Big Black Bible Blues Band: From demons and despair to joyful proclamation

Wednesday 14th June 2017

Lins Honeyman spoke to Hal Leath of New Orleans' blues evangelists BIG BLACK BIBLE BLUES BAND

Hal Leath
Hal Leath

In an ever-changing global Christian music scene, the sub-genre of gospel blues has maintained a presence that stretches back to the earlier part of the 20th century with the likes of Blind Willie Johnson, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and a vast number of other guitar evangelists all harnessing the power of the blues to communicate the Gospel in a way that arguably no other form of music has done before or since. Whilst very much on the outskirts of today's CCM map, various sanctified blues groups and artists have sought to keep the traditions of their musical ancestors alive whilst seeking to develop new works that point to Jesus as the ultimate antidote to the blues.

One such outfit is the tongue-twistingly titled Big Black Bible Blues Band who, under the auspices of founding member, chief songwriter and pianist Hal Leath, were formed as recently as 2016 in the musical hotbed that is the Louisiana city of New Orleans. With a mission statement that speaks of their desire to bring light and hope to those in need as well as some great electric blues to the masses, the band recently launched their debut album 'Holy Roller Woman' which contains 11 tracks that, in typical gospel blues fashion, don't hold back when it comes to matters of faith. Reflecting something of Leath's standing as a keen evangelist following a radical conversion to Christ amidst the ravishes of his self-confessed drug and alcohol abuse in the '70s, the release features songs that tell of prodigal children, death row prisoners crying out to God and stark warnings against putting off coming to know Jesus as Lord and Saviour.

I catch up with Hal, originally from Detroit, Michigan, and we begin by talking about how he came to play blues music in the first place. "I used to do all kinds of music before I got radically saved in 1981 but, after I came to know Jesus, I decided to dedicate my music to him," he explains. "I was raised with the blues and that kind of music has always been in me but I'd never been part of a blues band or done a blues album until this one. I wrote and arranged all the tracks on 'Holy Roller Woman' and then gathered together some musicians that I knew and that's how the band came together."

It seems that the blues is something of common denominator for music lovers, as Hal confirms. "I don't know too many people who don't like the blues - it's such an international language. Although I've been living in New Orleans for about two years now, I was born and raised in Detroit so my influences were Motown, rock 'n' roll and such like but the blues is such a simple form of communication. It can be complex at times but it's generally simple and fun and so many people relate to it. I used to do more complex jazz fusion work here and there and I was also in a Christian metal band as well as leading worship over the years but I asked the Lord to show me what kind of music reaches people. I really believe that blues music, although it might not be pop music, reaches people where maybe other genres can't."

Hal's decision to explore blues music in Christian form stems from his appreciation of another American blues artist, the Grammy Award-winning singer and guitarist Jonny Lang. "I remember going to see Jonny in concert at Grand Rapids, Michigan when he was supporting Jeff Beck in 1999," Hal recalls. "The next year, Jonny had an encounter with the Holy Spirit that totally transformed his life. I'd picked up an album of his called 'Turn Around' which talked about his conversion to Christianity. Of course, I like other artists like Phil Keaggy, Glenn Kaiser and Will McFarlane but for some reason, when I heard Jonny Lang sing with that amazing powerful blues voice, I was blown away. Seeing Jonny and hearing that album made me want to do some blues music of my own. I believe that the blues reaches deep because everybody can relate to having the blues at some point in their lives."

Nonetheless, the appeal of the blues in Christian circles is not universal. "I've had a believer rebuke me saying that Christians don't get the blues but, when I read the Psalms, I'm reading the blues," Hal continues. "If you read in Corinthians about the perils that the apostle Paul had to face, then you're reading the blues there too! Having the blues is part of the package of being a Christian. Think about the garden of Gethsemane - Jesus had the blues there. We all get down sometimes and it can be hard to get back up but we can cry out to Jesus who is the one who can chase the blues away. I really believe that blues music has this guttural soul that touches people deep down. Who's to say that the micro niche that is Christian blues music won't open the door to the lost? I've got friends who aren't Christians who love our music and hopefully they listen to the lyrics and are touched."

One of the standout tracks on the Big Black Bible Blues Band's 'Holy Roller Woman' album is a spoken word piece called 'Goin' Home' which charts the journey of a fictional death row prisoner who comes to experience salvation through Jesus Christ. "I love to communicate hope," explains Hal in relation to the song's purpose. "The greatest love of all can reach down to even someone on death row if that person repents. Everybody has hope and they can call on Jesus at any time no matter what is happening. That track came about because a great guitar player called Joe Baldino and I recorded an instrumental version of what would become 'Goin' Home' a while back in Michigan. I loved the instrumental and it featured some great guitar playing from Joe but I thought I would read a story over it from the point of view of a prisoner awaiting execution."

As well as Joe Baldino, the band's debut release has an impressive cast list of singers and musicians who collectively add a great deal to proceedings. "The lead singer on the album is a guy called David Dunkley who actually lives in Nashville and was a percussion player for country singer Tim McGraw for 17 years," Hal advises. "David brings such an insight to the project. I've grown to love this guy. He's an amazing, humble man - so full of grace - and I just love his voice.

Lauree and Hal
Lauree and Hal

"Bill McCormick plays lead guitar and is a friend of mine down here in the New Orleans area," continues Hal. "Bill had a terrible accident about 10 years ago when someone ran into him and he was almost given up for dead. He came back out of a coma and he thought he'd never be able to play guitar again but, thanks to God, he can play better now than he ever did! Also, Laurelle Terrero sings two songs on the album - 'Capsized' and 'Take Me By The Hand'. Laurelle is an amazing woman. She's had attack after attack with cancers in her throat and such like over the years and she is just incredible. Eric Holm plays guitar on 'Devil's Work' and 'Take Me By The Hand'. He's got a huge heart and I just love his playing."

Hal goes on to mention with gratitude just about everyone else who has contributed to an album that has obviously been well-received. "We've had an incredible amount of positive comments about 'Holy Roller Woman' which is great," he enthuses. "The reviews have been really awesome. I think that's because it's the blues and it relates to people. Christians have a slightly different attitude to the blues than people who aren't believers but it seems to connect with people of varying backgrounds."

Going by the bold lyrical content of the material on the album, it's clear that Hal has had something of a radical life-changing experience in the past to bring him to the place where he is now. "I call the 1970s my decade of drugs, demons and death," he admits. "I was born in 1954 and, in the '70s, I was in bands and we would do all kinds of rock music. From age 16 to 26, I was just burnt out on alcohol, LSD, marijuana and other drugs. I really believe I was demonised by the drugs and the reason I say this is that my mental state wasn't a normal depression. It was a drug-induced, demonic depression that hit me several times in the '70s to the point where I tried to kill myself a few times. One of those times was in 1978 and I ended up in a coma for seven days.

"After that decade, I ended up in a halfway house after trying rehab many, many times without success," Hal continues. "In Pontiac, Michigan, I went to this halfway house - called that because a person who goes there is halfway between rehab and reality - and I was with about 11 other guys who were strung out and wasted like myself. The folks who ran that place would feed you two times a day so you were really hungry most of the time. I'd heard that this little storefront church, a short distance from where I was staying, was putting on a coffee house event on the Saturday night and that there would be cupcakes and sandwiches. I went over to that church that night not because I wanted to but because my stomach had got the better of me. I walked over to the door and I heard tambourines and guitars and I thought it might be better not to go in. However, I put my hand towards the entrance and something made me open that door. There was a congregation of only about 30 or 40 people and they were all facing me as I walked in but all I could see was food! The folks in that church all welcomed me and treated me with love but the demons inside me hated this but I stayed because I was so hungry for food.

"Then this guy started to preach - this was January 31st 1981, I'll never forget it - and I started to weep. I just melted under the power and presence of the Lord. I gave my life to Jesus that night but, when I went home, the whole house of demonised young men were just tormenting me. You could just tell that the enemy did not want me to go back to that church the next day on the Sunday morning. However, I did go back the next day and I was water baptised and I've never been the same since. I stayed at that church for several months and it grounded me and I was radically filled with the Holy Spirit. From then on, this shy man who previously didn't want to leave the four walls of the halfway house began to stand before hundreds of people preaching the Gospel. I've been a pastor and a preacher and I'm an evangelist now. That's another reason we formed the Big Black Bible Blues Band. You see, it's not about music or the band - it's truly about the kingdom of God. The whole thing leads back to Jesus and we must go out and fulfil the great commission. I'm all about connecting with the lost because I was lost myself and that's the motivation behind all of what we do as the Big Black Bible Blues Band."

In addition to the Jonny Lang concert having a significant impact on him musically, a God-engineered meeting with two sets of Christian music legends would also have a long-lasting influence, as Hal explains. "When I got saved, I started fasting from time to time and, during one of my fasts, I walked into a shopping mall and was just praying under my breath. There was a Christian book store in the mall and the shop had a raffle ticket competition. If you won, you would get to see Andrae Crouch and the Winans at the Fox Theatre in Detroit. I'd never won anything in my life but I only went and won the ticket! I was able to go to the theatre to see both acts and part of the prize was to go back stage and meet Andrae and Pop Winans. So, after the show, I went to meet them and they laid their hands on me and prayed for me. Let me tell you this - after they prayed for me, my music was different from then on and I really believe God opened the door for me to go to that concert."

I suggest that, as well as his experiences with Lang, Crouch and the Winans, living in the one of the most musically influential cities on the planet must have a bearing on his output. "I'm a little north of New Orleans - up by Lake Pontchartrain, about half an hour away," Hal clarifies. "There are musicians everywhere and it's just fantastic. There are so many styles - you have Dixieland, the blues and so much more. You have to understand that I consider myself privileged to have moved down here and to soak in the New Orleans atmosphere and to glean from so many forms of amazing music. I'm so glad I'm here."

As we draw to a close, I ask Hal what the immediate plans are for the Big Black Bible Blues Band. "I've already got a couple of songs for the next album which we'll hopefully make a start on in a couple of years' time," he confirms. "The 'Holy Roller Woman' album was made up of musicians from all over the US and I'm thinking about putting together a local version of the band with folks here in New Orleans to allow us to sing our songs and preach the Gospel in prisons, churches and other places.

"When you were as lost as I was and then made free," he adds in closing, "you have to tell as many people as you can and that is what we in the Big Black Bible Blues Band aim to do." 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.
About Lins Honeyman
Lins HoneymanLins Honeyman is a Perthshire-based singer/songwriter and currently presents The Gospel Blues Train on Cross Rhythms Radio on Saturday nights from 11pm and on Listen Again.


Reader Comments

Posted by Michele Michael in Austin, Texas @ 14:08 on Jun 19 2017

I have heard just a few tracks from this band and they are AWESOME...!!! Was happen to run into this article as well, and now on my way to purchase a copy of this CD. The order form was confusing, giving a choice between "Just CDs" and "Powerful Blues CD" and "Holy Roller Woman" not given as one of the choices, but I guess I'll risk it and hope I get HRW...!

Posted by Lauree Leath in New Orleans, la. USA @ 18:45 on Jun 15 2017

Thanks Lins for the write up on Hal and the band! Fantastic article! Many Blessings to you

The opinions expressed in the Reader Comments are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms.

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