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Music Notes: gospel according to the Soul Stirrers

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The Soul Stirrers may now be performing to exuberant audiences in the Goodman's production of The Gospel at Colonus, but 14 years ago the legendary Chicago-based gospel group's fate was literally in the hands of God.

The quintet, which spawned such pop stars as Sam Cooke and Johnnie Taylor, had just split up, leaving only Martin Jacox and founding member J.J. Farley. Jacox, whom Farley had named manager, recalls spending a solitary New Year's Eve in prayer, searching for a course of action. The next morning, the first day of 1977, he left his south-side house, briefcase in hand, and took a bus northward.

"When I got off at 63rd, this lady was standing there," Jacox says. "She didn't know me, and I didn't know her. She said, 'I been here waiting for you 'cause the Lord told me to tell you to keep on going. It will fill that bag up with prosperity.' Everything worked out gracefully after that. The right people came into the group."

The right people were Jackie Banks, the Soul Stirrers' one genuine minister; Ben Odom, now the group's musical director; and Willie Rogers, who returned to the group in 1980 after a nine-year absence. They toured and recorded primarily under the name J.J. Farley and the Original Soul Stirrers to distinguish themselves from two other groups calling themselves the Soul Stirrers (although neither contained any original members). Farley died in October 1988 and has yet to be replaced, but the group still often bills itself as J.J. Farley's Soul Stirrers.

The heavyset Jacox, who's 51, is the talker--he seems to burst with information, observations, and humor. Rogers, who's 50, is more soft-spoken, contemplative. Banks, 36, is also quiet, but as his alternate profession would suggest, can take over in theological discussions. Odom, 30, is down-to-earth, spiritual, and, according to Rogers, savvy about the group's commercial and technical side.

"We are all spiritually inclined," Rogers says. "We all worked diligently in church. We practice unity, we practice love, and we practice respect with one another."

The Soul Stirrers--like a number of other gospel groups, including the Pilgrim Travelers, the Dixie Hummingbirds, and the Five Blind Boys of Alabama--gained a national reputation in the 30s, 40s, and 50s touring the country's clubs, auditoriums, and churches. By the time they set up headquarters in Chicago in 1938, they had become known for eschewing gospel's familiar four-part harmonies in favor of a strong lead singer backed by a quartet crooning in sweet unison.

"When the Soul Stirrers would come to town, it was like Michael Jackson coming to Chicago today," says Rogers, now a Chicagoan, of his childhood in Norfolk, Virginia. "Everyone would run out to hear Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers."

In their 56 years of existence they have not made a pop recording, yet the Soul Stirrers were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last year. Jacox said they have received many offers to sing pop but have always refused. "We don't want people to think there are limitations in God. I believe everything we need is in gospel."

Rogers agrees, though he left the group in 1971 to record pop for Atlantic and Ronn records. "I just wanted to try something new, something different at the time," he says, and then adds that money was also a consideration. "I wasn't happy at all. I just didn't like the hustle and bustle of the pop field."

Again, the divine intervened. Rogers was at a group meditation service in Las Vegas, where the leader asked everyone what they saw in their meditation. "I said I saw a light," Rogers recalls. "He said I would be doing great things with inspired music. At that point I decided to rejoin the Soul Stirrers, and from then on great things started happening for us. The main thing was I was happy."

Though they currently have no label affiliation, the Soul Stirrers generally record a new album every 18 months or so. The material is a mixture of traditional gospel tunes and originals with titles such as "New Direction" and "Don't Let the World Get You Down." They still perform concerts; their next appearance will be Monday night at the south side's New Canaan Land Baptist Church.

Gospel singers may not be superstars anymore, but the Soul Stirrers have noticed a recent surge of interest in their music. "The audience has changed," Rogers said. "Gospel is more of a crossover music now."

That observation is borne out by the success of The Gospel at Colonus, Lee Breuer's Pentecostal retelling of Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus. The group hooked up with the show for its initial 1983 production in Minneapolis and has traveled with it across the United States (including a four-month run on Broadway) and Europe.

Decked out in blue suits, the Soul Stirrers collectively play the role of Choragos, essentially the lead voices in the Greek chorus. Each member solos, and Odom also plays bass guitar. They're up front at the end, with Rogers's rich tenor leading the cast through "Now Let the Weeping Cease."

Rogers says that after he went with the show to Europe he dreamed of bringing it to Chicago. The audience response has been as enthusiastic as he hoped: "You can tell this is the home of gospel."

Jacox has become the cast expert on predicting who will be "touched by the spirit." The whooping, crying, speaking in tongues, and general state of uncontrollable joy are most likely to take over cast members during the rousing climaxes of Bob Telson's score and can last through the final curtain call--and even continue backstage.

A couple weeks ago Jacox predicted that Afemo Omilami, who had just replaced Reverend Earl Miller as the preacher, would be "touched" within a few days. Sure enough, the next Sunday matinee featured four ecstatic reprises of "Lift Him Up" before Omilami could compose himself and deliver his final sermon.

"It's opened the doors to a lot of people who may never have seen us," Odom says. "This made them feel spiritual. If you can get that, you know you're headed in the right direction."

The Gospel at Colonus runs through August 12 at the Goodman, 200 S. Columbus; 7:30 Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 2 and 7:30 Thursdays, 8 Fridays, and 2:30 and 8 Saturdays and Sundays. Tickets are $18 to $30; call 443-3800. The Soul Stirrers' concert at the New Canaan Land Baptist Church, 5957 S. Peoria, is at 7:30 PM, Monday, July 16. Tickets are $10; call 651-7892 or 651-2167.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.

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