Sold Out

At a spring staff meeting for the Covenant Mass Choir, my close friend Minister Darryl Cherry announced his plans to record a live concert album. At that point, Covenant had recorded a couple of demos and assisted other artists but had never attempted anything this ambitious. I think I stifled a quick smirk, wondering how Covenant, an 85-voice choir which barely broke even financially in terms of travel costs and choir robes, would afford to do a live recording. But Darryl put the project in the hands of the Lord, and in the early fall, the event came to pass.

Darryl worried that people might not come. Actually, Darryl worries about most everything and thinks things through to the most microscopic detail, which, I suppose, is why we get along so well. With the coming of age, midriff spread and all, I’ve learned to take most things in stride, but Darryl is a worrier. He wanted everything to be perfect and my job was to help him do his job. The division of labor was pretty simple: Darryl's focus was largely creative. Mine was largely technical: how to get Darryl's vision on tape. Darryl would work on producing the best music he could, I would worry about capturing that magic. Whose name came first, a real non-issue for us, is based on what you're talking about. If you're talking about the creative end of production, Darryl's name comes first. If you're talking about the technical end of production, mine does. At this meeting, it was decided that Leslie Noah Burns, a respected and popular manager, would run the house while I ran the mobile truck. This freed Darryl to do what he does best: create and minister.

The first thing I did was fire the musicians, starting with myself. Of course, the loyal thing to do is to allow your road crew to play on the record— I mean, they earned it, right? But, I urged Darryl to think like a producer and produce the best album he can, not the best album he can with the band he travels with. So, the band got fired, starting first and foremost with me. I opted out of the bass slot and hired two studio players I'd worked with over the last few years, Derek Jackson and Gregg Sullivan, to play bass and guitar, respectively, on the record.

Darryl liked Derek immediately. I’m not sure I ever picked up a bass again for Covenant after Derek signed up. The fact was, Darryl is an exemplary player and needs to surround himself with exemplary players, while I and most of his road crew were competent journeymen at best. Derek was a tiger, and he loved Darryl’s material. Derek’s warmth and outrageous sense of humor sustained us on many road trips and through many interminable waits backstage.

Gregg, Darryl was less enthused to meet. He didn’t seem to understand the relevance of the guitar in Gospel music, or why one player would be markedly better or different from another. Covenant already had a guitar player, an incredibly loyal and talented school teacher named Henry Terrell. But Darryl needed a guy who could not only keep up with Darryl, but at times mop the floor with him.

As was our custom, I badgered and browbeat Darryl about Gregg until Darryl reluctantly gave in. Gregg appeared at the next rehearsal, and Darryl walked into a rundown of my arrangement of the intro to Covenant, which we’d planned to open the show with. Gregg was wailing away in full Jimmy Hendrix distort mode (which I coaxed him to do), and the look on Darryl’s face— that classic, “Did I Miss A Meeting?” squint known all over the East Coast— was priceless. Darryl ultimately cut this rock intro from the album for both time and space reasons. But, at the show, I’ll never forget the stunned reaction of the audience as the band kicked into this wailing, plaintive howl to the Lord, led by a gleeful Sullivan banging away as the choir marched in. It was unheard of. It bordered on sacrilege. No one in that building full of Cherry aficionados— many of whom had grown up listening to this man play every week— expected to hear that sound. It was a musical punch in the face that announced, “I Have Arrived.” New Brunswick would no longer have Darryl Cherry to kick around anymore. The Gregg Sullivan-fueled Wall of Sound was the loudest and most profound statement of Darryl’s career to date, and it left everyone gasping to see what would come next. So, I was right about Gregg. I love being right.

The house was nearly sold out. The only seats left in the old Methodist Church on Albany Street in New Brunswick were up in the balcony, with a view of the tops of everyone’s head. We had problems with the sound check and weren’t able to open the doors as scheduled. A crowd had formed outside— a crowd of Church Folk, not known for their patience or understanding. The guy we rented the Hammond B3 organ from left the power cord in Bristol, Pennsylvania, nearly an hour drive away. Darryl started pacing the floor, anxious about the sound guys and what was taking so long. The problem was what sound engineers call bleed: different mics picking up reflected sound from other sources. It was an enormous task to get all the instruments right and get their monitors right. To get the choir monitors hot enough that the choir could exist within a kind of sound cocoon where they could hear themselves clearly and cleanly over the band. And everything had to be reasonably isolated so we got twenty-four clean tracks out to the remote truck. 

So, things were taking longer than Darryl expected. The crowd outside was getting agitated. It was starting to rain. I told Darryl to relax. I told him to go outside and talk to the people, let them know what was going on. Darryl didn’t want to go. He thought he'd be mobbed, beaten and dragged out into traffic. So I went with him along with a security guard. A nervous Minister Cherry, head bowed slightly with a kind of Nixonian gape, ventured outside, thinking to find 20 or 30 people.

He found a mob. At least 200 people waiting in the rain to see him and to see this choir. There was a crush of people outside the doors, along the sidewalk and into the street. And, rather than receive anger from these people, they received Darryl in love, with hugs of reassurance, pats on the back and smiles. Darryl thought the night was going to be a fiasco, that it would be his last day in New Jersey. But, in spite of his lack of faith, God brought the souls out. And Darryl and the choir delivered in spades.

Never Stop Recording

I deliberately left some of Sister Miller’s pre-show rap on because I believe this album can and should, first and foremost, minister to the listener. Sure, with What's Wrong Out There? and Darryl’s sermonette, The Recording Is Secondary, a full five minutes passes before Darryl plays a single note on the album. But its five minutes invested in recreating the tension, the expectation, and the invocation for the choir and setting the stage of what was to come, “Dennis, you do whatever you have to do— we’ve come to magnify the Lord.”

Those were Darryl's explicit instructions: this was, first and foremost, a worship service. Yes, we were going to attempt to get the best takes of things that we could, but once the performance began, all thoughts of a recording session were to be banished and the flow of the service was not to be disturbed for any reason.

Out in the remote truck, I was giving the engineer cues about when to switch reels and what was next, but we were basically collecting raw footage we’d edit later. I put in several miles of running from the truck to the band pit (a circuitous path that led up a back stairway, over the pulpit and down into the band pit), as I cut back and forth during the night to either communicate with the band or, on two songs, play bass.

Make A Joyful Noise, a celebratory R&B romp, was Covenant’s signature song, so it was fitting to open the concert with this (the before mentioned Covenant was used as a processional). Driven by Derek’s funky inharmonic zigzagging forced against Darryl’s straight-ahead major chords, the two formed a kind of dissonant thunder that drove the choir, and, by extension, the congregation, into a frenzy. The late and dearly loved Seth Morrison, a good friend of Darryl's brought in for the concert, improvised TV game show horn riffs over the melody that, frankly, really should not have worked. I mean, they were corny, cartoonish (and Seth reportedly braced at my characterization of his arrangements. I mean them as the highest compliment to this brilliant musician). But they really rocked the house and brought an added dimension to a song we had, by that time, been playing for nearly two years.

Turn Your Life Over To The Lord is one of Darryl’s favorite songs, one imbued with Darryl’s trademark funky-pop fusion. Darryl loved to play that song, which was also fun for the bass guy, and again, the choir flattened the congregation with this George Clinton-esque slammer. This song evolved out of several fun rehearsals, with Darryl adding the ominous Vincent Price warning before we looped into an extrapolation of TSOP's classic Love Is The Message. Now turbo-charged by Special Edition vocalist Jacqueline Williams' brassy alto, Darryl and I coached an aggressive accusation out of the diminutive Williams who coalesced this drive as guitarist Sullivan's bluesy Clapton riffs hammered home the moral imperative of a personal relationship with Christ.

He Is Holy is a song that requires, no demands, a lot of time. Like the gorgeous Covenant, Holy tells a tale and takes its sweet time telling it. It unravels slowly and is not for the impatient. Though Darryl and I decided to put this cut third on the album, it came much later in the program, after Darryl and the choir had worn everyone out enough that they might actually sit and listen and let He Is Holy do its work. He Is Holy is one of the most powerful, beatific praise ballads ever written. Yeah, I know I’m saying a lot, here, but the song’s power is undeniable. It is an incredibly moving worship experience that cannot be rushed, and here the choir shines as nowhere else on the album.

Songs of Praises, absent from this Special Edition, was Darryl’s award-winning arrangement of a classic anthem. Directed by the incredibly gifted and dynamic Joe Lee, this anthem— which I feared would be icily ignored by the predominately black and predominately slap and stomp crowd— brought the church roaring to its feet with a prolonged ovation that threatened the aging stained glass windows.

Unfortunately, Derek hadn't quite gotten the complex bass part to Songs... and I had to scamper out of the truck, through the rain, down the aisle, over the rainbow, and down into the pit to play bass on the song. This is unfortunate for two reasons: first, I'm a lousy bassist. Second: Derek's Music Man bass used huge Humbucker active EQ pickups that the house sound and the truck recording studio were both set up for, while my bass used wimpy passive EQ stock Fender pickups. In other words, the bass level dropped out of the house. I could barely hear myself, and the diminished presence of the bass only added to my humiliation of stumbling around in the shadow of the Elder Statesman Jackson.

The bigger problem, though, was that I was in the musicians' pit instead of the remote truck. The engineer picked up a squeal of feedback and alerted the stage manger, Leslie Noah Burns, one of the most respected and capable managers on the east coast. Since I was not available, Leslie was who they turned to, and she called the ball: she had them stop and rewind.

Which was against Darryl's explicit instructions: you never stop. You tape everything. You keep going. In these days of digital transfers and ProTools, we can recreate most anything in a virtual environment. We could have fixed whatever went wrong after the fact. This marvelous, whiz-bang system only has one basic flaw, however: the tape MUST KEEP ROLLING. If we have no raw footage, we can't fix anything. We could have gone another take and used the second, less-enthused performance to patch the first, outstanding performance. But, Leslie did what she thought best, and we lost the take of the first performance of this song, a performance that threatened to stop the entire show and left people weeping and spent. The second time around, the reaction was pleasant but nowhere in the same ballpark as the first.

Chaos And Order

I'm Saved was the song. We all knew it. We knew it from the opening bars: it was a grabber. Like the infectious bosa-nova of Michael Jackson's Thriller, I'm Saved begins with a perilous chromatic dive by the minister's piano into a flat punch in the face by Derek's Music Man bass guitar. The band then settles into a lazy, low-rider ragtop choppy groove, with Derek slipping and sliding in and around Darryl's bang-bang-bang-bang hammering, while the rest of the band plays understated staccato accompaniment. I'm Saved has never failed to get people on their feet within the opening bars of this funky old-school Earth, Wind & Fire groove, and then the thing takes off like a freight train, with a procession of male leads, each more beguiling than the next. The song runs well over thirteen minutes and I begged Darryl to leave it intact, but Darryl, as is his wont, worries over taxing the patience of the listener. This seems wasted effort on the minister's part as this toe-tapper steams along effortlessly, obliterating all concerns of time and space as it dives deeper and deeper and deeper into the blue velvet, only to emerge with the triumphant bark "SAVED!!" from the choir, into an irresistible call-and-response: Gotta believe it, gotta receive it, as long as you need it...

I'm Saved is Darryl's crowning achievement, a song he will undoubtedly become sick of playing long before anyone gets sick of hearing it. Especially if gifted, brilliant tenors like Jonathan "Dusty" Hall line up to take the lead. "Dusty," as we called him (and he called himself) was a kind of local celeb, a young man with a velvet croon that left most every woman in town weak-kneed. As he approached the stage, cheers and yelps from the soprano section are clearly audible (despite Darryl's wasted effort to get rid of them), as the women inappropriately swooned in the middle of a worship experience. Darryl himself was caught unawares by the causality of Dusty's opening bid: Gotta believe it— yes, you do...  with a casual, check-my-watch timing that elicited a squeal of delight from Darryl himself, as Dusty, New Brunswick's own Velvet Fog, slid into some dazzling vocal calisthenics that brought the crowd to its feet. This was an apt capping to the two other powerhouse lead tenors that preceded him.

This Special Edition marks a rapid departure for this song, one so traditionally male-led that Darryl refused to allow R&B singer Faith Evans to sing it the night of the concert. We didn't know Faith that well, and this was some time before she became nationally known, but she had been a frequent visitor to rehearsals and a participant with the choir, and Faith Evans had sung I'm Saved in rehearsal. But, Darryl felt this was an exclusively male song, so he declined to have Faith sing that night (one of those moments he dearly regrets).

So, I was pleasantly surprised when Darryl seemed open to my suggestion for using a female lead on this song for the Special Edition. Nicole Cates, a dynamic and fiery alto with serious R&B and gospel chops, takes the reins on the song's bridge— a wholly unexpected sound to people familiar with this song. Nicole mixes it up with major-league heavyweights Josiah Martin (a David Ruffin-style baritone with a battle-scarred and weather beaten howl far older than his late teen years suggest) and Steve Frazier, the Springs' favorite son. Steve memorized Dusty's solo the first time he heard it, long before Pastor Promise Lee had even conceived of this Special Edition. He nailed his part on the first take and created a dynamic tapestry of Nicole, Josiah, Steve and Dusty.

Finally, Darryl himself takes the lead in a brief coda to ...Saved, realizing the choir itself had now left him on his own as they rejoiced and celebrated and wept with joy, overcome by the move of the Holy Spirit. Rather than sit politely and wait for everyone to calm down, Darryl's tactile tenor began a kind of lullaby of the call-and-response in a soothing, worshipful manner, while he quieted his own keyboard pyrotechnics to a simple phrase, leading the congregants in worship. The band fell in, downshifting from the roar of Aerosmith to the hush of Erykah Badu, in a completely unrehearsed Caribbean swing arrangement as Darryl brilliantly brought the train into the station.

Pentecost seems to be Darryl's favorite song of this set. I don't know why. To me, it sounds the least like Darryl Cherry. To me, it sounds like a great Gospel foot-stomper, while Darryl's original songs have an indefinable something; an amalgam of classical, jazz and Gospel forms that, honestly, does not sound like anyone else. Darryl sounds like Darryl except here, where he sounds like Dorothy Norwood or Albertina Walker. Which is fine, I suppose, but I never liked this song much, and never understood why Darryl insisted on playing the hell out of it everywhere we went. On the other hand, Pentecost was universally well received, and was a sure-fire show-stopper. It was a breath of stylistic familiarity amidst Darryl's otherwise progressive and ingenious material, most of which went well over the heads of your average Church Folk.

In post production, Darryl shocked everyone by bringing in a piano player. Most everyone, myself included, found this odd because, well, Darryl is one of the best Gospel piano players breathing today. But if Darryl brings in a piano player, you can be sure this guy is a monster. James Perry was that guy, a legendary Gospel sessions man with whom Darryl served in music ministry in Newark, New Jersey. Darryl produced new piano tracks for Pentecost with James ripping all over the keyboard and overdubbnig a B3 organ part as well.

For The Special Edition, I chose to keep both performances: Darryl's spirited electric piano drives the song through the verse and chorus, and James explodes on the scene in his Yamaha concert grand right after the I Got It! holler. Both men then battle it out, with Darryl primarily in the left speaker and James primarily in the right, a kind of frenzied piano duel like nothing I've heard in Gospel music in years. After the song ends, about six minutes into the track, Perry surges forward with a dynamic solo as the band descends into chaos as the choir and the congregation spontaneously explode into rejoicing and dancing. Following Perry's solo, Darryl re-takes the lead and drives the song even higher with his own blazing keyboard work.

Here lead vocalist Debra Darby simply rips your head off with her fiery soprano, exploding in frequent squalls of reverence and rage as she drives the choir into an absolute frenzy. Darryl added to this Jacqueline Williams' conviction and, well, stamina, as her alto traded jabs with Debra's explosive performance.

Bonus clips of studio cuts, produced solely by Darryl, include Anoint Me The More, What A Fellowship and the title track from Darryl's studio album Let Your Spirit Fall. Darryl originally wanted to include studio cuts here on Covenant Live, but I urged Darryl to leave them off. Covenant Live is a unique moment in Darryl's life, one that speaks entirely for itself. He has more than enough material for two albums, so I reasoned, why shortchange both by cramming too much onto this one?

Anoint melds nicely out of Darryl's quiet coda to I'm Saved, and paves the way nicely for the smooth, ergonomic What A Fellowship, a silky workout appropriate for worship services and romantic dinners, fueled by an impossible philharmonic piano riff Darryl hypnotically winds through the song. Let Your Spirit Fall is a David Bowie-esque hand-banging funk march fueled by Phil Miller's rigidly timed, ear-crushing piccolo snare drum, each hit sounding like a shotgun blast as the choir stair-steps their way through a chromatic maze of diminished minor chords mechanically clanking against each other in an almost New Wave stylistic departure.

This was truly anointed writing, playing, and singing, written, produced and arranged by a masterfully gifted and anointed musician.

Christopher J. Priest
January 2000  UPDATED OCTOBER 2013

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