Tony Cummings looks at the extraordinary career of veteran gospel singer SARA JORDAN POWELL
Sara Jordan Powell is unquestionably a giant of gospel music. She made some classic albums in the '70s, produced by gospel patriarch James Cleveland. She has sung gospel at the White House before two different presidents. And among the stunning videos of her work one can view on YouTube is a duet with soul legend Ray Charles. Yet, demonstrating the curiously fragmentary nature of gospel music research Sara's major contribution to gospel music history is not mentioned in gospel histories written by Tony Heilbut, Viv Broughton, Horace Clarence Boyer and Steve Turner. Only Bil Carpenter's Uncloudy Days: The Gospel Music Encyclopedia right recognised that "Sara Jordan Powell's recognition within the COGIC denomination is iconic" and that the singer is loved for her "semi-operatic soprano and her ear-piercing gymnastics."
Sara was born in Houston, Texas on 6th October 1938. Her father was the pastor at Turner Memorial COGIC in Houston. Powell was two years old when she first sang "I Need Thee, O I Need Thee" in front of an audience. Bishop C H Mason picked her up at the age of two and said a prayer of dedication over Powell's life. "I believe that anointing has followed me all of my life," she told Bil Carpenter. Her father took his wife and children on the road as a ministry calling itself the Jordan Family. In order to do this, he bought a long limousine. Remembered Sara, "We were laughed at. He would pick us up and take us to school and we were ashamed because the kids would laugh because that long car turns the corner and part was on one street and the rest was on another street." The programme for the family group included Powell's father speaking, her mother playing piano and their children singing.
Later, Powell attended Texas Southern University where she majored in English and minored in history and drama. After graduating, Sara spent the summer with her sister and brother-in-law, who was a pastor in Chicago. Eventually, Sara took a job at Inglewood High School. While living in Chicago, she sang in various churches. The word spread about the great soprano from Houston. Sara's growing reputation eventually reached the ears of Sallie Martin, the legendary singer who in the 1940s had worked alongside the Father of Gospel Music, Thomas A Dorsey. By the '50s Sallie was working with another giant of composition, Kenneth Morris, and she and her Singers were recording regularly while the Martin & Morris Music publishing company were turning over serious dollars. Recounted Sara, "Sallie Martin called and said, 'I just want to meet you. Can you come over and we'll visit a little bit?'"
The first time she visited, Martin asked Sara to sing a song and Martin loved it. "That summer when school was out she asked me if I'd tour with her," Powell continued. Kenneth Wood was the pianist and the group was rounded out by Eugene Smith, Cora Martin and others. They toured the East Coast in a station wagon during the 1964-65 season.
Sallie Martin was renowned for having an extremely sharp tongue. Interviewer Joseph Middleton asked Sara how she got on with the assertive boss of the Sallie martin Singers. "Well, she did speak her mind. I believe that God uses many people and that you have to adjust to others. My father was a pastor and he told me that as long as I was academically smart, and spiritual, that I would be able to adjust to different people. It helped. I adjusted to Sallie Martin and we never had a cross word toward each other. We got along with each other."
After she left the Sallie Martin Singers, Sara joined the Chicago-based Voices Of Melody led by Dr Charles Clency. Also in Chicago, Powell met and married her husband. When her father became ill and passed away, they moved back to Houston to help Powell's mother, who wasn't able to handle the business issues of the church. Powell began to teach in Houston area schools. One of her students saw her sing at a church and asked the school principal if Powell could sing at their graduation ceremony. After she sang at the school, the word spread around Houston and Powell had so many singing engagements that she considered leaving her teaching job.
Powell was performing at a function in Los Angeles where James Cleveland spotted her performance circa 1971. He asked her to meet with him the next morning. He had seen her sing before but never had the opportunity to speak to her. He asked her if she had ever considered recording. She had not. "He said there may be who never meet you and may never see you in person, but your music may touch their lives because it's anointed," she recalled him saying. He said that he'd be in Dallas within a month for his GMWA convention and would like to introduce her to his producer and take it from their. Powell said that the new school year would be starting around that time and that she would not be available. Cleveland then asked her to come up to Dallas one a weekend, and she told him that she and her husband would pray about it. He gave her some music to listen to and told her that if she had songs of her own, maybe they could do those as well. A few days later, Cleveland called and asked what they decided. She said they would come. "My husband and I went there on a Thursday. Went up to his suite and he had a grand piano in there. His producer was there as well. Rev Cleveland started to play 'Must Jesus Bear The Cross Alone And All The World Go Free'. As I sang that song in his room, his producer said, 'Let's go in the studio right now.'"
They went into a studio that afternoon and recorded the whole album within two hours. The debut LP 'James Cleveland Presents Sara Jordan Powell: Songs Of Faith And Inspiration' included her first major hit, "Prayer Will Move It". Over the course of her years with Savoy, Powell recorded mostly traditionally styled tunes, usually with contemporary piano accompaniment by Carl Preacher. He had heard her perform and invited her to sing at an event for Houston's Southeastern Choir. Shirley Joiner and Brenda Waters from Preacher's group, known as BCS (for Brenda, Carl and Shirley), backed Powell on her 'I Find No Fault' LP. Preacher then became her accompanist for the next 13 years. "We went to India, Japan, all over Europe," he said. During the last half of the 1970s tracks by Sara that got gospel radio exposure were "God Willed It So", "Touch The Hem Of His Garment" and "I Must Tell Jesus". However, her biggest hit was her 1977 remake of the Banks Brothers' 1963 song "When Jesus Comes".
It was during her successful period with Savoy Records that the singer was to come to the attention of a singer who, though not a gospel performer, had utilised the sound and vocal style of gospel music to become a million selling mainstream artist. Recounted Sara, "When James Cleveland was producing my albums, we used Ray Charles' studio one night to record. A tape of my singing was accidentally left there one night and Ray Charles came across it the next day and listened to it. He wanted to know who the singer on the tape was, and he was told that it was Sarah Jordan Powell. A few years later, Ray Charles was to play and sing at a Christmas Concert in Germany. Originally, Aretha Franklin was to accompany him, but she was not available. An agent overheard and suggested me, and Ray Charles agreed since he'd heard me via that tape which was left in his office years ago." The much watched video of Sara singing "Angels Keep Watching" with Ray Charles filmed at Germany's Monastery Of Ettal in 1979 showed that Sara's powerful, emotive soprano was a creative tour de force.
Having left Savoy Records, Sara signed with New Orleans-based label Power House Records. With considerable presumption Sara asked Ray Charles to produce her Power House album. Amazingly, the soul superstar agreed. Sara recounted, "When Carl Preacher and I went out to Los Angeles, Ray said that he would have total control [over the recording. This] allowed me the opportunity to really sit with him and talk with him about my convictions and my commitment to the Lord. He told me that he reads his Bible and that he knows God in a different way. He said, 'I may not go to church every Sunday like other people, but I have a God consciousness. I talk to him and he leads me and guides me.' I don't feel everyone has to be in church to have a relationship [with God] and I appreciated and respected his opinion about that, so we had a good working relationship. It's just that when it came to the music, it had to be his way."
At the planning session, Charles asked Powell what she wanted to record. She and Preacher played their rendition of "America, The Beautiful". She recalled, "He said, 'Nah, we're not gonna put that on there.' Well, later he used it himself! He got all of the notoriety. I sang that song for him and he loved it. He said, 'That's a beautiful song. I like the way you did it.' That was my arrangement and he didn't want me to put that on there and I asked why. He said, 'Just let me handle this,' so I did." The resulting LP, 'Affectionately Sara', was a mix of traditional church numbers and soulful mid-tempo songs. Considering that Powell was a hot commodity on the gospel market and that Charles was a recording legend, 'Affectionately Sara' met with surprisingly poor sales.
Following that period, Powell attended Southwest Theological Seminary and earned a Masters degree from the University of St Thomas. "I'm not a preacher, I'm a reacher," she said of her post-graduate studies. "Over the many years of my life, I have been so disappointed with those who confess but don't possess. I said I'm going to read the Bible all the way through, because I wanted to know for myself that this journey was it. That it really does pay to serve Jesus. But I wanted to know in a more intimate way. I found the trip is worth the trophy. I wanted to hear the scholars take on issues and I just wanted a deeper understanding. I wanted to communicate to people the love of Jesus."
Sara continued to sing and she made two appearances at the White House, the first singing before Jimmy Carter. President Carter acknowledged the singer with the words, "Best wishes to you, Sara, and thank you for your beautiful rendition of 'Amazing Grace' at our concert for the Black Music Association." A few years later President Ronald Reagan called upon her as one of the few to serve on the committee for the Year Of The Bible. Her leadership role was gratefully acknowledged by the President in one of their personal meetings. At her mission in Calcutta, India, Mother Teresa heard Sara sing and offered a personal prayer and these words, "God's blessings on you, Sara, as you continue to radiate Christ."
Powell became an academic advisor at Oral Roberts University. She also spent a decade as the executive director of the Fine Arts Department for the Church of God In Christ. She was inducted into the Oklahoma Jazz Hall Of Fame in 2003, joining the ranks of bluesman Taj Mahal, crooner Patti Page and jazzman Dave Brubeck.
In 2004 Malaco Records, who'd bought the vast Savoy Records catalogue, finally issued a CD by Sara. 'The Best Of Sara Jordan Powell' is an 18 track compilation of all her biggest songs. As usual with her recordings, the re-issue brought the singer zero royalties.
Maybe it's still not too late for the singer's consummate talents to be recognised by CD buyers. Recently she was a guest on the album, released in June, 'NaroGroup Presents Juan Santiago & Uninhibited Praise: Live Worship Experience'. Her powerhouse performance on that proves that this singer and teacher still has much to offer even in this age of urban gospel. As she told Joseph Middleton, "I believe the older gospel should be preserved because it is timeless. I believe young people need to relate to it because it is our heritage. Gifts and talents are a sacred trust which should never be abused."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.