For close to a half-century, The Mighty Clouds of Joy have been known worldwide as the preeminent black gospel quartet.
From their earliest days in the traditional gospel format of four voices and one solo guitar, through their pioneering 70s mixture of sanctified singing and funky, electric soul arrangements, to their current bag as a slick, polished, powerhouse of roof-raising harmonies and modern, rock-influenced bombast, The Clouds have earned their position as leaders and innovators of their genre.
While the lineup has changed a bit over the years, founding members Joe Ligon and Richard Wallace have stood the test of time, with longtime collaborators Mike Cook, Ron Staples, and Johnny Valentine rounding out the current lineup.
Its been a long road from their first recorded single (1960s Peacock 45 Steal Away To Jesus) to their most recent album, In The House of The Lord: Live In Houston. That briskly-selling disc is a thrilling testament to the thunderous experience of the groups celebrated live shows, which have made them one of the top-grossing Christian music acts.
By incorporating brightly colored outfits and fancy footwork (a la The Temptations) and horrors an electric backup band (a la Bob Dylan circa 65), they drew cries of Judas from gospel purists who would later recoil at the mention of The Clouds breakthrough disco smash Mighty High. But history has proved the group to be prescient avatars of contemporary religious music.
We caught up with bandleader Joe Ligon via phone from a stop on the groups own Neverending Tour.
Connect Savannah: Have you ever played Savannah before?
Joe Ligon: Weve been together for 46 years, and during that time we must have played in Savannah over 30 times. We love it there.
Connect Savannah: This last album is spectacular. The goal was to create the definitive record of your career. Did you?
Joe Ligon: Thats right. When I first met the producer Sanchez Harley, he said to me, Youve been together for so long, and won so many Grammys and Stellas [the gospel industrys own award], but I want to make the biggest album youve ever had. I thought he was off his rocker! I mean, weve made some monster records. So, I said OK, and walked away, you know? But now, after alls said and done, I gotta say that of all the records weve made, its one of the few that I can put on and listen to all the way through and not get tired of it.
Connect Savannah: How much did your producer have to do with that?
Joe Ligon: Im not gonna lie on the man. Hes tough to work with. But buddy, if you do what he says, the results are phenomenal! Youll love it. Hes a perfectionist, but he does things the right way. All the rest of the gospel quartets out there kinda follow after The Clouds, and now, everybody that could get to him or pay what he charged they went after him. He has a knack for finding material that brings out the best in people. Hes done Shirley Caesar, a lot of R & B people, and hes done Aretha Franklin whos my Godsister. Hes already collecting songs for our next release. Thatll be a studio album, and it should be finished and out by this time next year.
Connect Savannah: If you do not move your listeners to accept Christ, is that a failure of some sort. Or is it enough that you have brought them happiness if not salvation?
Joe Ligon: Well, if youre into the Lord or Jesus or your Savior, or however you look at your religion, we just figure that out of 12 songs on a CD, there should be four or five that will direct peoples minds to the Supreme Being and how important He is. There may also be songs on there about life, where we might not mention Jesus or what we believe in. We dont tell people how and when to go to church, who to pray for. We tell them our theory. We believe in God and that hes real. If we did not trust and believe in God over these 46 years, we would not have made it. Well always sing about that. hes in there regardless.
Connect Savannah: Do you think the Clouds could have become as successful without being so adept at working crowds and looking good?
Joe Ligon: We wouldnt have been as effective as we are now now. Weve opened for The Stones, Al Green, James Brown... Um, now whos that little short man who plays the guitar?
Connect Savannah: Rich Levy?
Joe Ligon: No... Paul Simon! We opened up for him at Madison Square Garden. Weve opened for B.B. King and Bobby Bland in Japan. Our success would not have been the same and it wouldnt have mattered how good our voices were -- if we hadnt been losin our minds on the stage! All the promoters and the artists weve worked with always mention our energy. We do Shout by The Isley Brothers and just act crazy! We started that policy back in 1964. It went over so big that people started saying Their guitar player does the duckwalk like Chuck Berry! Its because of things like that that were now known as The Mighty, Mighty Clouds Of Joy.
Connect Savannah: Whats the biggest misconception about The Clouds?
Joe Ligon: Well, when we went contemporary, my father and the gospel industry got angry because when we came on the scene, we were singing Amazing Grace. But Lord, we got smart. We said, gospel musics gonna change, and weve always been a daring group. Our producer knew it would take a creative shift. He was seeing back then what people are doing now, 25 years later! People thought we were losing our minds, because we were working with Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff at Sigma Sound in Philly. People thought wed gone secular, cause we were the first gospel group ever to appear on Soul Train. Boy, we really got talked about then! (Laughs) When we came out with songs for the young people like Ride The Mighty High, they said we were talking about using drugs. I said, gettin high? The Mighty High is God!
Connect Savannah: What kind of set can folks expect at this upcoming show?
Joe Ligon: Well do stuff from our entire history. Theres always different types of people in our crowds. Well mix it up, because were very good observers, and whatever songs are getting through the best, well key in on.
Connect Savannah: With the passing of Coretta Scott King, people are taking stock of the state of black America. Christian faith played a huge role in galvanizing people of all races to join the civil rights movement. What do you think of American race relations today?
Joe Ligon: Dr. King and his wife changed a lot of things. He had to believe in what he was doing, even if it cost him his life which I feel he knew it would. I often wonder what would have happened if we had not had a Dr. King. There were a lot of people who just said Im not gonna go out and fight dogs and water hoses, get locked up and called the N word. Why should I do that? But he beat the bushes, and never said it was just for black people. It was for people, period. For anybody who was looked down upon. I was in Albany, Ga. I saw it and Ill never forget. Him getting pushed around and dogs snapping at their throats. Think about it. What would America be like today without Dr. King?
The Mighty Clouds of Joy and various local choirs appear Sunday at St. John Baptist Church (522 Hartridge St.) as part of Savannahs 2006 Black Heritage Festival. The show starts at 5 p.m.