During the week Jonathan Shanks climbs into holes under the District’s streets to dig out mud and busted pipes to repair water mains for DC Water. And Gary Satcher worked repairing fire hydrants for the same government agency before he retired.
But on weekends—for decades—Shanks and Satcher have exchanged their work clothes for colorful suits to step into pulpits across the D.C. area and much of the country to create toe-tapping harmony in the name of Jesus with The Southern Gospel Singers.
Gospel Quartet music has been the blue collar worker’s opera for decades. The lyrics communicate a message of overcoming struggle. This music gave hope at the peak of segregation for the descendants of slaves. And when integration came, the beats and the harmony were packed into trunks and exported to the North by generations of African-Americans who left Dixie in search of a better life.
“I moved to D.C. in 1965 from Laurel, Mississippi,” says Satcher, 65, who became a member of The Southern Gospel Singers after he listened to gospel music station WUST-AM and heard an advertisement for the group. They were looking for a tenor and a bass player. “The audition was at 460 K Street NE,” he says.
Cleophus “Cleve” Pointer held that audition back in 1973. He was the founder and manager of the quartet, and also a supervisor who became superintendent and one of the highest ranking men at D.C.’s Water and Sewer Authority. (In 1996 the agency became DC Water.) Satcher says that in addition to welcoming him into the group, Pointer was instrumental in helping him find a job within the D.C. government.
“He got most of the young folks in the group a job,” says Satcher. “We were all coming out of high school and needed jobs. It was time to stop playing.”
The District was once home to more than 60 gospel quartets, according to the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities. Many legendary groups got started in D.C. In the 1940s there were jubilee gospel quartets like The Four Echoes. Then came male and female groups like the DC Harmonizers, the Gospel Travelers, Mattie Johnson And The Stars of Faith, the Zion Hill Gospel Singers, the Prodigal Sons, the Queens of Faith, The Realistic Gospel Singers, the True Tones, and the DC Aires.
One of their biggest venues was the Bibleway Temple on New Jersey Avenue NW, but they more often played storefront churches and even public school cafeterias. They performed at the WUST Radio Music Hall—now home to the 9:30 Club—just off U Street NW, a block away from Howard University. This 1,000 watt station WUST-AM 1120 linked the city’s gospel community.
Quartet members were often the same people who have been the bedrock of the District and federal government workforces. And despite the fact that many of these groups are now nearing or exceeding their 50th anniversaries, they are still putting on shows, writing new songs, and drawing large and committed crowds.
Satcher and Shanks are among them.
On Sunday afternoon, May 6, Shanks connected his snare drum and foot pedal to the house drum set when it was time to perform at Scripture Cathedral in Landover, Maryland. The occasion was the 48th Anniversary Concert of the Gospel Pearls, and his group had a 15-minute set. The Sensational Singing Angels, Ronica & The Mighty Blazing Stars, Darrell McFadden & The Disciples, Angela Robinson & High Praise, and yet more groups were there to perform and enjoy.
The parking lot of the church, which once was a car dealership, was filled with luxury coaches and vans. Before the concert began, quartet men unloaded speakers, strapped guitars to their shoulders, and walked along a gauntlet filled with people seated at tables selling everything from CDs to jewelry.
When they were up, The Southerns came down the aisle dressed in matching black square blazers, took their microphones, and began to sing. Shanks, who is 64 years old, churned a driving beat out of the drums, and when they got to one of their hit songs, “I Know What Prayer Can Do,” the sanctuary erupted and people stood to their feet.
From the singers to the bass and lead guitar players, the group moved in one rhythmic motion during a musical call and response lead by Satcher.
“You been praying for a brand-new car,” he sang. And his quartet brothers responded: “It’s on the way.”
“You have been praying for a brand-new home,” he sang. And the men responded, “It’s on the way.”
With tight harmony and a good beat, it really didn’t matter what the lyrics were—the people were up and rocking in the pews.
Seated down front in a royal blue dress and broad gold hat was Vi Pointer—a gospel “first lady,” veteran gospel promoter, and businesswoman. She is the widow of Cleve, who was a native of Talladega, Alabama, and founded The Southern Gospel Singers 54 years ago along with Carvin Coles, better known as the Shouting Deacon because he would sing so hard and so full of the Holy Spirit during concerts that audiences would follow suit. “The group started in Alabama back in 1964,” says Vi Pointer. “I made a promise that I would keep his legacy alive.”
“We met in church,” says Pointer of her deceased husband. She remembers how he and other group members, like Ernest Gooden—aka “Joe Black”—and Coles, worked together under the streets of D.C. and sang together as musical ambassadors for the Lord.
Today Vi’s grandson Geoffrey Hankins, 28, is the bass player and one of lead singers with The Southerns. “He has been singing with the group since he was two years old,” she says.
Hankins is part of a tradition that extends beyond The Southerns. One of the things that keeps gospel quartets going is the fact that there is a new generation of singers who are the descendants of singers from the past. Before Hankins sang at Scripture Cathedral on May 6, Angela Robinson & High Praise opened the concert. That group’s members are related to the famed D.C. female group Mattie Johnson And The Stars of Faith.
Throughout the evening, the lady groups had no problem making steps in their high heels and pretending that their routines were not grueling.
And Shanks did not need to tell his wife where he was going when he dressed to sing for the May 6 concert because she is the Rev. Robin Walker of Kingdom Hearts Ministries who is also the lead singer for the Singing Angels, an Alexandria, Virginia, based group that has been performing for about as long as his has at 50 years.
At the same concert, Verna Locus-Hillary performed as lead singer of the headliner act, Gospel Pearls. She too was performing the music that is really a family affair. Flanked by her daughter, Locus-Hillary said, “You have to be able to have someone to lean on.” And her daughter, Chevela Garvin, said it’s special singing with her mother. “When the Pearls went out to sing, we were always in the front row singing louder than they were. I like other genres of gospel but quartet music has that extra thump.”
These groups and others comprise a caravan of gospel singers who for half a century have been singing for God in the big sanctuaries, cramped store fronts, and school auditoriums of the D.C. area. They have served up needed melodies imported from the South that have calmed souls for generations.
But today many of the city venues where The Southern Gospel Singers once performed have fallen victim to change. Gospel venues that are now gone include Scripture Cathedral in D.C., The WUST Radio Music Hall, and the old Uline Arena. And though many of the larger congregations have remained in the city, gospel quartets were most popular among the smaller congregations with people packing into little sanctuaries on Sundays.
Terry Lynch, Executive Director of the Downtown Cluster of Congregations, says that about three dozens churches in D.C. have closed their doors over the last decade. A good deal of the sanctuaries that hosted their Sunday afternoon concerts have been boarded up, torn down, or converted into other uses. A number of churches in Southwest, for example, were sold and transformed into residential dwellings.
While many churches remain in D.C., once declining neighborhoods have been born again. For longtime D.C. churches—and particularly for congregants who are growing old—gospel concerts in the city often come with a prohibitive scourge: lack of parking.
For years the District allowed diagonal parking near churches during certain hours on Sunday mornings, but afternoon programs were a different story. Today attending a concert means fishing for parking on neighborhood streets that have residential restrictions.
“The parking available for generations is no longer available, and the elderly often can’t take mass transit,” Lynch says. “There is strict parking in each of the wards and this is part of the changing fabric of the city.”
A lot of congregations that once worshipped in the District have moved to more spacious pastures in Prince George’s County.
On June 24, The Southern Gospel Singers will host their 54th anniversary program in Landover. “This will be the first year at the Maryland church instead of D.C.—because it will be easier to park,” Shanks says. “We love D.C. but many of our followers are elderly and have a hard time parking. We used to have our programs at New Southern Rock, but this year our anniversary will be at Scripture Cathedral because there is more parking there. People just don’t want to come to a program and park four blocks away,” Shanks says.
Scripture Cathedral was located at the corner of 9th and O streets NW for years. During that time, Bishop C.L. Long, a nationally-known radio preacher, came on WYCB-AM several times a day to preach, pray, and advertise the “largest prayer meeting in the nation’s capital.”
Long died in 2015, but a few years before his death he sold his District sanctuary and purchased an empty one in Landover that was once was a car dealership and later Glendale Baptist Church, which ultimately moved a few miles away. The space now holds Scripture Cathedral.
What began as the result of “white flight” following the riots in the 1960s has come full circle. Whites are moving back into the same city corridors they vacated and were filled by African-American families who came and opened up neighborhood churches. But today many of these churches are located in revitalized neighborhoods where churches have limited lots and street parking is at a premium.
“It is very important that we continue the tradition of gospel music,” says Rev. Donnell Long at his church on the afternoon of the May 6 concert. He succeeded his father as pastor of Scripture Cathedral. As Long talked, people were laying out trays of baked chicken, fresh collard greens, potato salad, and various deserts to be sold in the same way his father sold food in the “Blue Room” of the D.C. church.
“We try to accommodate everyone because they all have a message,” Long says. “This gives the people the opportunity to come together. When we were in D.C. we had to fight for parking to accommodate all of the parishioners and the visitors. We used to be able to park at the Giant across the street from the church, and then that changed.”
Today the old sanctuary has been replaced by towering residential buildings at the corner of 9th and O streets NW.
Rev. Thomas Bowen, Director of Mayor Muriel Bowser’s Office of Religious Affairs and Associate Pastor of Shiloh Baptist Church, says a lot of the historic churches that have stayed in D.C. have not really attracted the city’s newest residents. “We have to find a way to meet the needs of a new generation. Gospel music can’t just be relegated to performances. It has to be part of the worship experience and it can’t just be just our mom and dad’s music,” he says.
Bowen says that the District has a number of diverse choirs and choral groups, like Washington Performing Arts and the Choral Arts Society of Washington. “In choral music they are carrying on the tradition of singing songs in appreciation of that time,” he says. D.C. has a mixture of faith venues. Some people enjoy the hymns, spirituals, and anthems of chancel choirs while others favor the guitars and drums of quartet music.
But Winston Chaney, radio host at the 1340 WYCB-AM, says, “Some of the biggest concerts in the area are the gospel quartet concerts, and quartet lovers are dedicated to the bone.” Chaney is a well known host of gospel quartet concerts.
Rosetta Thompson is a local beautician during the week, but she exchanges her hot comb for a briefcase on the weekends. She is one of the top gospel promoters in the country. In the mid 1990s she packed the Show Place Arena in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, with more than 5,000 people for a concert.
“We have the Mighty Clouds of Joy, the Gospel Keynotes, The Violinaires, The Soul Messengers, Jay Caldwell, and the Nightingales on August 26th,” says Thompson, seconds after answering the phone for an interview. She does most of her advertising through colorful, postcard-size flyers—just right for being dropped on the hoods of cars.
Her husband Horace Thompson leads the Sensational Nightingales. At 78, he is a Grammy-nominated artist and still performs with Jo Jo Wallace, 92, of Durham, North Carolina, and Larry Moore of Portsmouth, Virginia.
“We are just like the energizer bunny, we just keep going by the grace of God,” says Horace Thompson. “Our group is 72 years old and I have been in the group for 56 years.”
The Thompsons live in Mitchellville, Maryland, and they see another side of the changing business of gospel music.
Horace Thompson hits the road on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday to drive to venues across the South where gospel music is still played on the air and quartets enjoy a larger following. He says that while gospel has fewer outlets than it once had, the big exception is 1340 WYCB-AM.
“The Gospel Quartets are still performing but times have changed,” he says. “The stations which are left are going with contemporary music and most of the stations don’t play the traditional quartet music. Many people still love quartet music, but they can’t find it on the radio and most of the record stores have shut down across the country for a lot of reasons.”
“Today some of the mega churches are having the big concerts,” he adds, “but the little churches are losing out and that is where we all started.”
His group has been on the Malaco label for 30 years, and he says gospel groups and record companies are being hurt by “bootleggers” who use sophisticated equipment to make music and illegally sell products. “Nobody wins when this happens … It’s a lose-lose situation and when people purchase bootleg music and it’s against the law.”
Shanks has been a member of The Southern Gospel Singers for 42 years, and he wouldn’t take anything in exchange for his musical journey. “We have performed from Mississippi to Boston and everything in between, and gone west from Washington to Milwaukee, Wisconsin. We have performed with every major group on the road from Mighty Clouds of Joy, the Five Blind Boys, The Dixie Hummingbirds, The Brooklyn All Stars, The Williams Brothers, and everybody else.”
Sometimes he would leave a town on a Sunday evening and drive all night to go to straight to work for the water authority on Monday morning.
He hopes he can still find places to perform in D.C., but his group wants to be sensitive to their aging followers, and he knows that regardless of the location people will always come to hear quartet music.
Satcher and Shanks are the last living original members of a gospel group that has been stirring up souls for more than five decades. “It’s all about bringing souls to Christ and reaching people who might not go to church,” says Satcher. “This is our way to minister to people.