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It’s not hard to divide the world of Gospel quartet music into categories. In fact, there are really only two. There’s the Mighty Clouds of Joy, and then there’s everybody else. After 49 years and 39 albums, three Grammys and trophy-case full of almost every award imaginable; shows that have run a gamut from the church-house to the White House, and top-billings with a dazzling roster of superstar artists from nearly every genre of popular music (the Rolling Stones, Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Earth, Wind & Fire, Luther Vandross, Ray Charles, and Paul Simon are but a few), The Mighty Clouds of Joy are more than a Gospel legend. They are nothing less than a national treasure.
Still, one must choose his words carefully when describing the Clouds. “Icons?” Absolutely. “Pioneers?” Without a doubt. “Venerable?” Most certainly. “Forefathers” of modern Gospel, R&B, rock and pop? It’s just the straight fact of the matter; but don’t let founding member and lead vocalist, Joe Ligon, or any of the other seven Clouds hear you referring to them with any synonym that even hints at greatness in the past tense. At a career point where any act would be honored and happy to simply kick back and ride on its reputation, the Mighty Clouds of Joy today find themselves not only back in the recording studio, but signed to the hottest label in contemporary Gospel, produced by some of the hippest hit-makers on the charts today, and delivering one of the strongest collections
of new material in their already immense catalogue of classic songs.
So give their preeminent past it’s due, but get ready for a new and potent shot of classic and contemporary Clouds in the spring of 2009. The label is EMI Gospel. The producer is Raphael Saadiq; and the sound is pure Mighty Clouds of Joy, as mighty as ever. “Raphael told me going in that he intends this to be the greatest Clouds recordings yet,” says Joe. “There are a lot of different styles that have come together over the years to create what people know as the `trademark’ Clouds sound, and we want to hit on a lot of those high spots on this project. Saadiq, myself and the entire group, as well as EMI…we are all absolutely intent on making this the definitive Mighty Clouds of Joy recordings to date.”
Born and raised in rural Alabama, the musically gifted but still stage-shy Joe moved to Los Angeles to live with his uncle in his early teens. He teamed with a couple of singing classmates, one of whom was Johnny Martin, Clouds’ co-founder and career member until his untimely death in 1987. As that core group drew singers from several other popular local groups, including Richard Wallace, still a member of the Clouds today, the first incarnation of The Mighty Clouds of Joy was formed. By 1960, they had a major Gospel record deal, with a hit single and album flying up the charts, portending from the start what would be far greater things to come.
Adding bass, drums, and keyboards to the previously sparse traditional quartet accompaniment of a lone electric guitar, as well a colorful, matching outfits and a smooth, choreographed stage presence, the Clouds were major Gospel innovators from the start.
Moving to then-giant ABC Records in 1974 brought the first of a decade-long string of big R&B-flavored Gospel hits records for the Clouds, featuring “Mighty High,” which peaked at No.2 on the Billboard dance charts in ‘75. Even as they began to work a steady rotation of major secular venues—including Carnegie Hall, Madison Square Garden, Radio City Music Hall, the Carter White House, and the Apollo Theater—the Clouds never dodged their roles as believers, nor shied away from their identity as a devoutly Gospel group. Still, it was a fairly radical, even daring, move for a Gospel act to make at the time, and one that Joe now is not afraid to admit he sometimes worried over. However, in retrospect, The Mighty Clouds of Joy, like no act before them, had in fact carried the Gospel message into the age of modern R&B and urban music that is today a cornerstone of the genre. “Looking back,” Joe reflects, “I can see that we were able to take Gospel music through a lot of doors, and to a lot of places and people it had never been before. And there’s no way that could ever be anything but good.”
As one of the Clouds longtime lead vocalists, 2008, Michael Cook met his untimely death in July of 2008. Today, Joe is still joined by his early partner Wallace, and longtime members and vocalists Ron Staples and Mike McCowin, with Johnny Valentine, Ronald Clark, Jason Britt and Ervin “Big Man” Williams making up the band, Joe—who was and is the living, breathing definition of a true “soul” singer—says the word “retirement” is not even a part of his vocabulary.
“Gospel singers never retire,” Joes says, laughing. “They’ll sing until they can’t talk anymore. And if they can’t walk, they might just get in a wheelchair and roll out on that stage and sing. The Clouds have had their share of tough times, especially playing the South back in the ‘60s, when a black person couldn’t even count on getting a motel room, or service in a restaurant. I’ve had many a meal served on a greasy paper plate out of the back door of the kitchen. But we made it through all that, and we’re still here and singing better than ever. I have no complaints. How could I? Even if I was given the chance, I wouldn’t change a bit of it.
“We’ve achieved every dream I ever held in my life, and far more, just to inspire people to want to go on living,” he concludes. “Folks find something in Gospel that they don’t find in any other kind of music, and it changes their lives. They know Christ is real—even though they’ve never seen Him—because they can feel His presence in Gospel music. Just to used by Him like that, even in a small way…who could ever ask for anything greater than that?”
Indeed. And who could ask for 49-years-and-counting of the passionate and stirring, still sweet and soulful sound of the once and ever Mighty Clouds of Joy?