Gospel Roots

Thursday 11th November 2004

In our series documenting the roots of Christian music we highlight the influential pre-war preacher from Atlanta, REV J M GATES.

The influential pre-war preacher from Atlanta, Rev. J. M. Gates
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.  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.

Reader Comments

Posted by Joe Happy-Pork Chop in Florissant, Missouri @ 10:05 on Sep 20 2015

I am one of the foremost collectors of the prewar "sermons with singing" on 78 rpm records. Rev. J. M. Gates is just one of a group of very fascinating African-American preachers recorded in the late 1920s; Rev. Gates, Nix, McGee, Mosley, Campbell, and a few others sum up lessons about morality and death in many cases in just under 3 minutes. They all have distinct voices, moods, and cadencws which bring to these discs an urgency and vitality not always found in recordings from this era. It is strange and curious there isn't more interest among my fellow 78 collectors, as these discs can often be obtained for under $50. I strongly believe in the years to come, these early sermons will become as precious and valued treasures as prewar blues and jazz has become in teaching the history of not only African-American people but of early recorded music.
Joe Happy-Pork Chop Wood

Posted by John Washiington in Opelika, AL @ 19:56 on May 28 2012

We've found a record by Rev. J.M. Gates entitled Pay Your Furniture Man on the Okeh label dated 1913? Does anyone have any idea of what this may be worth?

Reply by Matt Mintzell in Waynesboro, PA @ 09:02 on Jun 29 2014

Hi John - Just finished reading the great article on the wonderful Rev. Gates and saw your question concerning the gates Okeh, which is actually from around 1927 - Okeh records typically have a much earlier patent date around the rim of the label (i.e. "1913") but were typically releases from the late 1920s, when on the black or red "Electric" labels. Rev. Gates originals such as yours usually sell in the $50 to $100 range if in excellent condition. They were good sellers, and most of them are not considered super valuable, however, the sermons and singing are a real treat! His issues from the early depression years on Okeh (1930 to 1932) command higher prices, as do his later issues on Bluebird, which aren't as commonly found as his 1920s recordings. Hope this is of some help!

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Posted by Gary Hill in London @ 10:38 on Oct 29 2008

I recently came across a mint 78 of the Rev J.M .Gates
and I wonder if you could shed some light on it, the titles are: Death's long black train is coming/Need of Prayer. It is on the Square label and the publishing date is,May 1926. Inside the cover is a flyer for the square records society-Race records, it states that this is a limited edition of 99 copies and has a short essay on the recording by a Michael Rosenberg plus two addresses in london for subscriptions to the series at 9/-6d. This record is number 2 in the series.
Are you familiar with this series,or can you point me in the direction of someone who might shed some light on this label and its catalogue (google shows nothing) I would be happy to forward scans if you would like to document this release.
Many thanks
Gary Hill

Reply by Clive in United Kingdom @ 14:36 on May 15 2013

Sorry Gary, if you feel inclined to get in touch - forgot my email address! - cliveianholloway@hotmail.com

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Reply by Clive in United Kingdom @ 11:33 on May 15 2013

Hi Gary, on the off chance that you see this reply after all this time - would really love to see a scan of the label & flyer if you have it still!

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Reply by Amy @ 15:31 on Sep 8 2009

Could you please tell me for some academic work I'm doing if the sermons "Goodby to Chain Stores, Pt. 1," "Pay Your Policy Man," and "Hellbound Express Train" are on it and what the copyrights listed for them are?

Many thanks.

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