Years before The Winans and Take 6 were catching the ear of the mass audiences, gospel team THE MIGHTY CLOUDS OF JOYS were making inroads into the pop scene. George Luke spoke to the veterans.

Continued from page 1

"They crucified us," Richard recalls. "They didn't like that kind of singing from the Mighty Clouds." America's tightly formatted radio also presented a problem, with gospel jocks not wanting to play this new kind of gospel which they didn't understand, and mainstream R&B jocks refusing to play the records because they had the name of a gospel group on the sleeve. "One mainstream DJ refused to play it because his mother was a Mighty Clouds fan and he didn't want to offend her," says Richard. But confused DJs, irate churchgoers and the odd Daily Mail writer couldn't stop the Clouds from gaining fans with their new sound. "We went on Soul Train," remembers Joe, "and Don Cornelius said we'd gone funky!" They also found themselves appearing at several jazz festivals where again, they'd have a warm reception. But, as Richard puts it, "We could play to a Rock n' Roll crowd on one side of the stage, and they'd eat it up, then walk over to the other side, play the same thing to a gospel crowd, and they'd stay silent. But when we got crucified for playing contemporary gospel, it opened the doors for the Winans, Take 6's, Ranee Aliens and Andrae Crouches."

The Clouds biggest success in that period came when "Ride The Mighty High" got to Number One in the charts. By then another gospel act, the Staple Singers, were also having chart hits and all the accusations of 'selling out' from gospel fans were beginning to take their toll. The Clouds went back to singing the old traditional songs they'd been known for, and the collective cold shoulder they'd received from their old fans began to thaw. The gospel audience can be cruel to its favourite artists, often refusing them the freedom to grow, explore new territories, and even to make mistakes and learn from them. "People want you to stay like you start," says Richard. "We felt like we'd been cheated," Joe puts it. "If they'd accepted it, we could have put that stuff on mainstream radio and we could have gone further. My guys talk about it all the time. And I see these people accepting the Winans and Take 6 now, and we did it first. We felt that we'd been cheated out of some of our career because folks were so closed-minded at the time, but we don't feel bitter. Maybe God didn't have it in the plan for us, and if he doesn't, it won't happen." Strangely, people who criticised them in the 70s now turn up at their concerts and request the very songs they hated back then.

Richard has a few words of advice for other artists who might be going through similar problems: "Just be determined in what you do. You know you don't intend to harm anyone with your music; it's just something you get joy out of doing. Don't let anyone change your mind from what you're doing. Stand firm, because who knows what God told you to do?"

During their stay at ABC, the Clouds received a Grammy nomination for their album 'God Is Not Dead' and won the award in 1978 for their 'Live And Direct' album. ABC folded soon after, and the group signed to Epic Records. There they teamed up with producer Frank Wilson, whose other clients included the Jackson Five. The resulting album, 'Changing Times', won a Grammy in 1979. However, working with a gospel act was a new experience for Epic at the time, and one they weren't comfortable with. "After the album," says Joe, "Epic said to us, 'Mighty Clouds, you're good, but we don't know how to market a gospel record. We took a chance on you because of your reputation.' They didn't want to do another album." Richard agrees that the problems with Epic arose because of their lack of knowledge in that area, but pointed out that since then Epic had done their homework. "I talk to Epic nowadays," Joe continues, "and they talk of working out a way to sign us up again, In fact they're planning to re-release the old album."

The 'Changing Times' album is Joe's personal favourite out of the 26 that the Clouds have recorded. The song "I Came Through The Storm" is my favourite, because it reflects my life story", he says. Another personal favourite is the song that got to Number One, 'Ride The Mighty High'. "It's all about how you can't just sit back and expect people to give you things; you've got to get up, and get an education."

Their latest album, 'Pray For Me', is a live set, recorded in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1990, and featuring nine of their favourite songs. One glaring omission is Richard's personal favourite, 'I Came To Jesus'. "We've sung it for over 18 years," he tells me, "and still today, whenever we sing it, it moves the audience more than any other song. In the days when we worked with the Stones and all the others, we didn't have any contemporary songs to sing, and we'd sing it. We've sung it on country shows, sung it with James Brown, several other places - people just cannot sit still when we sing it."

The Mighty Clouds Of Joy last visited the UK in 1983, when they sang mainstage at Greenbelt, and the effect of that awesome performance is still fresh in their minds. "We had four encores!", enthuses Richard. So why has it taken a whole decade for them to make a return visit? "Nobody called for us," says Joe. "No one made the right offer for us to come. When you come, you want to be presented decently, and you want to make some money to take to your family. We've been to Switzerland three times since we were here last, to Spain twice, Japan three times, and many other places, but not England." Richard feels that the long absence was partly responsible for the less than impressive turnout at the Royal Festival Hall the night before. "If we had come back two or three years later, people would have remembered." Joe, however, feels that absence makes the heart grow fonder: "American audiences are good, but they've seen us so many times, so each time we have to do a little better. The English don't see us as much, and so they appreciate us a little more."

After tonight's Oxford gig, it's back home for a well-earned rest, and some time to think over future plans. Joe should soon get started on a book about the group's history. In addition, he has a few as yet unfulfilled ambitions up his sleeve: "We'd like to sing on a movie score; do the main title song to a major motion picture. That we've never done. There's some talk about a movie being planned on the life story of Sam Cooke, and if they do that, we'd love to be a part of it, because we feel we were part of his life and career. Besides, a movie about him would have to have a lot of church music in it, because that's where he came from." Films also feature prominently in Richard's plans. "If I had the money, I'd do a movie about the Mighty Cloud's history. I saw the Robert Townsend movie, 'The Five Heartbeats', and that could have been our story, we had the same experiences. Like in one scene, where the Heartbeats' car was stopped by the police, and they wouldn't let them go until they'd sung for them - that happened to us!"

Richard would also like the group to record "another good studio album" and make a concept video. Joe is already thinking of going on the road again. "I'd like us to tour Europe with someone really big, like David Bowie, or Rod Stewart, Michael Jackson - someone of that calibre. Do a six-week tour, playing to about 20,000 people each night. We always look forward to a tour like that. We've done festivals, but not like that. Then, of course, we'd like to visit England again." I'll definitely be in line to see them - provided it's not in 2003. CR

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.