It's not a stretch to suggest that the Rance Allen Group is to gospel music what Jon Hendricks is to jazz vocalese: important innovators who helped define a genre and pave the way for younger generations of artists.
The three-man group that started in Monroe before moving to Toledo were key pioneers in finding a way to popularize gospel music and bring secular sounds to church settings. In the process, Rance, Tom, and Steve Allen created the foundation for all the churches you see now that have full-fledged bands that feature electric instruments, sophisticated sound systems, and earth-shaking grooves.
The group, which started in Monroe in the 1960s, is featured in a CD/DVD retrospective that was released Tuesday on Tyscot Records. The DVD is an hour-long documentary on the band that includes testimonials from such contemporary gospel artists as Kirk Franklin and Keith "Wonderboy" Johnson.
Classic footage of the band rocking out stadiums with their unique blend of gospel, soul, and funk shows provides a glimpse and how unique they were at their peak.
"We've always known that it was just a little different from everybody else," Rance Allen, a Toledo resident, said in a recent interview.
Signed to the iconic Stax record label in the '70s for which they recorded eight albums, the Allens soaked in the sounds of producers and artists like David Porter and Isaac Hayes, which they incorporated into their own music.
"We considered ourselves in school when we were at Stax Records and we would take little tidbits and add it to our sound," he said.
Rance Allen, 64, eventually scaled back on making music and concentrated on his ministry at the New Bethel Church of God in Christ, 801 Vance St. The band still plays around the area and does short tours and he said it remains a working concern with plans to play more shows in the coming year.
We recently caught up with the man with a mellifluous speaking voice and manners of a true gentleman for a phone interview.
Q. How does it feel to hear artists like Kirk Franklin and Keith Johnson talk about how important your music was to them developing as artists?
It makes you feel like your effort has not been in vain, all the years you have spent doing what you do, it has not only been a blessing to you but it has been a blessing to other people. Then when you look at the ages of these guys, they're young enough to be my sons, but yet they're so appreciative of what we've done musically. It's a real blessing to hear them speak.
Q. Sometimes it seems like you use your vocal almost like a lead guitar or lead instrument. I know you started out playing guitar, but I was wondering where those vocal riffs come from, both from a spiritual or artistic perspective, but also where they fit into the music.
From years and years ago when it was just the three of us... we were a self-contained band at that time. I would hear music in my head that I was not playing with my hands. And I would try to somehow or other to mimic it with my voice while playing, and I think some of that came from those experiences of wanting to hear more although we had less.
Q. One of the things that was key back in the 60s and 70s when you were sort of paving this path, you guys were not afraid to bring the funk. I don't know how to verbalize it, but there is something spiritual about funk. What is that?
Oh, yeah. (Laughs) It's kind of what Kirk Franklin referred to as ‘gut bucketness.' It's where you reach way down into your spirit man and you let him sing through your flesh the way he would sing. You let him do the riffs and the runs that he would do. Oh man, when you truly turn what's inside of you loose to the public, you'll hear some sounds and get some responses like you've never seen before.
Q. One thing you did, and I'm not sure if it was a conscious thing or more organic, but when some people took church music and made it secular, you guys did the opposite and did it the other way around.
It was us appreciating what secular musicians were able to do with their music, with the construction of it, the charting of it, the professionalism of it. We wanted gospel music to sound that same way. Most often when we went into the studio in those days a gospel group would only have two or three hours in the studio at a very high price, but when the secular groups went in they would seemingly stay all day and make sure their music sounded right. We wanted that same opportunity. As we continued to play we would take songs that we heard and say, ‘Hey man, what if we took eight bars of this and hooked it up with a verse that talked about the goodness of god?'"
Q. The DVD covers very well how your band was ahead of its time. Now when you go in a church, my goodness, these guys have bands that are playing rock and they've got really expensive instruments and big sound systems. How do you feel about that?
I feel like that's progress. And however minute the part, I feel like we have a little bit in that as to why you're seeing that and why you're hearing that. The Lord is actually allowing everybody to hear what we've been doing all these years.
Q. How are your brothers doing and what are they up too?
Oh, those guys are doing great. My brother Tom just had a birthday on the 17th of this month and I had one on the 19th of this month. Tom is retired [from his job] and he and his wife are doing some traveling and of course he's anxiously waiting to see what we're going to do next as far as touring and dates are concerned. Steve is a physical therapist and he enjoys what he does. He takes it as part of his ministry. He's also a minister at the church and helps me administer the business at the church. He too is waiting for instructions on what we're going to do next. We used to joke wondering if we'd still be singing when we're 50. Well, we're all in our 60s and we're still singing.
Contact Rod Lockwood at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6159.