The Story Behind Mighty Clouds of Joy’s “Mighty High”
Gospel group Mighty Clouds of Joy created the first disco inferno with their fiery crossover hit, “Mighty High.” The story on the hit is fully revealed
This week the music world mourned the heavy loss of Willie Joe Ligon, 80, longtime frontman for the gospel group Mighty Clouds of Joy. Born in Troy, Alabama, the powerful soul singer with a fiery Sunday morning preacher’s passion and a gusto resembling Southern soul legends like Wilson Pickett and Otis Redding led most of the revered gospel songs from the energetic group, including “Heavy Load,” “I Came to Jesus,” “Pray for Me” and “Bright Side.”
The legendary Mighty Clouds of Joy, a LA-based quartet, began their careers at the height of the Golden Age of Gospel, when quarters and groups like Dorothy Love Coates & the Gospel Harmonettes, the Caravans, the Soul Stirrers, the Highway Q.C’s, Roberta Martin Singers and the Clara Ward Singers reigned supreme. While maintaining their prominently gritty and traditional flair, the group opened the door to contemporary styles in the ’70’s, going where most quartets feared to travel. With Ligon at the helm, the group became a leading artist on the Houston, TX gospel label Peacock Records and later sealed a deal with ABC-Dunhill. It was there when the group transitioned from Sunday morning marquee acts to discotheque sensations.
In 1974, songwriter and producer Dave Crawford was commissioned to work with the gospel group, offering them their first major reboot on It’s Time — an album that featured a Philly soul rebranding. To some, the decision seemed a little peculiar. But a little digging uncovers a more rational interpretation of reasoning. After starting out as a disc jockey in Atlanta, Crawford advanced his way into songwriting, racking up a handful of notable R&B hits on Stax one-hit wonder Linda Lyndell (“What a Man”) and Alabama soul singer-turned-disco queen Candi Staton (“Young Hearts Run Free,” “Victim”). His repertoire was all about soul, but Crawford also knew gospel music. As a young lad, he lent his piano skills to acts like Shirley Caesar and the Caravans. To work with the Clouds, a group poised to break out with the wings of former full time gospel group Staple Singers, seemed like a smart decision.
It’s Time, featuring the musical army of MFSB and containing Earl Young’s drumming, Joe Tarsia’s careful engineering skill, Bobby Eli and Norman Harris’s guitar work and Vincent Montana’s vibes, hardly yielded any hits. It’s a surprising footnote considering how jubilant and disco-licious the title track, the album’s first single, really was. It managed to jump to number 32 R&B, but rested below the Hot 100 at number 102. But Crawford reunited with a handful of the album’s musicians, particularly Young and conga player Larry Washington, at his self-financed Atlanta studio for a follow-up album, 1975’s Kickin’. It was there that the careful, inspirational and slightly ambiguous words rung out: “Take the load off your mind, ride the mighty glory/Listen to my story, ride the mighty high.”
The meaning of the lyrics change from one storyteller to the next, but for Ligon it always meant something spiritual and not about marijuana use.
The song vaulted to number 22 R&B and earned them their highest ranked single on the Hot 100 (#69 pop), staying on the pop charts for an impressive ten weeks. But it was on the dance chart where the gospel group dominated the most. On the Billboard Disco Action survey, the Dave Crawford/Richard Downing track rose to the number one slot and sat there for five weeks. Thanks to its swaying disco flavor and a funky breakdown on its closing, repetitive vamp, “Mighty High” became a true crossover commercial success, proving that gospel artists could experience profitable gains in the secular world without sacrificing much of their brand. At the height of the song’s popularity, the Clouds performed on Don Cornelius’s Soul Train, becoming the second gospel group to perform on the hit television dance/music show. The Staple Singers would beat them to the punch in October 1971.
Traditionalists still barked at the move, even the crowned king of gospel, James Cleveland. “Mighty High” was too crossover-ish in Cleveland’s opinion, something Jet magazine termed “rock-gospel.” Johnny Martin, a Mighty Cloud singer and group spokesman, broke the silence about Cleveland’s point of view to the black weekly magazine. “It’s easy for him to say that rock gospel isn’t gospel music,” Martin told Jet in April 1976. “He’s making plenty of money and his records are always being played on the radio. Being a quartet, we need hit records to survive. The average radio station that plays gospel music doesn’t play quartets. They play choirs. There is one James Cleveland and hundreds of quartets.” Martin went on the record to state the evolution of their sound by concluding that “we’re still into a gospel thing; we’re [just] giving our listeners more of a modern sound.”
Despite the publicized riff, Cleveland later chased the crossover by merging more contemporary R&B and complex rhythms into his own body of work. He also helped produce the Clouds’ Changing Times (1979), a Grammy-winning record that yielded Ligon’s most revered performance on wax; the Cleveland-penned “I’ve Been in the Storm Too Long.” Four years later, Cleveland and the Clouds were joined on stage as headliners for the critically-acclaimed documentary concern film Gospel, where Ligon belted out an eight-minute version of the song. And when Aretha Franklin recorded her return to gospel for the double-LP One Lord One Faith One Baptism, Ligon joined her for a duet on a rollicking rendition of the Mighty Clouds’ staple.
Still, “Mighty High” remained the group’s bread and butter. Other luminaries such as Gloria Gaynor and Pee Wee Eliis have performed it (yes, Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia also performed it). It even appeared in the 2012 motion picture Joyful Noise starring Dolly Parton and Queen Latifah, where Karen Peck took on lead vocals. But no version matched the disco-strutting original, nor matched the Ligon’s passionate vocal performance. Although the group has crossed many rivers and reached milestones most quartets have ever faced, such as being a three-time Grammy winner, having production work handled by Raphael Saadiq in their latter years (At the Revival, 2010) and performing in the blistering summer heat at Bonnaroo that same year, “Mighty High” is still a mighty high achievement.