‘Do what the good Lord gave you and keep going’ | Music Feature | Chicago Reader

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‘Do what the good Lord gave you and keep going’

The new compilation No Other Love shines a light on a self-reliant strain of midwest gospel that’s survived outside the mainstream for more than 50 years.

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Reverend Mack McCollum leads Sunday service on December 1, 2019, at New Home Missionary Baptist Church. A song he recorded with New Home's choir in the 1970s appears on No Other Love. - MELISSA BLACKMON FOR CHICAGO READER
  • Melissa Blackmon for Chicago Reader
  • Reverend Mack McCollum leads Sunday service on December 1, 2019, at New Home Missionary Baptist Church. A song he recorded with New Home's choir in the 1970s appears on No Other Love.

On a Sunday morning at New Home Missionary Baptist Church in South Austin, Reverend Mack McCollum waits till the service is well under way to make his entrance. He knows that pacing himself for the long haul always beats making a reckless rush. A banner in the stairwell of this west-side church celebrates his lengthy career: "60 Years Preaching / 55 Years Pastoring / 85 Years Young." The building itself, constructed in 1996, is relatively modern, but the music inside on this day is mostly time-honored gospel. An organist and drummer guide the choir through its peaks and valleys, expertly building tension, and McCollum's voice provides the release.

At New Home, congregants of all ages recognize gospel standards such as "You've Got to Move"—as visiting organist Tim Hughes puts it, the church knows the old favorites, even if every single churchgoer doesn't. McCollum eases into the tune, singing while he directs the choir and congregation. He shapes the music with his control of dynamics, moving between a shout on "I Will Trust in the Lord" and quiet moans on "Mean Old World" and "That's Heaven to Me," both of which gospel star and soul man Sam Cooke popularized in the 1960s.

Not that the programming ignores younger generations: McCollum next introduces stylish spoken-word artist Jennifer Freeman, also a New Home congregant. "She ain't got my Christmas wrap," he says, "but she has a rap." During the recessional, the instrumentalists play Donny Hathaway's holiday favorite from 1970, "This Christmas." Still, throughout the service, McCollum unmistakably emphasizes traditions from further back.

Generational divides and historical memory also come up in a breakfast discussion between McCollum and a few visitors, including Hughes, who played with McCollum for many years at New Home but now lives in Mississippi. Hughes mentions that younger church performers in his area don't know the older repertoire and performance styles, and McCollum nods, gently chiding children who ignore the music of their parents and grandparents. With a sly grin, he quietly replies, "They're not anticipating someone getting old."

The traditions that McCollum embodies are documented on the compilation album No Other Love: Midwest Gospel 1965-1978, produced by global music scholar Ramona Stout and released last month by San Francisco archival label Tompkins Square. It presents a cross-section of underappreciated performers, whose style, sound, or age placed them outside the mainstream of the gospel industry, with its infrastructure of major record labels and popular radio and TV shows. Most of the artists on the compilation have died, and only two are still regularly performing—McCollum and Carnell Drummer, guitarist and vocalist for the Sensational Travelers of Zion. Both live in Chicago.

Musicians like McCollum and the Travelers took it upon themselves to be their own advocates and their own entrepreneurs. They pressed their singles in small runs of around 100 copies, occasionally partnering with tiny labels (the Travelers worked with west-side indie Cash Records) to release their music or promote their performances across the region or the country. This self-reliance is a key reason they're still active today, offering a living connection to this rich history. It's an inspiration to hear and speak with McCollum and Drummer in their Chicago neighborhoods—the kind of inspiration that should be universal, no matter your feelings about God.

These artists' exuberance flows through No Other Love. They lacked the large arrangements of some of their contemporaries, but this meant they also avoided a production sheen that could sound more dated today. McCollum recorded the album's stomping-and-shaking version of "I'm Gonna Stand Still and Do My Master's Will" at a 1970s service, and his choir responds to his gravelly voice and ragged phrasing with the same kind of lift it still conveys. On the Sensational Travelers of Zion's "I Want You to Help Me," Drummer's understated electric guitar blends into and frames the group's hair-raising harmonies and wrung-out pleas. An unknown guitarist adds barbed asides to the Reverend H.H. Harrington's consciousness-raising "Black Pride," released as a 45 on his own Atomic-H Records in the 1960s.

Mack McCollum before he lost his arm in 1966; the members of the Mack McCollum Club in 1977 - COURTESY TOMPKINS SQUARE RECORDS
  • Courtesy Tompkins Square Records
  • Mack McCollum before he lost his arm in 1966; the members of the Mack McCollum Club in 1977

The minimalist aesthetics of this music—usually adopted out of economic necessity—were what struck Stout when she first heard it decades later. It made such an impression that she eventually assembled No Other Love. "My faith is in the power of the music to move people," she says from an airport in Washington, D.C., while traveling from a research mission in Ecuador to her home in Greece. "Mack McCollum says that there is no 'church music' and 'world music'—there's music. People who don't pay attention to gospel music in that way miss out on a lot."

McCollum has always sung gospel, but he also heard B.B. King, Muddy Waters, and Little Walter while he was growing up in Mississippi in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Because he expected more for himself than a rural southern town could offer, he migrated from Tunica, Mississippi, to Chicago in 1953, when he was about 18. McCollum set up his ministry six years later, but at first it couldn't sustain him financially—he continued to work in a series of other jobs. For a time he painted cars at Earl Scheib, quitting after he started coming home at night spitting up different colors. In 1966, while working at a rubber-processing factory in Cicero, McCollum lost his right arm.

Nowadays, McCollum laughs off that incident. Years ago, while he was touring church programs in California, a minister billed him as "The One Arm Bandit." At breakfast a few weeks back, when his wife, Pecola, mentioned that the two of them have yet to go on a cruise, McCollum responded with a joke: "You know I can't swim with just one arm!"

"Well, I didn't suffer too much from losing the arm," McCollum says. "I didn't have major problems. Of course, the arm was important, and I did the best I could after that with the church, so here I am."

This even-tempered attitude has sustained him through more than one tribulation. When McCollum tried to present his music outside the city in the late 1960s and early 1970s, he faced a generational challenge: the gospel industry was shifting its focus away from the midwest.

"The locus of the gospel sound started moving to California in the 1960s," says Robert Marovich, author of the 2015 Chicago gospel history A City Called Heaven. "Arrangements and backgrounds in the 1950s were an electric guitar, organ, piano, and drums. Then came bass guitars, electric keyboards, bigger rhythm sections, and bigger sounds with more rock and jazz. Chicago sort of lost its crown in terms of being the place for artists who wanted to remain relevant."

McCollum took it upon himself to create opportunities, which included a slew of self-pressed recordings. His church's basement offices still document his efforts: they contain flyers for many of his appearances, including dates he coheadlined with gospel and R&B singer Otis Clay. A map of the United States bristles with push pins marking cities where McCollum performed. Adjoining rooms are filled with his 45s, LPs, CDs, and eight-tracks, along with a vintage Ampex reel-to-reel tape machine and other equipment used to record them.

"I've always been into that kind of electronics," McCollum says. "The mikes that have a wire to them, I made my own wire. Soldering, tubes, everything. And everywhere I've been, every church, I've always had a good sound. When I got on the road, I used to have my own sound with me. Because a lot of places you went, the sound was horrible—and I set my sound up. The mike, the board, everything."

Carnell Drummer holds an old photo of his group the Sensational Travelers of Zion, who have a song on No Other Love. Drummer is second from right in the front row. - COURTESY TOMPKINS SQUARE RECORDS
  • Courtesy Tompkins Square Records
  • Carnell Drummer holds an old photo of his group the Sensational Travelers of Zion, who have a song on No Other Love. Drummer is second from right in the front row.

Drummer isn't a minister, but he shares a lot of other things with McCollum: faith, self-reliance, and similar life journeys. At his home in North Lawndale, he talks about moving to Chicago from Alabama 64 years ago, when he was 21. Drummer cofounded the Sensational Travelers of Zion Gospel Singers in 1957, and he's the sole surviving original member in the lineup that still performs. They sang across the midwest at weekend church services, and Drummer held down a job at a metalworks until his retirement in 2000. Since the group didn't trust promoters, they pushed their own gigs, including on such radio stations as WVON.

Drummer is a high tenor, and he's trained the other members of the quartet to maintain a constant balance in their harmonies. His guitar part on "I Want You to Help Me" (the Travelers' only song on No Other Love) starts with a brief swing flourish, then pushes the group along with minimal chord changes. He's not quite an autodidact on the instrument, but he learned from a source close to home.

"My wife Margaret and I went to the Sears downtown and bought a guitar and amplifier," Drummer says. "Margaret tuned it. She could play, but I never could play. She showed me how to play, but it was just one finger—one finger across strings and moving it. I still play. Still try to play, as they say."

Drummer may make his supposed ineptitude the subject of self-deprecating jokes, but his unvarnished guitar is the sort of thing that helps make the records on No Other Love so valuable—they provide insight into a small but enduring corner of gospel. Though these artists were outsiders in the 1960s and 1970s, that status meant that their musical messages arrived in the world as they envisioned them, not contorted into whatever shape a major label thought might be easiest to market.

"These were much freer, more raw experiences on record than you would get with bigger companies," Marovich says, comparing the acts on No Other Love to the kind of smoother, more heavily produced groups that still rise to the top of the Billboard gospel charts. "Many became oral calling cards to sell at their programs or give to radio announcers to get some more publicity. When they're working programs for little to no money, they made money selling records and pictures. Small companies were happy to oblige. Producers might make suggestions, but they were not going to pigeonhole them to sound like the Winans."

As a European, Stout approached the music from a different background, but she found connections between Black gospel in the American midwest and the music of cultures from further away. After attending high school in London and living for a while in Russia, she started studying Near Eastern culture and history at the University of Chicago in 2002. She took courses in Turkish and in central Asian ethnomusicology while her husband, Kevin Speck, worked at the 2nd Hand Tunes on 53rd Street. Years later, as they collected and sold records on their own, certain small-label and self-issued gospel sides clicked with her at a deep level.

"Because I've moved around a lot and hold three citizenships, I don't identify with a nation," Stout says. "So I find a home in different kinds of music—irrespective if they're associated with me or my belief system. This dynamic of despair, hope, and courage that was articulated in gospel related closely to my experience. It's tricky moving to America from Europe as an adult and seeing how people were living as infrastructure was collapsing. That's why the music spoke to me as clearly as it did."

"I love the Lord, so I take this as no joke—this is real stuff," says Reverend McCollum. "I don't play with it. I'm going to stay in with what I'm doing until I can't do it no more." - MELISSA BLACKMON FOR CHICAGO READER
  • Melissa Blackmon for Chicago Reader
  • "I love the Lord, so I take this as no joke—this is real stuff," says Reverend McCollum. "I don't play with it. I'm going to stay in with what I'm doing until I can't do it no more."

Stout's interactions with the people who created this music inspired her just as much. She describes Drummer, a lifelong Baptist, as "kind of Buddha-like" in his belief that "suffering doesn't matter and hopes abide." Though she and Speck left Chicago in 2011, she spent the next eight years working to articulate how these gospel tracks can double as a commentary on her memories of living in the States. The liner notes to No Other Love include her autobiographical essay, where she asks whether gospel can help fill the void when optimism has been evacuated from a city or nation.

In our conversation, Stout also links collecting and producing gospel with her recent work digitizing tapes of 1950s and '60s Ecuadoran music. She compares Ecuadoran vocal harmonies, which some families have modeled after the sound of pan pipes, to the music of the Georgia Brooks Singers, a mother-son-daughter group from Gary, Indiana, who have a track on No Other Love. For Stout, a shared worldview transcends language.

"Not that I'm lyrically focused, but the atmosphere of the songs unifies them," she says. "There's a Quechua word, llaquiglla, that means 'joy through sadness,' and I think that's what a lot of Ecuadorian music tries to cultivate: we're going to feel joy, but we're going to do it through an atmosphere of sadness. I suppose that's a theme of a lot of music that I like, is joy through sadness."

As Stout points out, though, the gospel artists she met while preparing No Other Love don't tend to dwell on the grief and pain in their own lives. A few weeks ago, as Drummer's great-granddaughter's dog rested in his family's living room, he talked about the performances he's looking forward to. And he still follows an inspired credo: "Don't try to outdo somebody else, put somebody else down," Drummer says. "Don't try to do better than somebody else. Just do what the good Lord gave you and keep going."

McCollum also looks to God to keep him on the right path. When we spoke for this story, the Reverend Clay Evans—the Chicago ecclesiastical giant who founded Fellowship Missionary Baptist in 1950—had just died at age 94. That death reminded McCollum of the preciousness of his remaining days, and convinced him that it's time to revisit the recording gear he built.

"To do this one last record is my desire," McCollum says. "I love the Lord, so I take this as no joke—this is real stuff. I don't play with it. I'm going to stay in with what I'm doing until I can't do it no more. I know it's going to come to that, but right now, I'm happy with it."  v

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