Remembering Arthur T. Jones and the Mass Choir Phenomenon

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Posted May 7, 2013 by J Matthew Cobb in Features
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Famed Florida Mass Choir director was just one of the leading ambassadors helming James Cleveland’s laboratory of mass choir calculus

Those with a strong recollection of Southern black gospel from the late 20th century will know that Rev. Milton Biggham had a mighty monopoly over the mass choir regimen. Throughout the course of the late Seventies and for two decades to come, the hit formula instituted from the super-sized chapters of the Gospel Music Workshop of America became the bread and butter for Savoy Records. Biggham, maintaining the post of Director of Promotions and working as a faithful liaison under Fred Mendelsohn, stabilized the company with ballsy double-LP presentations of live recorded music featuring the country’s best gospel choirs.  Thanks to the popularity of James Cleveland’s apostolic mantle, mass choirs mushroomed across the country with the hopes of being the King of Gospel’s latest laboratory. Cleveland would normally present those choirs to the world with their very own record, usually pressed on the Savoy label and distributed through Clive Davis’s Arista Records. Sometimes the records only bore Cleveland’s name just to provide you a soothing indicator that the product met his approval, while only appearing on one or two songs. And if they were lucky and if record sales were favorable, they were giving multiple shots at subsequent releases. Later on, choirs like the Dallas Forth Worth Mass Choir, the Mississippi Mass Choir, the Chicago Mass Choir and dozens more would dominate the black gospel landscape, but in the movement’s infancy there were Donnie Harper’s New Jersey Mass Choir, the Georgia Mass Choir (supervised by Biggham himself) and the Florida Mass Choir.

Florida Mass Choir’s first album, 1979.

Led by Arthur T. Jones, the Florida Mass Choir was never the best of the mass choirs. Their choral abilities hardly reached the expert levels of the Whitfield singers, nor did they obtain the sheer dynamics of excellence that documented the heavyweights of the Mississippi Mass. Much of their finer material was simple enough to teach to even the least experienced of choral groups. But what they had, others envied. They had size. At the height of their powers, the Florida Mass Choir – on the day of recording – could stretch 200 members wide. And singers would travel across the wide and narrow state of Florida to an appointed recording destination just to sing a handful of Sunday morning songs done in the tradition of black Baptist singing. The many workshop chapters of St. Lauderdale, Orlando, Miami, St. Petersburg, Tarpon Springs and Tampa clustered together to form Florida’s mighty army. Without Cleveland in tow, the Florida Mass Choir recorded their first live album in 1979. The session featured Biggham and his latest batch of Sunday morning songs, while Arthur T. Jones resumed the role of choir director and even delivered his husky vocals to many of the songs on the double-LP.

At first listen, you’re bound to assume that Jones is showing off his best James Cleveland impression. Over the years, Jones’s voice, grittier and often wreaking with hoarseness, became a standard on the weightier material. His long narratives, usually done with Isaac Hayes rap finesse, doubled the length of the songs. Sometimes his time-consuming, but often appealing stories would stretch beyond the ten-minute mark. The first part of “Now, I Can See” pushed beyond twelve-minutes, while the second part – a more exaggerated vocal portion wrapped in a ball of Pentecostal power – only lasted a meager three minutes. 1990’s “Higher Hope” cascaded across a palette of fifteen minutes. More exercises of Jones’s gift of gab can be heard on 1987’s “Pressing My Way” and 1988’s “Healing Hands.” This became common practice when his stories became radio favorites on gospel AM radio. Led by a moving story about an old lady who was forced to move out of her home due to lack of rent, “It Will All Be Over” – released in 1981 on the Be Encouraged album, exposed a kind of bravado that equaled Jones’s delivery with that of the dynamic preachers of the era – Rev. B.W. Smith, E.V. Hill, Jasper Williams. He followed up the surprise radio classic with 1982’s “Lord You Keep On Proving Yourself,” which proved to be just as popular. He reprised the story of The Old Lady with a happy ending, as if Jones was directing his own sequel. “Some of you have been worried,” Jones tells the congregation. “We’ve gotten letters all across the country. They wanna know what happened to the Old Lady. Last time we heard the Old Lady was on the bus stop.” Whether it was intentional or impromptu, Jones created a thunderous talking point for the album and anointed the song as the group’s signature hit. Suddenly, the song was being featured on a host of “Seen on TV” gospel compilations. The album, bearing the same name, held down the Billboard’s Top Spiritual Albums charts for a long course of 155 weeks, although stalling at number 14 on the gospel charts. Jones’s presence on the song was definitely important to the song’s canvas, exposing earthy vocals that swooped and soared past the Cleveland comparisons. But Biggham’s composition, dipped in a creamy soulful slow jam, also gave the traditional choir a bit of a contemporary makeover, as if they were playing with Peabo Bryson leftovers. With Jones on board, the group continued their successful and simple recipes of traditional gospel singing.

V. Michael McKay, a theatric showman of a choir director within Cleveland’s 30,000 member workshop, often led the Florida chorus on his own compositions; “Jesus Is Mine,” “I Owe My All to the Greatest,” “All In His Hands,” “We Preach Jesus” and the Easter favorite “Thank God for the Blood” all stand out as the group’s finest.

Rev. Arthur T. Jones / Credit: Bible-Based Fellowship Church

Without question, Arthur T. Jones became the group’s James Cleveland, their overseer, their shepherd. And with over ten albums released on the Savoy label, two on Malaco Records and one on the short-lived Intersound label, Jones became the organization’s mouthpiece. As black gospel choirs fell astray from the average consumer by the turn of the new century, the Florida Mass Choir and many like them lost much of their organization. The chapter choirs still exist, but the clout isn’t there anymore.

In 2011, the Gospel Music Workshop convened their annual meeting in Tampa, where they honored Jones for his achievements in the gospel field. Jones faithfully pastored the 5,000-member Bible Based Fellowship Church of Tampa, the incubator of the Florida Mass Choir, until his untimely passing last week at the age of 65 after battling with a severe case of multiple myeloma, a blood cancer, which he was diagnosed with in the fall of 2010. He started the church around 1992 after retiring as a marketing director for IBM Corporation. His role as pastor deeply affected the community, oftentimes more than what was conveyed in his music. “The guy was just a perfectionist at his craft,” former Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Parnell Dickinson told the Tampa Bay Times. “He was one of the most dedicated people to his music and ministry that I’ve ever seen.” Thomas Scott, a pastor and former Hillsborough County commissioner and Tampa City Council member, expressed the same kind of praise for Jones’s leadership. “He was a visionary leader, not only for his church, but also for our community,” he said this week. “A great leader and a champion in his own right. He accomplished so much in a short life span. This community will certainly miss his voice and miss a true champion for the cause of the community.”

SELECTED DISCOGRAPHY
with the Florida Mass Choir

Come Let’s Reason Together (1979)
Jesus Will Never Say No (1980)
Be Encouraged (1981)
Lord, You Keep On Proving Yourself (1983)
Storm Clouds Rising (1985)
Recorded Live in Miami, Fla. (1986)
Let the Holy Ghost Lead You (1988)
Higher Hope (1990)
Now, I Can See (1992)
Holy (1995)

 

About the Author

J Matthew Cobb

Managing editor of HiFi Magazine


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