While divisions in the sixties and seventies were sharply drawn, the borders seemed less impenetrable than today. The youth then were fighting for civil rights, against Vietnam, loving one another. Evangelical, super churches and activist Catholic bishops had not yet politicized Christianity. Religion was finding a home among some of America’s youth, too, drawn in not so much by the gospels but by the overwhelming power of music. Nestled on the charts among Zeppelin and Hendrix were “My Sweet Lord”, “Oh, Happy Day”, Jesus Christ Superstar. And achieving regional fame on Chicago’s South Side was Pastor T.L. Barrett. Barrett was a fiery orator, yet it was the contemporary arrangements and hair-raising 45 human voices of his Youth for Christ Choir that were packing the pews. Barrett would record and release five albums of his choir’s music during the seventies. Light in the Attic had reissued his debut, Like a Ship, in 2010, but it was really when Kayne West sampled one of his songs on his 2016 Life of Pablo album that the pastor began his slow-roll to wider acceptance. Lured by the music’s power (and relatively low licensing costs), advertising, TV and film followed suit, and soon you were hearing Barrett’s music everywhere – Hacks, an Obama doc, an Under Amour commercial. Covers by DJ Khaled and Leon Bridges followed. And now Numero Group has gathered up all five of Barrett’s albums and numerous sermons on a new box set. There’s a lot here to absorb, and over time, a certain sameness sets in. The latter albums aren’t as strong, and you’re not going to put the sermons on shuffle play. But there is no denying the choir’s impact and power. Set to rollicking rhythms laid down by a piano-driven rhythm section, the jubilant voices rise, swell and reverberate, and your blood pressure soars along with them. Buoyed by optimism, the best selections are the least preachy, echoing the works of Aretha, Stevie and others, and stirring the heart in a time when it’s tough to believe in anything.
Review by Jeff McCord