Technologies of Gospel

Circuits and Networks of Sacred/Secular Innovation

Clara Ward and the Clash of Baptist Respectabilities

by | Feb 26, 2016 | Baptism, Circuits, Networks, Trajectories, Gospel Disco Obscurities Fridays

“Dead End Street”, Clara Ward, 1969


2015’s #BlackLivesMatter protests weren’t the first time the concept of “respectability” came back to get folks. There’s still a prohibition in Gospel music that crossing over is entrance into sin. There’s still a tension between the imperative to shed the light of the Gospel into the Devil’s Darkness, and actually going into that Dark state to do it. You can stay in the church your entire life and still fall short of “respectability” measures, even as a Gospel top bill.

Clara Ward, or at least the Ward brand, didn’t seem to mind walking all over this Divide, singing on radio, appearing in clubs, in Vegas, on Playboy television specials, and doing the unthinkable: singing secular music while still in (the) church. Soul and Inspiration (1969) was an albumful of secular covers.

Inasmuch as she got away with it, she could because of her bona fides as a Gospel A-lister, complete with Chicago-affiliated credentials (the Famous Ward Singers are said to have been “discovered” at the National Baptist Convention meeting of 1943, a node on that peer-to-peer network called the Gospel circuit.)

The early Ward singing groups are often credited with relaying Gospel techniques developed in Chicago to Philadelphia. They’re also known for their controversial forays into secular crossover. It was the success of the W.H. Brewster-penned “Surely God Is Able” and “How I Got Over” that brought grand-scale attention to Gospel music as a money-making venture; that in itself ensures secular/”mammon”-ish crossover, complete with unique problems of its own.

“Dead End Street” is a cover of the Lou Rawls part-spoken-word/proto-rap tune penned by B. Raleigh and Angeleno David Axelrod. Lou Rawls also came from a Chicago Baptist context. Ms. Ward would relocate to Los Angeles around the same time as other Chicagoan Gospel pioneers, part 2b of the Great Migration, the African-American internal diaspora.

She substitutes the word “sing” for “fight”. The breadth and influence of Ms. Ward’s career attests that she did not stay long on any dead-end streets.

Rap artist 50 Cent would later refashion lines from “Dead End Street” into “Big Rich Town” (2014), the theme song for “Power”, his television show about respectability.

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