We are so fortunate, and you’re in for a real treat. This is perhaps the most important and vital moment I’ve been privileged to capture on tape. The word here is, service. Experiencing genuine service.
My family was very fortunate to get to know deeply and personally Corrine Lewis early in the 1960’s. It was a time of racial turmoil and acute growth in this land. James Brown and Aretha were hitting the charts. So much “soul” music, blues, R & B, had it’s roots in “gospel”. This is true American experience and music, yes, born out of the great suffering of slavery and the mix of America’s many arriving cultures.
But I didn’t know any of this until I sat and shook in a pew one fortunate day. As a young teen she took me one day to her Baptist church, and I perhaps have never been the same since. I had been long taught to sit still in church. Having my own private talks with the Jesus I knew within, the Jesus of truthfulness, compassion, service to others, inclusion rather than exclusion (seems to have distinctly different tenets than the Jesus I hear current leaders and others talk about) was not new, but to suddenly experience such full expression, people shaking, thrashing, falling to the floor, laying on of hands, shouting out, eyes rolling back, hands up flying down the aisle, the joy, the tears, the profound feeling of community communion, the total acceptance, non judgement, the sense of one family, the brazen “testifying”, praise for that greater than ourselves, remains a great great blessing. My heart was joyfully open, and for the love between our families, the helping me for a lifetime to love and share, through hard times and good, the deaths and births, I’m more than grateful.
Indeed all throughout this country in tiny little places of worship there was/is this genuine communion going on and a spiritual music that is distinctly American, that just filled me up from head to toe each time. In February 1984, I asked my friend and founder of Rock of Ages Church, now Pastor Corrine Lewis, if she could have a service and gathering of a few local choirs at her church, a wonderful old wooden transformed synagogue with great warm acoustics.
There is not one professional musician nor singer here, no paid performances, no performances, rather all who gathered are modest, hard working people here to humbly worship and give praise for what they have. They reflect a life of dedication and discipline to active prayer.
All the churches have a gathering of choirs and soloists for special occasions. They were never performances (I’m not talking about the large performing choirs in Harlem and elsewhere included in tourist circuits.), rather they were/are active prayer for healing, for strength to get through, to give and receive, to praise and lift up.
On this day the Rock of Ages Choir did not have their keyboard player, but nothing gets in the way of, service. The consciousness of doing something for recording just wasn’t there. The primary focus was being with the Spirit. I can’t say this was unlike or better than other wonderful services I’d been to over the years, there are shining unique moments in most all, but it’s the only one I brought equipment to.
On February 25th, 1984 I rented out some recording equipment and had difficulty managing the technology (new to me). Any glitches or sound problems are my fault alone. Sorry, the volume levels remain all over the place. I brought too little amount of reel to reel tape and unfortunately did not record most the sermons or much of the sharing between the musical numbers. This is the first and last time I recorded such a service. If I think about wishing I had tape rolling at all the services I went to, go to, it is too distracting from why I really go.... community, family, healing, sharing, and musical upliftment.
Many choirs and participants were never recorded before and didn’t know what to do with recording mics, sometimes putting them down by the organ and caught up in the moment, move far away, etc. Once a choir misplaced the mic across the room, while the soloist was by the organ, which sounded wonderful for us in the church, but in the recording one can barely and distantly hear the choir. I didn’t want to run in front of them waving mics, so, we have what we have. Twice I inadvertently hit a wrong switch and cut off a tape, or the reel of tape would end before the song, hence we have just portions of some tunes.
The Church of the Rock of Ages was burnt down a few years later by arsons for more parking space in the town of Englewood, NJ. A great tragedy, but Pastors Lewis and Drakeford and family persevered maintaining service in a chapel built in the Lewis’s new home in Bergenfield.
Pastors Lewis and Drakeford singing years
later at my sisters wedding. Mom and meself joining.
After everyone left the church and the day was over, I pleaded with Pastor Lewis to sing me a solo, and then another. It’s a priceless and fitting end to a great service. Here she is acappella, no instruments, by herself in the empty church.
I asked her to sing the Little Sparrow, a song she had sung at my brother Tim’s wedding a few years earlier.
Unfortunately in moving, and my apologies to those recorded, I’ve lost all notes with the names of the visiting choirs, and soloists, and which tunes were originals, or traditional. (Except for Corrine Lewis, Hilda Drakeford and their Church of the Rock of Ages Choir, and where otherwise noted). (I’m happy to make changes as I receive updates to this.)
There is no studio magic here, no additional tracks or textures, and no cutting out imperfections. It’s all first and only takes, as is, and with generally poor placement of mics. I tried to stay invisible to allow the worship to be untainted. Indeed there are a couple times someone who didn’t really play piano (and the piano was out of tune as well) would get up and start fiddling around with it trying to find the tune as they went, sometimes off key, but genuine to the spirit of being in the moment, not in the spirit of “We’re recording, this has to be perfect or we’ll do it again.”
The church always asks me to get up and share something. Here I was just going to say thank you and sing a quick little improvised tune about “Walking and talking” with the Spirit I was feeling in the room. As soon as I started playing, now Pastors Hilda Drakeford and Corrine Lewis just kicked in with a harmony... I hadn’t a clue what to do accept to keep going.
1984 had already been some 20 years since I first heard the splendid voice of Pastor Corrine Lewis belting it out. She would have a keyboard player come over to practice with her in our house and literally the walls would vibrate throughout. Why I never thought of recording her before, or since, I don’t know. But she never thought of it either. Again, what she, her church did every week was not performance. It was prayer. It wasn’t to record to listen to, it was to be, in the present. Since early childhood, she’d been touring to other churches in the South and here to sing, but the thought of someone recording prayer was strange to her and many in her generation of gospel singers. Indeed it was at times a debate among them about others “crossing over”.
I regrettably never really recorded her again.
There is such variety in music here with each sharing, as with many gathered services. They would have it no other way: therefore this is dedicated in praise of God, and with tremendous appreciation for the generosity of these very hard working souls.
I wish to thank Dr. Alan VanPoznak for transferring the reel to reel tapes onto digital.