England’s Angel for Gospel Music with Opal Louis Nations

Opal Louis Nations sitting amid flowers

Opal Louis Nations sitting amid flowers
Vocalist, writer, artist, and gospel producer, Opal Louis Nations.

Liner Notes color graphic

Growing up in England, Opal Louis Nations was passionate about soul music and followed his calling to perform it for several years amid England’s soul and blues scene. In this interview Opal shares his perspective on music as he enters his 8th decade of a life as an artist and creator. In this episode you’ll hear:

  • Opal read us his popular, short humorous story, The Three Gospel Brushes.
  • The historical roots of gospel as music of the slaves who were brought to America and the historical inflection in the 1940s when white and black gospel took different musical paths in the U.S.
  • How shout gospel entered the scene in the 1950s as a medium where preaching in the church and singing came together.
  • Opal’s experience living in England when the Beatles came on the scene and how the craze for “the Liverpool sound” came to prominence.
  • Opal’s career as a singer with Alexis Korner, a founding father of British Blues and later as a lead singer with the Frays.
  • The impact of famous/not made famous enough soul singers such as:  Joe Tex, Solomon Burke, Nappy Brown, Otis Redding.
  • Opal teaches us what clanka lanka gospel sounds like.
  • Opal’s passion for the work of Jimmy Ruffin and the Reverend Julius Cheeks & the Sensational Nightingales.
  • More about the film How They Got Over, which Opal co-produced, and how it is commanding new attention in 2021 for the history about the rise of shout gospel.

Biography:

Opal Louis Nations was born in Brighton, England. During the mid-sixties he worked as lead vocalist in London clubs with the late Alexis Korner’s Band and later his own group, The Frays. He helped popularize American soul-based R & B and gospel music in Great Britain. 

It was through his efforts that black American gospel artists visited England to perform in various major cities. He also became part of one of England’s first integrated gospel groups, The Ram John Holder Group. With The Frays and later as a soloist, he recorded for Decca Records in London. 

Decca Records promo card for the band, The Frays
Band members (left to right): Clive Howse (bass guitar), Barry Gilford (drums), Opal Louis Nations (a.k.a. Martin Hummingbird) (vocals). Seated, front: Johnny Patto (lead guitar).

In 1968, he turned his back on singing and began a career as an experimental fiction writer of sometimes strange, sometimes humorous works that have appeared in over 600 small press magazines worldwide. 

Opal launched a literary magazine, Strange Faeces, which featured experimental poetry, fiction and art by fresh young poets and writers and was published by Opal from 1970-1981. Opal’s fiction has won him The Perpetua and Pushcart Prizes and some of his sound-poems have been included in the T.V. series “Man and His Music,” hosted by Yehudi Menuhin. 

Opal moved to San Francisco, California in 1973 and to Oakland, CA in 1981 after living in Canada and on the East Coast. He was a host of R&B / Gospel shows for KPFA Radio as well as the world music program, “Harmonia Mundi.”

opal nations sitting against a tree in 1978
Opal in Canada. 1978.

Opal is an avid collector of historical music and memorabilia. His vast record collection includes R&B, gospel, soul, rock & pop, world music and rockabilly music. He’s also an incredible artist!

Selected original artworks by Opal Louis Nations.

More selected original artworks can be found on Opal’s graphics web site, as well as his regular web site.

Cartoon of a human body holding a banjo drawn as a brainjo Cartoon of Little Richard in bed with Red Riding Hood

a horse jockey riding a vinyl record like a horse with the caption Disc Jockey    orchestra conductor conducting lightning branch with the caption: lightning conductor

old fashioned phone in an ear with the caption: earphonedrawing of a man with a frog in his mouth caption: frog in the throat

For more perspective on the power of singing for the body as well as sounds of Black Baptist Gospel, listen to the conversation with Mary Ford, a decades-long vocalist with Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir.

 

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Episode Transcript:

Narrator: Welcome. Listen to this next Agile Vocalist podcast.

[music]

Opal Nations: Well, you have to take the world view, okay? The worldview is this. That everybody has a music, usually folk music that comes from the heart. In other words, music with soul and lyricism. Now that you find all over the world in particular, in gypsy music and music of the poor, really great emotional records that– and songs and recordings that bring tears to your eyes.

This is the type of music that I collect and that I adore and try to cover in my singing when I was able to sing as a young man. That really is the root to everything because all of this music is interconnected.

Rachel: Opal Lewis nations was born in Brighton, England. During the mid-1960s, he worked as a lead vocalist in London clubs with the late Alexis Korner’s band, and later his own group, the Frays. He helped popularize American soul-based R and B and gospel music in Great Britain. It was through his efforts that black American gospel artists visited England to perform in various major cities.

He also became part of one of England’s first integrated gospel groups, the Ram John Holder Group. With “The Phrase,” and later as a soloist, he recorded for Decker records in London.

In 1968, Opal turned his back on singing in and begun a career as an experimental fiction writer of sometimes strange, sometimes humorous works that have appeared in over 200 small press magazines worldwide.

Opal launched a literary magazine, Strange Faeces, which featured fresh young poets and writers. His fiction has won in the Perpetua and Push Cart prizes. Some of his sound poems have been included in the TV series, Man and His Music, hosted by Yehudi Menuhin.

Opal moved to San Francisco, California in 1973, into Oakland in 1981, after living in Canada and on the East Coast of the US. He was the host of RnB gospel shows for KPFA Radio, as well as the World Music Program, Harmonia Mundi.

Opal is an avid collector of historical music and memorabilia. His more than 10,000 albums final collection includes RnB, gospel, rock, world music, and rockabilly. My conversation with Opal begins with his reading of his piece. The three gospel brushes.

Opal: The idea was to bring music into the bathroom. It was the best place to rehearse after all—it’s got the best echo and which is why we did it. It fitted so well together and it was so popular that it was rewritten twice and it’s been published three times. It’s the original, and there’s the two rewrites.

This is:  “The Three Gospel Brushes” from Once Upon a Time Stories.

“Once upon a time, there were three gospel singing toothbrushes, girls who called themselves the three gospel brushes. They were all born in Colgate County and could shake their stems like nobody’s business.

Thelma, the youngest was corn, gold, transparent, and bore soft dresses. Gloria, the middle sister, was Nyquil Green and possessed a good head of medium locks. Theresa, the eldest was red opaque and sported, ahead of stiff heart teased out filaments. Gloria, like the others, loved the old traditional groups such as The Caravans and the Davis Sisters, and always took the lead on the latter’s arrangement of “Jesus gave me water and it was not from the faucet.”

Rachel:  [laughing[ Sorry, laughing.

Opal: Let’s just take a break for laughing.

“Thelma preferred the gospel harmonets and did a good all-round job on the choruses, on their song. The handwriting on the bathroom wall. Theresa, on the other hand, liked lot of groups, but favor the cancer awards singers the most. Theresa gave her all on the ward styling of being dipped in the water. The household was out during weekends, and this allowed the girls endless rehearsals in situ which was perfect because the bathroom’s natural echo could make it easier for them to correct their mistakes.

They had two songs in their repertoire, which the trio could sing particularly well. The Old Rugged Brush and Go Sailing Through the Old Pearly Whites. The time came when they felt they were ready to go out into the world and get themselves on some gospel programs.

The problem was that because none of them could drive, performances had to be made within reasonable jumping distance, which meant they had to be back in their holders before bedtime brushing.

Their first public engagement was held one Sunday afternoon in the neighbor’s bathroom. When the inhabitants were out on a football game. The gig was an enormous success. The host brushes were enthralled as were a bathroom fittings.

Almost all the bottles in the medicine cabinet were saved. Spurred on by this initial triumph, the three gospel brushes decided to put their names up for the local gospel sing-off contest held every other month at the corner pharmacy. Amazing Place Drugs. Also serving as a weekend storefront Baptist Church.

The girls were up against stiff competition. There were The Softex 3 from Pycopay, The Mighty Dental Therapeutics, the ADA Specials, The Procter and Gamble twins, plus local favorites. The Sensational Sensodynes, the Reverend Oral Hygiene, stood in as presenter and MC.

Reverend Hygiene kicked off the proceedings with a reading from a sermon on the mouth. Unimpressive female quartet, The Periodontals, opened to singing but were politely given the brush off. There were Theresa and Gloria, were midway down the program and were presented after the flying clouds of foam had loosened up the audience considerably.

The trios’ rendition, a Milky white way went over quite well, but it was their brainstorming version of just a closer brush with the that proved to be the clincher.

When the voting was through the Three Gospel Brushes came in a comfortable third behind the victorious favorites to Sensational Sensodynes and a group from Mo Laville called The Golden Gums. Pleased with instant acclaim, the trios struck out for home with their third-place trophy, a brass-plated floss order upon which were inscribed their names in bold script.

The group practiced harder and that even improved their overall sound. When Gloria mastered the toilet paper and comb, both Thelma and Theresa took to wearing abandoned toothpaste caps and invented an excited form of gospel tap dancing. They called plaque.

You should hear their bathroom rehearsal Sunday afternoon, the QTIPs flipped out of their books.

The band-aids ran amuck and the mouthwash got bubbly. Once a neglected tub of filthy bathwater parted into two equal parts and was like Moses parting, the Red Sea [laughs]. Oddly, the Ajax danced recklessly on the floor scales and the sleeping pills, which up to this point had remained comatose leapt belt, like are knot of frantic holy rollers. The music, itself, was sweet to the ear and certainly cleared up the dampened meal-due deposits.

Now, why went loud? On the last third and last page.

“Once during the positively high-spirited version of Let’s Go Round the Walls of Amalgam, the shaggy bath mat at a peak of ecstasy set its tufts on end. Shortly thereafter, the three Crossville brushes gave a back teeth church concert and on the same bill with a Pilgrim cuspids and the fabulous fillings of root canal.

This time, the congregation truly fell out. A whole army of Alka-Seltzer boys had to carry off those brushes that had fallen into a swoon, bundled into stems of empty tipped on their side Listerine bottles. The tooth savers were rolled off to prospective bathroom receptacles, where shower heads dutifully brought them round.

During Thelma to Theresa and Gloria’s set, the rubber spiked mediums attacked the nail brushes and a riot ensued, but the fight was short-lived due to the fact that the troublemakers were put down. They were buried in a glutenous sea of liquid soap, thus rendered harmless. The show went on and the Three Gospel Brushes growing reputation exceeded all expectations. Soon, the trio found a manager, one Drew L. Gurgle who had them signed to a five-year contract with Fluoride Records with whom they enjoyed lasting brushes with success.

Rachel: [laughs] That’s great. Thank you. [laughs] There’s your applause.

Opal: The world view is this. That everybody has a music, usually a folk that music that comes from the heart. In other words, music with soul and lyricism that you find all over the world, in particular, in gypsy music and the music of the poor, really great emotional records, on songs and recordings that’ll bring tears to your eyes.

This is the type of music that I collect and that I adore and try to cover in my singing when I was able to sing as a young man.

That really is the roots to everything. All of this music is interconnected all around the world, the gypsy music, the Portuguese music, the Romanian music of the gypsies, all these music is connected, and American gospel music, and in particular, South African gospel music. Today, the South Africans make the best gospel recordings because they stick with the old formula of chorus and response and the lead singers and so forth.

The echoes for music is truly the best, which is sad to say, living in the United States where I came trying to find the music. It’s slipped off to South Africa, where they have great soloists and great choirs. It’s very difficult to find the good traditional stuff, which, of course, started out on the farms in United States when the immigrants came in the 1600s.

They worked in the fields and they pulled the cotton and they sang-

Rachel: The immigrants, the slaves.

Opal: -the salves.

Rachel: The slaves came were brought.

Opal: When they were working in the fields, they heard the church music coming from the white church, so they picked up on this. They sang it in their way in the fields.

Rachel: They were forbidden to read.

Opal: Yes, they were forbidden to read that. That’s why they picked up everything from listening to the church. Little old church down the road. That’s how it all began. Gradually, they’ve gotten more and more personal freedoms, not very much. They were allowed to congregate because, at one point, they couldn’t congregate. They congregated, they got arrested.

When they congregated, they congregated in the woods somewhere, in a bayou somewhere. They would harmonize and they would sing.

Eventually, they were able to buy tents, so they had tent meetings. Out of the tent meetings came the idea of starting their own church movement, which they did. They built their own churches. Of course, as religion got more and more sophisticated and more complex, you had Black people singing in the Baptist Church. You had the evangelicals. The other side of that were the guys that just put their whole bodies into the music.

The difference between Black gospel and White gospel came about in the ’40s. You had white acapella gospel music and you had Black acapella gospel music. In the ’30s and the early ’40s, if you couldn’t tell the difference. In some cases, you couldn’t tell the difference at all. It was sung in the same way. Then as things progressed, the Black gospel music went in one direction and the Whites try to catch up in the other direction.

Rachel: Opal played me some very rare music from his collection. I share it with you here. Tennessee Ernie Ford and The Jordanaires’ great gospel songs. Let’s see what we got there.

[music]

Opal: This is more like it.

Rachel: This is more like it?

Opal: Yes.

Rachel: Okay.

[music begins]

I’ve a home prepared where the saints abide,

Just over in the glory land,

And I long to be by my Savior’s side,

Just over in the glory land,

Just over (over) in the glory land,

I’ll join (yes join) the happy angel band,

Just over in the glory land,

Just over (over) in the glory land,

There with (yes with) the mighty host, I’ll stand,

Just over in the glory land.

[music ends]

Rachel: All right, so we got that. That’s White gospel.

Opal: That’s pretty straight White gospel. Both Black and White groups were singing like that until the Golden Gate Quartet came along. They added their own twist-

Rachel: Now, are they White?

Opal: -and modernize the arrangements– They’re Black. They were extremely popular across the country. They were syndicated. The had a radio show that everybody listened to and all the local groups coming up in the ’30s and ’40s and some in the ’50s were influenced by the Golden Gate Quartet. They made the changes in quartet music.

Rachel: What about Josh who–

Opal: Josh White.

Rachel: [singing] “Talk about the battle of Jacob.” That’s what I expect. Let’s see what it is.

Opal: Yes, that’s the thing. They sang.

Rachel: Is that a good one? Let’s see what we got.

Announcer: Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. It’s indeed a pleasure having this opportunity of entertaining you for the evening. We hope you will enjoy our show. The first part of our show shall be Negro Spirituals. We like to continue with one of our favorites. This is the story of Joshua who fought the battle of Jericho, Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho.

[music begins]

Joshua fought the battle of Jericho,

Jericho, Jericho,

Joshua fought the battle of Jericho,

And the walls came tumbling down,

Joshua fought the battle of Jericho,

Jericho, Jericho,

Joshua fought the battle of Jericho,

And the walls came tumbling down.

Good Morning Sister Mary,

Good morning Brother John.

I wanna stop and talk with you, [crosstalk]

Wanna tell you how I come along,

I know you’ve heard about Joshua,

He was the son of Nun,

He never stopped his work until,

Until the work was done.

[music stops]

Opal: The Golden Gates came up in the ’30s and they were a professional group. If you’re a professional gospel group, you had to be able to sing both secular and sacred music. All the songs of the day because you’d play places where people came to see you, but it was important that they knew all the songs because they feel in requests. They would sing sacred and secular songs. There were lots of groups like that who had to do that to survive. This was in the ’40s.

By the ’50s, things had changed. The gospel music became a truly Black experience when you had the Quartet’s competing against each other, and they compete against each other. It’s called shout gospel. This was in the early ’50s. When shout gospel came out of the acapella music that the Golden Gates sang back then, acapella, close harmony, one microphone standing on a dime.

When things were broken down and you could use three or four microphones, that’s when the gospel changed. That was when the preacher had influence over the Quartets. The Quartets started singing and preaching and throwing microphones, doing the drops and thigh slaps and all sorts of things.

Rachel: Interesting.

Opal: It was exciting music.

Rachel: It was a change in technology.

Opal: It was a change in technology that brought a change in the music.

Rachel: Interesting. Okay, good. Good.

Opal: The music itself, gospel came from the preachers. These groups were led by preachers usually. They do the kneeling on the stage and the throwing microphones and wandering into the audience of the women are falling out in their seats. That was the ministers who started all that.

Rachel: Is it fair to say that young Elvis was watching that? What you’re describing makes me think of him?

Opal: Elvis on a Sunday morning, he would wander around. He would put his head inside the churches and he was drawn into these experiences. If you asked him during the period, he was being famous, SOLAR Records in the ’50s and ’60s. He will say, “That was what I wanted to do.” He was a great appropriator. He was really great at taking Black music and making it palatable to White folks.

Rachel: What I wanted to ask about this 10,000-plus collection is, what years does it span? What’s the earliest record you have?

Opal: 1920s.

Rachel: 1920s.

Opal: 1920s, we have some stuff.

Rachel: To the ’60s or ’70s?

Opal: It goes up to– well, ’78s went into the late ’50s. Then they didn’t make them no more. People had the little ones after that. You will not find a copy of this on the internet. It doesn’t exist on the internet.

Opal: Yes.

Rachel: What is this?

Opal: This is a gospel group from San Francisco called the Golden Eco Quartet, and they weren’t around for very long. Back then, in 1946 when they recorded, there was a little recording studio on Market Street, 1141 Market Street where they made two records. This is one of them, Standing in the safety zone.

Rachel: June 1940s.

Opal: The people that play it have got to learn their chanka lankas.

Rachel: What’s a chanka lanka?

Opal: This type of music, this type of gospel music is that it comes in between Shout gospel and Jubilee where people stand around, they go, “shanka lanka lanka lanka, shanka lanka lanka lanka, shanka lanka lanka lanka” all through the record. That’s how they up the harmony back in those days. That was 1946 which is about the date of this record player here.

Rachel: Oh, my goodness.

Opal: We can play it on there because when it came out, people would have played it on here.

Rachel: Wow.

Opal: Just turn it on here. Take said ’78 out of sleeve, put said ’78 on spindle. We could do that. Turn it on. Hang on.

[Shanka lanka gospel music]

Opal: This record probably never went anywhere except in the Bay Area. It probably is only a transcription, in other words, it was just made to get work for the group. They would take it to the performance or a church. They were play, and they say, “Yes, we’ll have you here on Sunday the 14th of June. You can play in our basement.”

That’s probably what happened to this.

Who Put the Benzedrine In Mrs. Murphy’s Ovaltine, that’s his big record.

[laughter]

That’s Harry “The Hipster” Gibson. He’s a White guy, a bit of a hipster. I have to put this bag on. Here we go.

[plays Who Put the Benzedrine In Mrs. Murphy’s Ovaltine record]

Mrs. Murphy couldn’t sleep,

Her nerves were slightly off the beat,

Until she solved her problem,

With a can of Ovaltine.

She drank a cupful most every night,

And oooo how she would dream,

Until something rough got in the stuff,

And made her neighbors scream.

OW! Who put the Benzedrine,

in Mrs. Murphy’s Ovaltine?

Sure’s as she,

don’t know who’s to blame,

‘Cause the old lady didn’t even get his name.

Where did she get that stuff?

Now she just can’t get enough,

It might have been the man, who wasn’t there Now Jack,

that guy’s a square.

She never ever wants to go to sleep,

She says that everything is solid all real,

Now Mr. Murphy don’t know what it’s all about’

‘Cause she went and threw the old man out.

Clout! Who put the Benzedrine,

in Mrs. Murphy’s Ovaltine?

Now she wants to swing,

the Highland Fling,

She says that Benzedrine’s the thing that makes her spring.

Ah, spring it now Gibson.

This is the second part you know,

The name of this is called, “Who put the Nembutals in Mr. Murphy’s overalls?

[Who Put the Benzedrine In Mrs. Murphy’s Ovaltine record stops]

Rachel: When you say gospel and when you say soul music, do you mean the same thing?

Opal: Well, soul music is gospel music. They’re different words.

Rachel: Different words. I just want to make sure because of–

Opal: All of those people that sing that, that you could mention by name like James Brown and all this, they all come from the church. They all sang with a church group. Wilson Pickett, for instance. Solomon Burke, all these great soul singers that recorded in the ’60s and ’70s. They all came from the church. Women, too. All the women did.

Rachel: Absolutely. You want to shift gears? You want to talk about your time with the Frays. We talked about it a little in our pre-interview with the Discs A Go-Go. [laughs]

Opal: Well, that was a program I was on with all the celebs, endless number of celebs on that. How I got into it, well, that’s very difficult to explain to you. Back when I grew up, I’m pushing 80, yes. Back when I grew up, gospel music was non-existent-

Rachel: Non-existent

Opal: -almost non-existent in England because there are a bunch of atheists in England. It was either get bored to tears with your parents staring at the stained-glass windows.

Rachel: In the church.

Opal: In the church. Or you stayed at home, or you went somewhere where you could hear this music usually to France or Germany because they would import people there. They were a little looser about what they thought about gospel music. It wasn’t just religion. It was a performance too, which the French really appreciate.

I wanted to try to get into music as a soul singer. I asked to add in a New Musical Express, a newspaper they had in England, for a singer in a group. Rhythm and blues group.

I applied for the job. I got it and I was a replacement in a group called the Phrase, that had a recording contract with Decker, made a couple of singles that were reasonable. They opened for the whole world at the time at the Marquee. They made an album but they didn’t issue the album because they lost their lead singer. They needed somebody else. Along came me and I replaced this guy.

At the time, the group we’re doing an English version with a harmonica player playing of Chicago blues. People like Sonny Boy Williamson and all that and Little Walter and all these blues harmonica players. That was how the group was made up. There were four of them. Then I joined and we made it into a soul group.

At that point, there weren’t that many soul bands around. This was like in the early ’60s. Nobody knew what soul music was until Otis Redding and came along. I would get the records and we would copy them. We would copy Joe Tex and Solomon Burke and Wilson Pickett and all that and do our version of them, and I’d do all the knee drops and the crazy screaming and shouting.

[laughter]

Opal: We toured all over, but then when we went to Decker and we did For Your Precious Love, which incidentally is the first cover of that record that was a hit for Jerry Butler in this country in 1958.

This was five or six years later; I made my version. It really wasn’t what I wanted to do. I could have sung it. We could have had a vocal group. We could have done much better.

There was no understanding even among most of the musicians in England, of soul music. They didn’t really know how to play it and bring out the soul in a song. It lost all that in my version, I thought. That’s my feeling.

My girl, Snoopy, on the back is just a cover of the record. That was a big success. That was not my choice.

Anyway, we were backed not by the Frays on that record at Deca; we had the sessions musicians. We had Nicky Hopkins on piano, played piano for the Rolling Stones. We had James McLaughlin who also recorded with the Rolling Stones on guitar. We had first-rate musicians on that record, but there was no understanding of what I was trying to do.

[Page turn sounds]

Opal: Yes, that’s right. RCA in London made their money off of records that sold. In the US, what they wanted was a Liverpool Sound.

Rachel: Got it.

Opal: I don’t even ‘ave the accent for it.

Rachel: Oh, okay.

Opal: My interest in the Liverpool Sound is zero, so there was no push there to record me there. That was the end of that. I was really disappointed.

Then, all this time, I’d known Alexis Korner, who is the cornerstone of English blues. He was one of the first to build a seed of English blues-based on basically Chicago and New Orleans blues. I got to know him through the guy who was in a group called The Pretty Things.

Rachel: Oh, okay. Got it.

Opal: He played drums for The Pretty Things. We were friends, and he was a friend of Alexis. He introduced me. Every time we saw him when he toured around England, because he toured all the time, Alexis with his band, he’d ask me up, and I’d do a song.

Opal: When I listen to gospel now, I just listen to the south African stuff, although when I listen to current stuff because very little really interests me. The soul’s gone right out of it. It’s all chat; it’s all rap. It’s as if lyricism is gone.

Rachel: It’s interesting. Some of that works for me because spoken word is a challenge to do.

Opal: No. To me, a rap singer is Joe Tex, Solomon Burke, people that came up in the ’50s. They rapped. They were the basis of rap music. The rap came from the church, came from the minister in the church. That’s where they got it. That’s just the spiritual root of popular music, of people like Nappy Brown and Joe Tex and Solomon Burke and all these people, Otis Redding, all these people that came up in the ’50s about a little rap before they went on.

Wilson Pickett and all those people, they had a little rap, and then they would sing. The women would fall out. Joseph Pickett used to say, “Leave your weak heart down on the seat. They didn’t know we’re going to steal it.”

[laughter]

Rachel: Some of my–

Opal: They were winning

Rachel: Some of my earliest exposure to Motown was Wilson Pickett. I love that sound. I could listen to that forever.

Opal: My favorite guy on Motown is a guy that never got any accolades at all-

Rachel: Who?

Opal: -died in obscurity, made those records. Jimmy Ruffin. He was the brother of the guy that sang in the Temptations.

Rachel: Oh, okay.

Opal: He had a voice that, to me, was just pure heartache. Every time I heard him, I used to cry. He was so good. He had one or two hit records like I’ve Passed This Way Before or What Becomes of the Brokenhearted. Do you remember that?

Rachel: Yeah.

Opal: [sings] “What became–“

Rachel: Became of the broken-hearted. [humming]

Opal: That’s him. Yes. He is sooo soulful.

Rachel: Yes.

Opal: Jesus. My main inspiration is Reverend Julius Cheeks who used to be with a group called The Sensational Nightingales, who I published a book on Amazon of. There’s a book I did on him. He just tore everything up, the church, the women, on the floor. He would plow through an audience and the women would fall out on the floor.

He’d go to the door where the women were lining up for the second performance, and he’d work on them. They’d be laid out on the asphalt outside lining up to get in. That was Julius Cheeks. He just wrecked the church singing. His singing was so soulful and so rugged.

[page turn segment divider]

Rachel: I enjoy your art, your sense of humor, your use of entendre and innuendo, and double meaning. I’m glad you made that switch. I’m not glad you stopped singing. I want everyone to do everything.

My question is, how do you think being a singer and a musician carried over into your written and visual arts?

Opal: It’s just that I’m an artist in every shape and form. And I can do all these things. If you’re an artist, you usually write poems and paint and draw, and in a lot of cases, act. That’s just about the only thing I– Well, I did do some radio plays.

Rachel: Yes.

Opal: The Radio Place in Canada. That was great. I love doing that. Most enjoyable art that I’ve done is the writing. The writing is something you can take total control of and you can present it in a way that is yours. You do have control overwriting, and I like that control.

Rachel: Do you feel like you didn’t have that as much in music because it was more of a collaborative thing or what?

Opal: No. It was more of trying to give people what they wanted. I never felt satisfied then until– I sang with the Paramount Gospel Singers in San Francisco, but that was just a guest appearance. That was nice. I sang how I wanted to sing, and it worked pretty well with them.

[page turn segment divider]

Rachel: What do you think needs to be carried over from the old ways of music to the new era? Now we don’t even have the blessing– We have the blessing of vinyl, but it’s considered a novelty. Now it’s all streaming. It’s all digital. It’s all so much content in one little–

Opal: We want something to hug and to hold, and you can’t hug and hold a CD. The bloody thing would slip out of your hands. People want something- they want to own something that they can hug and love and hold. They want to stare at the pictures on the sleeve and go through, “Oh,” and start kissing the-

[laughter]

Opal: -and getting off on playing the record. It’s not the same thing-

Rachel: It’s not the same.

Opal: -just downloading something in the moment-

Rachel: Absolutely.

Opal: -off a cloud, and they’re not owning it. That’s not an appreciation of music, I don’t think.

Rachel: There’s something more though because it feels like it’s not appreciation of the– Is it too farfetched to say that music needs sound, it needs touch, it needs smell, it needs emotion-

Opal: It’s all those things.

Rachel: -it needs all of those things.

Opal: It’s all of those things. It’s not just in the moment. Everything’s in the moment now. “Oh, I want this song.” “Oh, let’s go on YouTube, we can get it right away.” All right?

Rachel: Right.

Opal: Blah, blah, forgotten, get another one. Everything is in the moment now, which can be a good thing but really, it’s not all that great.

Rachel: It also commoditizes.

Opal: I’d rather own something, which is a pain for Ellen if she has to sell it. No, I’m not here.

Rachel: Right. Here’s my question then. I do want to hear– Of all those 10,000 plus albums, you are donating them to whom.

Opal: Gospel ones are going to a gospel archive, which is in Waco, Texas, and is run by Professor Darden. He sometimes stars on these gospel programs that are coming up all the time. Now that people have latched on to gospel and have seen our movie, that changed everything. We made it to short gospel a movie, I was one of the producers. It was Robert Clemm who directed that. It took us about 12 years to make because the problem was finding thousands of dollars it cost to acquire the music for the film, which was archival music and belonged to someone, but they charged thousands.

This is what holds up the film. It’s asking permission to use things that it’s horrendously expensive. We’ve only just managed to do that.

Rachel: What’s the name?

Opal: It’s called How I Got Over.

Rachel: How I got Over?

Opal: How I got Over. It was in review and then COVID, it was being shown all over the country. It had been a 90-minute documentary and shown on PBS. Then it was made into a full-length film, a 90-minute film.

Rachel: I got it.

Opal: We had a nice big premier down at the Grammy Museum in LA. I was lucky to attend. We had a Q&A there, and that went well. The relatives of some of the scenes there were all in the audience. That was great, you could do a one-on-one with the family.

Speaker 1: That was inspiring, be there to listen again. Soon.

[music]

Narrator:  Agile Vocalist is created and produced by Rachel Medanic. Contributing editors include Ben Kruger and Daisy Owen. Design by Amanda White Cell and Sasha Brandt, with special thanks to my husband, Dave.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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How the Arts Help Us Navigate the Now

Agile Vocalist is a podcast featuring sound creator stories that will inspire you to look to the arts to navigate today’s challenges. In light of recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions on women’s rights to an abortion and freedom of prayer and expression, you likely feel strong emotions. These artists stories will inspire with questions to ask to get through these challenging times.

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