Books

'Preaching on Wax' Introduces a Neglected Subset of Early Black Pop and Its Biggest Star

Rev. J.M. Gates was a hit from his 1926 debut, worlds apart from his stodgy predecessors. His best work can still really get the goosebumps going.


Preaching on Wax The Phonograph and the Shaping of Modern American Religion

Publisher: New York University Press
Length: 241 pages
Author: Lerone A. Martin
Price: $24.00
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2014-11
Amazon

Meet the Reverend James M. Gates, the Hardest Working Man in Show Business…You Never Heard Of.

He was indeed prolific, with more than 200 recordings over the course of his 15-year career. He wasn't the first in his field, but he seized upon an innovative style that came to dominate the market. He was a shrewd businessman, eschewing the common arrangements of the day in order to maximize his exposure (and satisfy all the companies that wanted hop on his gravy train). At his peak, he made as much money as the biggest stars of the era. He arguably set the stage for what is now a commonly accepted aspect of pop culture. And if he had any real competition, it isn't much remembered at all.

Rev. Gates was the first to record sermons in the style of black Baptist preaching. His records captured the cadences, imagery, topicality and call-and-response found in black pulpits throughout the rural South, and brought them to black audiences across the country. He was a hit from his 1926 debut, worlds apart from his stodgy predecessors. His best work can get really the goosebumps going.

He emerges as the central character in Lerone Martin's Preaching on Wax, the first study of how black preaching became part of the record business. It also serves as the first biographical look at Gates' life and career. There is more to explore on both counts than Martin provides here, but he's opened a door onto a previously unexplored subset of early black pop, even if that subset is composed, for all intents and purposes, of Gates alone.

The evolution of recorded black sermons mirrors the evolution of recorded black music. The impulse at the dawn of the era, in the late '10s and early '20s, was towards the higher-minded and refined, and away from the earthy and rough-hewn, so as not to reflect badly on a race still seeking acceptance as respectable citizens and equality from white America. The first black preacher to record, Rev. Calvin Dixon, touted himself as the “Black Billy Sunday", in tribute to the popular white evangelist. But the sermons he recorded for Columbia in 1925, in keeping with the recorded style of the original Billy Sunday and others, were stodgy, pedantic affairs, as he bellowed his Biblical renderings into the microphone. In short, they didn't much swing, and they didn't much sell either, and he was dropped from the label.

Gates came along a year later with a wholly different approach. As pastor of Mount Calvary Baptist Church in Atlanta, he became known for preaching in the back-home, emotional style remembered and favored by his congregants, many of whom had migrated from rural Georgia as had Gates himself. His preaching was discovered by Polk Brockman, one of the most influential talent scouts of the '20s (his prior finds included Fiddlin' John Carson and Lucille Bogan). Brockman heard Gates, and immediately saw an opportunity.

He arranged a recording session in New York in 1926 for Columbia. Gates, accompanied by some Mount Calvary members, recorded a slice of what his church services must have sounded like. Gates and company sang a plainspoken message to sinners to clean up their acts, in a old-time religion style that resonated with blacks, especially those who had migrated from the South (Martin writes that for them, the record evoked the churches they remembered from their former communities). “Death's Black Train Is Coming" was a huge hit, and Gates was on his way.


Brockman and Gates hit on a novel approach to capitalizing on his out-the-door success. The preacher signed with the agent, instead of a single record label. That gave Gates the freedom to record with whichever label wanted a piece of the action, and virtually every label of the era did. Gates was more than happy to oblige, recording more than 90 sermons by the end of his first year in the business.

At his peak, Gates was in the sales company of stars like Bessie Smith and Duke Ellington, and was compensated accordingly. He bought himself a fancy new car, and moved from the hardscrabble community where Mount Calvary was based to a middle-class Atlanta neighborhood. His closest competition, or at least the only one Martin introduces us to, might have been Pentecostal preachers such as Rev. F.W. McGee, who used a full band on his records.

Gates' momentum was slowed only by the Great Depression, which dried up the disposable income of most blues and folk consumers. Martin suggests that Gates' career was also stymied by a 1930 sermon he recorded decrying the creeping threat corporate retail represented to poorer communities. “Stay Out of the Chain Stores" was actually a delicate dance, for while Gates was calling for a de facto boycott of mass-market retailers on one hand, many of them sold his records, and even owned private-store record labels for which he recorded. It was all a moot point: Okeh, the label for which he recorded that sermon and its follow-up, declined to release the work. Relegated to recording for those chain store labels for the rest of his career, Gates soldiered on until the eve of World War II, and died in 1945.

Martin doesn't go into extensive detail on Gates' contemporaries in the field (not even McGee, who recorded 46 sermons for Victor, and was successful enough to demand more money for his work, and get it). He has a bit more to say about the contrast between Gates and black preachers from the middle class, such as Rev. Martin Luther King, Sr., a classmate of Gates at the Atlanta Baptist Institute. But while Martin's more concerned with his career as a recording artist, one wonders how the success of Gates' records influenced black preaching in general.

Preaching on Wax covers a lot of bases, but none of them completely. Martin discusses little about Gates' work in the '30s, even though his topics (he recorded protest sermons as well as come-to-Jesus messages) are worth more attention. He posits Gates as the antecedent of mass-media black preachers and evangelists, from C.L. Franklin to T.D. Jakes, but he doesn't draw any direct connections to post-Gates preachers. He also misses one delicious irony: Columbia eventually did release that chain store sermon, on a 2004 Sony Legacy best-of CD.

The impression seems to be that Gates was pretty much a one-person genre, in that he's the only recording preacher Martin discusses in depth. But Martin implies that there was a lot of activity in the field, even though he doesn't go into much of what anybody else was doing once Gates established himself. That leaves Preaching on Wax stuck in a no-man's-land between biography and genre study; it's too bad Martin didn't go all in down one path or the other.

As it is, he's done well enough in giving Gates a measure of his historical due. Most of the anthologies over the years that have included his work place it alongside the blues artists of the era. Preaching on Wax makes a case for the earliest black recording preachers having an anthology of their own.

6
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