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WXPN to mount year-spanning 'Gospel Roots of Rock and Soul' project

The University City radio station will produce a yearlong, multiplatform project exploring the connections between spiritual and secular music, with concerts, film screenings, a website, and a radio documentary.

The Fairfield Four will perform at the World Cafe Live on June 9 as part of WXPN’s year long The Gospel Roots of Rock and Soul project.
The Fairfield Four will perform at the World Cafe Live on June 9 as part of WXPN’s year long The Gospel Roots of Rock and Soul project.Read moreCourtesy of the artist

Without "I Got a Woman," Ray Charles' lusty 1954 rhythm and blues song that was  later covered by Elvis Presley and the Beatles, there would be no "Gold Digger," Kanye West's 2005 hip-hop hit.

The connection between the two songs is obvious. On the cut from West's 2005 album Late Registration, the rapper-producer uses vocals by Jamie Foxx, who won an Oscar for his lead role in Taylor Hackford's 2004 biopic Ray, and also samples Charles' recording.

But the origins of both of those songs can be traced back farther to one of the chief wellsprings of 20th-century American popular music: the African American church.

Charles was a fan of a 1954 regional radio hit called "It Must Be Jesus" by gospel quartet the Southern Tones. With "I Got a Woman," he borrowed that song's melody, secularized the lyrics, and created a historic prototype for soul music.

"When you listen to 'It Must Be Jesus,' and then you play 'I Got a Woman,' you just go, 'Holy moley! Now I'm starting to get this connection,' " says Bruce Warren, assistant general manager of WXPN-FM (88.5), the University of Pennsylvania adult-alternative radio station that will embark on a yearlong project, Gospel Roots of Rock and Soul, that will include free concerts and film screenings, a radio documentary, and a multimedia website.

"That's the idea here," says Warren. "Part of our mission is to educate people about music. We want people to understand where the influences are coming from, how they're revised, how they're changed, how they're borrowed, how they're in some cases stolen.

"We want to showcase that a lot of music that we're playing now came from African American music and gospel. The soaring vocals, the harmonies, the rhythms. We want to illustrate the connection, and also show how the genre lives in the Philadelphia music scene and the churches here."

With rappers such as West on 2016's The Life of Pablo and Chance the Rapper (on that year's Coloring Book) embracing gospel, the secular and spiritual have been intermingling on the pop charts.

>> Read more: Let Chance the Rapper take you to church at Made in America

As Warren points out, you can hear the connections in how Dorothy Loves Coates' "You Can't Hurry God (He's Right on Time)," morphed into the Supremes' "You Can't Hurry Love." And how Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee and musical pioneer Sister Rosetta Tharpe (who is buried in Northwoood Cemetery in Philadelphia) shaped ecstatic rockers like Little Richard.

The website for the project — which puts to use a $300,000 grant from the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage — launches Thursday at

The first event is a free screening of How They Got Over, director Robert Clem's documentary about the influence of mid-20th-century small-group gospel greats such as the Blind Boys of Alabama, Swan Silvertones, and Philadelphia's Dixie Hummingbirds. The film title is a play on "How I Got Over," a gospel hymn composed by Philadelphia singer Clara Ward, and and also the name of a 2010 album by Philadelphia hip-hop band the Roots.

The movie, says Jerry Zolten, a Pennsylvania State University professor and Hummingbirds biographer who is a consultant on the XPN project and who produced and narrates How They Got Over, "shows how these singers won over audiences. And also how they transcended institutional racism as a way to make a living with dignity."

But what would a music project be without concerts? On March 8, a gospel concert will be held at the First Unitarian Church — in the Frank Furness building's soaring upstairs sanctuary, not the grungy, punk-rock basement. On March 29,  Nashville's Fisk Jubilee Singers will play at World Cafe Live. And the storied a cappella quartet the Fairfield Four and sacred steel guitar gospel group the Campbell Brothers will play World Cafe Live  on June 9.

One of the many project consultants is Donald Dumpson, the minister of music and arts at Arch Street Presbyterian Church. Concerts are also planned for that Center City house of worship and for St. Thomas Gospel Church in Overbrook.

XPN  plans to integrate their work with its Xponential Music Festival in Camden in July.

Planned events go beyond Philadelphia: There are events in works at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival this spring and the American Music Festival in Nashville in September.

The radio documentary for Gospel Roots of Rock and Soul is being produced by Alex Lewis, who helmed the excellent 2014 Mighty Writers radio doc Going Black: The Legacy of Philly Soul Radio. It's slated to be aired next February.

Other consultants on the project are Journal of Gospel Music editor Robert M. Marovich (who wrote liner notes on last year's terrific compilation album Jesus Rocked the Jukebox: Small Group Black Gospel, 1951-1965) and National Public Radio music critic Ann Powers.

Gospel Roots of Rock and Soul is the third Pew-funded roots music program with a national scope that XPN has produced, after  The Mississippi Blues Project in 2013 and Zydeco Crossroads in 2015.

This one is a creative challenge for XPN, Warren acknowledges, in part because straight-up, Jesus-praising gospel music is not heard in regular rotation on the public radio station.

"Blues is in our DNA, and we've always played zydeco," he says. "But the closest we got to gospel was the Edwin Hawkins singers, or the R&B that was influenced by gospel, like Aretha.

"But we're fans of gospel, for the spirituality and the musical elements, and the uplifting nature of it. You put on a James Cleveland album and you can't help but be moved. Or Mahalia Jackson or Sister Rosetta Tharpe."

Zolten spoke on the phone this week from Oxford, Miss., where How They Got Over was being screened at a film festival.

"Gospel has often been marginalized because of its religious overtones," says Zolten, who, in addition to authoring Great God A'Mighty! The Dixie Hummingbirds, Celebrating The Rise of Soul Gospel Music, has produced two albums with the Fairfield Four and assisted Jack White on the mammoth boxed set The Rise and Fall of Paramount Records, 1917-1927.

"I think this whole project will open eyes and open minds as to what the artists in this genre have done, and just how central what they do is to American popular music as a whole today," he says. "Pouring every ounce of emotion into your vocal performance, that's rooted in gospel. The harmonies that inform the first wave of rock and roll that we now call doo-wop; gospel was the training ground. I think it will make the connections between gospel as a genre and contemporary secular American popular music like we haven't seen before. And that's important."