Often not emphasized enough — or totally ignored — in attempts to sum up the popular music of the 20th century, gospel music gets the attention it deserves in “How They Got Over: Gospel Quartets and the Road to Rock & Roll,” a documentary that will be shown at the New Jersey Film Festival in New Brunswick, Jan. 27.
In the 90-minute documentary, director Robert Clem, of Stone Ridge, N.Y., tells the story of how gospel expanded beyond the four walls of the church to both influence other forms of American music, and be influenced by them. He uses a large amount of rarely seen film clips to show gospel groups from various eras — The Blind Boys of Mississippi, The Sensational Nightingales, Inez Andrews and the Andrewettes and others — in soul-stirring action. He also includes extensive interviews with members of groups such as The Dixie Hummingbirds, The Fairfield Four and The Heavenly Gospel Singers, as well as with Otis Clay and Dennis Edwards (of The Temptations), who both started out in gospel before becoming mainstream R&B stars.
Despite the film’s title, its focus is not only on quartets: Every configuration from solo artist to mini-choir is included in Clem’s overview. Personally, one of my favorite discoveries from the film is The Consolers, a rousingly powerful husband-and-wife singing duo (Sullivan and Iola Pugh).
Clem starts in The Depression Era, when young singers, with few job opportunities available to them, took to the road in small groups, venturing from town to town in hopes of being able to make a little bit of money with impromptu shows in each one. These were purely vocal groups, originally, but in the ’40s and ’50s, some started adding guitars, and then other instruments. They also started recording — for small, independent labels, mostly — and performing at large theaters instead of just churches and schools, and even adopting some of the flamboyant stage moves of secular performers.
As you would expect, some performers talk about facing discrimination on the road, and about attempts to lure them to the more lucrative, pop/R&B side of the music industry. Sam Cooke, originally a gospel star, made that jump, causing some in the gospel world to believe he sold out. But Cooke was the exception; most of his contemporaries were content to stay firmly in the gospel world.
In the 21st century, leading gospel stars tend to be solo artists or choirs with a dynamic leader — not small groups like quartets. As one of Clem’s interviewees points out, there is actually more interest in this form of music in Europe, now, than there is in the United States.
Clem ends on a bittersweet note, showing how many of his interviewees have died in recent years. (He started work on the movie more than a decade ago.) But he should feel proud that he gave them an opportunity to tell their stories, and contribute to such a thorough look at the music they made.
“How They Got Over: Gospel Quartets and the Road to Rock & Roll” is on a 7 p.m. Jan. 27 New Jersey Film Festival bill with two shorts, “The Bug” and “Everything’s Fine: A Panic Attack in D Major.” The screening will be followed by a question-and-answer session with director Robert Clem and producer Jerry Zolten. Visit njfilmfest.com.