It was 1975--the year Silver Convention hit with "Fly Robin Fly," Donna Summer hit with "Love to Love You Baby," and KC and the Sunshine Band hit with "Get Down Tonight." The scourge of disco was loose in the land and threatened to wash away all the R&B, funk, and soul music that had come before it. Over the following few years most of the great soul and R&B singers of the previous generation would try--often half heartedly--to surf the wave, cutting disco records of their own that displayed varying degrees of indifference.
The emergence of disco also marked the nadir for gospel music. Having grown, together with the COGIC church, out of the Asuza Street Rivivalin Los Angeles in the early part of the century; having reached an apex in Chicago during the years of the great black migration from the south as secular songwriters like Thomas Dorsey turned to the task of merging church music with the blues; having built stabilizing organizations like The National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses; and finally having heard its sounds, forms and language co-opted by secular performers forging rock and roll in the 1950s and 1960s, gospel music had all but fallen by the wayside by the middle 1970s. Even as stalwart and stolid a church group as The Staple Singers--who had already spent most of the 1970s cutting feel-good secular records whose messages of social uplift at least could be argued had some spiritual content--capitulated fully, cutting salacious r&b (The Staples hit with the Curtis Mayfield produced number "Let's Do It Again" in 1975).
It was at this moment that Los Angeles gospel group The Mighty Clouds of Joy turned to LA-based flautist, songwriter, arranger and producer Dave Crawford and, for better and worse, changed gospel forever.
Founded in 1959, The Mighty Clouds were something of an anachronism even then, a classic male gospel group relying on old school material like "Steal Away" the group's first big record, as ancient a part of the gospel repertoire as any song, written by Wallace Willis in the 1860s and part of the pre-gospel tradition of the "negro spiritual." Behind Joe Ligon's gruff, preaching, urgent lead, The Clouds gave "Steal Away" a rollicking, sanctified treatment. The group adorned its performances with synchronized, if clumsily executed, dance steps, as you can see from this early 1960s TV performance.
The Clouds were modern for the hidebound world of gospel. Besides the dance steps they added a full band of guitar, bass and drums behind the standard acapella gospel quartet. But by the time The Clouds arrived, the broader market had moved on. After more than a decade on the gospel highway, recording for Peacock, and getting little or no attention outside of the shrinking gospel market, The Clouds made a semi-secular move recording Kickin' with Crawford for the ABC label.
Like the Staples work for Stax, Kickin' mixed secular R&B (a medley of "I Got the Music In Me" with "Superstition:; a cover of "You Are So Beautiful") with a kind of secular gospel hybrid built on dance rhythms and full contemporary r&b arrangements with lyrics that were religious but with a greater or lesser degree of ambiguity in their praise, allowing secular listeners a way in.
Whammo, it worked, The Clouds hit with a record that changed the sound of gospel forever, the Crawford-penned "Mighty High":
Musically, "Mighty High" was straight r&b with an unapologetic disco beat and arrangement--on down to the congas and the extended beat breakdown in the middle. Lyrically it was religious--there's actually a brief bit of pro forma testimony in the song's middle lyrics (I was just a man/A lonely man indeed/God took all my troubles/Yes he did, he set me free)--but mostly the religious content is kept intentionally ambiguous. In the middle 1970s, riding the mighty high could have many meanings indeed.
But proof that merging gospel music with contemporary funk and dance music could lead to crossover success was the last nail in the coffin of gospel's golden age as a specific genre of music with it's own formal rules and unique sound. Within a generation gospel as a sound and form--like blues before it--would become the stuff of repertory groups and oldies acts while religious music both black and white would eschew its own homegrown forms in favor of pop music forms from rock to hip hop.
There's a direct line between Mighty High and, say, Kirk Franklin's gospel hip-hop funk records like 1997's "Stomp":
But whatever the charms of modern gospel funk, its no longer the creative influencer sanctified gospel once was, but instead is a derivative form in American vernacular music.