The Sacred Steel Interviews, Part II:Aubrey Ghent & Calvin Cooke
The sacred steel tradition is very much a fraternity. Many of the players are related by blood or marriage. Fathers pass the music along to their sons; elders in the church tutor the younger players on the basics. Everyone reunites at the National Convention in Nashville every June to play and share stories.
One need not look any further than the Reverend Aubrey Ghent as an example of the familial nature of this music. Ghent is the son of Henry Nelson, who is widely considered to be the father of modern sacred steel music. Willie Eason, who is Ghent's uncle and Nelson's brother-in-law, is generally believed to be the first musician to play lap steel in the House of God church and the founder of sacred steel music.
However, much like any big family, rivalries exist between family members. Historically, players in the Jewel Dominion competed with those from the Keith Dominion, but even geography played a part in the rivalries. Within the Keith Dominion, Ghent was one of the most well-known sacred steelers in the South while Chuck Campbell was held in the same high regard in the Northeast. Both men regularly competed for playing time at the annual conventions with older players like Ted Beard and Calvin Cooke. Cooke, who's been dubbed the "B.B. King of sacred steel music," is featured in the second interview below.
Competition to play within the same local church is not uncommon either Chuck Campbell's story in last month's interview about his brother, Darick, taking his spot playing at their father's church because the congregation felt his playing was more sacred is mirrored today as Marcus Randolph, drummer for Robert Randolph and the Family Band, has usurped his famous cousin as the favored player at their family church in New Jersey.
Do yourself a favor and check out the sacred steel albums from Arhoolie Records. Enjoy.
AT: Tell me about your first musical memory.
Aubrey Ghent: Well, let me give you a little history first. I grew up in a little city in Florida called Fort Pierce. My father, Henry Nelson, married a minister's daughter. The minister was Reverend Eugene Ghent. My dad's originally from Ocala, Florida. His sister, Alice, married Willie Eason. Alice met Willie at a church service when he came down from Philadelphia. Willie started playing up that way what was considered then to be Hawaiian guitar. The folks down South had never heard anything like the type of music Willie was playing that Hawaiian-type music. They were very enthused.
After Willie came down from Philadelphia and met my aunt Alice, he taught my dad and Lorenzo Harrison how to play. Dad was about nine years old at the time. Willie went his own way after a time, and my father kind of stuck with it and was one of the main players in the Keith Dominion. Lorenzo became one of the main players in the Jewel Dominion. So when I came along, I was really born into the union (Laughs). First son, you know. By listening to Dad and some other players who were imitating my father, I became interested and wanted to play. That's how I got started and those memories of listening to my father play were my first musical memories.
AT: Who were some of the other players that were playing around the same time as your father?
AG: Oh, Lord…well, there were a number of them. Frank Blue, his son Daryl plays now. Quelon Mitchell out of Ft. Lauderdale was another. But the steel guitar in the church really developed from Willie and my father. They were playing before all of the rest. I kind of grew up around it in the house. My grandfather bought me a regular electric guitar when I was about six years old. Later on, I found out a little trick by putting a 16-inch nail under the strings, which raised the strings so that I could use a bar. That way, I got the leverage from the bar and that steel sound. I did that for two or three years, until I was about nine years old. My granddad, Rev. Ghent, then bought me a lap steel guitar. It was a Suppro.
AT: Do you still have it?
AG: No, in fact, the last time I saw it was about 10 years ago or more. Believe it or not, it had circulated around some of the players down in my old neighborhood after I traded it in. I was 11 years old when I traded that guitar in, and I saw it again when I was in my late 20s. Somebody had bought it in a shop down there. I remembered it because there were some marks on the bottom from when I had it. It was an old red Suppro. Boy, I was proud of that little thing.
When I was 11 years old, my grandfather bought me my first Fender. It was a Fender Stringmaster, double-neck Stringmaster. I thought I was really doing it then. My grandfather died when I was 14 years old, and so my grandmother took over looking after me. She bought me a brand new Fender Deluxe when I was about 14 years old. My dad was constantly on the road playing churches all over the place, so my grandparents really were the ones who looked after me.
AT: How were the steel players perceived in the church? Can you give me an idea of the type of lifestyle these traveling steel players, like your father, had?
AG: Steel players were special people. They were highly recognized, dating back from Willie. The church recognized sacred music though. If you were playing for the church, you just did that. You either played in the nightclubs or the church. They were very strict about that back then, more so than now. The steel players lived a very sacred lifestyle. They players I knew were basically deacons of the church, as well as ministers. They already had a very sacred lifestyle. The music was their ministry a way to minister to the people. They'd do devotional services that inspired and energized the congregation and prepared them for the preaching.
AT: One thing I wanted to talk to you about was your relationship with your father and your uncle and their different styles of playing. Let’s start with Willie.
AG: I didn't get a chance to be with Willie that much. I met Willie later on in life. Willie and my father's styles were very different. Willie was basically a solo player. He did gospel songs that told about religion and the Christ he believed in, but he also did folks songs that commented about political, economic and social issues. One of the more popular folk songs he wrote was "Franklin D. Roosevelt, A Poor Man's Friend." He eventually recorded it and became famous for it.
When Willie played, he did a lot of things that all three of us do. He tried to play the words of the song, imitating the vocals of the choir and congregation. We all work with the melody. But if he played "Just a Closer Walk with Thee," he'd sing "Just a closer" and then play "Walk with thee" on the guitar, as if the guitar actually sang on its own. That's why the called him "The Man with the Talking Guitar."
Dad tried to do the same things. You see, Dad used to play with Mahalia Jackson. He used to be a studio musician. He played on at least one of her albums, if not more. He basically tried to imitate that high female soprano voice, especially the vibrato. It was just a unique way you pluck the strings to get that and using the vibrato of the bar. Not many people have done it. My father and I have both tried to perfect it.
But my father took it once step further. My dad invented what they call jubilee music. Praise music is what they call it nowadays. My dad really took that music over.
AT: If Willie then was the pioneer of sacred steel music and your father, Henry Nelson, was the inventor of praise music, what then was your addition to the sacred steel tradition?
AG: I came along when there was an influx of more players. By that time, there was Lorenzo Harrison, who brought a jazz-type feel to the music. It was more boogie-woogie. That's what the Jewel Dominion style is. It's different than the Keith Dominion style of playing. The Jewel is more of an improvisational, ad-lib style of music. A lot of fast picking that sounded like the blues. Other players like Calvin Cooke, Ted Beard and the Campbell Brothers had come along too.
I kind of developed a style between my father's and what Lorenzo and the guys in the Jewel Dominion were doing. I took my father's approach to praise music and blended it with Lorenzo's jazz approach.
AT: How about secular music influences?
AG: Well, actually as far as guitar players go, my favorite is B.B. King. I like his moves and his style it's soulful. He used to play in the church as well, so I feel a connection to him in that way. I like Miles Davis a lot and have always been fascinated with his style.
AT: I’ve never been to a House of God church service. Describe it for me when the music’s good and the spirit’s there.
AG: Believe it or not, it gives you really a high that's totally indescribable. Music for generations has been noted for some to have magical, divine powers. In Scripture, there was a prophet who said, "Send for one who is skillful on the strings," which means that if you are a skilled musician, the music really sends forth a very unique, energetic feeling and power. That's in the music itself. You can achieve that through a oneness with your instrument to connect with the Holy Spirit. Some people talk about it being a trance. I'm not sure I'd say it was that, but it's like any rock musician or blues player who really gets into what they're playing. The only difference is that we're doing it in church, where we put our whole mind, body and soul into what we're playing and allow the Spirit to flow through us. That means that you play things that are unrehearsed. You know, things that come into your mind while you're playing. There's a lot of improv and a lot of adlibbing. Some musicians do their best writing during service, which means that if you aren't recording then you'll most likely forget it. (Laughs) You'll play a certain note or group of notes, or a certain line or run, and you go, "Oh, wow, I like that." Or someone from the congregation will come up and say, "Those notes you played there were…awesome." (Laughs) You feel a surge of energy. The audience is going, you're feeding them and they're feeding back to you. It's energy being exchanged. The crowd is getting with you and giving it back to you. You get to a certain height and it's phenomenal. The guitar really just comes alive.
AT: I read somewhere that you had the opportunity a few years back to play with your dad as part of a Smithsonian Folk Masters series. How was it?
AG: That was a very unique experience. There was two generations of sacred steel players there. Dad was always my mentor, and I was one of his closest and biggest fans of his music. We played together often in church and at family reunions. That particular night was very memorable and something I'll hold onto for the rest of my life. Just after that concert, he had a stroke and was unable to play anymore. That was the last time we played together. It's a sentimental memory for me.
AT: Did you listen to a lot of the other players that came onto the scene like Calvin Cooke and Ted Beard?
AG: Calvin has a very unique style. Same with Ted. Both of them were greatly influenced by Lorenzo. They came from that side of the church. But Calvin developed his own unique style that's a little different than Lorenzo's. I've always been a big fan of Calvin's playing. He really added something to Lorenzo's style and evolved the music in his own way.
Ted is a lot more conservative than Calvin. He's more of a basic player in my opinion. He doesn't get too jazzy. He stays more to the middle. Some of us reach out and grab things way out there. (Laughs)
AT: What is your role at your church in Nashville?
AG: I'm a pastor at my church here in Antioch. I do play during the service as well. I hold an elder's title, so I oversee two other churches in my district.
AT: Talk to me a little bit about the dilemma that someone like you who is an official in the House of God church faces when playing outside the church. Other players like Robert Randolph, Calvin Cooke and others don’t have the same obligations that you have within the church and therefore don’t have the same threshold, I imagine.
AG: Making appearances at things outside of the church music festivals like the Blues to Bop Festival I played in Switzerland and the New Orleans Jazz Festival was really frowned upon by the church. Some of the bishops and elders believed that doing that was "to cast your pearls to swine," as the Scripture says. They feel the gift belongs in the church, but the new generation is moving away from that. I believe it's a gift to spread and to give to others, I don't think it should be limited to the church. So I went against the grain and played the Florida Folk Festival and other things like that, and they got angry and said I was the first to do it. I think they forgot that Willie did it as well, but they might have forgotten. (Laughs) Dad did a few things, some studio work, but he stayed church-oriented. It was an issue for me. Some people questioned me about it. I was constantly reminded that my gift came from God and should remain a sacred thing.
AT: Talk to me about the younger generation of sacred steel players, like Robert Randolph, coming along.
AG: I see these younger players taking it to a new place, to another level. I think these young guys will not be confined within just the walls of the church. This generation will burst through the seams to let the world hear a new and ever-evolving gift that is surrounding the steel. They're going to take the instrument to places it's never been before. The sound effects, the different music they're listening to and the new approaches to the music they're taking it's going to change the music.
I think Robert is one of those players that's going to take the music to new heights. Robert is daring to do what others and what the church ultimately feared. He's taking the music secular. I really cannot condemn him for what he's doing. I hope he's successful in his quest and just say more power to him.
AT: How old were you when you started playing sacred steel music?
Calvin Cooke: Actually, I guess I was about twelve years old when I started. One of the pastors in my church brought me an old regular black guitar, but I couldn't play it. I was too small, so I got a knife and started playing it that way because we were used to the steel from the Reverend Lorenzo Harrison, who was the steel guitar player in the Jewel Dominion at the time.
My mother realized I was learning how to play the steel, so she got me a lap steel at the pawn shop. I was in Cleveland at the time, so I started learning to play that lap steel, but I wasn't that good. Around Christmas 58 I believe it was, the bishop of our state, Lorenzo's brother, Henry Harrison, asked me to come play in Columbus, Georgia at a convention. He traveled a lot and he had one of his sons with him, Starlin Harrison. So my cousin Maynard played the bass guitar and lead, Starlin Harrison played steel guitar and lead, I played steel guitar and lead, and the three of us would switch up with each other.
From then on, I started playing a great deal. I played more and more in church. Then in the summertime, Bishop Harrison asked us to go with him. My parents let us go with him. Eventully, Bishop Keith in the Keith Dominion asked if we would go with her. Mostly she started to take me with her, so between the both of them I wound up playing every day while I was out of school in the summertime. At the end of the summer, I would come back home, go to school, play the home church, and then going back out on the road during the summer.
AT: How did you feel about playing in both the Keith and Jewel Dominion?
CC: I liked them both so much. I started with the Jewel Dominion, but my mother told me she would rather me stay with Bishop Keith because she felt that I would have more of a chance to play than to play behind somebody, because Lorenzo was the main man in the Jewel Dominion. And so I stayed over there with Bishop Keith and played with her until she died in '61. Then Bishop Jenkins came in and I played with him until he died and I've been here ever since, so it's been about 45 years for me.
AT: Tell me about those first couple of years playing with Bishop Harrison. What was life on the road like?
CC: Bishop Harrison was a carpenter by trade, so we helped him build churches for less than what a regular company would charge. He did a lot of that, and we helped him with it, but we were paid very little. They would say we were donating our time to the church, which I didn't mind, because they did so many other things for us, like giving us clothes and a little money. We were taken care of.
Back then, I would just have my guitar and clothes. I would catch the Greyhound bus, get off of one bus and get onto the Trailway. Trailway was big back then. Got on the Trailway, then they let me off of the road wherever I'm supposed to be, and some people would pick me up.
Sometimes we would stay at the church and sleep on the benches cause we would want to be with Bishop Keith and she stayed close by at a house next door. We didn't want to be far from her. And we did that by choice. We would just stay at the church, then get up, clean up the church, and back then we had those old face bowls, pans, and they had outhouses back then. I played every day back in those days and stayed on the road until 1967.
AT: How did you end up in Detroit?
CC: I came to Detroit in '67. Actually, I was on my way to Florida but they had a convention here. A guy asked me if I would go by Chrysler. They were hiring, so he wanted me to take him to see about a job before I left. I filled out an application, not intending to work, because I wasn't used to working, but I passed the test. Chrysler hired me, so I called my mother and asked her what I should do. She said that since I got that job that I should stay with it. I was 23 then, so I stayed at Chrysler. My intention was to stay there just for a little while but I wind up staying for 31 years. I still traveled on the weekends and played for conventions.
AT: When did you start playing pedal steel?
CC: I got a pedal steel in 74 when my mother bought me a MSA 10 string. I called Chuck Campbell up and told him I had it. He and his wife came up, and he spent a whole week with me, taught me how to tune it, play it and fix it up, and I've been playing that ever since.
Ted Beard said he was the first one to play pedal steel in the church, but I believe Chuck was. Chuck was the first I remembered.
AT: You’ve always been close with the Campbell family?
CC: I used to play for Bishop Campbell all the time for all the events he had back then when his kids were growing up and still learning. Chuck, Darick and Phil Campbell, all of us spent a lot of time with each other, because I used to go there and stay with them for weeks at a time. When I got divorced, they would send for me to come stay with them, spend Christmas with them, or New Year's. They would come and get me and take me to the convention in Nashville when I couldn't afford it at the time. That is one family who helped me a great deal.
Those boys, I've been with them ever since they were kids. And we spent a lot of time together playing. Back in those days, I was the fastest player, but now I'm the slowest and Chuck Campbell and Robert Randolph are the two fastest that we have, plus young fellas who are coming up behind them. But Chuck and Robert are the two fastest. Robert used to come to the hotel and we'd stay up half the night and he'd learn how to play the guitar. Robert also would call me long distance and we'd do stuff over the phone.
I'm very grateful that the Campbells got me started doing festivals and stuff like that. They would ask me to go along and do a song. I would be nervous, cause I wasn't used to doing it. After Robert got successful, he called me up one day and said, "Ok, get ready, Calvin. I've got the money, so I can come and produce your CD and do something for you." And he did that. It should be coming out soon and I'm grateful for that, cause for him to even just think about me to do that, you know…I'm a very old guy.
AT: Did you come from a musical family?
CC: My father was a quartet guy, sang with Sam Cooke and a few others. My mother was strictly a religious lady and she sang in church and traveled with Bishop Jewel. I have cousins who all play instruments, drums, guitar and steel guitar. Nobody really sat down and taught me, because I was around it. Ronnie Hall, a good friend of mine, he spent a lot of time with me, but the guy who really gave me the opportunity to really start playing some conventions, his name is Bobby Tolliver. He was an older guy, actually he may be the first one who had the pedal steel guitar in the church, He's got a pedal steel that's got to be about 50 years old, if he still has it, and he really was the one.
There was a lady, who's still living now, her name is Bishop Bertha Massey, and she's 105 years old and can remember and talk just as good as you and I. I just saw her recently and she always talks about when I came up that I couldn't play a lick. Hated to hear me play. I'm grateful that I've lasted among about 5 to 6 generations within the church, and they have considered me one of the top steel guitar players.
AT: Who were some of your influences?
CC: Lorenzo Harrison was the biggest influence, but then I met Ted Beard. Ted was a strong, powerful influence on me because he and I played in the Keith Dominion together. At the conventions, it was always tradition for the past 40 something years that I played Saturday night and Ted played on a Sunday. Then I'd go Monday, and he'd go on Tuesday and this is how we played for years. The more he played, the harder he played, then the next day that's what would make me want to play, and we did that a lot. Then when Henry Nelson came back, he had his own style. It was the three of us that were the main musicians in the church. When Chuck came of age and started playing more and got better, it became the four of us.
As far as listening to the radio, we couldn't listen to blues or jazz, but traveling on the road a lot of times we would hear the Grand Old Opry. I would hear Earnest Tubb's show, and the guy who would play the steel, I don't know his name, we would listen to that. When I would come home, my cousin introduced me to YES, and I fell in love with Yes, because of the way they played and the style of music they had. When I found out one of the guys played the steel, that made me more interested, so they became my favorite group. After that, I started listening to the Who, because they were a hard driving group, and the way we played in church, it was kind of similar and so I could relate to them. We all listened to country music, we always have, in one way or another. Back then we listened to a lot of gospel, both white and black gospel. Early in the morning you hear gospel music out of West Virginia and different places, but then when I got a chance, I snuck off and listened to a lot of country music because I was down south then.
AT: You’re one of the unique sacred steel players because you’ve played in both churches. Talk to me about the differences between the Keith and Jewel styles.
CC: The Jewel style with Lorenzo was more aggressive. The blues world would say he's more boogiefied. To us, he was very spiritual and strong with how he played. He was very aggressive. He was the type of guy who played what he felt that might work within the sanctified church. And that's the way he played hard. He gave it all he had. And then he experimented, not with the pedals, but with the different strings. Like the bass string, he would lead with those, something you don't hear a steel guitar player ordinarily do. Then after that, he started playing with the Wah pedal, which became a symbol of his. That became the big symbol, which they still play with now throughout the Jewel Dominion.
The Keith side, when I came in, they were more Hawaiian type style of music. When I came in, I had the Jewel influence, so I brought that over with me, and that developed over here. They kept both styles, the Hawaiian type style and the Jewel style which I brought. So the younger guys like Chuck and Ghent came along and started mixing them, along with Ted Beard's style.
AT: Talk to me about Robert Randolph.
CC: He's going in the rock zone. And he still represents where he comes from. And when you get into this, you've got a lot of people whose gonna go different ways, but they still consider him a sacred steeliest. He's been doing an excellent job with what he's done, because he's been mixing both rock and sacred steel together. 99 % of the audience he's had has been white, so they're not familiar with black gospel music, and everywhere we went, the people have told us that they have enjoyed the music and they've felt something different. They have gotten something that they have never gotten before, and it was totally different, and they loved it, so I think he's going to go a long ways. I've been on tour with him all summer, and last week we just finished with them, and had an excellent time, and plus, from time to time, I still can show him stuff that he wants to learn. That makes me feel so good to be among all the guys.
AT: Tell me about playing in a House of God Service.
CC: It's like, you're in another zone, a spiritual zone. It's like God is dealing with you through your music. If we're getting a feeling from God that he's using us through the music, then the music goes out into the audience and they dance, clap, and do a lot of hollering out. We feel like we are doing a very spiritual job, but it's not just the music, it's the whole collective effort with the whole church, because everybody is feeling it, everybody is feeling what you're doing.
AT: Have you enjoyed playing outside of the church?
CC: I'm having fun doing this. I love playing for the church, but I feel free when I'm doing a concert, because I can express it more and put it out more. By doing this, it let's me still connect, because I want these people to feel what we've been feeling all the time. We're not out there trying to say, "Hey, come to our church." They are welcome to come if they want to, but I'm not here to try to brainwash them, or tell them they need to be with us. If you're Catholic, or a Jew, or whatever, and the music has touched you, then you go back to where you were and you're just more stronger in what you're doing.