellowship at its convention at the Superdrome recorded an album of worship, 'A New Thing: Experience The Fullness'. Although the album didn't credit Bishop Paul on the front sleeve, he was very much in evidence, both as executive producer and lead vocalist on a couple of tracks.
Meanwhile, St Stephen's ministry in New Orleans continued to expand. In 1997 it provided affordable housing to needy families. St Stephen Manor opened near Morton's Uptown church to house about 50 families. Morton bought an office building to serve as headquarters for community-related efforts and the Full Gospel Baptist Church Fellowship's national headquarters. GospoCentric released another Full Gospel Baptist Fellowship Mass Choir album, 'Bow Down And Worship Him', this one featuring Morton performing a scorching duet with legendary Detroit pastor Marvin Winans.
In 1998 Morton sadly suffered from a nervous breakdown. Today he speaks candidly about the experience and has written a book, Why Kingdoms Fall, describing the struggle of his life between mental breakdown and his miraculous spiritual restoration. The following year he was back making music with his most ambitious album to date when GospoCentric released the urban styled 'Crescent City Fire'. Maybe it was partly in response to the sleeve photo which had the good Bishop dressed in leather and sporting shades, looking more like a gangster than a bishop, but the conservative church audience weren't taken with Morton's attempt to connect with urban youth. As put succinctly in Uncloudy Days: The Gospel Music Encyclopedia, 'Crescent City Fire' "leaned to the hip-hop side but was a sales disaster."
Other aspects of Morton's ministry though were highly successful. The Greater St Stephen Church had grown to more than 20,000 members. Morton was named an honorary city council member and was included in many key New Orleans leadership efforts. In 2003 Bishop Morton formed Tehillah Records for the release of 'Seasons Change' with Morton backed by the Full Gospel Baptist Church Fellowship Mass Choir. One very special guest on the project was the Queen of Soul herself, Aretha Franklin. Morton told the Detroitgospel website, "I love the title cut and of course appreciate the Queen of Soul. She is a great gift. There is really a message in the theme song because I think people get stuck in their season and even this time of the year they get depressed and get down. People need to know that seasons change, it's not going to always remain the same, and if they can understand that then victory is going to be in their lives. So that's why we try to have a message in every song we do. Then I wanted to bring in variety, a good quartet song with Keith 'Wonderboy' and Paul Porter, just going in a different way. I guess in the back of my mind I always wanted to do a quartet song. So it was definitely exciting for us. Then there's contemporary, traditional - there's something really on the CD for everybody."
It was the subsequent album to 'Seasons Change', 'Let It Rain', which became Morton's biggest success of all. Including the gospel hit singles of CeCe Winans/Lauryn Hill's "On That Day" and Bishop Morton's soul-stirring reading of the title track, the album climbed all the way to number one. As well as the phenomenal sales success of 'Let It Rain', 2003 also saw Bishop Morton presenting a new spin-off of the Fellowship, the Full Gospel Baptist Church Fellowship Women's Mass Choir. Their 'Daughters Of The Promise' album was another top 30 Gospel hit.
On 29th August 2005 disaster struck when Hurricane Katrina wiped out virtually all of Greater St Stephen's New Orleans facilities, except for the original Uptown church building. Morton was in Baltimore when the storm passed through. Weeks later, when he finally was able to enter New Orleans, his church members had been scattered to Houston, Baton Rouge, Atlanta and other cities. He launched right into rebuilding efforts, helping lead a coalition of pastors. The city looked to him for strategic organisation of the thousands affiliated with his ministry.
But today Morton remains unsatisfied with the rebuilding effort. He told Charisma magazine, "it is still going too slow for me. When you look at the Ninth Ward in east New Orleans. . .it still seems like a Third World country." There is way too much red tape, he commented. Just getting a building permit takes months. So does accessing federal and state funds. The problem is "definitely politics." Morton said the hurricane exposed public corruption in the city; it showed the ugly realities of the city's deep sin problems. And it exposed latent racism, he said, something he believes remains not only in New Orleans but also throughout the nation. "I think that we have come a long way concerning race in our nation. Never in my lifetime did I think our white brothers and sisters might support a black man like Barack Obama for president as they have. We have come a long way there. But we have to learn how to appreciate each other. It's not just on the white side. We have to realise that there are some intelligent, gifted people on both sides [of the racial divide] and we need to be united."
In response to the Hurricane Katrina disaster, Bishop Paul and his Greater St Stephen choir released a defiant declaration of faith, 'Still Standing'. The Bishop told Monica Watkins, "'Still Standing' is important to me because it really came out of the Hurricane Katrina experience. When you lose everything, when you lose your church, you lose your house, you lose your automobiles, I mean members scattered into 32 states. . .there were people who were wondering, 'How is he making it; how is he making it?' I felt the best way to really let people know that I was alright is to put it into a song - I'm still standing. I felt that was the best place to record 'Still Standing', because that's where we went through it. We went through it together in the city of New Orleans, and they needed that uplift, that message of hope to let them know, 'Look, God did it for me; he's going to do it for all of you. If you're having problems with FEMA, if you're having problems with your insurance company, if you've lost loved ones, God is going to see you through.' So, I thought it was just the right place to do that project."
After Hurricane Katrina struck, Morton had considered starting a new church in Houston where many of his ex-congregation were. But instead he decided to plant a church in Atlanta. It did not seem altogether rational, much like when God first told him to move to New Orleans in his youth. Morton started the Atlanta church with 220 people. Playwrite and film producer Tyler Perry, a former St Stephen member, gave the Atlanta church $5 million to help get it started. Based in Atlanta himself, Perry is helping build a major new campus for the church's ministries and plans to put his new movie studio there. "It's going to be like Hollywood in Atlanta," Morton said, noting that today the church draws 6,000.
Today Bishop Morton is as busy as ever. In recent months three albums have been released bearing his name. Koch International have released 'Praise And Worship: Embracing The Next Dimension' with the impossibly unwieldy front sleeve credit of Bishop Paul S Morton, The Full Gospel Baptist Church Fellowship, Pastor William H Murphy III; Light Records have released Bishop Paul S Morton And The Full Gospel Baptist Church Fellowship Mass Choir's 'Cry Your Last Tear'; and a solo album, 'Paul Morton's Christmas' (with the good Bishop singing everything from carols to "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas").
In the social political arena, Morton continues to stand for biblical righteousness. When the Congressional Black Caucus signalled support for gay marriage, Morton went to Washington DC to take them to task. And when a 13 year old black youth was arrested and charged spuriously with murder in New Orleans in 2007, Morton challenged justice officials via the media, asking if race influenced the charges. Morton also is keen to challenge those believers straying from the faith into false teachings. He said recently, "The Devil is taking the more powerful and influential people and using them around the nation to lead people astray. Look at Oprah Winfrey. Go to the internet and see the message she's telling people. We have to break yokes and tell people to dare to believe again. People are searching, and Jesus is the only way."