After 44 years and 35 albums, three Grammys and trophy-case full...
After 44 years and 35 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 five 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 one 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 its due, but get ready for a new and potent shot of classic and contemporary Clouds, with their newest release, In the House of the Lord-Live in Houston. Produced by Sanchez Harley (Yolanda Adams, Kirk Franklin, Shirley Caesar, Rizen), the sound is pure Mighty Clouds of Joy, and as mighty as ever.
“Sanchez told me going in that he intended this to be the greatest Clouds album 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 wanted to hit on a lot of those high spots on this album. Sanchez, myself and the entire group, were all absolutely intent on making this the definitive Mighty Clouds of Joy album to date.”
One listen to House of the Lord confirms that the Clouds have achieved and even surpassed that lofty goal. On an album featuring one classic-in-the-making after another, it’s hard to even pick individual standouts; still Joe has several that resonate with him in particularly powerful ways.
He comments that the album’s title song, the rocking, toe-tapping “In the House of the Lord,” stirs strong remembrances for him, both musical and personal. “I love that song because it describes so perfectly the church experiences I had coming up,” says Joe. “It’s written from the viewpoint of a young boy, remembering when his grandma would take him to church—just like mine did—and the deacons would all be praying; the choir would be singing, and the preacher just preaching away. The groove of the song felt so good, and it brought back such good memories that I knew right away we had to record it.”
The rollicking, traditional quartet workout, “Old Revival Back Home,” was written by Joe, and originally recorded in the ‘80s, minus the Clouds, on an album that featured Joe backed by a choir. Though lead singers of other quartets would later experiment with the same combination, once again Joe was ahead of his time, and the album and song both failed to receive the attention he had hoped for. Still he believed strongly in that song in particular, and “kept in his back pocket,” with the thought that indeed it might fit well on a subsequent Clouds’ project. Standing strong and fresh on House of the Lord, it proves itself imminently worthy of having been held onto.
“My grandfather was a preacher in a little town called Elem, Alabama, about fifty miles outside of Montgomery,” says Joe, “and my father was a great quartet singer in that same church. I vividly recall every August they’d have a big revival. It usually lasted a week, every weeknight, with a different guest pastor, and then all day Sunday, ‘on the grounds,’ as they said. Everybody brought food, and it was good food too, man, and all you could eat. And the music was as good as a lot of what you’d hear well-known, touring, recording groups do; only our folks just did it for the love of the music and the Gospel. It was good times—some of the best of my life—and enough to inspire a song I love, and that finally has found its place and time.”
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 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 says, “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.”
Still joined today by his early partner Wallace, and longtime members and vocalists Mike Cook and Ron Staples, with Johnny Valentine, Orick Ewing, Alfred Hudson 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,” Joe 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 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 44-years-and-counting of the passionate and stirring, still sweet and soulful sound of the once and ever Mighty Clouds of Joy?