In England to record a special television appearance for 'People Get Ready' TRAMAINE HAVKINS spoke to James Attlee
Among the pantheon of female gospel superstars, Tramaine Hawkins lays no claim to the title "Queen of Gospel". Leave that for the rootsier, more down home performers, she would seem to say - Tramaine has always been the sophisticated one, with a profile and a dress sense more usual on a Paris cat-walk than in a store-front church. No, the name those around her have given Tramaine is First Lady - and when it comes to style we're talking Jackie Kennedy, not Nancy or Mrs Bush. Like that other First Lady, Tramaine's life and career has not been without its share of controversy - yet despite the glamour, the crossover success and the allure of stardom as an actress Tramaine remains proud of her roots and firmly committed to remaining a gospel performer. Her background could hardly be more soaked in black church and gospel music. Relaxing back stage at TVS studios resplendent in a full-length gold mac, she explained how she probably came nearest among contemporary gospel performers to being literally born in church!
"My mother gave birth to me the night she sang in a broadcast (a church concert) - she left the broadcast to give birth to me, so I've been in church all of my life. My grandfather is a bishop, my mum Lois Davis was known as the Songbird of he Bay area - she just didn't get around to recording, it was a little bit before recording-times for her. My aunt is a well-known evangelist; she's on television quite a bit in the states. I have two uncles who are ministers and my grandfather has a church in Los Angeles, so I'm surrounded. I think I've been very blessed and fortunate to have been in church all my life, it's kept me out of a lot of trouble that the kids are facing today." "Being in church" has meant singing in choir at the Ephesians Church of God in Christ in Berkeley, California, where her grandfather was the pastor, from the astonishingly young age of four. It's meant graduating at seven years old to membership of the Heavenly Tones - an all-girl gospel group who travelled up and down the West Coast until Tramaine's mid-teens. (At 10, she cut a single with the Tones, and at 12, the group were being produced by the legendary James Cleveland). It meant at 15 deciding to stay with gospel, and turning down a lucrative offer, accepted by the rest of the Tones, to become a backing singer with Sly and the Family Stone. It meant performing with Walter Hawkins' first group The Praisers of God, with Andrae Crouch and with the Edwin Hawkins Singers. Above all it has meant music.
"We were always going to someone's church and ministering and singing. It was a way of life, it was our whole community. That was what we did - that was our outlet. When I was coming up it was like if I couldn't go to church I would just die. In the (San Francisco) Bay area there was a lot of singing - if you were involved in one group you were involved with two or three groups. If you were in one choir you were also in the Community Choir. I didn't know anything other than that."
Tramaine's upbringing was like that of anyone of thousands growing up in the black Pentecostal circles of thirty years ago. Happy, full of music and of friendships, with a strong sense of community, her raising was also very strict and sheltered from much of the social change that was sweeping the western world in the sixties. Within Tramaine's denomination at least things have changed.
"We are much more a people now that have somewhat come into our own as far as knowing what the Bible really says, and not just what we were told it said by a lot of missionaries that had come up in such a strict environment that that's all they knew, so that's all they taught us. They forgot about the grace period in those days - were we allowed to wear earrings? Oh no, none of that, no jewellery - I would be totally Jezebel if I was to put myself back in the 40s and 50s. Do you still have that attitude in churches in Britain;1 Because I came up under it I can well understand it, and as I said I'm very thankful and appreciative for my upbringing, the scripture says 'Train up a child in the way he should go and he will not depart from it' and that's so true. I look at our community and our young people today and there is no training, there is no discipline, there is no laws...its left up to them to raise themselves and a lot of them don't know how to do that. I didn't know how to do it when I first had my child - children don't come with instructions, so if you don't get it from God nine out of 10 times you're doing it the wrong way."
Tramaine is the first to acknowledge the slip side of the benefits of a sheltered Christian upbringing. At 1 6 she was singing soprano with the Northern California State Youth Choir, directed by pianist Edwin Hawkins. The choir made an album to sell at conventions and concerts to raise funds for their church and borrowed enough money (partly from Tramaine's mother!) for a modest initial pressing of 500 copies. The album contained a re-arrangement of a traditional hymn, "Oh Happy Day." What followed is the stuff of which legends are made. A warehouse hand took a copy of the record to an underground station in San Francisco, and the record became a hit in the West Coast, and then New York, offers flooded in from record companies eager to get on the back of the novelty smash hit, and soon the album was repackaged and released as 'Oh Happy Day' by the Edwin Hawkins Singers. 'Oh Happy Day' became a worldwide number one. Nothing in their church background had quite prepared Tramaine and her friends for the whirlwind tour that followed, Madison Square Gardens, the Yankee Stadium, The Albert Hall in London, pop festivals and night clubs - they even toured the Playboy circuit and the Las Vegas Casinos. A girl from Tramaine's background would not have visited nightclubs before.
"Sometimes what a strict upbringing tends to do is that when you are exposed to a different way of life, like what happened to us with "Oh Happy Day" -we were exposed to the European way of life, having the opportunity to travel gives you lots of experiences...You're influenced by the environment you're around and sometimes if you put a person in such a strict environment, when they find out there are other things to do they go crazy with it - kids today can't afford to go crazy, that's the danger in that. That's why to me it's much better to give people guidelines, but give them a grace period as well. Let them know 'Listen this is how I'd rather you do it, but these experiences are here...' so they won't be totally alienated and unknowledgeable, because it can be a tragedy when they force 'em they don't know what to do with 'em."
Edwin Hawkins' decision to take gospel music into the pop arena caused a predictable out cry from the church community back home, and similar controversies have dogged Tramaine's career. After her marriage to Walter Hawkins in 1 971 and her work on his massively successful 'Love Alive' album and its successors in the late 70's, by the early 80's Tramaine felt ready to develop her own career as a solo artist. Two albums on gospel label Light preceeded a move to mainstream label A&M in 1985 and a serious stab at crossover success. The name of the album was 'The Search Is Over' and the track that caused the fuss was "Fall Down (Spirit Of Love)."
With its massive synth bass hook line it's state-of-the-art drum programme and Tramaine's impassioned performance, A&M knew they had a potential crossover hit on their hands. 1 2-inch mixes were duly released to the clubs and Tramaine found herself in the unlikely position of having a No 1 on the Billboard dance-orientated charts. It even made no 24 in Tony Cummings' 1001 all time fave gospel tracks (Spirit of Rock and Soul, Cross Rhythms no. 3) and accolades seldom come weightier than that!
The predictable furore followed among conservative black-church circles, Tramaine (whose sanctity was already in question after her move to a non-gospel label) had sold out the church in favour of worldly fame and fortune. Sometimes it seems there's nothing that grates more with the folks back home than success. Like so many before and since, Tramaine was stung. Six years later, the wounds are yet to heal completely.
"I don't think they were ready for it - I don't think they're so ready now. It's been six years but I don't know when they will be. I don't think they understand the idea of reaching the masses. They place too much emphasis on the packaging of the song, we need to place more emphasis on prayer and support behind the artists themselves. We worry too much and feel that we have ownership of gospel artists in the gospel community. We've invested in their lives so we put ourselves in a judgmental seat - that happens too much in my opinion. There's too many people saying 'she's left, she's not a Christian any more because she's singing this type of music' Not so - the whole time I was singing 'Fall Down' I followed that music up with my personal testimony. When young people lock into a certain sound they go back and check everything you do. That happened with 'Fall Down'. People didn't only buy 'The Search Is Over'; they were saying 'what else does Tramaine have'. They bought the first album, they went back and bought 'Oh Happy Day', they bought 'Changed' and 'Going Up Yonder', more traditional gospel songs which aren't offensive to the gospel community."
"We've got to remember that in 1969 'Oh Happy Day' wasn't traditional - it was very contemporary. Labels keep changing - why should we be so concerned about what the music is doing, its the life behind the music. That song gave me the opportunity to witness and to minister and to lead more young people to Christ than I ever did in the church. Young people can come to church every Sunday and hear the same message over and over again and they're just getting fat on the word, but the young people who heard 'Fall Down' were hungry - they were new babes, they went out and told their friends. I've got letters, I've got documents on this - I don't know when the community will ever be ready. The same thing happened to the Clark Sisters when they did 'You Are The Sunshine' - to the Winans when they did the rap thing. It's just a way to gather up those sheep, you know. I hope your readers will hear me when I say we need to put more emphasis on prayer and support for those of us who are out on the front line and who are giving and who are being instruments for Cod to use. Those prayers won't lead us astray, 'The prayers of a righteous man availeth much'. The results would be much more fruitful and we could share in those results."
Like many gospel artists before her, Tramaine's stay on a mainstream label was short-lived. On the one hand she lost credibility with fans from her own black church background and on the other, her secular record label could hardly be expected to understand the underlying motivation behind her music. Still, much had been achieved and she had joined the select ranks of gospel performers who make a mark on the American national consciousness.
In 1988 she signed to gospel label Light, and perhaps more importantly, found a manager/producer in Lee Magid prepared to develop her potential. Like other '90s gospel superstars, she has broadened out into acting and has gained considerable television exposure, not least through singing at Sammy Davis' funeral, which was televised worldwide.
She again raised eyebrows by performing on Carlos Santana's latest album. Carlos, a recent convert, was too tainted with Godless rock and roll for the taste of gospel music's moral watchdogs. As always, Tramaine weathered the storm.
"I'm always engulfing myself in an area of controversy. I got a lot of criticism for not only singing on Carlos' album but for asking him to sing on mine" (Tramaine's latest album, Live) "Again, the gospel community didn't know he was a born-again Christian. However, to me that shouldn't have been the main purpose of me asking him to play. My invitation wasn't based on what he could do but what God could do. God has given Carlos the ability to play - good things, all of that comes from God. Until recently Carlos has been playing a rock style - since he accepted Christ his music is more about heavenly things, but he's still Carlos Santana - he's not a gospel artist. He didn't come up in the church so he's still playing Santana style. The idea of his participation on my album is that he's just a fantastic God-gifted person. I wanted his expertise, because I knew he was capable of playing out of his heart and I wanted the gospel audience to experience that. I knew what God was going to do - when he finished with that audience at my concert all those nay-sayers were jubilant! But the bottom line is, even if he hadn't of been a Christian if he'd just played out of his heart I believe God would have touched his heart and he would have started seeking after God at that point. That's the kind of vision I think we need to have. Not so much what we can do, but what God can do."
The live album project was obviously important to Tramaine. Not only was it her first solo live recording, but it was recorded back home in the Bay, in Oakland, with her parents and grandparents in the audience. (Her grandfather, Bishop E E Cleveland is now 90, and her grandmother 86!) The album won a grammy for Best Traditional Soul-Gospel album in the States, so Tramaine is back in traditional territory despite having such unconventional guests along. As well as Carlos Santana, the backing house-band also featured organist Jimmy McGriff and tenor player Stanley Turrentine, jazz luminaries both.
The track on which Santana guests, "Lift Me Up" is a stand out in the set, highlighting just what is so special about gospel's first lady. American gospel seems to have been somewhat dominated recently by a Detroit sound-among female singers especially, part of Mattie Moss Clark's legacy handed down through numerous workshops and via the albums of the Clark Sisters and artists like Vanessa Bell Armstrong, the style involves ever-more complex and technically breathtaking improvisations and elaborations which can turn lyrics into mere sound-effects. Tramaine, though still relatively young, is linked back to a different tradition. Though in gentler moments her voice takes on an operatic timbre, and though she has experimented with so-many genres during her career, to me she is at her strongest when she's belting out the gospel with all the raw passion at her command.
As the band lope into a relaxed but funky groove 'at the beginning of "Lift Me Up"' Tramaine promises to take the audience 'back to church, old-time southern style'. In gospel partance this means hold on to your hats, folks, I'm about to let rip! For the first verse and chorus she holds back, but the tension between the controlled band and precision tuned choir behind her and the sheer soul-power of her delivery is acute. Then at the end of the first chorus she lets loose a sanctified scream that has the audience on its feet with a cheer, and from then on in it get's wild, chorus two is mostly delivered in that upper register holler that made such an impact on "Fall Down" but because it's Tramaine you always get all the lyrics. "Lift me up - help me stand - guide my feet - hold my hand." Then we're into jimmy McGriff s impossibly soulful organ solo, recalling the finest moments of Billy Preston, before Carlos Santana enters with a clipped blues phrase that is simply electrifying. In a few seconds he takes us on a quick tour of the history of the electric guitar, from the blues to the trade mark dive-bombing sound-effects of his playing with Santana, as Tramaine exhorts "Lift Him Up Carlos." Then Tramaine herself re-enters and the guitar and her voice share centre-stage, her vocal chords in no danger of being forced into second place as the two consummate performers swop phrases.
There you have it - an artist with an impeccable gospel pedigree performing traditional-style gospel yet including all the music forms that gospel has given birth and sustenance to in one track - blues, jazz and rock. It seems the inveterate experimenter has found a way to broaden the music's boundaries and have the home crowd on their feet. Game, set and match, Tramaine!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.