I went to see the Gladys Knight (McDowell) Travelling Mormon All-Stars the other evening. Alright, they’re actually called the “Saints Unified Voices.” Or the “SUV Choir.” I’m on record as having openly bemoaned her union with the Latter-day Saints as the smothering of a great musical talent in a thick coating of unsalted bread and cream. I remember her main public apology for Mormon music going something along the lines of: “Well, I can learn to tone it down I suppose…” Thank God she didn’t–and I mean that literally.
I’m not much of a gospel fan, not big on soul either, and I don’t care about a night train to Georgia or anywhere else. I didn’t go as a Pips groupie or anything. That whole Soul Train/Motown thing was just stuff they played inbetween the good songs on the radio when I was growing into my musical tastes. Ray Charles or Stevie Wonder, Dianna Ross and the hideous collection called the “Jackson 5″ and worse, in my musical world, just interrupted the Beatles, the Who, Led Zepplin, and of course, Sunshine Superman, Sky Pilot, Earsplittenloudenboomer and Inagodadaveda. I would do something else or change the station when Up Up and Away came on. Midnight Train to Georgia or Heard it Through the Grapevine was only something I suffered through when the family sat down to watch Ted Mack, Ed Sullivan, Flip Wilson or Helen Reddy. Those people are of course long vanished from the public mind, but not Gladys Knight. She’s still at it.
And then I got into British Isles folk rock, where there were strict no-jazz-no-blues rules. Eventually I entered my Queen phase with Killer Queen and the greatest rock band of all time’s first American release. But I digress. My point is, I have never been gospel or soul oriented, but I was familiar with all of it. I knew Gladys Knight as a gospel and soul great, so as a music buff in general, and a Mormon curious about the whole African-American/Mormon relationship, I had to go just to see what it was all about. I just had to go see how Mormonism had killed her off–hoping of course that it hadn’t.
Sister Knight is a great evangelist and choir director, and her husband, William McDowell, certainly from a “guy” perspective, is an even better evangelist and public speaker. The program was musical, uplifting, entertaining, at times hilarious, and even the uptight midwestern, Scandihoovian audience eventually figured out it was OK to say, “Good evening” back at the orator when addressing or greeting the congregation. My inactive daughter who attended with me said if Mormon meetings were always like that she’d be showing up every Sunday again. Having been in choir in high school, she naturally couldn’t resist complaining about many of the women’s solo voices and the choir in general being strained and thin, but let’s face it: getting anything like a gospel choir sound out of a bunch of white folk from the local ward in Las Vegas Nevada is nothing short of miraculous. These were amateurs straight out of the whitebread Great Basin neighborhood, many of them now past their prime, all of them had just sung their guts out in a two-hour set, from the early show, and were in the heart of a long tour, indeed, a series of tours now going on for ten years. And remember, few of them for the most part grew up in gospel, jazz, blues or soul hotbeds like Chicago, Memphis, Harlem or the Delta, or were otherwise given the gospel voice from childhood. But it was a night of praise and worship, not a minstrel show with acrobats, pyrotechnics, and a dancing bear inbetween the songs to keep the rabble entertained. They they didn’t need James Brown to do the splits or Tina Turner to shake her booty. The SUV Choir got the job of singing God’s praises done remarkably well all by themselves–again, as I say, even for a bunch of white folk.
And a Hawaiian. And maybe a few very lightly tanned black folk. But really, it’s a ward choir from Las Vegas. I’m perfectly willing to give them a break on a few technical performance issues.
(However, the first soloist to step forward, looked just like Mike Hamar from the Red Green show…which I have to admit, did disturb me a bit. I kept compulsively looking at him throughout the whole concert after that. I just couldn’t get past the soulful whiskey-tenor coming out of the mouth of Possum Lodge’s resident pathological liar and habitual criminal.)
Gladys Knight’s troupe is everything the LDS missionary program isn’t, everything the Utah-withered, world-estranged LDS leadership doesn’t quite understand about the Good News any more, and everything you’d expect when the best of African-American and Mormon worship traditions are merged.
Let the Church say Amen.
(Just a note of warning: The BYU Hawaii video linked above is a great introduction to the SUV choir, but the Mormons at BYU Hawaii sponsoring it manage to lecture and preach and sell and explain and disrupt the choir itself so much that it’s mostly a promo for BYU Hawaii–and wreaks of BYU Mo-Pix-era “Johnny Lingo” corporate film odor.)