Tony Cummings reports on the five decade career of crossover gospel pioneers the RANCE ALLEN GROUP
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Fantasy/Stax released 'The Truth Is Marching On' which barely made the R&B Hot 100 in 1977. However, before departing Fantasy/Stax circa 1980, the group produced two more decent-sized R&B hits, "Smile" and the Top 25 gospel ballad "I Belong To You" in 1979.
The Rance Allen Group was without a deal for a while before Word/Myrrh Records picked them up circa 1983 for the first of three LPs. Both 'Hear My Voice' (1983) and 'He Is The Light' (1986) showed that Rance had lost none of his soul power but the only one that hit was 'I Give Myself To You', which hit number five on Billboard's Gospel Chart in 1985.
As the late '80s rolled on the Rance Allen Group made fewer live appearances and the gaps between albums increased. This was sadly ironic considering that the R&B gospel sound that they had helped pioneer was scoring big for acts like the Winans and Commissioned. It wasn't until 1991 that Rance and his brothers enjoyed something of a renaissance. Their old friend from their halcyon days at Stax Records, Al Bell, had formed a new company, Bellmark Records, and one of the first acts he signed were the Rance Allen Group. With its punchy R&B rhythms the 'Phenomenon' album was a powerful return to form and the pulsating track "Miracle Worker" received massive gospel radio airplay and even reached 32 in the mainstream R&B single chart. 'Phenomenon' became the group's first number one album on the gospel charts. So it was strange that it was to be four years before Bellmark released a followup, the infectious 'You Make Me Wanna Dance'. Cross Rhythms' reviewer wrote, "Overall, the attempts to update Rance's sound to '90s R&B grooves and soulful ballads work well while on the slower cuts Rance shows all of his soul power first heard on those Stax Records classics. Throughout, his amazing ability to sing in harsh gruffness then leap in bursts of purest falsetto makes for thrilling listening."
With Bellmark going the way of the dodo there was another lengthy period away from the album racks. Rance spent much of his time pastoring the New Bethel Church Of God In Christ in Toledo, Ohio. In 1998 Podium Records released an album of Rance singing with The Soul Winners Conference Choir. But it was 2002 that the Rance Allen Group came bouncing back. Then one of the young urban gospel hitmakers who had benefited from Rance's pioneering years, Deitrick Haddon, produced the Rance Allen Group's 'All The Way' album for Tyscot Records. With a single from the set, "Do Your Will", becoming a major gospel radio hit it seemed that at last the African American church was giving the accolades it had long bestowed on another gospel crossover pioneer, Andrae Crouch. Tyscot's 2004 album 'The Live Experience' was another major gospel hit. Recorded and filmed (there was a DVD also released) at Detroit's Greater Grace Temple and with such guests as Kirk Franklin, LaShun Pace and Fred Hammond, 'The Live Experience' featured highly charged renditions of oldies like "Ain't No Need In Crying", "I Belong To You", "Miracle Worker" and "You Make Me Wanna Dance". Its adrenaline-pumping atmosphere made 'The Live Experience' one of the most exciting live albums ever. At the time of its release in February 2004 Allen told Billboard magazine that it was Tyscot's president Bryant Scott who was responsible for urging the veteran to record a live project and how the audience/congregation added greatly to the project. "I'm as happy as I can be over what took place in Detroit. Those people were so very alive. It was a cross-section of people, but the one thing that pulled them all together is that they were there to have a great time and to help me and plug into this anointing that was definitely in the room. It was just a night that was electrifying and so very exciting for everybody - myself included."
Gospel superstar Kirk Franklin graciously paid tribute in Billboard to Franklin's vocal ability. He told Billboard, "There are three people that have changed my life as far as singing is concerned: Stevie Wonder, Rance Allen and Donnie Hathaway. To be associated with Rance Allen in any form is a dream come true." Rance admitted that recording/filming with Kirk Franklin was a nerve-racking experience. "We had rehearsed the song that we were going to do with him with one ending. When he got in there and started ministering, the Lord met him in another way and he directed the band, my brothers and myself in a completely new ending of the song that was just a powerhouse. For a hot second I was like, 'Oh my goodness!' But after that hot second left me I said, 'Lord, this is in your hands. You are doing something wonderful here, so I'm just going to go with the flow.'"
In 2006 Rance was back in the studios in Toledo recording the album 'Closest Friend'. But it was the relese of 'The Live Experience II' which became another huge gospel hit featuring in Billboard's Gospel Charts for many weeks). 'The Live Experience II' was, like its predecessor, recorded at the Greater Grace Temple in Detroit, this time with guests Vanessa Bell Armstrong, Paul Porter and Pastor Shirley Caesar. With the exception of two medleys of past hits the album featured all new material many of the songs co-written with the Rance Allen Group's musical director and album producer Chris Bird. Outstanding moments included the nine minute plus version of the hit single "In You I Trust". Wrote The Black Gospel Blog, "You owe it to yourself to hear the album version, which climaxes with Rance Allen and Paul Porter shaking the church rafters with shouts that would impress Archie Brownlee (legendary lead singer of the '50s quartet Five Blind Boys Of Mississippi) and Bob Washington (once the frontman for The Gospelaires). 'The Live Experience II' captures the relentless exuberance of the Rance Allen Group in concert. As Rance sings, 'Let the music get down to your soul'."
One of the many remarkable things about the Rance Allen Group is that they have retained their original lineup for 40 years. As Rance told Cross Rhythms, "It is still myself, my older brother Thomas and my younger brother Steve. I tell you it's been a very enjoyable experience. I won't say that we've never had any problems because we have. But I think again because of our upbringing and the fact that we are blood brothers, we've always been able to work through whatever came our way."
Down the decades a sad history has developed where countless singers brought up in the black church have been tempted away to sing in the mainstream R&B and pop world and, in the process, let go of any faith they once had. Allen spoke about this sad phenomenon, "There are plenty of people in the churches who have got this wonderful gift and they learn how to approach it and how to use it. Then all of a sudden something comes along that tempts the person - it might be money or fame or whatever. All of a sudden they're gone. Once you get out of the will of God, get out of the church, the Enemy himself comes after you not just to kill, steal and destroy but, as I often tell people, he wants to actually make a spectacle out of you, a person who will get negative attention. So this is why you hear about the cocaine users and the drug addicts and the alcoholics and perverted people whose musical roots are in the church. Satan wants everybody to know that they came from the church and to see how they ended up. From [the time I was] a child my grandmother and grandfather pastored our church. My mother was very concerned about me and all of her children. They noticed that I had this talent for singing and playing music and so they went to work on me early to make certain that I would not become what the church called a sell-out: take what God has given you and then use it to glorify worldliness or what have you. So that was never too much of a problem for me because of my upbringing, what my parents had instilled into me early in my life."
Cross Rhythms finished its interview with the veteran gospel pioneer by asking Rance whether there was anything he could say to encourage believers to keep going in their spiritual journey. "Well, I was just looking at the material that I think I want to preach on this coming Sunday. It just basically says that once you give your life to Jesus then everything significant to your new life will be found in his name. When you turn to Acts, Chapter 4 and verse 12 it will actually tell you that there is no other name given under Heaven whereby men must be saved other than the name of Jesus. So I'm thinking that I'm gonna preach on Sunday 'In the name of Jesus we have victory.' Do you remember that old song? We've got the potential to overcome temptation, to get victory, if we stay walking close to Jesus."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.
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