Producer Notes on “Lost Gospel”: There are times in my job when I feel like the luckiest person in the world. That’s how I’ve felt while producing our World Report’s story on Lost Gospel. Music scholars estimate as much as 75% of Black Gospel was destroyed during its most influential time: from around 1945-1970. A Baylor professor has made it his life’s work to digitize all that he can find. Every day, people who hear about his mission are finding boxes of old albums in their parents’ attics and back rooms and sending it to him. To illustrate the importance and rich sound of traditional Black Gospel, we traveled to Birmingham, Alabama. Last Saturday, we interviewed several people who walked the walk and sung the song: a renowned deejay activist and two gospel greats. One of those singers is Cleo Kennedy. She was arrested three times for protesting in Birmingham. She used to warm up the crowd with her operatic voice before Martin Luther King’s speeches. She’s sung gospel with Ray Charles and rock and roll with Bruce Springsteen. She’s sung in jail. And she sung to us in her living room.
Roscoe “Scoe” Robinson met us at historical Kelly Ingram Park in a cobalt blue suit and matching hat. He was one of the original Blind Boys of Mississippi and later joined the Blind Boys of Alabama. At 82 years old, he drove himself to the interview and sat on a concrete wall telling us about the days on tour when he couldn’t walk through the front door of a restaurant.
Later, our jaws dropped as Scoe and the great deejay Shelley “the Playboy” Stewart, sang “Amazing Grace” as they walked down the concrete path of a park which was the scene of many a civil rights march. Across the street sat the 16th Street Baptist Church, where four little girls were killed when a bomb set by the KKK went off during Sunday school. The next day, we visited the 17th Street Macedonia Baptist Church where we were treated to two hours of live gospel music. This was the real thing, and photographer Jim Van Vranken didn’t miss a beat, running the length of the building to get footage of the choir, heads thrown back in song. Sound man Kevin Sanchez had the audio covered as he monitored every note from the rafters of the church. We wrapped up our trip in San Antonio, Texas, where professor Robert Darden explained to us why he started the Black Gospel Restoration Project seven years ago. After what we saw in Birmingham, it didn’t take too much to convince us he’s doing important work.
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