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Published: Saturday, 1/29/2011

Toledo pastor marks 40 years of gospel music

"I'm basically a shy guy. I'm basically a laid-back kind of guy," he said. "I'm not the loud-spoken, out-front guy. But yet God chose me. It's amazing how God will choose certain people."

Mr. Allen's quiet demeanor disappears whenever he holds a microphone. He's one of Toledo's most revered singers, having been nominated three times for a Grammy Award with his trio, The Rance Allen Group.

In 1998, the group was inducted into the International Gospel Music Hall of Fame and Museum.

Mr. Allen received the Bobby Jones Legend Award at the Stellar Awards in 2009.

In 2003, he performed on the Grammy-nominated album "Gotta Serve Somebody: The Gospel Songs of Bob Dylan."

Sunday night at 8, the Rance Allen Group will perform on a BET special, Celebration of Gospel.

On Tuesday, Tyscot Records will release the group's 20th CD, "The Live Experience II," a celebration of 40 years of music ministry.

For the last 25 of those years, Mr. Allen has served as full-time pastor of New Bethel Church of God in Christ on Vance Street, in Toledo's central city.

In an interview last week at the church, Mr. Allen, 62, said he got an early start in music, singing, and playing guitar and keyboards with his brothers, Tom and Steve, as a child in the Good Will Church of God in Christ in Monroe, where his grandfather was the pastor.

At home, he had to hide his secular albums from his grandmother, who only would allow him to listen to gospel music.

"She was a house cleaner, and when she would leave to go to work, this was when I would get a chance to get the Motown records out," Mr. Allen said with a chuckle. "I had them hid, and I would play them and by the time she got back home, I had a nice gospel record on the turntable. She never would know the difference."

But those formative years helped shape him and his brothers into the gospel artists they are today, matching gospel lyrics with high-energy R&B and soul music.

"I honestly believe that that was a way God showed me to get this music that you now hear from us, because I honestly believe that the two musics were married in my heart and my mind."

He and his brothers made their first recording in 1969, a 45-rpm single with "Let's Get Together in Love" on the A-side and a cover of the Blackwood Brothers' "Great Day in Heaven" on the flip side.

Their manager at the time, Larry Giles, entered the Rance Allen Group in a gospel contest in Detroit, which they won, and the group caught the attention of one of the judges, Detroit music promoter Dave Clark.

Mr. Clark introduced the group to Toby Jackson, who was just starting a career as an entertainment lawyer.

"We sang about three songs for him and he said he had never heard anything like it in his life, and from that point he started working with us as our manager. That was in 1970. I never thought he would still be our manager today," Mr. Allen said.

Mr. Jackson borrowed $1,000 from his father and the Rance Allen Group rented time at a Detroit studio, recording eight songs in four hours.

They brought the album to Motown Records, and the label loved the sound but turned them down because it had no outlet for gospel music.

"They even went so far as to tell us that if there was a change in mind, if we were going to give R&B a chance, we needed to come back and see them," Mr. Allen said.

There was no way the Rance Allen Group would stop singing gospel music.

"No, no," Mr. Allen said softly. "My heart, my spirit, my joy, my peace, all of that is tied into doing gospel music. Plus, it made my mother happy."

Mr. Jackson then took the album to Stax Records in Memphis, where he got the same story as Motown's. But a few days later, Mr. Jackson got a call from Al Bell, a Stax executive.

"He said, 'Man, we can't get this music out of our heads.' The Lord put something in there that caught their ear and they could not ignore it," Mr. Allen said.

Stax started a label called Gospel Truth, and signed the Rance Allen Group as its first artist. In 1975, Stax ran into financial troubles, however, just as one of the trio's singles, "Ain't No Need of Crying When It's Raining," was climbing the charts. The song hit No. 1 in every city where it got airplay, but the company couldn't get the record into the stores.

The trio was then signed by Capitol Records, and later Word Records. The last four albums have been on the Tyscot label.

Mr. Allen, who has been married to Ellen Allen for 40 years, became a pastor at the suggestion of Bishop G.E. Patterson, who bought the church building on Vance Street, preached the first sermon, and installed Mr. Allen as pastor on July 1, 1985.

"He said, 'I will step out on a limb and say that you're as great a preacher as you are a singer. But you need to let me work with you in that area of ministry,'" Mr. Allen said. "He became like a mentor/father figure to me until he went to heaven to be with the Lord [in 2007]."

Mr. Allen said the music on Sunday mornings "gets kind of excited" at New Bethel, where attendance averages between 100 and 150.

Despite his busy schedule, Mr. Allen is delighted to be able to both preach and sing gospel music.

"Even if I wasn't a pastor, I would have to go somewhere and preach because both of them are a huge part of my life," he said. "It's almost like I wouldn't want to do one and not be able to do the other. I'm glad that God so fixed it that I don't have to make a choice."

Contact David Yonke at: dyonke@theblade.com or 419-724-6154.



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