Prof. Alex Bradford

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"Singing Rage of the Gospel Age," Professor Alex Bradford, who has been called "Gospel's Little Richard," arguably stands as the most influential male artist of gospel's post-World War II Golden Age.…
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"Singing Rage of the Gospel Age," Professor Alex Bradford, who has been called "Gospel's Little Richard," arguably stands as the most influential male artist of gospel's post-World War II Golden Age. Important as composer ("I'm Too Close to Heaven and I Can't Turn Around"), singer (alternating between a rough, husky chest voice and a falsetto that turned him into a male soprano), stage (and altar) performer, record producer, and group and choir leader, Bradford also pioneered the extension of gospel to secular contexts, particularly with his world tour with Marion Williams in Black Nativity (1960), based on texts by Langston Hughes. He was, rare among important gospel performers, both instrumentalist and vocalist. As choir director of Newark's Abyssinian Baptist Church, he proved a fine talent scout into the bargain, giving a start to, among others, Cissy Houston and the Sweet Inspirations, Dionne and Dee Dee Warwick, C and the Shells, and Judy Clay, all of whom went on to have important careers in soul and pop, none of whom ever strayed far from the gospel basis of their singing. Bradford made important recordings on his own, and he wrote hit material for Roberta Martin, Sallie Martin, and Mahalia Jackson, all of whom he also served as accompanist. His Bradford Specials, with whom he made his most important records in the mid-'50s, were the first male group to adopt the innovations brought to gospel by female quartets such as those of Roberta Martin and Clara Ward.

In addition to his influence on the Newark soul singers, Bradford also played a role in shaping the styles of Little Richard, Ray Charles, and even Sam Cooke, all of whose work reflects careful study of his aptitudes and antics.

Bradford grew up in Bessemer, a coal town just outside Birmingham, AL. Bessemer's sizable black population produced some of the earliest gospel quartets, notably the Famous Blue Jays and the Swan Silvertones, which were deeply influential on young Bradford, although he'd later revolutionize the male gospel style by converting "quartets" to "groups." Bradford began performing at age four, singing and dancing in black vaudeville, and, while training in dance and music with a great local jazz pianist, Mildred Belle Hall, proved precociously proficient, enough to have a grand future in popular music.

But Bradford had joined the Holiness Church at age six (over the objection of his father, a Southern Baptist), and by the time he was in his teens, he'd become a follower of Prophet Jones, a Church of God in Christ minister (and flamboyant pianist) who went on to found the Christ Universal Dominion Kingdom of God and Temple of Christ, International Fellowship in Detroit, for a time an influential force in the African-American world.

After a tangle with a racist cop, his parents sent him to New York, where he formed a quartet, the Bronx Gospelaires. On his return to Alabama, he went to a private school and later taught himself, thus earning the "Professor" tag. But his calling was to preach and sing, and he did so prolifically, eventually becoming ordained in three churches and serving as a lay minister in two others.

While still a teen, he served in the Army and entertained at camp shows. He returned to the Birmingham area and preached at the Mother Hargrove Bishop Universal Spiritual Church but soon moved to Chicago. There he was taken up by Roberta Martin and Mahalia Jackson, respectively the most important group leader and solo singer in gospel. (Both Martin and Jackson had known him as a boy in Birmingham.) They were both encouraging and inhibiting and Bradford was eventually compelled to make a break. When he finally formed his first important group, the Bradfordettes, Bradford did so distinctively, drawing equally from gospel and show biz choreography.

Bradford continued to write prolifically for others, coming up with two significant hits for the Roberta Martin Singers, "Since I Met Jesus" and "Let God Abide," while making his first forays into recording for New York's Apollo label, in 1951. Like most gospel journeymen during the Golden Age, he traveled and did shows at churches and revival programs much more than he recorded, and Bradford was always welcome because he had a near-riotous act, heavily arranged and choreographed but finally as spontaneous as gospel must be, that wrecked houses (as the saying goes) all over the gospel circuit.

His breakthrough came when he began recording in Los Angeles for the great producer Art Rupe's Speciality Records. In 1954, "I'm Too Close to Heaven" sold more than a million copies. He recorded for Specialty for six years, at one point serving as director of its gospel line, which meant producing such esteemed colleagues as Bessie Griffin, Princess Stewart, and the Argo Singers.

After leaving Specialty in 1959, he toured England with Black Nativity (the recording on Vee-Jay is important but a mere shadow of the stage show). In 1959 and 1960, he recorded in New York for the Savoy and Gospel labels, but made more important recordings for Vee-Jay where he recorded from 1962-1964. It was during this period that he became an international star, touring Europe, principally England, and even going as far as Australia, with a group that included future Rolling Stones diva Madeline Bell (that's her on "Gimme Shelter"). He made some records, mainly unreleased, for Chess' Checker subsidiary in 1966, and rounded out his recording career with sessions for Nashboro in 1967 and 1968, which are fine of their kind but not as dynamic as the best of what he had done earlier.

Gospel styles changed and Bradford's popularity dwindled, which is perhaps why he agreed to take the choir director position at Abyssinian Baptist. He'd already made one recording with the 120-voice choir, for Columbia in 1960 (which includes a definitive performance of his song, "I Want to Ride That Glory Train"), and made another for Jubilee in 1969. But Bradford's interests outside church in the late '60s and '70s were more taken up with a series of gospel-influenced off-Broadway plays directed by Vinnette Carroll, who'd done Black Nativity. He toured the nation with the comedic Don't Bother Me, I Can't Cope. In 1978, he was in the midst of a struggle with another hit, Your Arms Too Short to Box With God, when he had a stroke and died, aged only 51.