Amen: Peace Be Still - By Eric Maurice Clark
Updated: Feb 1
Typically in gospel music, books about the genre are presented with a hollow feeling. They focus on facts and numbers, dates and sales records, well-known quotes, and a lot of arm’s-length commentary. They don't feel personable or relatable. That's absolutely not the case with Peace Be Still: How James Cleveland and the Angelic Choir Created a Gospel Classic.
Undergirded by author Robert M. Marovich’s research, scholarly yet passionate, it tells the story of how James Cleveland, Lawrence Roberts, and the Angelic Choir revived a late nineteenth-century hymn. Marovich writes in dense but bright prose that’s animated by a genuine love of gospel music. Cleveland’s creative renewal of the old hymn was inspired by Thurston Frazier and the Voices of Victory, who had made Gwen Lightner’s arrangement of the song popular by performing it during Victory Baptist Church of Los Angeles church broadcasts. Cleveland managed to capture the original spirit of “Peace Be Still” and decant it into a new form that proved to be a perfect fit for the moment of its release in 1963. It breathed fresh love and passion into the hearts of those who heard it, and sent up a flare of social and political awareness within the Black community.
Further, “Peace Be Still,” from a contextual view, explores the assertiveness of the mid-Twentieth-Century Black community, coming from “an optimistic outlook of overcoming. Not if, but when.” Also, “Peace Be Still” rose up to broad national prominence from the Black gospel community itself; “Peace Be Still” was purchased primarily by African American churchgoers who heard it played over local religious radio broadcasts, at local religious book and record stores, and in the living rooms of family and friends. Peace Be Still (the album) carried the title of Best Selling Gospel Album until the release of Aretha Franklin’s Amazing Grace album …several years later! And Rev. James Cleveland had a part in that album too.
The book gives us many characters to adore. Although some of their mentions are brief, all have vital contributions that aid the entire story. For starters, the voice who left a lasting effect on music, Whitney Houston, has an honorary mention because of her family, the Drinkards, who are closely knitted into the narrative. As early as 1938, Cissy (Houston), Larry, and Nicky Drinkard were a family trio that performed gospel in the surroundings of Newark, New Jersey. Reverend Lawrence Roberts, former pastor of First Baptist of Nutley and founder of the Angelic Choir, stated that “They [his family] consented to let me become a member of the Drinkard Singers, and that was my initial induction into what I think of as professional gospel singing.” That's connecting the dots! Rev. Roberts is an integral piece of the storyline, since it's his melodious choir who's backing the late King of Gospel, Rev. James Cleveland.
Of all the voices in Marovich’s narrative, which one stood out the most? Drumroll… Dolores Pigford Roberts, aka “Bootsy,” is my favorite character! From Bootsy’s perspective, and through the reflections of her late husband, Reverend Roberts, she tells the entire story. No detail is left to the imagination as Marovich jotted copious notes from his interactions with Boosty. Boosty’s recollection and perspective is important to the story. For example, she tells of how members of Rev. Roberts’ Voices of Faith choir eventually converted it into the Angelic Choir. Plus, her marital tie to the gospel genius Lawrence Roberts makes it all the better.
If you’re a gospel or music enthusiast, Peace Be Still will not collect dust. Nor will avid readers of biography want to neglect this masterpiece.
This work targets the elephant in the room, not opaquely but transparently, not at arm’s length but intimately. In this case, the song was recorded only days after the Birmingham Church bombing, which brought into question it's role in the 1960s racial tension. This summoned Marovich to explore the relevancy it may or not have had on the Angelic-Cleveland performance. The choristers that were interviewed gave an official response that "Neither the song nor the album nor their performance was directly inspired or influenced by the Birmingham church bombing.” While unpacking the more complex truth of that moment, Marovich acknowledges that the chorister’s official stories were presumably for public consumption and meant to defuse the tension of the moment.
Whether or not “Peace Be Still” was influenced by the church bombing, it’s certainly a continuation of the coded message theory: “Song lyrics employing biblical texts embed socially relevant messages in religious metaphor.” In less academic words, “it was a reminder that no matter how tough life might be, no one anywhere had to battle the wind and the waves alone,” Marovich candidly wrote.
Hands down, this Peace Be Still is riveting, an educational lament and a heartfelt tribute. And by written commentary, including great history lessons, this work forces you to finger-hold the page, and YouTube surf to listen to Robert Marovich’s rollicking illustrations. Peace Be Still is a must-read.