The music of Andraé Crouch was the soundtrack of my life as a teenager and college student in the 1970s.
“My Tribute,” “Soon and Very Soon,” “Jesus Is the Answer” and many others were songs I often heard at First Baptist Church of Alpharetta, Ga. Looking back, I’m fascinated that Crouch’s music had made its way from the Pentecostal tradition in California to a small-town Baptist church in Georgia.
And so I must confess I was drawn to attend the recent Pruit Symposium at Baylor University partly from a sense of nostalgia. But what I discovered to my delight was a musical artist whose range as a songwriter and musician was not only impressive but a towering influence on gospel music.
The symposium began Wednesday evening, March 15, with a reception to honor the work of Bob Darden in celebration of his retirement from Baylor. Darden established the Black Gospel Music Preservation Project, a significant effort to preserve and digitize the music of black gospel groups and choirs that now is a partner with the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.
To expand this one-of-a-kind initiative, the Prichard Family Foundation established the Lev H. Prichard III Traditional Black Music Restoration Endowed Fund in 2009. Paying tribute to Lev Prichard III, the gift embodies Lev and Ella Prichard’s love of cultural and educational ventures.
The symposium featured academic lectures by significant scholars from around the country on the life and work of Andraé Crouch (1942-2015), with presentations from Birgitta Johnson, University of South Carolina; Robert Marovich, editor of Journal of Gospel Music; Charisse Barron, Harvard University; Jamal-Dominique Hopkins, Truett Seminary; Eric Reed and Khyle Wooten, University of Tennessee; and Matthew Williams, University of York.
More than one scholar told the story of the discovery of Crouch’s musical genius.
Benjamin Crouch started serving a very small Church of God in Christ congregation as pastor when Andraé was young, and the church had no musician. Pastor Crouch felt music was essential to worship, and in a service (in the Pentecostal tradition) he laid hands on Andraé, praying God would give him the gift of music.
A few weeks later in church, the elder Crouch simply told Andraé to go to the piano and begin to play. And within a matter of weeks, Andraé Crouch regularly played piano for worship in his father’s church in California.
What most fans of his later music never understood was that he was, first and foremost, an outstanding pianist.
Thursday evening, a multi-ethnic, multi-generational crowd of several hundred gathered at Second Missionary Baptist Church in Waco for a community gospel sing. Led by Stephen Newby of Peachtree Presbyterian Church in Atlanta and Joslyn Henderson of Christ City Church in Washington, D.C., and a band of local Waco musicians, the congregation sang for more than an hour the greatest hits of Crouch.
We sang, we clapped, we laughed. Toward the end of the evening, Newby commented on the power of singing together and said perhaps we were fulfilling the prayer of Jesus that “they may be one.” More than once I choked back tears and could only listen to the sounds in the room as the people of God sang.
On Friday morning, Sondra Crouch, the 80-year-old twin of Andraé, was a featured guest and panelist. She is an acclaimed gospel singer in her own right and pastor of Christ Memorial Church of God in Christ in Pacoima, Calif., where their father once served.
Joining Crouch were Sherman Andrus and Fletch Wiley, members of Andraé Crouch’s group, The Disciples. Leading the conversation was James Abbington, a professor of music at Emory University and a preeminent scholar on the Black church music tradition. And true to the Pentecostal tradition of allowing the Spirit to move, the panel conversation shifted almost spontaneously from a recounting of the facts of Andraé Crouch’s life to a call for prayer to bless the continuing work of pastor Sondra Crouch. The audience was invited to gather around her seated on a chair and to pray for her.
Friday evening was the pinnacle of the three-day symposium with a tribute concert to Andraé Crouch at Baylor’s Jones Concert Hall. This concert was billed as “featuring the musicians who were part of Andraé Crouch’s legacy and his legendary music.”
Once again, the playlist was the greatest hits of Crouch performed by stellar musicians. The music was filled with a joyful, high-energy abandon that was a hallmark of Crouch’s performances himself. The improvisation woven into tightly crafted vocal arrangements was remarkable; it was a tour de force performance.
The 2023 Pruit Symposium was a collaborative venture sponsored by Baylor University Libraries; George W. Truett Theological Seminary; Baylor School of Music; Dunn Center for Christian Music Studies; Journalism, Public Relations and New Media Department; History Department; Religion Department; Baylor Line Foundation; Second Missionary Baptist Church; and Toliver Chapel Missionary Baptist Church.
This deeply meaningful symposium was a feast for the mind and the soul. Exploring the life of Crouch filled in many gaps in my own knowledge of his life. I always had thought of Crouch primarily as a singer and songwriter but was fascinated to see and hear examples of his remarkable gifts as a gospel pianist.
But the brilliance of the symposium was an immersion in the music of Crouch. More than once over the course of these days at Baylor, I felt my heart “strangely warmed” and filled with gratitude for the life and work of Andraé Crouch.
Doug Haney serves as associate pastor and minister of music at Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas. He’s retiring next month after 19 years at Wilshire but will continue to serve as executive director of Polyphony from his new home in Rock Hill, S.C.
Editor’s note: Baptist News Global has received a generous grant from the Prichard Family Foundation to provide extensive coverage of the Black Gospel Music Preservation Project at Baylor. Watch for more articles throughout the balance of this year.