Mighty Clouds of Joy
Mighty Clouds of Joy
Their forty years in gospel demonstrate the extraordinary staying power of the Mighty Clouds of Joy. Experience, in life and music, resonates in everything they sing and through the years, The Mighty Clouds of Joy have poured that experience into more than thirty record albums. They were one of the first gospel groups to incorporate R&B techniques—such as drums and stylized choreography. Known as the “Temptations of Gospel,” the Mighty Clouds of Joy, like the Motown group, exhibit a sophisticated masculine style.
Joe Ligon formed the group in 1955 during his high school days in Los Angeles, California. He spent his childhood in Alabama, then moved west to live with his uncle. He found several other young men from the South in his Watts neighborhood. Bass singer Richard Wallace came from Georgia and baritone Elmo Franklin from Florida. They were all familiar with the gospel singing of the southern church. The fourth member of the group, Johnney Martin, was a native Californian, and his cooler urban style blended well with Ligon’s dramatic flair, derived from the Southern Baptist shout
Formed 1955 in a Los Angeles high school by Willie Joe Ligon, born Sept. 11, 1942 in Troy, AL; original members were Ligon, lead, Johnney Martin, lead, Elmo Franklin, baritone, and Richard Wallace, bass; Ligon and Wallace continued with the group for the next forty years; added Paul Beasley lead singer of the Gospel Keytones 1980; current members are Ligon, Wallace, Michael McCowin, Wilbert Williams, and guitarist Dwight Gordon.
First recording “Steal Away to Jesus” 1960; debut album Family Circle 1961; started with traditional gospel sound but began experimenting with contemporary R&B elements; utilized guitars, organ and drums, later a full orchestra; one of the first gospel groups to choreograph their songs; became known as the “Temptations of Gospel”; moved to ABC Records.
Awards: First Grammy for Live and Direct, Best Soul Gospel Performance: Traditional 1978; second Grammy for Changing Times 1979; third Grammy for Pray For Me 1991.
Address: Management—Glickman-QuinnManagement, PO Box 570815, Tarzana, CA, 91357-0815.
sermon. Inspired by the music of Reverend Julius Cheeks of the Sensational Nightingales, Ligon organized his friends into a quartet, singing four-part gospel harmonies. Soon, Elmo’s brother Ermant joined them, and then Leon Polk and David Walker. The seven-man Mighty Clouds of Joy toured extensively, traveling as far as Houston, Texas. A neighbor took an interest in the group and tutored them in gospel singing while trying to arrange concerts for them. Over the next four years, the Mighty Clouds sang all over the Southwest.
In 1959 a local gospel radio deejay heard them and made some on-air recordings, some of which were later collected by HOB Records in Sing “Live” Zion Songs. The deejay sent the recordings to Peacock Records, who had recorded the Sensational Nightingales. Don Robey, the president of Peacock, liked their version of “Steal Away to Jesus,” but wanted it to be longer. Joe Ligon had been listening for several years to the Reverend C.L. Franklin on the radio, and he added a sermon in the preacher’s style to the song. This declamation in the middle of songs became his trademark. “Steal Away to Jesus” was released as a single in 1960, and was followed by an album, Family Circle in 1961.
Along with preaching, The Mighty Clouds of Joy put other innovations into their dramatic stage shows. They wore bright color-coordinated suits and sported pompadour hair cuts. Their singing was extremely energetic and their voices wide ranging. The Clouds would whip the audience into a frenzy with moral tales exhorting the people to faith. This drama secured for them a reputation as the country’s premier male gospel ensemble, although they were only in their twenties. They cut another album for Peacock Records, The Bright Side. The next three decades often saw the Mighty Clouds doing as many as 200 concerts in a year. Bass, drums and keyboards were added to the traditional gospel instrumentation of solo electric guitar. These amplifications provided rich accompaniment for Joe Ligon’s explorations into the stratosphere of emotion.
Their exuberant inventiveness alienated some conservative gospel listeners. During the 1970s, the Mighty Clouds began experimenting with more commercial forms, particularly the smoother R&B sound that later became the province of singers like Al Green. Some listeners felt this was moving away from the true meaning of gospel. The Mighty Clouds believed that through the commercial market they could reach a whole new audience, especially young people in the black ghettos, who they felt needed to hear gospel’s message. Meanwhile, the group was embroiled in a bitter dispute about money with their record company. They had been selling great numbers of records but had realized very little profit from them. These troubles led to an unproductive period for the Mighty Clouds. Eventually, they signed with ABC Records, and began to produce gospel for a mass audience.
The group managed an unusual crossover hit, the number one dance single “Ride the Mighty High.” Controversy among their gospel followers exploded when The Mighty Clouds of Joy appeared on television’s Soul Train to pormote the record. According to Intersound Records, Joe Ligon found the response from both old and new fans bewildering: “We were the first gospel group to do that show. All the kids were dancing like mad, and, boy, the mail started pouring in. The diehard Gospel fans gave us flak like you wouldn’t believe. It wasn’t churchy enough for them. They said we’d sold out and gone funky.”
However, the Clouds never really abandoned gospel. They recorded a very spiritual album, 1978’s Live and Direct, which won Best Soul Gospel Performance in the Grammy’s traditional category, and repeated the triumph the next year, winning Best Traditional Soul Gospel Performance for Changing Times, 1979. After their tenure at ABC Records, they moved to a smaller, more traditional gospel company, Myrrh Records, and later, Word Records of Nashville. The Mighty Clouds became the only traditional gospel male ensemble surviving into the 1980s.
By then they had become an international phenomena. Audiences in Europe and Great Britain responded with the same enthusiasm as those in the United States. Mainstream artists such as Paul Simon, the Rolling Stones, and Aretha Franklin were delighted to perform with them. In 1996 the Clouds moved to Intersound Records and released their first studio album in six years, Power. According to the record company, Ligon reflected on the group’s long career, “We see ourselves as singers who minister to the people and encourage them that the Lord is real and there for us, and that commitment has only grow stronger over the years. People today seem hungry for much more than entertainment. With all the terrible things happening in the world now, their souls are looking for nourishment—for something to believe in. That spark that only the Holy Spirit can give you is still burning strong in us. If we ever lost that, we might as well pack it in and go home.”
Family Circle, Peacock.
A Bright Side, Peacock.
Live at the Music Hall, Peacock.
Golden Gems of Gospel, Peacock.
Live at the Apollo, Peacock.
Mother’s Favorite Songs, Peacock.
The Best of the Mighty Clouds of Joy, ABC.
It’s Time, ABC.
Live and Direct, ABC.
The Very Best of the Mighty Clouds of Joy, ABC.
Changing Times, Epic.
Bright Night, A&M Japan.
Miracle Man, Myrrh.
Mighty Clouds Alive, Myrrh.
Catching On, Word.
Night Song, Word.
Pray For Me, Word.
Memory Lane-Best Of, Word.
Christian Herald, November 1982; December 1982; September 1984.
Jet, July 17, 1980.
Broughton, Viv, Black Gospel, 1985.
Cusic, Don, The Sound of Light: A History of Gospel Music, 1993.
Heilbut, Anthony, The Gospel Sound, 1985.
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