The Church of God in Christ has maintained a distant yet influential relationship with secular music, and the same thing can be said about the Rance Allen Group, the legendary gospel band whose spiritual home is in that church. The denomination’s “in the world but not of the world” teaching means that listening to secular music is discouraged and performing “worldly” music is frowned upon. Yet, the roots of rock music and R&B music can be traced to COGIC figures such as Sis. Rosetta Tharpe, whose guitar chops were copied by generations of rock musicians. Sly Stone played in the Church of God in Christ in Oakland before finding crossover fame as one of the leading figures of funk music.
The Rance Allen Group never attempted a Sly Stone type crossover. However, group was among the earliest adaptors of fusing a gospel message with R&B, funk and rock. The 1978 crossover hit “I Belong To You” became a mainstay on R&B radio well into the 1980s, and is an example of a great song from a sadly ignored period in gospel music. The success of “I Belong To You” validated the group’s decision to stay firmly planted in the gospel music world, and it is a tribute to Bishop Allen and the Rance Allen Group that the tune holds up well 36 years later.
Ironically, the Rance Allen Group began their musical journey as gospel musical radicals, but a lot of kids today probably view them as their father or grandfather’s gospel music. That view is understandable, but unfair. Celebrate, the group’s latest project, confirms that the Rance Allen Group’s ability to repurpose funk, blues, country and soul melodies and doo-wop style harmonies into songs of praise and encouragement remains intact. Plenty of contemporary gospel artists who make praise and worship songs by employing hip-hop and contemporary R&B beats and production techniques are placing their imprint on a template that the Rance Allen Group helped to create.
Tunes such as the title track “Celebrate” shows that these veterans are certainly able to learn a new trick. “Celebrate” adopts a bass line that would be right at home at a Chicago steppers set, and provides the musical foundation for Allen to lend his trademark rangy tenor to a song that encourages listeners to revel in the newness of salvation.
“You Are Not Alone” shows that the group can still create a memorable gospel ballad. This cut finds Allen offering a reminder that with Christ we are never truly alone, while “He’s Real” adds a funky bass line and a rock tinged guitar to Allen’s narrative of how God’s word remains real in his life.
The Rance Allen Group members are alums of Stax records, and the time spent in Memphis - the city that served as the crossroads of blues, R&B, rock, gospel and country music - can be heard on “Step Out.” This number is one of many where the trio uses the style of singing that influenced so many R&B and rock acts. Bishop Allen shows that he’s not afraid to take the group into the territory of his younger competitors on “Feel the Spirit,” an energetic track that fuses Memphis Funk, Earth, Wind and Fire horns, tight quartet style singing with a hint of drum programming.
Celebrate serves as both a statement of the joy that comes from living a life dedicated to God, and a recognition of the continued relevancy of gospel music royalty. It is the welcome return of a sanctified trio that have never gone away. Strongly Recommended.
By Howard Dukes
Click Here to listen to "Celebrate"