In our series documenting the roots of Christian music we highlight the influential pre-war preacher from Atlanta, REV J M GATES.
Music historians are at last beginning to acknowledge that a key factor in the development of rap music were the early "straining preachers", many of whom recorded to extraordinary popularity in the 1920s and '30s. Compilation CDs such as 'The Roots Of Rap' (Yazoo) and 'Sacred Roots Of The Blues' (Bluebird) demonstrate that the raspingly rhythmic exhortations of preachers such as Rev F W McGee and Rev A W Nix were an early prototype for the secular rhymebusters of the 1970s. Of all the black preachers who were unexpectedly elevated to recording star status in the 1920s, the most popular was the Rev J M Gates. Born in 1884 the good reverend was the pastor of Mount Calvary Baptist Church in Rock Dale Park, Atlanta from 1914 until his death around 1941. His recording career began in 1926 when Columbia Records, intrigued by the novelty of a singing preacher (Rev Gates often sang gritty renditions of the old hymns accompanied by two or three uncredited members of his congregation) released the first of many subsequent releases. His first smash hit was "Death's Black Train Is Coming", a hair-raising, fire and brimstone sermonette. Columbia Records missed the boat with their best selling reverend in that they had failed to sign him to an exclusive contract. In the sleevenotes to Document's CD re-issue 'Rev J M Gates: Complete Recorded Works In Chronological Order Vol 1' Chris Smith explained what happened. "The man who did sign him up was Polk Brockman, who continued running a furniture store while being Okeh's Atlanta wholesaler and Southern talent scout. Brockman recognised, better than Columbia had, the black audience's hunger for records of preaching and the record companies' consequent hunger for preachers - and preferably Rev Gates himself."
By the end of 1926, Gates had recorded a staggering 84 more sides for Banner, Pathe, Okeh, Victor, Vocalion, Paramount and Gennett - 48 of them on a trip to New York in August and September! It says much for Rev Gates' talent that despite frequent re-recordings of his favourites, the public taste for his fiery downhome sermonettes continued unabated. In the autumn of 1927 the reverend had another smash hit (discussed at length in Paul Oliver's book Screening The Blues), "Death Might Be Your Santa Claus" and again he showed himself an unparalleled communicator of the punishment awaiting sinners. Even after the Wall Street crash and the Great Depression the Atlanta preacher was still clocking up popular sellers. "Dead Cat On The Line" with a chilling theme of children who don't "favour their father" was one such 78. This could be described as a "playlet", a simple dramatisation of a spiritual theme that Gates and his congregation increasingly favoured. Also popular with Gates' listeners were his renowned humourous asides. For example, "Dead Cat On The Line" contains Deacon Davis admitting to having a child who doesn't favour him. But then another member of the congregation, Sister Jordan, protests to the preacher that "you askin' me too much of my business right here in company - you come to my house and I'll tell you all about it." Gates, mindful of the reputations of some preachers for philandering, hastily points out that "I didn't go down to your house 'fore the children were born, and I don't have to go down there now."
Rev Gates continued to record steadily (from 1934 to 1941 for RCA's Bluebird label). His final recording took place in October 1941 shortly before America entered World War II. Typically, the Reverend pulled few punches, "Hitler And Hell" warning the Fuhrer of impending judgment. Rev Gates probably died not long after these last recordings. His funeral was said to have been the largest held in Atlanta before Martin Luther King's. He left behind a huge recorded legacy. Maybe soon music history will give Rev J M Gates the place he deserves.The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.