When Sunday Comes: The Music of Carlton Pearson

Posted April 18, 2018 by J Matthew Cobb in HiDef

The soulful music catalog of a 21st-century heretic, fully examined

'Come Sunday' with actor Chiwetel Ejiofor portraying Rev. Carlton Pearson

‘Come Sunday’ with actor Chiwetel Ejiofor portraying Rev. Carlton Pearson

On Friday the 13th, an annually-occurring event typically feared as an omen of superstition or celebrated by horror film fanatics, Netflix decided to roll out its distribution of a different kind of mystery with Joshua Marston-directed film Come Sunday, a bio-pic that follows the fall of one of America’s greatest communicators of modern-day Pentecostalism.

Today, Pearson still has influence, mostly on social media where he broadcasts to his followers via Facebook and YouTube, but he remains a pariah in the Christian world. This Sundance selection does a good job of chasing down the drama of Pearson’s tumble amongst his peers. With a commanding Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Year a Slave) playing the part of Pearson, Come Sunday does a great job placing focus on the anguish from his spiritual father, the growing chaos fracturing his marriage with wife Gina, the abandonment of once-considered friends and the conflicts with traditional teachings, many which he grew up with. It’s very G-rated also, considering Pearson in his lowest moments still acted like a saint. But it’s not the biggest faux pas. But the film misses out on a massive, important chapter of his life — his music. It’s a grave omission. There’s a few moments when Ejiofor sings and hums to the sanctified soul coming from Higher Dimensions, the megachurch in which he pastors. But it’s a far comparison to the melisma-swinging belting that the charismatic leader was known for.

From 1994 to 1998, Pearson was signed to Warner Alliance, a gospel music division of Warner Bros. The imprint had moderate success in the gospel market, especially compared with heftier labels like Verity, but it was packed with strong talent, including Take 6, Michael English, the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir, Donnie McClurkin, Beverly Crawford and Memphis choir master O’landa Draper. But the main attraction to the label, at least for black gospel product in Christian retail, was Pearson. And that’s because his annual Azusa conventions, a charismatic modern-day tent revival held on the campus of Oral Roberts University at the Mabee Center that dazzled with star preachers and fully integrated crowds. This moment in Pearson’s career was more than a footnote. It was before TD Jakes cranked out the Megafests, before Joel Osteen could imagine his “Night of Hope” rock star tours. It was the TEDx of Pentecostal conventions. Actually Pearson predated the rise of Jakes, becoming one of the first and most important African Americans faces of a real crossover kind.

At his peak, Pearson was mightier than any and all of them. He had influence over white audiences, with years dating back to his brief relationship with faith leader Kathryn Khulman, his college experiences at Oral Roberts University and serving as a singer for the World Action Singers, a ORU chorale specializing in contemporary Christian music and cheesy gospel that often accompanied Roberts on television and featured other voices like CeCe Winans and Kathie Lee Gifford. Roberts later took him under his arms and even put him on the school’s Board of Regents in 1984. The move would give Pearson a greater level of visibility and power, surpassing many of his generation. Appearing frequently on Pat Robertson’s 700 Club, Jim Bakker’s now-defunct juggernaut PTL Club and Paul & Jan Crouch’s Praise the Lord program on the Trinity Broadcasting Network, Pearson had already eclipsed the prominence of previous African Americans televangelists like Dr. Ike and Crenshaw Christian Center’s Dr. Fred Price.

“No other conference was more successful at drawing a diversity of Christian celebrities in the early 1990s than Azusa,” Shayne Lee writes in the book, TD Jakes: America’s New Preacher. “It became a network of hundreds of pastors and churches from various denominations.”

With live-remote tapings and programmed TV time on TBN, the conference bloomed. And because of his contacts and enormous ability to appeal to all demographics, Azusa was a money-making enterprise. If one preached or sung at Azusa, they were recognized. It was a resume builder, and a sure sign you were riding to superstar status. Because of the Azusa platform, preachers like Jakes, Juanita Bynum, Joyce Meyer, Veron Ashe, Noel Jones, Richard Henton, Myles Munroe, Jackie McCullough, Clarence McClendon, Brian Keith Williams, Paul Morton and Michael Pitts had become household names in Christian circles.

Gospel artists experienced the same success. “The reason why I’m traveling around the world is because I came here in 1992,” McClurkin said on stage during the Azusa 1997 convention. “I wasn’t traveling anywhere until I came here. I wasn’t going anywhere outside of my hometown until I came here, and I cannot forget the bridge that brought me over.”

Carlton Pearson and the Higher Dimensions Choir, Live

Carlton Pearson and the Higher Dimensions Choir, Live

Before the Azusa album series, though, Pearson released a church album project from a live recording session taped at his Higher Dimensions sanctuary. Live, released in 1994, was a trial release, showcasing the contemporary spirit of modern church music surrounded by mass choir gospel. The main entities associated with the Azusa series — music director and prominent songwriter Alvin Fruga and David A. Smith — are on board here. The solid production, sharpened by Philly multi-instrumentalist and produced Steven Ford (Phyllis Hyman, Pieces of a Dream), included a swell of infectious rhythmic soul (“Hold On,” “We Win”) that compared to the likes of Hezekiah Walker. And glorious ballads that reached Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir majesty (“With My While Heart”). There also were moving selections featuring Pearson on lead (“When I See Jesus,” “We Need a Word from the Lord”), even a duet with John P Kee (“Hallelujah is the Highest Praise”).  But there are threads of the vintage Azusa revival fabric embedded into the mix found in the traditional flares of hymns like “Hold to God’s Unchanging Hand” and “Have a Little Talk with Jesus.” Pearson’s passion for American Pentecostal history and these fiery gospel staples, reaching all the way back to the period of Thomas Dorsey and recently Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted Sister Rosetta Tharpe, opened the floodgates for the Azusa series to come.

“We are His people”

With a light introduction, the calypso-heavy and swanky synth funk grooves elevate “Joyful Noise,” the opening song on 1995’s Live at Azusa. The 200-voice choir, made up equally of black and whites, also including Hispanic and Asian people, are in strong form, singing better than most multi-cultural choirs of this size. The spirit of the song hits a resounding on its resounding crescendo, where they belt alongside Pearson: “We are his people, praising His name.”
Carlton Pearson, Live at Azusa

Carlton Pearson, Live at Azusa

It’s the Azusa mantra at heart, to have God’s people and the spirit of unity taken from Psalm 133:1 on one accord and dining together in harmony. It’s part of Dr. Martin Luther King’s vision for the “beloved community,” and it is central to the what actually transpired during the Azusa, California revival movement of the early 20th century. You hear songs that also echo the praise and worship style of mainstream churches on “Praise, Praise, Praise” and “Hallelujah, He Reigns,” and there’s super gospel talent showcased on “Take It By Force” and “In the Arms of Jesus” (lead by Karen Clark and Daryl Coley respectively). But Pearson dives hard into the rich traditional gospel that started it all, the congregational song. “Catch on Fire” and a gigantic 23-minute “Old Songs” medley of hymns, shouters and Sunday morning refrains become the attention-getters here, and what properly summons a follow-up.

Live at Azusa 2 arrives in 1997. And it’s massive. Donnie McClurkin lights the pathway with “Living, He Loved Me/Power, Lord,” but its golden moment surrounds The Mother Sherman Story. This short story told by Pearson was nominated for a Dove Award for Best Traditional Gospel Song and also featured on the best-selling gospel compilation WOW Gospel 1998. It’s truly heartwarming, executed with storytelling finesse, and flows right into a rousing rendition of “We’ll Understand It Better By and By.” Established gospel artists Paul Morton, Dorinda Clark-Cole, Beverly Crawford and Pop Winans — the patriarch of the Winans Family — also show up, multiplying the guest list of the inaugural Azusa music set.

1999’s Live at Azusa 3 reached back to the Songbook of the Old Landmark even more, going for an entire collection of congregational favorites and gospel standards. The gospel luminaries multiply, with Beverly Crawford and Marvin Winans showing up. Fred Hammond spins a synth-heavy contemporary update of Sam Cooke’s “Jesus Be a Fence.” It’s a draw for gospel radio programmers, but the focus of this disc is old-school Sunday morning, reciting songs that are lost in the public domain. “I Know the Lord Will Make a Way,” “Walk with Me” and the roof-raising “He Lives” are excellent performances of the old vanguard. The album’s grand climax is “How I Got Over,” a song that introduces Joshua Nelson, a Jewish singer with a strong vocal impersonation of Mahalia Jackson mimicking her legendary 1958 Live at Newport version. In 2001, the set walked away with a Stellar Award for Traditional Choir of the Year.

Live at Azusa 4, recorded in April of 2001 and released on Tommy Boy Records, plays similarly like its predecessor, but hits its apex when gospel vet Shirley Caesar storms through a hand-clapping “Sweepin’ Through the City,” a classic Caravans gem. LaShun Pace, still stricken with grief over the loss of her adolescent daughter, works out “Is Your All on the Altar.” Performances from Gene Martin, a Rev. A.A. Allen revival singer, also bless the package.

While expanding the palette of music to include modern gospel, Bishop Carlton Pearson presents Azusa Praise introduced a template for urban worship albums. Except for Pearson, no stars are present; only regional worship leaders with appealing talent and voices. But their performances — strongly “Come Into This House,” “Come On and Praise the Lord,” a jubilant “Jubilee” mixed with The Time funk and the rapturous “Forever You’re My King” — are of a skill set that inspired a wave of similar content. Although the ‘In the House’ urban worship series by Fred Hammond and released on the worship powerhouse label Integrity Music came first, the unique Azusa Praise, a catalyst of live worship experiences, opened many doors for imitations like …In His Presence series on Harborwood Records, and the TD Jakes-licensed Woman Thou Art Loosed Worship 2002’disc.

Pearson in 2018 at Edwin Hawkins celebration of life

Pearson at Edwin Hawkins celebration of life in 2018

In 2002, right when Pearson was cranking out his radical theology of inclusion, a new album release was expected to drop. But the winds of doubt began to erode the pillars of Pearson’s success. He was suddenly making headlines in Christian news outlets. His church membership started to dwindle, Oral Roberts, his. The final blow was being declared a heretic from his own peers, a council of bishops called the Joint College of African-American Pentecostal Bishops.

Sadly it took a collection of bishops to try to circumcise Pearson’s power. One of them couldn’t do it alone. But together, as a unified body, they all could at least get under his skin and debunk the public’s approval. And they succeeded. The largest blow came when his intellectual properties were sold and the Azusa brand was dismantled. Many of the new content owners (including Love Universal) used it as they desired, even selling digitally-remastered videos through box sets on television hour-program infomercials without one mention of Pearson, as if he never existed.

Atlantic, which dissolved the Warner Alliance imprint, withheld the release of Azusa Praise, Volume 2 (We Cry Out), originally scheduled to be released on their own label. It never saw the light of day, remaining in the vaults to this day. Christian retail and bookstores refused to carry it. Snippets of the session live on social media, and those who contributed on the album declare it was one of the best, original collections in urban worship to not be released (Integrity Music and Sony Music owns the masters). Persons deeply connected with Pearson’s music also suffered greatly, including Fruga, the prolific songwriter under Pearson behind songs like “We Win,” who disappeared from the forefront.

But it seems like Pearson is steadily bouncing back. In 2015, Pearson — now an affiliate pastor at All Souls Unitarian Church in Tulsa — accompanied Aretha Franklin on a series of gospel dates where he reprised his Azusa favorites. Two years ago, at a Martin Luther King, Jr. outdoor concert series in New York, Pearson was being backed up by gospel star Ricky Dillard and his robust choir. And on that stage, he recited his infamous Mother Sherman’s Story. “Life doesn’t just happen to us; life happens through us and life happens as us,” Pearson told the enthusiastic and attentive crowd. “Sometimes if you wait for the clock and the calendar, it can prove, disprove or improve anything…Don’t put a period where God puts a comma, and be careful how you use exclamation points.” The message seemed to be Pearson’s subtle, humble response to critics who felt his best years were behind him.

And on a large stage at the celebration services of the late Edwin Hawkins, the gospel star responsible for “Oh, Happy Day” and the escalation of contemporary gospel, Pearson spoke to the crowd. And the people received him, like nothing ever happened, like the labeled heretic was one of them.

Pearson’s music catalog can be found on streaming platforms like Spotify, Amazon and Apple Music. Azusa Praise, Volume 2 remains unreleased.



The Netflix-distributed film is possibly Pearson’s greatest achievement on his road to redemption. Surely he lost it all, from intellectual properties to his Tulsa church. And lots of respect. But what he started years ago with a philosophy that challenged the status quo of Christian principles is now becoming a trend. Nowadays more churches and streamlined faiths are embracing ministries that tilt progressive and inclusive. At the time, Pearson’s message was considered too radical. Now, in 2018, portions of it have been adaptable. When Pearson’s gospel of inclusion originally opened up the net to include LGBTQ people, the majority of church leaders immediately rebelled, citing that church dogma and Christian text condemns acts of homosexuality and non-traditional sexual cultures. Now a crop of churches hungry for survival are becoming less homophobic and are finding ways to adapt to a more diverse, ever-evolving society.

For example, in Nashville, in the heart of the Bible belt, GracePointe Church, a growing evangelical assembly pastored by Stan Mitchell, went on the record to embrace marriage equality and opened its doors to LGBTQ people. Although the church’s membership dwindled, experiencing an exodus similar to Pearson’s Higher Dimensions, it’s struggling to survive the riptide it’s now facing by branding itself as a “progressive Christian community,” referenced on its website’s homepage. After leaving its 12,000 -square foot campus in the more conservative Williamson County and settling for a smaller shared space with Unity of Nashville, GracePointe’s pastor remained firm on his new convictions and decided to focus on underserved communities. “That kind of radical inclusion, especially for the Bible Belt, is off-putting to some and endearing to others,” Mitchell told The Tennessean. “The people that it cost us … they have plenty of places to go to church. The people that it gained us do not have that many options.”

Pearson’s been getting media attention because of the film and is thankful that his story is finally being heard. “The movie magnifies and amplifies the message I thought the church wanted to mute,” Pearson told Megyn Kelly on Megyn Kelly Today in March. “I do feel vindication, but more importantly I feel indication, an indication that maybe the universe God may have a more important posture for this message, that it really should reach masses. Netflix has 117 million homes.” That’s more than 6,000. We have a few million watching this show too.”

Since the film made its Netflix debut, Bishop J. Delano Ellis, one of the subjects of the film during the heated Council of Bishop scenes, responded to the film in front of his own congregation and also expressed outrage to how the film portrayed him. During the Sunday worship service, Ellis said, contrary to the film, that Pearson made the first move by calling him and not the other way around. “The first thing, I did not call that boy! I never called him, so that’s the first lie he put in there, that I invited him to the Joint College of Bishops,” Ellis said. He further remarked: “I believe he had a revelation – a nightmare from God. I don’t believe God said anything to him.”

Hours after Ellis’s remarks went viral, a 2004 article from Charisma magazine resurfaced, citing Ellis actually called Pearson and extended to him the invitation to attend the meeting.

“The group invited Pearson to its annual meeting in 2003 to present his doctrine, which promotes the idea that confession of Jesus as Savior is not a requirement to go to heaven,” the article read. “Our hope was to appeal to him to abandon his teaching,” [the council’s doctrinal commission chairman] Clifford Frazier said. Ellis also commented: “We felt that if we were to keep quiet it would be like tacit approval of his error.” The article also mentioned that the council wrote in a seventeen-page dismissal, urging “all of our fellows to refuse Pearson access to their pulpits.”

Video of the actual trial also surfaced, and confirms Pearson’s side. “I want you to like me, but that’s not why I came here,” Pearson echoes on the audio during his speech to the council. “I came here because I was invited here. And I love Bishop Ellis and you and I do want your love and acceptance. Whether you like me or not, I’m still your brother.”

And so, as of today, those who labeled Pearson a heretic back then are doing so today. Sadly, Pearson’s story is being told to a large, paramount audience. And Ellis, one of Pearson’s loudest critics, is being exposed as a liar. To most, it’s better to be a heretic that a liar.

J MATTHEW COBB is the managing editor of HiFi Magazine.

About the Author

J Matthew Cobb

Managing editor of HiFi Magazine


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