Over the years we've often heard of the African-American musician who got their start singing in the church choir. Aretha Franklin did just that as did half or more of the recording stars who became big in the blues, funk, and rhythm and blues genres in the sixties and seventies.
But how often have we heard it going the other way round? Okay, sure, there was Bob Dylan's much publicized stint as a Born Again Christian, and other musicians might have found God after they stopped shooting another version of enlightenment into their arms. But how many have had such a life change they've opened their own church and become a full-fledged pastor? There can't be that many.
One man who has made that journey, and who is very sincere about it, is Bishop Dready Manning. For the past thirty-nine years he has been ministering to African American churchgoers in North Carolina's Halifax and Northhampton counties and playing the Bluest Gospel music you've ever heard.
Up until 1962 he had been a hard drinking, hard living, Blues musician playing joints all over the area. Then one day he started bleeding out of his nose and hemorrhaging. He says to this day he would have died if not for the intervention of prayer on his behalf by some neighbours. As he puts it "I had a converted mind right then"
But being a preacher didn't mean he had to stop playing the blues, he's just taken his music and begun to use it in the service of the Lord. And serve the Lord is just what he does. Not only does he play in his own church, but in churches across the region, at prayer meetings, and at revivals. He's set up his own little studio where he produces any number of home made cassette tapes, forty-fives, LP albums, and his Sunday morning radio show over Weldon's WSMY – AM.
Until now those of us who have wanted to hear Bishop Dready Manning and haven't been up to making the trip down to the Carolina's have been out of luck. But now the good people over at the Music Makers Relief Foundation have put together an album of Bishop's music on CD so we can all hear it.
Gospel Train is a collection of eighteen of the songs he's been playing in the church houses and meeting places of the Carolinas. The band that plays with him when they tour is his wife Marie and their five children, but for the album it's just his wife helping out on vocals, his son Zacchaeus on piano, and what looks to be his grandson, Marquis, on drums.
Listening to them you realize you're not hearing what we'd call "professional musicians" because it's just not that fancy, more serviceable than anything else. The exception to that is Bishop Dready himself. He's as smooth as silk when it comes to his guitar and harmonica work. He could just be laying down a rhythm for his wife to sing to, or playing the lead to one of the songs he has written for himself. These songs have the simplicity and emotional wallop of Country Blues.
Although none of them sound anything like what we have come to expect of gospel music, there is something about the sound that makes you wonder why nobody has used this style for the church before. Listen to any of the tracks on Gospel Train and you'll see what I mean.
The first song on the disc, "What Was I Doing, When The Saints Of God Found Me?" is a Blues "testify" song where he tells of his great conversion moment. Using a talking/ singing style of vocals he recounts his former life and the moment he saw the light. It's this low-key personable style though, that gets people to pay attention when they hear it.
Some of his songs are short little sermons about a specific issue dealing with what's wrong with the world; "Hard Headed Children" who won't listen to the good advice their momma's give them or "People Don't Pray', which aside from the title's regret lists a whole bunch of other problems facing the world; men with long hair, women with short skirts, and of course insincere preachers.
That's the benefit for the preacher when he uses the blues to sing to the faithful, the message comes through loud and clear. Unlike other types of gospel where it's easy not to listen to the lyrics and just enjoy the music, here you have no option but to listen to what you're being told.
Unlike so many other musicians who started their career in the church, Bishop Dready Manning was a rough and ready Blues musician of the old school right from the word go. It took a life threatening experience to change his life around and turn it in the direction of preaching. People say there's not much difference between being a good pastor and a good entertainer, in both cases you have to be able to hold the crowd's attention.
Judging by the quality and power of the music on Gospel Trains Bishop Dready Manning won't have any problem keeping his audience's attention. Getting them to stop cheering at the end of the sermon will be another problem all together.
Gospel Train is produced through the Music Maker Relief Foundation's label Music Maker. According to their mandate they are dedicated to helping the pioneers and forgotten heroes of Southern Musical traditions gain recognition and meet their day-to-day needs. They affirm to these artists that the gifts of inspiration and music they brought to the world are valued still. Through the production of records like these and financial aid programs their mission is to give back to the roots of American music.