Veteran gospel diva from Chicago, ELSA HARRIS, spoke at length to Tony Cummings
Elsa Harris would admit that in the international music market hardly anyone would recognise her name. Yet this multi-talented gospel diva has down the years sung gospel music to vast audiences in many of the biggest auditoriums in the world. The fact that fame and fortune have eluded this 68 year old veteran of the Chicago gospel scene doesn't concern this stately singer, pianist and choir arranger in the least. Elsa explained, "The greatest lessons I've learned - and I'm still learning - is how to be abased and abound. So as soon as I've finished being abased, I go home and just melt into my workspace like nothing ever happened."
In the past Elsa has toured the world performing with Paul Simon, Andrae Crouch and Pat Boone and has appeared in such diverse events as the Newport Jazz Festival, the 700 club and BBC's Songs Of Praise. More recently Elsa has become an ambassador for the Anti-Slavery cause, and a Patron of Epiphany Trust. In 2012 she performed as part of the Anti-Slavery Day event at Holy Trinity, Clapham, the church famously associated with William Wilberforce and the Clapham Sect who worshipped there as they campaigned for the abolition of the slave trade. About to fly to Norway to sing at some anti-human trafficking events, Elsa called in at the Cross Rhythms HQ to tell her extraordinary story.
Elsa was born on 23rd February 1947 in Chicago, Illinois. She said, "I was adopted and raised by a mother and her adult daughter. The lady I was raised by was kind of old fashioned - born in 1898 and in her 50s or 60s when she was raising me. Her daughter couldn't have any kids, so I was the child in the house; and they fostered children. She insisted that I took piano lessons, because she knew something of my background as far as my parents."
At the age of 12 Elsa became a Christian. She remembers that Easter Sunday vividly. "It really wasn't a special meeting, it was morning service, and I had gone by myself. My mother went to a very staunch Baptist church where you read the songs out of the hymnbook. When I took to piano lessons she said, 'Play it strictly by the music: that's what your teacher tells you'. But I said, 'Mommy, I want to go to the church around the corner where they use tambourine!' Because that was exciting to me. Sometimes she just let me go. So this particular Sunday I was there. When they called people to come forward and give their heart to Christ, they baptise you right on the spot. No parents were there - I'd walked to the church myself - so when I got home I told her, 'I got baptised today! I accepted Jesus!' And she was happy for me."
Even at such a young age the effect of Elsa's new found faith was dramatic. "The church I went to was a Pentecostal church, and they taught you how to believe God for everything - any and everything. You get on your knees, you ask for the Holy Ghost, you let go, you hold on, you let go. I didn't understand all of that then, but one time I lost a library book; all the kids in the school were afraid of the library teacher because she was so mean, and when she would talk her jaws would shake. We were in the library class one day - long story short - and she said, 'Elsa Harris, come up to the desk'. So I came up trembling. She said, 'Do you know where this library book is?' I said, 'No, ma'am, I think I lost it'. She said, 'Go back there and look on that last shelf', with her jaws shaking. I went and I was praying, 'Jesus, please show me where this book is'. As soon as I'd finished praying, my eyes saw the book. I was so happy: that was such a big thing to me at 12 years old. I remember God answering prayers from a young age."
In 1964 Elsa joined the Thompson Community Choir who, having set up shop at St Stephen's Church in the Windy City where Pastor Rev Eugene Thompson guided their ministry, had become a nationally known ensemble with gospel radio hits like "Old Ship Of Zion" and "Motherless Child". Rev Milton Brunson And The Thompson Community Choir released albums on Hob Records and the ensemble's reputation continued to grow. Elsa remembered her time with the Tommies: "Jessy Dixon was the choral director. Rev Milton Brunson was the president. I was teaching chorus at my local church and I heard this gigantic voice on the radio. I'm like, 'I've got to meet this person. It sounds like he's a big fat man with a lot of voice.' I was surprised when I did meet Jessy that he was real skinny: how does all that voice come out of this skinny man? I had an audition at 17 years old, and they said, 'We don't usually take choir members in unless they're 18, but we're going to take you in right now'. So they took me in as an accompanist and to work under Jessy as a singer. Then he and Rev Brunson decided they were going to put me as one of the leads on one of the songs on the album, which was 'I Thank God'. I was so happy that I was even asked to be on it. I never tried to make my way in this world: I've always been asked to do something. I'm like, 'Sure! OK!' I just lived in the moment. We went in the recording studio and it just took one take. They said, 'That's a wrap! That's it!' I'm like, 'Is it? Don't you have to say, "Let's do that part again" or something?' Then the Thompson Community Singers went all over the United States singing. I never knew when Jessy would say, 'Elsa, your turn. Go to the mic.' He wouldn't tell you ahead of time, 'This is the programme', 'These are the songs you're going to sing'. It was spontaneous, and it kept all of us leaders on our toes all the time. It helped make me: it built character."
In 1970 Jessy left the Thompson Community Choir and formed the Jessy Dixon Singers comprising of Elsa Harris, Ethel Holloway and Aldrea Lennox (later to be replaced by Charlotte Davis). The group released the album 'A Soldier Of The Cross' on Savoy Records' subsidiary Gospel. The following year Jessy Dixon & The Jessy Dixon Singers became the first gospel act ever invited to sing at the Newport Jazz Festival, performing their song "The Wicked Shall Cease Their Troubling" at Radio City Music Hall. There, pop star Paul Simon, who had split from Art Garfunkel earlier that year, approached Jessy Dixon and his Singers, asking them to become part of Simon's touring entourage.
Remembered Elsa, "We worked with Paul almost every weekend. We did concerts all over the United States in the largest stadiums and concert halls. We even did Royal Albert Hall in London; we did Japan; we did Paris. I was learning and enjoying every minute of it."
The Jessy Dixon Singers did not simply open for Simon's concerts but were an integral part of the show, singing with him on such gospel-inflected numbers as "Mother And Child Reunion", "Gone At Last" and "Loves Me Like A Rock" (the song on which Paul had used the Dixie Hummingbirds on the original recording). Dixon himself sang Art Garfunkel's parts on certain classic Simon & Garfunkel tunes like "Bridge Over Troubled Water". But the Jessy Dixon Singers were also given their own slot somewhere in the middle of the concert to perform gospel songs like "Amazing Grace' and "Operator".
Recalled Elsa, "I would go over to the piano and play our two selections, which still amazes me today that God would allow us to sing to mainly non-Christian audiences and sing about Jesus. Paul Simon is a Jew, but I guess he's not strictly Jewish because he would stand back and beat the tambourine while we were singing. He would let us have the spotlight for 10 or 15 minutes and we would sing Andraé Crouch's song 'Jesus Is The Answer' and we would sing another song that Jessy Dixon wrote called 'What Do You Call Him?' and we would sing back, 'Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus'. It was amazing. I didn't understand spiritually what was happening, but as I look back I see how God used us - even in Jerusalem - to sing about Jesus to Jews."
Dixon is reported as saying that Simon would sometimes ask him for prayer: "Paul believed in prayer and he believed that I was close to God, though he wasn't sure that he was close to God himself." The pinnacle of their collaboration probably came with the release of the concert album, 'Live Rhymin' by Paul Simon & The Jessy Dixon Singers. The record, which included the group's rousing version of Andrae Crouch's "Jesus Is The Answer", went Gold, bringing the sounds of contemporary gospel to a previously untapped audience."
By 1978 the eclectic Simon was moving on to new musical pastures which effectively brought an end to the Jessy Dixon Singers. Commented Elsa, "Paul was always trying new things, doing new sounds: he's just open-minded and broad about that. We knew when it was time to move on. Eight years! In the Bible, the number eight is new beginnings."
The new beginnings for Jessy was a solo career and he released his first album with Light Records. Elsa concentrated on her work as a clinician for local choirs in the Chicago area including The Chicago Mass Choir and The Soul Children Of Chicago. Teaching piano, organ and voice at the Romano Butler Charter School, the years rolled by. Occasionally Jessy would ask Elsa and the other Singers to play some concerts with him. In 1992 this unexpectedly led to a recording. Remembered Elsa, "We went to the outskirts of Chicago where Jesus People USA had organised the Cornerstone Festival. We were asked to sing as part of something called Cornerstone Blues Jam that a singer/guitarist called Larry Howard had put together. The whole thing came out on a CD with me singing the Mahalia Jackson song written by Thomas Dorsey, 'If We Ever Needed The Lord Before, We Sure Do Need Him Now'."
For many years it seemed that the Larry Howard recording would be Elsa's last commercially released track. But then one of the seminal behind-the-scenes figures in British Christian music, Bill Hampson, who down the decades has promoted hundreds of Christian music concerts and tours, made contact with Elsa. Explained the gospel veteran, "I originally connected with Bill through Jessy Dixon many years ago. I've been coming to England for many years, working with Jessy Dixon in many places - north, south, east, west. Bill was always our promoter and our road manager. Bill had this idea about making an album connected to a book that he and Danny Smith had written back in 2009 called The Blood And The Blues. That book told the story of slavery and how the African American Christians had evolved spiritual songs which pointed to the freedom that they longed for. These songs, like 'Walk With The Lord', 'Joshua Fit The Battle Of Jericho' and 'Wade In The Water', have relevance all over again now in this age of human trafficking. So a plan started to come together for me to record an album of spirituals and gospel songs."
The album 'Let My People Go' was recorded at The Grand Studios in Clitheroe, Lancashire and was produced by Tom Peters and Bill Hampson. Two of the most intriguing recordings on the set are Elsa dueting with British gospel diva Sandra Godley on the spiritual "Didn't It Rain" and Paul Simon's "Bridge Over Troubled Water". Possibly the most important track is "Go Down Moses". Said Elsa, "It takes you from the Biblical slavery days to present day slavery to help you at least acknowledge and know that slavery is still going on in the world today, but there are organisations that are coming against it. That's what we're all about."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.