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.

The Mighty Clouds of Joy
The Mighty Clouds of Joy

It's a dreary Tuesday morning, and I step off the Tube train at High Street Kensington station, reflecting on how all the trips I've had to make to the nearby Tara hotel have all been work related. First it was for an office Christmas do, then another the following year; this time around I'm here to have a chat with a gospel legend - Willie Joe Ligon of the Mighty Clouds Of Joy. At least I won't have to dance this time. On arriving at the hotel, I discover I've had a lucky break (am I allowed to say that in a Christian magazine?) -another interviewer hasn't shown up. So, in addition to Joe, I also get to speak to vocalist/bassist Richard Wallace as well. So far so good.

Richard looks calm and collected as he speaks and does some paperwork at the same time. Joe is bright and cheerful, in a T-shirt with "Jazz" emblazoned on the front and several gold chains around his neck. Looking at him, I can hardly believe that the previous day, he and his group had practically walked off an aeroplane onto the stage at the Royal Festival Hall, performed for nearly two hours, and that after spending this morning chatting to some journo types like us they'd be whisked off to Oxford to do it all over again. Where does that kind of energy come from? Duracell batteries? Three Shredded Wheat? The Anointing? And whatever it is, can I have a few ounces of it for myself, please?

"It comes, I guess, from loving what you do," Joe says, smiling. "I've been doing this for 32 years, and I get the energy from the crowd. When I see that they're into what I'm doing, tiredness leaves. I just forget how tired I may be, and go on and on."

The Mighty Clouds' career stretches back to the early 60s, when the original members were Junior High School kids in LA, and still in their teenage years. The line-up was drawn from three of the hottest gospel groups in LA at the time, as Richard recalls, "I used to have a singing group called the Stars Of Bethel. Every year, there would be a contest between the three top groups in LA - Joe's Mighty Clouds of Joy, The Stars Of Bethel, and the Sensational Wonders - and it would be standing room only. We'd hang round together, and someone suggested that we get the best voices from the three groups, make one group and start travelling." The hybrid that was formed took on the name of Joe's group and consisted of Joe, Richard, Elmo Franklin and Johnny Martin, who happened to be the only true Californian among them. Joe came from Alabama, Elmo from Louisiana and Richard from Georgia. Other members of the group (at different times in their career) included Elmo's brother Ermant, who also briefly managed them, Leon Polk, David Walker, Jimmy Jones and David Walker (both now deceased). One of the most amazing falsetto leads ever, Paul Beasely joined for a few years in the 70s, after leaving Willie Neil Johnson And The Gospel Keynotes, and prior to going solo. Paul's replacement, Michael Cook, is still with the group. After Johnny Martin died, he was replaced by Dwight Gordon, who left after a few months and was replaced by Michael McCowan.

Travelling the Gospel Highway in the 60s, playing support to better known quartets, was serious dues paying. Then, after two years, gospel radio jocks began to sit up and take notice, and the Clouds were persuaded to make a record. "We all got into a car, drove 1500 miles someplace, and made it," remembers Joe. That was in 1961. Shortly before, they had signed to Peacock Records, a leading label at that time. Joe, the visionary, knew from the beginning that they were destined for the big time. "I sort of had a sixth sense about it, even before I started singing as a Mighty Cloud," he says. "I felt that I had a calling to sing gospel as a little boy, and that God was going to bless it to be something big." His gut feeling gave him the strength to turn down all the lucrative offers of a career as an R&B singer that were offered to him, especially from his old friend Sam Cooke, who had started a label of his own.

For the next ten years, the Clouds put everything they had into their work, carving out a reputation for being innovative and extremely hard working. "We used to do as many as 200 gigs a year," says Richard. "We put 100,000 miles on a car. Every night we were someplace, just going. We'd leave home in February, and wouldn't get back until July. Then we'd leave after the 4th July, and come back in December. Then in February we'd be off again. We loved what we were doing, and stuck with it."

But that sort of dedication to duty had a price. "Some of us lost wives," Richard continues, "but this was our job. They should have understood. Some of us got married while we were travelling, so the wives knew they were on the road, but I guess they got lonesome all by themselves. You marry a person and you see them two, three months, it's really not a marriage, so I understood when my marriage went on the rocks. We talked about it; she said she had to be everything - yardman, cook, trash person, mother and father - by herself. We're still very good friends, but she just wanted out of the marriage. I was dedicated to my job of singing the gospel, and just didn't want to stop."

The Clouds have, of course, gone on to undreamt of success. They've shared centre stage with the likes of the Rolling Stones, Earth Wind & Fire, Marvin Gaye and Aretha, to name but a few. One memory that stands out in Joe's mind is the time they were invited to the White House. "Jimmy Carter was President, and they were having a gospel concert. I started to think: here's a country boy, born in the country, worked on a farm, and here I am, singing for the President of the United Stated!" One of Richard's fondest memories is of meeting two of his screen heroes: "We were doing a closed-circuit TV performance at the Waldorf Astoria in New York, and I got to meet Sidney Poitier and Anthony Quinn."

But for Joe, there's one memory which is even more important than meeting the President, and it's a story he has repeatedly told at their concerts. "There was this man whose wife had died, leaving him with five children. Then he lost his job, and was so depressed, he was going to kill the kids and then himself. One day, he started to listen to our records, and he became saved. Now he's a preacher, his kids are doing fine, and he told us he'd done all this through things we'd said in our records - 'I came to Jesus', 'There's A Bright Side' - those things had stuck in his head and changed his life."

However, it wasn't all plain sailing. Especially in their early days, dealing with unscrupulous promoters as well as facing the racial prejudice which was (and to some extent still is) rampant in America. "Once, we'd been invited to sing in North Carolina", says Joe. "We'd driven thousands of miles, and had been promised 300 dollars for our expenses. When we got there, there were lots of groups bigger than us but we did our best. Afterwards the promoter gave us 150 dollars, and said, 'take it or leave it.' I have to admit I was close to quitting, but that was when I made up my mind to go on and trust in God, and believe that all concerts were not going to be like this. And when I see audiences like last night's, I know I made the right decision."

We were in the Deep South once," says Richard, "and being from California, we didn't know that blacks weren't allowed to use the same bathrooms (toilets) as whites. One of our guys used the wrong bathroom, and a white man hit him upside the head with a hammer. Joe had to plead with him not to harm him." "Sometimes," Joe continues, "you would make a hotel reservation over the phone, and when you got to the hotel they'd say there weren't any rooms, even though on the phone they'd said there were. One hotel manager said to us, 'I don't want you to think we don't rent rooms to niggers, because we do.' Those were low times, because you felt you were nobody. And somebody wanting to kill you for using the wrong bathroom. You'd ask yourself, 'Is it all worth it?'"

The Mighty Clouds Of Joy: The quartet veterans speak of the mighty long road

Racism was to rear its ugly head later in their career, when they performed in South Africa in the early 80's. "A white promoter booked us," says Joe, "and only white people were going to attend the concert until we said we wouldn't sing unless blacks were allowed to come. They thought about it for a while, then said, 'Ok, come on'. That was the first time blacks had been allowed at that venue." Despite that victory, Joe was reluctant to take any credit for promoting racial unity. Somehow, I can't help but think he's being too modest. There had been nearly as many white people as there were black people at their gig the previous night - and they weren't all sitting timidly in their seats either.

By the early 70s, public interest in gospel music was beginning to wane and the Clouds started looking for ways to bring it back to the fore and make it more (pass the cliché book please) culturally relevant. They had experimented with contemporary soul and R&B as far back as 1965 when they recorded "Nobody Can Turn Me Around", heavily influenced by the Curtis Mayfield Sound that was in vogue at the time. That had been preceded by "He Is Able" and "Crying In The Streets", which an R&B group had covered and had a number one hit with.

Around this time, their relationship with Peacock Records turned sour. They hadn't been totally clued up on the money side of the music business when they signed for them, but they knew they weren't getting a fair enough share of the money they were earning. Sure enough, when they hired a lawyer to look into things, they discovered they were only receiving one-eighth of a penny on songs they had written. A lawsuit followed, but by that time Duke/Peacock had been sold to ABC Records, so the group found themselves on a major white-audience pop company. The Clouds set about planning a 'complete makeover' of the group, as Richard puts it. ABC introduced the Clouds to songwriter/producer Dave Crawford, and in 1974 the new look, new sound Clouds unleashed the 'It's Time' album on an unsuspecting public. The largely unchurched R&B crowd loved it, and sent a track from it into the R&B top ten. From the gospel audience, however, the reaction was slightly different.