(AP Photo/Frank Wiese, File)
One of my favorite memories of gospel great Andrae Crouch is the day he sang a snippet of “Deacon Blues” for me. “Oh, I love Steely Dan,” he told me in 1982. “I met him, Donald Fagen. He’s the only guy I can sing like. ‘This is the day of the expanding man…’ We have almost the same resonances in our voices. Somebody told him and we got together about a month ago at Village Recorders. I can sound identical to him, doing his record.”
Aside from that nimble bit of mimicry, Crouch was no impressionist. “The expanding man,” though? That fit. The singer — who died Thursday at age 72 — broke ground in the 1960s and ‘70s by taking the familiar forms of black gospel and adding elements of pop, soul, calypso, and even a bit of rock ‘n’ roll. The crossover effect, at least initially, was not so much between the religious and secular worlds as between the black and white factions of evangelical culture. Listening to seminal Crouch recordings like “Soon and Very Soon,” you could imagine that soon and very soon the church would be colorblind, even if that really wasn’t any nearer at hand than the Second Coming.
If you weren’t raised in evangelical culture, you probably remember the gospel great best for his contributions to secular projects in the ‘80s and ‘90s, like the choir parts on Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” and Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror,” not to mention film work on The Color Purple and The Lion King. But if you were brought up in the church, especially in the 1970s, Crouch was a familiar household figure, and the one African-American performer that seemingly every white churchgoing family had in their record collection. The black gospel community out of which he sprang accepted and even welcomed Crouch’s expansionism, although there was a moment in the early ‘80s in which the faithful wondered if his musical ecumenicalism might just mask a sheer desire to sell out.
When news of Crouch’s death hit, I flashed back to my interview with him at a very controversial juncture when he had just signed with Warner Bros. Records after a long run with the strictly religious Light label, an affiliation that had consigned his music almost exclusively to the realm of church bookstores. Christian music has become such a part of mainstream pop culture in the 32 years since that it’s easy to forget the suspicions that then-radical move raised. He could cross over, but was he going to take the cross over? Or did he intend to cash in and become the next Donny Hathaway or Teddy Pendergrass? The community didn’t have a history of gospel greats carrying their spiritual principles into the secular arena; what they did have was the distant but still-fresh string of singers like Sam Cooke and James Brown abandoning religious music for soul stardom at the first opportunity.
But, Crouch told me at the time, “If you’re on this jive Christian label, what good is that?” With two decades of gospel records already under his belt at that point, Crouch was too well established in his faith and his musical M.O. to start hopping to a different tune just because he was affiliating with the Bunny. Neither was he a hardliner who felt he had to up the Jesus quotient to evangelize with every breath. His relaxed attitude about how to be a man of spiritual principle in a corporate environment really set the stage for a wave of major-label Christian pop to come, from Amy Grant to Switchfoot to Kirk Franklin. (And, while the influence wasn’t as direct, it also presaged how Warner Bros. would soon be signing proto-indie acts like Husker Du and the Replacements, who also stuck to their punky guns in spite of fears The Man would water down their music.)
I asked Crouch why he was able to find popularity with white audiences while other black gospel talents hadn’t. “Some of them don’t have any white friends; they don’t know how to talk to them,” he answered. “It’s just like making barbecue and putting too much tabasco sauce on it; it’s gonna burn the white people out. So you have to realize that they may not be as used to a lot of the stuff, and you have to be a little sensitive if you want them to enjoy it. You have to care. But some people say it’s a cop-out to care for anybody. See, I am not trying to preserve a roots gospel sound. I care about communicating my message, and whatever form it has to take musically, that’s what I do. Gospel to me is the message and is not music.”
The suspicion that he was about to become a romantic balladeer or even avoid overtly spiritual lyrics rankled him. “If I write a song that doesn’t say ‘Jesus,’ I won’t feel the need to] put it in there. If I write a song that says ‘Jesus,’ I would never take it out. I don’t say that ‘Hey, this would be hipper’ or ‘I’ll reach more people if I don’t say Jesus or God.’ I would never take the name Jesus out of here, because he’s the one and I’m not ashamed to tell anyone he’s brought me this far… I’ll tell them at the White House, and I will tell them in Egypt. I’ve told ‘em in 40 countries and I’ve never compromised my message. You may not hear it on the first song, but you’re gonna hear it a whole lot before I’m finished…
“And that’s the reason why I’m on Warner Bros. It’s not because they want to sell records. They don’t even know, and a lot of people don’t know, why gospel’s getting so big. It’s not because the music is hipper than it’s ever been. I can play you records that are really hip that people have never heard. But now we’re getting close to the showdown, and God would not let us go down without knowing who he is…. So he uses me to plant a few seeds. And somebody might come in a little more hardcore than me, but because they might have liked the way I said it, they might be a little more open to hearing somebody else that’s a little bit heavier…. If we could just say, ‘Hey, love that cat out there, but wait a few days before you drop Jesus on him, just feed him,’ because he might have been turned off so bad by somebody. Be sensitive to where his head is and then just show him love, and he’ll ask you, ‘What makes you do that? What makes you treat me so nice?’ Be sensitive, rather than just doing machine-gun evangelism. See, I’m burned out on that, too.”
At that point, in 1982, Crouch had been more or less out of view for a couple years, after his original group, the Disciples, broke up around the turn of the decade. From the way he spoke with me, it seemed as if prior to coming back he might have been through — if not a dark night of the soul — then at least a dim afternoon of the soul.
He spoke discreetly but disparagingly of some of his experiences on the white church circuit, feeling that, in everyday religious life, segregation still ruled the day until it was cynically trumped by the star system. “They don’t want to have these Latin groups in their church on a Sunday morning because ‘Hey, those are Mexicans, those are blacks; doesn’t make our church look classy.’ When they get to be a star, though, they’ll have those people there. It’s the double standard… I remember how I used to play at those churches before I was known, and they didn’t even want me to bring drums in there. But then you go back there five years later and they’ve seen you on TV; man, I could have drums, synthesizers, be bumpin’ down the center aisle, and they’d all be there: ‘Andrae Crouch is at our church!’ So I just refrained from being on the road for a while, just to get in touch with reality and talk to the Lord and not use any of those little religious pet words that cause a response, but to be real. When I get up and sing, I’m gonna sing what I feel is real for me to say, and I’m not saying it for brownie points so he’ll invite me back. Because I don’t need to be back for the money.”
He was also suspicious of how quickly ex-pop stars were being accepted when they crossed over and found new careers in the burgeoning CCM (contemporary Christian music) industry, despite their possible spiritual immaturity. “I fight for the underdog,” Crouch told me. “I want to hear about that group over there that’s been walking with the Lord for a long time. Let me see them on PTL TV or The 700 Club, because they’ve been serving God a long time. But they get a guy who’s been a Christian for six months and makes a record, and he’s on all the Christian shows and he’s the spokesman for the Christians. Some of them have never even gone through a hard time yet. I like all the stars and what God has done and I don’t put them down and I’m grateful, but hey, man… God don’t think you’re a star. You’ve still gotta come through on your knees like everybody else… The people I’m interested in are the survivors. They live out in the sticks and nobody even knew to pray for them, and they kept loving God. To me, they are giants. How come we can’t hear from them?… I may be talking myself out of a job, but I don’t care. I praise the Lord for all the stars… But the miracle of salvation was just as great to that neighbor next door that never used no drugs or never made a record.”
One song he had recorded for his Warner Bros. debut meant the most to him, after a couple of years of spiritual dryness. “When I cut ‘Starting All Over Again,’ that was the hardest song in the world for me to record for some reason. I cried through that… I said all this change has gotten so big, and I want my focus to always stay on Him, but sometimes it gets distracted. I can get up in the morning and not even pray, or just pray in the car and say, ‘God, bless me. Do this.’ And how dear it used to be when I used to get up and say, ‘Thank you.’ You just long for that, because that walk was so great… This world is so jive, and it’s getting more and more jive. I see myself making more money, and you work hard for your art, but you’re not really any happier. First a Volkswagen, then you get a Mercedes, then you want this, then you want that, then you wake up in the morning and you’ve got business meetings and attorneys… It’s just a constant search for more, and people ripping you off and you find yourself closing your doors to new people, wondering why are they around and are they gonna rip you off?… You just say, ‘God, I wish it was back to the basics.’ And I’m getting back there… I don’t want to sing songs from the valley. I want to sing ‘em from the mountaintop.”
We may never know all the valleys Crouch experienced in his life, but the decades of music that preceded and followed these success-questioning moments? An ongoing peak experience.