Newark's gospel history is glorious

By Barry Carter | The Star-Ledger
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on November 18, 2016

Rev. Stefanie Minatee, (left), artistic director of the Grammy award winning Jubilation Choir and Albert J. Lewis Jr, (right), host and executive director of the “Dr. Albert J. Lewis Gospel Hour.” They talk about the history of gospel music in Newark at the Newark Public Library during an event titled Newark Life Times: Recollections & Reflections

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Picture this for a moment. Sold-out gospel shows, with 3,000 people, at Newark Symphony Hall or huge crowds at Weequahic Park and the old Laurel Garden arena.

Gospel caravans rolling through town featuring artists such as Mahalia Jackson, Albertina Walker, Shirley Caesar, the Martin Singers and Rev. James Cleveland.

Newark's large churches held gospel extravaganzas with local choirs on Saturday evenings and after church on Sundays during the late 1950s and early 1960s. Savoy Records, the gospel label of the day, was located on Ferry Street.  Springfield and South Orange avenues were both referred to as "church row" for their  volume of churches. Newark was a major gospel hub on the East Coast circuit.

"Gospel music was exciting music because it was up-tempo, it had sway, it had a texture that was so far different,'' said Albert J. Lewis Jr., a Newark native who is the host and executive director of the "Dr. Albert Lewis Gospel Hour,'' which is the second longest nationally syndicated gospel show in the country that airs on Cablevision.

Newark's unique place in gospel history was revisited at the Newark Public Library last Tuesday as Lewis and Rev. Stefanie Minatee, artistic director of the Grammy Award-winning Jubilation Choir, spoke about the impact of gospel in the city following World War II. The program was the 10th installment of Newark Life Times: Recollections & Reflections of Newark's year-long 350th anniversary celebration.

Since January, the observance has presented notable Newarkers addressing a wide range of topics, including politics, writing, sports and the arts. It ends Dec. 7 with a Mayor Ras Baraka talking about the city at the library. Each discussion has been organized by Newark historian and author Guy Sterling, a former Star-Ledger reporter. Sterling says gospel music survived in the city while others forms of music, such as jazz and blues, have waned.

Minatee and Lewis described gospel music as "the good news of Jesus Christ through song," saying it has endured because it contains a message that sustains people. It's authentic, they said, and not fleeting like today's more contemporary inspirational music.

"Gospel music should never be used to entertain, but to enlighten. Gospel music means sharing good news for bad times,'' said Minatee, a Newark native and Union resident.

She knows, having suffered a stroke in April 2015.

"I wouldn't have the zeal and the zest to fight back from a stroke I had; but because of the fight it (gospel music) put in me and the God I serve, I'm here today,'' she said.

Well-known in gospel circles, Lewis and Minatee have seen the music's evolution, including Newark's place as the gospel capital of New Jersey for the past 36 years.

Part of the transformation is the fact that organs and pianos are no longer the focal point of gospel. There are drums, tambourines and bass guitars, instrumentation instruments that black churches once frowned upon they said.

In the beginning, black churches preferred standard hymns instead of gospel, said Lewis. But that changed when Thomas A. Dorsey, "the father of black gospel music,'' infused jazz and blues rhythms into the music.

Congregations in Newark were intrigued, as the riveting music matched powerful sermons.

"A lot of people wanted churches to have more spirit,'' Lewis said. "Good preaching like good music go hand in hand. Hymns didn't create excitement.''

Lewis, a child preacher starting at age 11, saw gospel music explode in the city while he was backstage during shows at Symphony Hall. His mother, Hattie Fields Lewis, and grandmother, Victoria Graham Fields were part of the Fields Gospel Singers jwith his cousins and an aunt, Marie Fields Hill. Another aunt, Madame Anna Lundy Lewis, knew Mahalia Jackson and other gospel celebrities.

"Back then, they were just people,'' Lewis said. "Now I see them as historians.

Minatee was also introduced to music as a child. Her mother, the late Pearl Tucker Minatee, was a member of the famous Angelic Choir of the First Baptist Church of Nutley. Her mentor, the late Rev. Lawrence Roberts of the church, was the first black producer of gospel music at Savoy Records. He worked with many gospel greats and it was common for a number of them, including Aretha Franklin and Bill Preston, to sing at Sunday church services.

Because of Roberts, Minatee, who taught vocal music in the Plainfield public school system, made her mark starting the Jubilation Choir in 1998 at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center. They've been around the world, performed at the Super Bowl with Queen Latifah, and backed up Ray Charles on a Christmas CD.

Nowadays, gospel music in Newark is not as strong as Minatee and Lewis remember.

Minatee said young people think gospel music, which clearly talks about Jesus Christ and God, is boring and not as popular as contemporary inspirational music.

"If they can't move to it, they think there's no message,'' Minatee said. "I hope they learn the history of gospel music and keep it alive along with what they're doing.''

Lewis said choirs are not as dominant and many churches have converted to contemporary music in worship services, with praise teams.

"That kills off the influence of gospel music,'' he said.

Lewis, however, has been resurrecting the music with gospel shows at Symphony Hall over the past year.

At the library, he and Minatee sent the audience home on a high note, doing what they do best.  They sang a traditional gospel song of praise, deliverance and salvation.

"Thank you Jesus, thank you Lord, you brought me from a mighty long way.''

Yes, He has.

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