RIP: Daryl Coley

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Posted March 16, 2016 by J Matthew Cobb in Features
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Cherished jazz-gospel tenor dies at the age of 60

Gospel singer Daryl Coley, best known for his jazzy inflections, five-octave range and for a three-decade career as a solo recording artist, died at the age of 60 after suffering from long bouts from juvenile diabetes. He was surrounded by family and loved ones in a hospice care center in Los Angeles, California.

Reports of his passing started circulating across social media late Tuesday evening, with multiple artists including John P. Kee and Vanessa Bell Armstrong began making tribute posts. Coley’s family and management began staving off the rumors of his passing with a press release composed in meme form. “While our beloved Daryl is currently in hospice care being comforted by family and friends, he has not made his final transition. Out of respect for Pastor Coley’s family, please do not post or confirm any further details about the status of his health without confirmation from family and/or management.” By Wednesday morning, the news was leaked to the press of Coley’s passing.

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Musicians from all over are mourning his passing on social media, including Grammy-winning neo-jazz musician Robert Glasper:

Born in Berkley, California, Coley emerged to the music scene as a keyboardist and vocalist while performing with Helen Stephens’s Voices of Christ in the early ‘70’s. He later became a part of the growing aggregation of Edwin and Walter Hawkins, established figures in the contemporary gospel movement. His involvement with the Hawkins Family began on their late ‘70’s albums, showing up on Tramaine Hawkins’ debut LP Tramaine. His first recognized composition would show up years later on Tramaine Hawkins’ 1983 sophomore album Determined, composing the album’s title track. That same year, his work ethic was further exposed to larger audiences when he collaborated with disco star Sylvester on Call Me (a gospel hymn arrangement of “He’ll Understand” along with backing vocals) and for jazz giants Rodney Franklin (Endless Flight, Skydance), Ramsey Lewis and Nancy Wilson (“The Two of Us”). Because of Coley’s talent and surging popularity in the Bay Area, James Cleveland sought him out and used him on mass demonstrations at his popular Gospel Music Workshop of America. Coley would perform some of the most popular songs at the annual convention. Songs like “He’ll Never Let You Down” and “The Chariot Is a Comin” and “Nobody But Jesus,” all led by Coley, are now considered standards in the annals of gospel music history. Cleveland would continue to call on Coley for many of his albums recorded on Savoy Records.

Initially, Coley was perplexed with entering into a more lucrative career as a R&B artist, but felt the tug of ministry pulling at him. “I was at the Gospel Music Workshop of American in Houston, TX and for the first two or three days Danniebelle [Hall] and I just hung out and she really ministered to me,” Coley recanted to CrossRhythms in 1995. “The Spirit of the Lord had her there for that purpose. She talked to me. She felt the pull…I made a decision to be in the ministry – not just to entertain, but this really became a ministry to me once the Lord explained to me his purpose for my life.”

Coley would later step into his own solo career in 1986, dropping Just Daryl for the small First Epistle Records. The album landed him a Grammy nomination. Months later, Light Records quickly signed him and led to an unfortunate one-album stint with them. Sparrow Records picked up the tab, leading to best-selling gospel albums like He’s Right on Time: Live from Los Angeles (No. 3 on the Billboard gospel charts), When the Music Stops (No. 1 on the gospel charts) and In My Dreams (another No. 1 on the gospel charts). Coley’s style was usually too unorthodox for traditional radio play and too jazz-oriented and billowing with complexity for pop crossover. His music, even his sets for Verity Records (a Sony gospel imprint), were usually highly overlooked by the masses, but Coley was by and large celebrated by serious music collectors and ardent jazz aficionados. His name was usually lumped in the class of ambitious jazz-gospel titans like Thomas Whitfield and led him into strong associations with gospel stars like Donald Lawrence (“When Sunday Comes”), Carlton Pearson (“In the Arms of Jesus”) and Richard Smallwood (“He’s Able”). His involvement with the Wilmington Chester Mass Choir, a choral group directed by Ernest Davis, Jr., further established his name as a go-to vocalist for collaborative assignments – thanks to songs he led like “Sovereign” and “He’s Preparing Me.” In 1992, Mervyn Warren selected him to join the all-star cast of popular singers on his ambitious contemporary re-writing of Handel’s Messiah. The finale, Hallelujah!, housed such voices as Gladys Knight, Patti Austin, Johnny Mathis, Take 6, Stephanie Mills, Chaka Khan, Al Jarreau and Sounds of Blackness, and would culminate with Coley’s spirited ad-libs.

In 1993, the NAACP summoned Coley and Patti LaBelle to pay tribute to Michael Jackson for their recognition of Entertainer of the Year at the Image Awards. Together, they performed “Will You Be There” fronted by a sweeping gospel choir.

Coley would also contribute his share of talent to television history when he provided the voice-over for Bleeding Gums Murphy’s performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” on the FOX hit series The Simpsons. He would only appear once, in the episode Dancin’ Homer aired during season two.

After his deal with Verity was axed, Coley’s recording career practically vanished, leading him to focus on his work as a church pastor. He founded Love Fellowship Tabernacle in Los Angeles, California

Coley was married to Jenelle Alexander and is survived by three children.


About the Author

J Matthew Cobb

Managing editor of HiFi Magazine


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