The State Theater brings rhythm to State College with the documentary of the black gospel quartet “How They Got Over” | Way of life
The State Theater was filled with harmonies on Friday night, as director Robert Clem presented “How They Got Over” – a documentary about the history of black gospel quartets.
The event was accompanied by a live gospel performance by Terri Parker, with Steve Mariner on piano, and Penn State Professor Emeritus Charles Dumas hosted a Q&A with the film’s director and producer after the projection.
“How They Got Over” explored each decade of the evolution of the black gospel quartet and how the style of religious music adapted to outside influences from the 1930s to the early 1980s.
The documentary compiled footage from big names such as Ira Tucker from The Dixie Hummingbirds, Clarence Fountain from Blind Boys of Alabama and Dennis Edwards from The Temptations – while providing historical and analytical content from professionals in the field.
Clem said he was inspired to embark on the decade-long journey of making the documentary when he saw Blind Boys of Alabama and The Soul Stirrers perform live.
As a white man who grew up in isolated Alabama, Clem said black gospel quartets were the key to unlocking a world he had never known.
“I didn’t know any black [people] because there was such a stiff wall,” Clem said. “So for me, it was like a journey of exploration…crossing the line at my age, after all these years.”
The documentary also introduced another wall – that between religious and secular culture. The euphoria and talent behind spiritual music was something to be envied in other genres and was directly identified as a catalyst in the R&B, rock ‘n’ roll and rap movements.
However, there was a stigma in the music world that kept religious and secular artists from mingling or crossing over genres, Dumas explained as moderator.
“People didn’t necessarily have a problem with gospel, but it was the other way around,” Dumas said. “It was intended to cross the barrier, into the ‘fires of hell’.”
Penn State co-producer and professor Jerry Zolten said that because of these “hellfires”, Jo Jo Wallace of the Sensational Nightingales was unable to incorporate her dance move into the performance of the group.
Instead, he sold the idea to Hank Ballard, who capitalized on what millions of Americans came to love as “The Twist.” Zolten told Wallace’s story after spending time with him while filming the production.
“He never got a penny from it,” Zolten said. “Corn [at 95]he’s still reveling in the glory of writing “The Twist.”
Nonetheless, Zolten said the artists’ approach to their performances was not influenced by their religious affiliations.
“A lot of people feel like those gospel singers were ‘holier than you’ and wanted to convert you,” Zolten said. “But they called themselves ‘spirit artists’ because they just wanted to entertain you and make you feel good without getting into the dark side of life. And that’s what they did.”
Dumas agreed and said he has seen many quartets perform live, either at the Avalon Theater or in church, as he is related to musician and producer Willie Dixon, and he grew up on Chicago’s South Side at most strong from the golden age of gospel.
“I was part of that audience,” Dumas said. “[There] was a cultural connection to move the audience… It was the black experience.
Many stars of the documentary have passed away since it was taped, and Clem said the production was a way to honor them and the stories they left behind.
“They loved telling their story,” Clem said. “They welcomed me. It was great to meet each of them. They were great people. »
Clem and Zolten said they both delved into the realm of gospel music in other documentary works, and they asked audience members to continue learning about black music in “Alabama Black Belt Blues.” on PBS and “Great God A’Mighty! The Dixie Hummingbirds” which will be released in April.
“How They Got Over” will continue on the screening circuit, with streaming distribution on the horizon, according to the film’s Kickstarter profile.
“We had a determination like no other,” Tucker of the Dixie Hummingbirds said in an interview. “We had him in our hearts.”
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