(Editor’s Note: Yes, the title is a bit clickbaitey, but hang with me. I’ll back it up.)
Yesterday, Andraé Crouch slipped into eternity, present in full with the Lord, in perfect peace.
I’ve been half suspecting, half dreading that this day would come for a while now, and yet now that it has, I still feel completely unprepared — probably because it’s hard for me to imagine a musical landscape where Andraé Crouch was not still creating such soul-stirring, inventive, revolutionary music.
Part of the reason why it’s always profoundly bothered me when I hear someone make the blanket declaration that “Christian music sucks” is that it never tracked with my reality.
Because how could it? Sure, my parents played Earth Wind & Fire like any self-respecting Black people did, but my childhood musical diet consisted mostly of Christian music, from luminaries like The Winans, Walter, Edwin & Tramaine Hawkins, The Imperials, and then much later, Commissioned (then eventually as a teen and college student, Fred Hammond). But towering above them all was Andraé Crouch, a man who I would later come to realize was a musician’s musician — that is, the kind of musician that other great musicians consulted, collaborated with, and gathered around.
And I don’t just mean the big names, either. Sure, he produced and/or wrote for some of the biggest names in pop music during the 70s, 80s and 90s. (Do the names Elton John, Rick Astley, Madonna, Diana Ross or Quincy Jones ring a bell?)
But for me, those names were not the most influential. Consider that when I was a young boy, Andraé Crouch inspired me to learn how to read.
Liner notes, I mean.
LP liner notes — yes, LP, which stood for a “long play” record, as opposed to a 45 single, and oh-my-goodness-I’m-feeling-so-old-knowing-there-are-readers-who-need-me-to-explain-this… but anyway — liner notes were the key to understanding how the music was made. Reading the names of the singers and band members and producers and engineers who’d collaborated to make the music come together was a way of tracing a loose recollection of history.
So you can imagine my surprise when I gradually discovered that many of those musicians were also doing work doing (gasp!) secular music. See, Andraé Crouch was a native of Southern California, so many of his players were veterans of the LA music scene. Interspersed among names like Danniebelle Hall, Tata Vega and Howard Smith (all great musicians too, don’t get me wrong) were also names like Michael Omartian, Christopher Cross, Bill Maxwell, Justo Almario, Alex Acuña, and Abraham Laboriel. These were absolutely killer musicians, who recorded with a LOT of successful artists, and they all did stellar work with Andraé.
So if a foreign exchange student ever came to me and said, “show me some of the best that American music has to offer,” then like a concierge would do with tourist traps, I would avoid the obvious picks and go straight to Andraé. Listening to an Andraé Crouch album, whether recorded live or in studio, was always an experience. His melodies were infectious, his arrangements adventuresome, and the vocals were always top-notch. When the family of Michael-freaking-Jackson was looking to lay him to rest, they turned to Andraé Crouch.
Because the power of Andraé’s music was, yes, absolutely, the gospel of Jesus Christ, empowered and indwelled by the Holy Spirit. And in that light, it’s not surprising to find that God used Andraé’s music to reach the hearts of unreached people, even if those people happened to be music celebrities.
But it wasn’t only the message that people found so appealing, but the incredible, buoyant sense of virtuosity that undergirded it. It was as if every opportunity to make music was a chance to do two things — share God’s love with people, and have a ton of fun doing it. Even people who were indifferent to the message of Christ still found themselves irresistibly drawn to his music.
Which is not to say that all of it was fun and upbeat. Eight years before Bono and U2 recorded their anthem “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” Andraé Crouch had already covered similar territory in “Lookin’ For You,” a song with such a compelling blend of funk and melancholy that if Steely Dan had recorded it, it surely would’ve shot up the Billboard charts. The ending vamp, with a percolating rhythm guitar and a saxophone solo floating over a bed of piano chords and “oohs” … it’s the kind of thing that should’ve been licensed for an episode of “Miami Vice.”
Andraé Crouch made great music.
One of my favorites growing up was “Right Now.” And as an adult, I gradually felt like the song was a little distasteful because of how easily it could be manipulated into an unhealthy prosperity doctrine… but with that one, even the strictest theologian who might pick apart its lack of theological sophistication would have to admit, that song is catchy like a mug. In the parlance of a postmodern music critic, it’s an earworm, the kind of song that, even if it annoys you, is sure to get stuck in your head. As a worship leader and now fairly jaded “professional Christian,” part of what I find so shocking about that song is, at the same time, what I find so delightful about it. In this one song, Andraé Crouch and his rollicking band are crazy enough to convince listeners not only that God loves them but that He wants to bless them — RIGHT NOW. If they weren’t talking about God, it’d probably perfect to recast as a jingle or a game show theme song.
God music and fun music — all in one.
I recently started work as a music teacher, so I’ve had to learn how to patiently explain things to students that seem obvious to me. So it’s extra painful to think that there might be a generation of students who will only know of Andraé Crouch’s music in the past tense.
And yet, the more I think about it, the more I realize that in a sense, they won’t have to.
This is partially true because his music will continue to live on in generations of people who attend Christian churches. I have no way of verifying this, but if there were a Guinness World Record for “Most Hymnal Publications Featuring Their First Black Composer” it would belong Andraé Crouch, and it wouldn’t even be close. I grew up singing “Bless His Holy Name” and “My Tribute” for years before I even knew those were Andraé songs, because I heard them first in the church. Even White people who don’t think they like gospel music have probably loved Andraé’s songs without knowing they were his.
But his influence extends far beyond the songs themselves. Crouch was, first and foremost, a gospel musician, but not “gospel” in the cheap, adulterated, strictly-for-Black-people sort of way. His gospel music was embodied by a heart for all people, and it showed in the way he went about making it, particularly in the larger context of what was going on around him. It seems less-than-coincidental that his most influential live recording, Live In London, was recorded in 1978, the same year of the U.S. Supreme Court landmark affirmative action case, Regents of the University of California v. Bakke. It’s no wonder that nearly three decades later, Andraé and his crew could still tell story after story of battling racism while they ministered in song. Their music, without being overtly political or directly confrontational, was still an obvious challenge to the status quo.
Therefore, the legacy that Andraé Crouch represents is a combination of musical excellence and a fearless sense of multicultural inclusion. There would be no Israel & New Breed if there hadn’t first been Andraé Crouch (you can hear the influence most directly in one of my favorite Israel Houghton songs “Taste and See,” where Israel even drops an Andraé shout-out in the beginning):
But his influence extends past even Christian circles.
If you consider that:
- The African-American church has historically been an incubator of Black musical talent, and
- The broad musical trends that have shaped the contours of American popular culture – specifically jazz, rock & roll, and later hip-hop – all were originated by African-Americans, then it’s not a stretch to suggest that
Andraé Crouch was one of the most influential musicians in American history.
So regardless of your faith tradition, or if you even have a faith tradition, if you’ve enjoyed the music of, say, Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston, Boyz II Men, Britney Spears, Katy Perry, Marilyn Manson – all musicians who either grew up or got their start doing music in church – you can, in some measure, thank Andraé Crouch.
Ralph Waldo Emerson once said:
“The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.”
By that, or almost any other measure, Andraé Crouch was a success. He leaves a legacy that Americans of all stripes continue to enjoy to this day.
(P.S. – you’ll enjoy it more if you turn the music up a little. C’mon, you know you want to.)