Virginia is home to a remarkable diversity of places of worship, each with their own unique gospel music traditions - from the Old Regular Baptist hymn singing of the Appalachian coalfields to the United House of Prayer shout bands of Hampton Roads. Over the past 25 years, The Virginia Folklife Program has explored many of these communities and worked to document, present, preserve, and celebrate their gospel music. This exhibit tells the stories of three distinct artists from eastern Virginia: The Paschall Brothers, Chesapeake’s premiere a cappella Tidewater quartet; gospel matriarch Evangelist Maggie Ingram from Richmond; and Charlie McClendon, a stalwart of the rhythm and blues scene in Norfolk until a dramatic spiritual experience led his music back toward the church.
Though scarcely a handful of African American a cappella quartets sing in Virginia today, black four-part harmony groups were singing in Virginia at least as early as the mid-1800s. The popularity of quartet singing among black males grew rapidly. Tidewater alone produced over two hundred such groups in the century following the Civil War—an era when Newport News, Hampton, Portsmouth, Chesapeake, and Norfolk became a destination point for African Americans. Offering a combination of government and maritime jobs, Norfolk in particular developed into a vibrant black cultural center.
The history of Tidewater’s quartet scene is filled with hosts of singers. At its core the African American quartet tradition was built upon groups of four males singing bass-baritone-tenor-lead arrangements without any musical instruments. Until the mid-1930s these harmony groups sang primarily in straightforward slow or moderate tempos, and their repertoires—usually exclusively sacred—mixed tunes and lyrics from spirituals as well as from more-contemporary hymns and gospel songs.
Left to right: Frank Paschall Sr., Billy Paschall, Frank Paschall Jr., Tarrance Paschall Sr., and Renard Freeman.
Not surprisingly, the church was the most common context for Tidewater quartet performances, but four-part singing went far beyond the church setting. The late Rev. Frank Paschall, the founding father of the Paschalls, spoke of talented harmony groups singing recreationally on street corners when he was younger. Until the 1930s Tidewater quartets often competed in organized singing contests in which the groups were judged not only on their vocal blending but also on their articulation, appearance, and timing. Those quartets that sang jazz, the general term singers of the time used for nonreligious music, carried the quartet sound into clubs and theaters.
Frank Paschall Sr. leads the Paschall Brothers.
The American quartet scene grew dramatically in the 1920s with the advent of radio and records. Recording companies began to produce records targeted specifically at African American buyers, and numerous Tidewater quartets—the Golden Gate Quartet, the Sparkling Four Quartette, the Silver Leaf Quartet, the Golden Crown Quartet, the Norfolk Jazz/Jubilee Quartet, to name just a few—provided wonderful performances for the record market.
In the 1930s Norfolk’s Golden Gate Quartet, led by Willie Johnson, added a new element to the Tidewater quartet tradition, an up-tempo, vocally percussive sound that influenced many of the quartets to follow—including the Paschalls. Their “rhythmic spirituals” carried the Golden Gates to stardom in major movies, on network radio broadcasts, and in concerts and clubs nationwide. Over the next two decades the group produced scores of records. In the late 1950s the Golden Gate Quartet saw that their future musical market was in Europe rather than in the United States, and the group moved to France.
By the time the Golden Gate Quartet left for Europe, the African American quartet tradition was losing much of its identity in Tidewater and throughout the nation. As early as the 1930s, groups were adding guitar accompaniment—a musical crutch in the eyes of some of the more-conservative singers. Instruments became electrified, gospel performers and promoters booked larger halls, and musical groups began to prefer a “larger” sound than four-part a cappella singing. Gradually the norm for the gospel music scene became a lead singer backed by a chorus and/or a guitar-bass-drums-piano/organ band. The local Tidewater quartets continued singing into the 1970s, but the number of active harmony groups declined as the singers became elderly. Since the 1980s the Paschalls have stepped forward to carry the a cappella quartet sound.
Rev. Paschall, Sr., the founding father of the Paschalls, knew four-part harmony well from his own singing experiences. Born in 1923 in Henderson, North Carolina, Rev. Paschall had already performed with quartets when he moved to Tidewater Virginia in 1942 at the age of 19. Though many young singers were serving in World War II at the time, the local quartet scene was thriving in the early 1940s. A number of older quartets were still performing, the Golden Gate Quartet was riding a wave of national popularity, and the a cappella quartet format continued to be a strong force in male gospel singing even as religious groups were adding guitars and additional voices. Rev. Paschall sang in several Tidewater quartets in the following years, including the Singing Somocs and the Keys of Harmony. In 1953 his Gospel Vocalaires recorded “I’ll Be Satisfied” and “Call Me Anytime,” which were released on the Gotham label.
Singing lead and training his sons, Rev. Paschall formed the Paschalls in 1981. When Frank, Sr., passed away in 1999, the lead vocal work shifted primarily to Tarrence Paschall, but as in many quartets the vocal parts are traded among the members for different songs. Billy Paschall primarily sings bass, often in the “pumping” style numerous Tidewater quartets used. Frank Paschall, Jr., and Johnny Lewis trade off on tenor and baritone. Renard Freeman, Tarrence’s son-in-law, brings to the Paschalls a smooth tenor voice reminiscent of the great Sam Cooke.
Clockwise from top left: Bobby Paschall, Renard Freeman, Tarrence Paschall, Sr., Frank Paschall Sr. and Frank Paschall Jr.
"You Better Run" by the Paschall Brothers, performed at the Prism Coffee House in Charlottesville, Virginia on February 6, 2004.
As reflected in their repertoire, the Paschalls take decades of gospel styles and songs and add their own distinct arrangements to them. Rev. Frank Paschall taught many of the older quartet numbers to his sons. Variations of “You Better Run,” “Jonah,” and “Get on Board” were recorded by groups such as Norfolk’s famous Golden Gate Quartet and the Norfolk Jubilee Quartet a half century before the Paschalls formed.
Left to right: Tarrence Paschall Jr., Renard Freeman, Tarrence Paschall Sr., Johnny Lewis, and Frank Paschall Jr.
In 2002, the Virginia Folklife Program launched its Folklife Apprenticeship Program, which pairs masters in a wide range of traditional art forms with apprentices to help pass their cherished craft along to future generations. The Paschall Brothers were in the inaugural class of apprenticeships, training their sons and nephews in the craft of a capella gospel quartet singing. Among the apprentices were Tarrence Paschall’s son, Tarrence Jr., and Renard Freeman’s son, Renard Jr., both of whom would later join the group, on bass and tenor respectively.
Left to right: Thomas Batts, Edward Sivells, Tarrence Paschall, Sr., Tarrence Paschall, Jr. and Renard Freeman, Jr.
The Paschall Brothers’ participation in the Virginia Folklife Apprenticeship Program began a long partnership with the Virginia Folklife Program which remains to this day. Over the years, the Virginia Folklife Program has presented the Paschalls at festivals across Virginia and the country, including the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, the National Folk Festival, and the Richmond Folk Festival, as well as stages big and small, from a tiny high school auditorium in Norfolk to the Kennedy Center. Along the way, the Virginia Folklife Program produced the group’s first CD, Songs for Our Father, and later the Independent Music Award’s 2009 Gospel Album of the Year, On the Right Road Now for Smithsonian Folkways Recordings.
Left to right: Bobby Paschall, Renard Freeman, Frank Paschall Sr., Tarrence Paschall Sr., Frank Paschall Jr.
In 2012, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded the Paschall Brothers with the National Heritage Fellowship, the highest honor that the United States bestows on traditional artists. Sadly, one of the original members and spiritual leader of the group, Frank Paschall Jr., unexpectedly passed away a year before the group were receive this honor. Though inactive since Frank’s passing, the Paschall Brothers performed brilliantly at the Heritage Awards Concert in Washington, D.C., demonstrating once again that regardless of the situation or the setting, they always attend to their craft with the same joy and exuberance, singing as always to a greater, higher audience.
Frank Paschall Jr. center, prays with his brothers.
"Church Folk" performed by the Paschall Brothers at the Prism Coffee House in Charlottesville, Virginia on February 6, 2004.
Dr. Evangelist Maggie Ingram is a force of nature… or, as she would put it, a force for God. Even today, at age 82, confined mostly to a sitting position when performing onstage, the gospel music bandleader leads her group with nods and arched eyebrows, shifting from down-home monologues to extended call-and-responses to inspired vocal reverie on the turn of a chord change. During concerts, she inevitably will stand up and, inspired by the power of the Word, testify with spontaneous body movements and impassioned vocalizing that proves to all – sinner and converted alike -- that the pure love of the lord can wind up time.
For decades, Maggie Ingram and the Ingramettes have kept up an active performance schedule of mostly regional church programs in and around their hometown of Richmond, Virginia. It’s a community-based approach that has made the ensemble one of the musical world’s best-kept secrets. Mama herself has never worried about her relative obscurity -- worldly success has never been a priority.
Even with that, neighbors and the likeminded have heard her voice, felt her passion. She and her band have performed at the Kennedy Center and the American Folk Festival, and have galvanized patrons at various installments of the National Folk Festival and Richmond Folk Festival. Honored numerous times by governors, senators and mayors, she was one of the first homegrown music makers to receive the Virginia Heritage Award, granted in 2009 by the Virginia Commission For the Arts. That same year, she was given a Lifetime Achievement award from the Gospel Music Workshop of America. More recently, she earned an honorary doctorate from Virginia Triumphant College and Seminary, a proud occasion documented on the Virginia Folklife Program’s CD Maggie Ingram and the Ingramettes: Live in Richmond.
For years, Maggie’s son Lucious directed the Ingramettes’ tight and intuitive band from his place behind the keyboard, and daughter Almeta Ingram Miller has led a kinetic trio of background singers while acting as vocal sparring partner to her mother. The current installment of the Ingramettes pairs soprano Almeta, a powerful singer in her own right, with Maggie’s oldest granddaughter, Evangelist Cheryl Maroney-Beaver -- the band’s energetic sparkplug -- on first alto. Family friend Valerie Stewart has recently joined on second alto. On "Standing on the Promise of God" you’ll also hear the Ingramettes’ current backup band -- bassist Calvin “Koolaid” Curry, guitarist Charles Williams, keyboardist Stuart Hamlin and drummers Randal Kort and Clarence Walters.
“I’ve been singing with the band for [more than] 50 years,” Evangelist Almeta Ingram Miller told me in an interview for Virginia Living magazine. “When other little children were outside playing marbles, we were inside in a circle with her beating a stick, keeping time. She taught each one of us our voices. She taught me soprano, my sister [Christine] alto, the boys [Lucious, Tommy] tenor, and even my oldest brother [John] sang bass. This woman, who was never formally trained in music, can play in every key of the piano. It still amazes me … she wrote almost all of our music.”
“I really don’t have to copy anybody else’s music,” Maggie Ingram once stated. “The Lord just gives me my songs through revelation.”
"Beulah Land" and "Work Until I Die" by Maggie Ingram and the Ingramettes
She was born Maggie Lee Dixon in Coffee County, Georgia, on Independence Day, 1930, one of six children to Reason and Pauline Dixon. Inspired by her sister Fanny, she taught herself piano and could trace many of her indelible melodies to early days working as a sharecropper. “The Lord blessed me to sing, but not like Fanny,” she remembered modestly in a 1990 interview with deejay Linwood Heath at Philadelphia’s WNAP. She honed her craft in the choir of the Macedonia Free Will Baptist Church in Ambrose, Georgia, starting at the age of 8. She told me that, in those days, she had ”to sing or do nothing. You feel like the world is coming to an end. So I was given the gift to sing. I got grown, I got married, I had children … but the song comes from working in the cornfields.”
Maggie married plantation worker Thomas Ingram at 16. They had five children before moving to Florida, where she began to share her voice with the outside world. She first performed with a Miami group called the Six Trumpets and began recording in “one of the dinkiest little recording studios you ever saw,” housed on the second floor of Ernie’s Record Mart. Many of these recordings were released on Nashville’s pioneering Nashboro Records label. “The shop itself was about the size of a good-sized bathroom. But we produced some real good material there.” It was while touring with the Six Trumpets that she first passed through Richmond, and met the Silver Star Quartet -- “one of the old groups” -- and sang on the Trumpets’ popular WRVA radio show.
Maggie Ingram at Fifth Baptist Church in 2011.
“I don’t know if my sisters and brothers have been counting it up, but it was fifty years ago that Mama drove into Richmond in that little green and white ’56 Chevy with her five little children... We came here standing on the promises of God. It was Christmas Eve! December 24th, 1961. Yes, we got here! We didn’t have a lot of Christmas that next day – not a lot of gifts. No Nintendo, no bicycles, no roller skates. But what we had was a word from the Lord that he would take care of us. And Mama did the best she could. Y’all know what we had – that little brown paper bag with the Christmas ribbon on it. We’d open that bag and on the inside there’d be an apple. There’d be an orange on the inside. There was a candy cane stick, and some of that Christmas candy that stick together and bled all over… and we were happy for what we had! Because God had been good, and he brought us to the Promised Land.
So tonight, we stand before you, fifty years later, still standing on the Promises of God.”
Rev. Almeta Ingram-Miller
November 5th, 2011
5th Baptist Church, Richmond, Virginia
In Richmond, she found her rock-- The Church of God in Christ. “It had a sound. It’s the pillar and ground of the truth,” she recalled, holding up her hands in testimony. She also found an employer and benefactor-- legendary civil rights lawyer Oliver Hill. “I only had to make biscuits for him one time,” she laughed about her days as Hill’s housekeeper. “Once we got to know [the Hills], they got to know us, this hard work I was doing, and he just took me from all of it … these kids didn’t want for anything because of him.”
The Ingramettes’ 1961 debut in Richmond was at the Hood Temple AME Zion Church. One of the trustees of the church, Joe Williams of the Harmonizing Four, offered the family band an opening spot at the Mosque for one of the signature gospel shows that the Four promoted. Opening for Shirley Caesar, Ingram lined her five children up on the stage of the opulent venue (now called the Landmark Theater) sat down at the piano and brought the house down. In no time, they were singing with Clara Ward, the Swan Silvertones, the Blind Boys of Alabama and other established gospel performers, and recording (again) for Nashboro Records.
The Ingramettes’ stark and otherworldly Nashboro material became touchstone recordings for a generation of true-believing gospel fans. The ethereal “Melody of Love” was almost an avant-garde tone poem; “Time Is Winding Up” beseeched communists to find Jesus; “A Plea For Man” urged the unsaved to “get their business right.” This wasn’t just high-energy spiritual music -- this was a passionate mission statement.
"When Jesus Comes" by Maggie Ingram and the Ingramettes
In the late ’70s, Maggie Ingram and the Ingramettes signed with Atlanta’s AIR label and released a series of incredible albums, including Richmond Virginia Flood, The Miami Riot and Do You See What I See. These long-players served as soul-cleansing antidotes to the slick, watered-down gospel being churned out by contemporary performers who were then introducing pop elements and easier-to-digest messages in order to assimilate and appeal. “That’s them, not me,” she would say quietly. “Being a Christian woman, I’m not trying to smear my religion around, but that’s what’s in my heart. It’s the soul in me, to carry on with what God gave me.”
But her story doesn’t end with the music. To many in her Richmond hometown, Ingram is also the woman in the red van who delivered free food to the needy living in the Mosby Court housing projects. And because of her tireless advocacy on behalf of the incarcerated, there are now “Family Day” events in Virginia correctional centers. “They’re my babies,” she said of the countless prisoners she has mentored. “I’ve become attached to them because I see that they really need to know God.”
Left to right: Valerie Stewart, Rev. Maggie Ingram, Rev. Almeta Ingram-Miller and Cheryl Maroney-Beaver
Even though the matriarch’s energy has been dulled by the hands of time, she still commands attention onstage, often displaying a feisty, funny rapport with her audience (“Don’t cosign with anyone from your church,” she often reminds) that once had promoters begging to market her as a sassy comedienne ala Moms Mabley. She also famously turned down an offer from the legendary James Brown to have the Ingramettes join his energetic touring company.
Why would she say no to James Brown? I once asked her this question during a Richmond Folk Festival workshop. “Because he couldn’t sing,” was her snappy one-line response (which brought down the house). The more accurate answer: “We don’t sing no rock ‘n’ roll. That’s how I raised my children. They were raised in the church.”
Maggie and her daughter Almeta participated in the Virginia Folklife Apprenticeship Program in 2010. Since they sang together all of the time and Almeta was already possessed an intimate mastery of Maggie’s style and repertoire, Almeta used her apprenticeship as an opportunity to record stories of Maggie’s life. Several years later, Maggie’s granddaughter, Ingramette Cheryl Maroney-Beaver, mentored young apprentices of her own. Cheryl’s apprenticeship bore many fruits, most notably the creation of her own choir, Family of Praise.
Robinette Cross, left, apprenticed under Cheryl Maroney-Beaver, center.
Maggie Ingram passed on June 23, 2015, but her impact can be seen in the generations of artists she’s inspired and lives she has touched. Zion’s Voice, a young choir raised on the Maggie songbook, joined The Ingramettes in a tribute to Maggie on the Virginia Folklife Stage at the 2015 Richmond Folk Festival.
"That Mornin' Train" performed by The Ingramettes and Zion's Voice Choir, led by David L. Wilson Jr.
Put Me Down Easy: The Charlie McClendon Story
Produced by Jon Lohman and Pat Jarrett
The Hampton Roads region of Virginia boasted an incredibly vibrant rhythm and blues scene in the 1960s. Rising from the African American clubs of Church Street, the Norfolk Sound became nationally known for its raw soul and infectious dance beats. Among the chart-topping local artists who emerged from the Norfolk R&B scene are Gary U.S. Bonds, Jimmy Soul, and Gene “Daddy G” Barge. Lesser-known, but equally masterful, was Charlie McClendon, a brilliant musician, composer, and producer. Anyone with a passion for the Norfolk Sound has enjoyed Charlie’s playing, though they may not be aware of it. They likely have heard Charlie’s band backing seminal recordings on Norfolk’s famed Legrand label or supporting nationally known artists that came through Hampton Roads. Serious collectors in the U.S. and abroad covet his locally popular recordings on the L-Rev label. And lovers of Hampton Roads gospel music have undoubtedly enjoyed Charlie’s performing, compositions, and production work. His impressive career in R&B and gospel spans almost sixty years, and at age eighty-five, he shows no signs of slowing down.
Left to right: Richard Levin, Charlie's former booking agent, Charlie McClendon and Tom Herman, co-founder of L-Rev.
His childhood was difficult by any measure. His mother, Anna McClendon, died when Charlie was about four years old. He was then placed in the care of his uncle, who Charlie believed to be his father until about five years later, when his uncle died. Charlie never met his real father, though he was told throughout his life that his father was still alive and living in Atlanta.
After his uncle’s death, Charlie lived with his aunt and grandmother. They had very little money, and Charlie remembers being forced to stuff newspapers in his worn-out shoes. The memory of his cousin Annie Ruth spending all of her money to buy Charlie a new pair of shoes for Christmas brings tears to his eyes. Charlie views Annie Ruth as one of the few people in his family who truly cared for him, and he has been grateful to her his entire life.
Charlie began working to help support his family at a very early age. At sixteen, he left home to work alongside Eddie Dixon, an itinerant farm worker and family friend. Charlie traveled with Eddie across the Southeast, traveling from New Jersey to Florida, picking everything from tomatoes and string beans to oranges. The life of the itinerant worker was grueling, and Charlie remembers very little joy from those early years—but he does remember an early fascination with music. “I used to stick a pitchfork into the side of a barn,” Charlie recalled in an interview conducted at his home in Hampton, Virginia. “I could pull down on it and hear it make a note. I started to figure out sounds and how they were made that way.”
Charlie’s days with Eddie ultimately ended in tragedy. A notorious gambler, Eddie was fatally shot during an altercation over an apparent unpaid debt. Not only did Charlie witness the shooting, he suffered bullet wounds to his arm and kidney. He was rushed to the hospital, where he remained in a brief coma and suffered several seizures.
During these dire moments in the hospital Charlie had his first spiritual encounter, foreshadowing the religious dedication that would define his later life. “I know you won’t believe this, but it’s the truth,” Charlie said. “Right there in the hospital, I heard a voice. And it said, ‘Charlie, you’re going to be all right.’ The doctors didn’t think I was going to make it, but I did. God is real.”
Charlie recovered and was drafted into the army in 1953. He completed his basic training just as the Korean War was coming to an end. He was stationed in France and Germany and served out his final tour of duty at Fort Eustis in Newport News, Virginia. Charlie’s military service offered him stability and opportunity, and set the stage for the full awakening of his musical talents. At Fort Eustis, Charlie would often watch a band led by fellow GI Tom Bodie. The band played what would now be considered rhythm and blues, though at the time it was simply called rock and roll. Charlie was drawn to the piano player and quickly learned to play himself just by watching the player’s fingers on the keyboard. Though completely self-taught, Charlie demonstrated a natural knack for the instrument and soon emerged as one of the most talented players in the area. After finishing his time in the service and getting on the GI Bill, Charlie bought a house in nearby Hampton and joined Bodie’s band. Not long afterward, Charlie left Bodie’s band and formed his own: Charlie McClendon and the Magnificents. He also purchased some used recording equipment and began building a home studio.
The Magnificents were an instant sensation in the thriving black music scene of Hampton Roads. Charlie was a stalwart of the local music landscape, regularly performing two shows a night at any one of the many vibrant music clubs around Church Street, Norfolk’s African American business and cultural center, and at other Hampton Roads clubs. Venues included the Wagon Wheel, the Jamaica Room, Queens Lounge, the Congo Lounge, and the Longshoreman’s Hall. Though there is little documentation of the Magnificents’ club gigs, they were by all accounts scintillating performances. The band primarily played covers, satisfying audiences’ hunger to hear renditions of chart-topping records by such artists as Sam & Dave, Otis Redding, and Booker T. and the MGs.
The Magnificents and the MGs had more in common than just their sound: like the Memphis-based MGs, the Magnificents was a multiracial group performing in a deeply segregated city where racial tensions ran high. Though Virginia public schools were forced to desegregate in 1959, the state government resisted, and 90 percent of all Norfolk public schools remained either all white or all black throughout the 1960s. Similarly, the city’s neighborhoods were either predominantly black or predominantly white. Yet the city’s jukeboxes and radio dials were ahead of the curve: biracial bands were embraced by blacks and whites alike, and, although they rarely ventured to the black dance halls of Church Street, Hampton Roads’ white youth were turning from their own familiar radio stations to those that played black R&B, such as WRAP and WHIH.
In addition to his work with the Magnificents, Charlie was often hired to back up larger national acts that performed in the area. Because of its location and vital music scene, Norfolk was often the starting point for the various R&B package tours that traveled throughout the South. At the time, it was customary for many popular soul and R&B singers to travel without a band, and it was the responsibility of the show’s producer to provide one. Charlie was in high demand, and backed up the likes of Otis Redding, Solomon Burke, and others, usually without a single rehearsal.
In part because Charlie and his band were such quick studies, the Magnificents were often booked for studio work, serving as the backup band for recordings of numerous local acts, including Roy Hines, Ida Sands, and Gary U.S. Bonds. Local producer and songwriter Frank Guida signed the Magnificents to a two-year contract on his label Legrand Records, which produced in the late 1950s and early 1960s several national hits, including Tommy Facenda’s High School USA, Jimmy Soul’s “If You Wanna Be Happy,” and Gary U.S. Bond’s “New Orleans” and “Quarter to Three.” Though the Magnificents were regulars on Guida’s studio recordings, contributing much to what became nationally known as the Norfolk Sound, they never received credit for their work and Guida never recorded them as a featured group. When the contract expired, Charlie refused to renew it.
Richard and Tom also recorded Charlie McClendon and Magnificents on the L-Rev label, which they started with Tom’s older brother Steve Herman, who had recorded the Golden Crest R & B artist Cartrell Dixon. Steve, a law student at the time, suggested they name the label after the academic footnote abbreviation for law review journals. They made their records in the famed Virtue Recording Studio in Philadelphia, the site of many early recordings by the incomparable Philly producing duo Gamble and Huff.
The L-Rev recording sessions included the single “Put Me Down Easy,” originally written by Sam Cook for his brother L.C. Charlie’s version reached the top-five on the local charts. The Magnificents also recorded the Arthur Alexander–penned single “We’re Going to Hate Ourselves in the Morning” for L-Rev. The song was soon picked up by Jerry Ross’s Colossus label. The Colossus single showed much promise out of the gate, but Ross pulled it after Charlie, suffering from a ruptured appendix, backed out of an engagement that Ross had arranged for him at the famed Apollo Theater in Harlem. Unbeknownst to Charlie, Richard, or the Herman brothers, Ross in fact did release “We’re Going to Hate Ourselves in the Morning” and other Magnificents cuts on the Polydor label in Germany, selling thousands of copies throughout Europe.
Despite the decline in performance opportunities, Charlie remained a local favorite and had plenty of work producing other local artists in his home studio. But his R&B career ended in a flash—literally. After a late evening performance, Charlie invited his friend Gene Williams, who sang for the Platters, to his house to hear a recording he had just made of “Rainy Night in Georgia.” As he played Gene the tape, lightning struck the house, blowing out the power and throwing Charlie and Gene across the room. Charlie made his way through the darkness and stopped at his bedroom door to see that the suit he had worn on stage that night and later draped over a chair was engulfed in flames.
“I said to myself, the Lord’s trying to tell me something,” Charlie remembered, “so that’s when I started looking for a church.” Charlie found one in the Goodwill Baptist Church in Hampton, Virginia, where he has served as musical director for more than twenty-nine years. Since joining the Goodwill Baptist Church, Charlie has ceased singing R&B music and turned his attention exclusively to gospel. His first gospel group was the Sounds of Glory. With them, he penned “I Want to Be More Like Jesus,” the first of his many gospel compositions. Along with his own composing and performing, Charlie has produced countless recordings of local gospel groups. Most recently, he started a new band, Charlie McClendon and the New Beginnings. As he did with the Magnificents, Charlie handles all aspects of the band and leads them with soul and passion.
Charlie McClendon holding the recording of "Rainy Night in Georgia" made the night his home was struck by lightning.
At age eighty-five, Charlie is still a force in Hampton Roads gospel music. Most of his work these days is done quietly, staying behind the scenes, allowing others to have their moment in the spotlight. “Brother McClendon is one of the most humble men I’ve ever met,” said Reverend Tarrence Paschall, recipient of the National Heritage Fellowship for his singing with his family’s Tidewater gospel quartet. “We call him the One Man Band ‘cause he can do it all. Still, he remains dedicated to his pastor and to Christ. I don’t think there’s anyone more respected in Hampton Roads.”
"You Can't Get to Heaven in a Rocking Chair" performed at Charlie McClendon's home.
Though he’s experienced great highs and lows, Charlie is clearly a contented and happy man, living without regrets. Pointing to a tall tree in the front yard of his Hampton, Virginia, home of nearly fifty years, he said proudly, “I planted that tree myself, and built this studio with my own hands, too.”
I asked Charlie if he ever longs for the days of playing R&B music. “No,” Charlie laughed. “I mean, I’ve been playing gospel for almost thirty years now.” But with a mischievous smile, he added, “Well, I suppose every now and then I like to go into the studio and bang up a few tunes.” When I had the opportunity to visit Charlie in his studio, he played me some of the many gospel tunes he has written and recorded, most of which remain unreleased. And on the shelf above the soundboard sat an old reel-to-reel tape, with a yellowed label that read “Rainy Night in Georgia,” sitting right where he left it, untouched, since that fateful evening when lightning struck. Though the tape was the last R&B recording Charlie ever made, he saw it as a beginning. “That’s it right there,” he said to me with a smile. “That’s the one that started it all.”
Goodwill Baptist Church in Hampton, Virginia
Vaughan Webb of the Blue Ridge Institute wrote about the Paschall Brothers for their album Songs for Our Fathers.
Richmond-based journalist Don Harrison wrote about Maggie Ingram for her album Maggie Ingram and the Ingramettes: Live in Richmond.
Virginia state Folklorist Jon Lohman wrote about Charlie McClendon and the Norfolk Sound in 2013 during the production of Put Me Down Easy: The Charlie McClendon Story.
Produced by Pat Jarrett and Jon Lohman/The Virginia Folklife Program.
Special thanks to The Paschall Brothers, The Ingramettes and Charlie McClendon.