Jesus Is The Best Thing (That Ever Happened To Me)

So, as promised, I’m continuing on with the theme of secular songs that crossed over to gospel.

On the heels of Gladys Knights huge hit of ,”You’re The Best Thing (That Ever Happened to Me)” in 1974,  James Cleveland and The Charles Fold Singers from Cincinnati Ohio changed up the song a bit and recorded “Jesus Is The Best Thing (That Ever Happened to Me)”. The song was not and instant hit, but in January of 1978 the album charted at #2 on Billboard’s Best Selling Gospel LP’s having been named the #1 gospel album in the prestigious annual “Talent in Action” section in Billboard’s December 25 1976 issue. The album and the song put both Cleveland and Fold firmly on the gospel map. I love this recording because it is so real. The church in Cincinnati where the song was recorded must have been quite small and intimate and the ad hoc harmonies make the whole song feel like it is a spiritual happening taking place at that particular moment in time.

  1. Jesus Is The Best Thing Rev. James Cleveland and The Charles Fold Singers 6:26

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In 2006 Desmond Pringle recorded a version much in the style of Natalie Cole’s “Unforgettable” where Pringle overdubs his vocal on top of Cleveland’s original, and then takes off on his own from there. As far as an exciting performance, I prefer Pringle’s version. (I remember the first time Norris heard this song as we drove around Puerto Rico with my iPod blaring in July of 2010. He LOVED the song and said that he wanted to perform it someday. THAT would be a wonderful thing!!!)

  1. Jesus Is The Best Thing Desmond Pringle with James Cleveland 6:24

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Better Days Ahead

  1. Better Days Ahead Dorothy Norwood 3:37

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My New Year’s wish to all of you…for “Better Days Ahead”.

Dorothy Norwood is one of the venerable women of gospel and was a member of The Caravans in the early ’60s, a legendary group of female singers who all became gospel superstars in their own right in the years to come. The Caravans included gospel music legends as the Queen of Gospel, Albertina Walker, who was also Dorothy’s role model and confidant, Shirley Caesar, Inez Andrews, Delores Washington and the late Rev. James Cleveland as music director.

Total Praise

  1. Total Praise Richard Smallwood and Vision 4:59

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Richard Smallwood‘s “Total Praise”…it has become one of the best know contemporary gospel songs and for good reason. It’s amazing.

I first heard it by accident listening to a gospel music radio show late one Sunday night. Sitting there in the dark this song came on and by the end I was a weeping mess. (see comments below…I’m not alone!)

Gospel writer Bob Marovich wrote “Like James Cleveland, Smallwood is an absolute genius at composing gospel canon. It is as if he is scoring the soundtrack for Heaven itself. On ‘Total Praise,’ Smallwood combines his classical sensitivity with gospel exuberance, creating an exquisite aural feast. His setting of the Amen at the conclusion of ‘Total Praise’ may well be the most beautiful moment in gospel music today. It’s a challenge to listen to this recording and not well up in tears of joy.”

Here is Smallwood describing what made him write Total Praise.

“Its sort of ironic how it came to me. It came to me in a very difficult time in my life. My mother was very ill, my god brother was terminally ill and I was playing caregiver, running from the hospital to my home taking care of everybody. It really felt like I just couldn’t do it. A lot of people don’t understand that care giving is just as difficult as the person who is ill because if you don’t take care of yourself you can end up in the hospital from stress and stuff.”

“I felt like, I know God has not forsaken me but sometimes you get to a point in your life where you know He’s there but you cant feel Him. I knew He was there, I knew he had my back but I couldn’t feel anything and I said God I cant. I feel helpless with my loved ones, I can’t make them get any better, and I don’t know if I’m doing enough.”

“I was sitting at the piano and Total Praise came just like that. I didn’t have to work on any melodies or inversions, it just all came as if it were already written.” (Carol King said the exact same thing when she spoke about writing “You’ve Got a Friend”…RLS)

“I knew once I wrote it that God had given me something really special. I had no idea all that it would do but I knew it was very special. He really gave it to me in that particular instance because he was saying to me, “Regardless of what you see around you or regardless of what you feel I’m still owed your praise because I’m going to get you through it, you may not see it or you may not feel it but I got your back so give me praise now, in your valley time; I call it valley praise. When you really think about it, God already mapped it out; He’s got it even if you don’t see it. That’s what he was saying to me “give me your praise in what ever season you find yourself in.” He gave it to me and then He took it elsewhere and did what He did with it.”

Here are another couple of snippets about the song:

“This uplifting anthem is stunning in its emotional power, ending with a reflective setting of the Lutkin Seven-fold Amen. Powerful from beginning to end, this anthem of praise is just what you need to fill the sanctuary with the Spirit!”

“The conclusion of this popular gospel hymn evokes the tenderness of Brahms, the boldness of Wagner, and has brought the most macho of men to briny tears.”

Lastly, here is a video of the master…the composer of the song, Richard Smallwood (with his vocal group Vision), performing the song in it’s entirety, including a magnificent orchestral intro.

 

I Want To Be Ready

  1. I Want To Be Ready Rev. James Cleveland & The Southern California Community Choir 2:20

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In 1999, this was one of the very first songs Geoffrey Dana Hick taught his travel choir. The choir’s amazing tour of Umbria in Italy was the impetus for the founding of “Joyful Voices of Inspiration”. Although I didn’t know it at the time, many of the songs the early choir learned were James Cleveland songs because a James Cleveland album was one of the few gospel albums Geoff had in his early days of playing gospel music.

Geoff learned to play gospel at age 18 at 12th Baptist in Roxbury while attending the New England Conservatory as a classical pianist.  Prior to that he had lived in various places abroad since his father was in the foreign service/diplomat. 

Story goes that when he arrived in the U.S from Germany to attend The Conservatory, he was invited to dinner in at the home of Ralph Abernathy (pastor of West Hunter Street Baptist Church and noted civil rights leader working closely with Dr. Martin Luther King) and his wife in Atlanta Georgia.  After dinner Mrs. Abernathy asked Geoff if he would play the piano for them and he played several classical pieces that they enjoyed. Impressed with his talent, Mrs. Abernathy asked Geoff to play them some gospel music. He told them he didn’t KNOW any gospel music, let alone be able to play it.  Astonished, amazed, and a bit shocked, Mrs. Abernathy told Geoff to go to Union United Methodist Church, “the biggest black in Boston”, as soon as he got settled in Boston. 

One Sunday Geoff decided to follow Mrs. Abernathy’s advice and got in the cab and asked the cabby to take him to “the biggest black church in Boston” since he couldn’t remember the name Mrs. Abernathy had given him.  The cabby took him to 12th Baptist in Roxbury and that was that. Over the ensuing years Geoff learned to play gospel at the hands of the resident masters at 12th Baptist and eventually ended up playing at Sunday services!  Today, Dr. Geoffrey Dana Hicks is not only a talented composer and pianist, he also serves as Minister of Music at Tremont Temple in downtown Boston.

I’ll post a recording of Geoff playing gospel in the near future.

God Is

  1. God Is Walt Whitman & The Soul Children of Chicago 6:45

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“God Is” was written by Dr. Robert Fryson and was first recorded in 1979 by Rev. James Cleveland and the Southern California Community Choir.

This recording by The Soul Children of Chicago is wonderful because of the power of the performance; these “kids” make a BIG sound.  I also chose this version because I have a soft spot in my heart for youth choirs; getting children involved with gospel music can only help make a firm foundation for them for the rest of their lives.