There’s really no arguing that the church has produced many of the most significant contributions to music’s development throughout history. It’s both inspired and financed so many great orchestral and choral composers, from Mozart and Beethoven to Haydn and Verdi, without whose work there would be an unimaginable void in human culture.
Even despite the detachment of the church from commissioning orchestral, “classical” music in the 20th century, so many new song forms have developed and circulated globally in the past 100 years with spirituality in their origins, such as the blues, gospel, country, folk and hymnals, minimalism, not to mention monastic music and Gregorian chants, and dare I even say, Christian rock. Eesh — just typing that made me reconsider writing this article entirely. There are “religious” subsections of basically every other type of music out there, too, like heavy metal and EDM. Yes, even EDM.
Anyway, the point is that music is as interlinked with the church as any art form could ever possibly be with an institution. So, it totally makes sense that some of the most influential musical personalities would also be members of the clergy (or, at least, pretend to be).
Some of the earliest records sold commercially were “preaching records,” which featured sermons from pseudo-celebrity ministers who developed their followings preaching on local radio stations across the US. Preachers like Reverend J.M. Gates and Reverend J.C. Burnett were especially popular throughout the mid-1920s, and these recordings influenced the development of the blues in America immensely.
When the preacher sings from the airwaves, you tune in. Let’s tune into some of the most influential reverends of song, whose music and occasional evangelism has captured listeners for decades.
Reverend John Chafy
Pictured above in portrait playing the cello, the British Reverend John Chafy (1719-1782) was ordained a deacon in 1742 and became somewhat of an aristocrat when he married into wealth. He was a gifted musician who, according to one account, became proficient in the violoncello after only 12 lessons! He also apparently owned two harpsichords.
Reverend Edward W. Clayborn
Edward W. Clayborn (?-?) was a delta-blues-inspired gospel singer who came to be known as “the Guitar Evangelist,” and that’s basically all anyone knows about him at this point besides the fact that he may have been born in Alabama. He made a mark on the Vocalion Recordings catalog though, recording around 40 sides in the mid-to-late 1920s.
Reverend Gary Davis
Now, here’s a bluesy preacher who we do know a thing or two about and who has made a significant impression on blues music ever since. Blind Gary Davis (1896-1972) was born in South Carolina and had a pretty troubling time growing up. He became blind in his infancy, lost all seven of his siblings before they reached adulthood, and lost his father to a police shooting in Birmingham when he was only 10.
Davis used a fingerpicking style that was pretty darn unique. His rhythmic picking, and tapping on the body of the guitar, really mimicked the clapping hands of an entire congregation. Watch this performance of his classic, “If I Had My Way,” below (starting at 2:57).
At around the 5:01 mark, he starts snapping his right hand while continuing to play with only his left and eventually drums on the guitar. His innate coordination with the guitar and his ability to sing his sliding finger movements on the fretboard, even in total blindness, is astounding and has contributed to a style that has inspired artists like the Grateful Dead, Bob Dylan, Jorma Kaukonen, and Peter, Paul and Mary to cover his music.
Davis actually helped to revive the music of another blind, street-corner evangelist, Blind Willie Johnson, who was never himself ordained (to most historians’ knowledge) and, despite selling a decent number of records during his lifetime, died in obscurity. Harlem Street Singer, and the music that Davis recorded with harmonica player Sonny Terry, are some of the most passionate blues records you’ll ever hear.
Reverend Al Green
Raise your hand if you knew that soul crooner Al Green (b. 1946), “the Last of the Great Soul Singers,” was ordained?
The story goes that after a very fruitful career as a maestro of soul music, he became ordained as a minister in Memphis, only to see his record sales and reviews start to dwindle. He started focusing on preaching to his church and honing his skills as a gospel singer. Eventually, just like Bob Dylan, he made a series of gospel albums in the 1980s. Unlike Dylan, however, Green’s gospel albums we’re actually very well-received and won him a bunch of Grammy Awards!
Robert Mugge’s 1984 documentary, Gospel According to Al Green, explores this period of Green’s life in depth.
Reverend Louis Overstreet
Reverend Louis Overstreet (1921-1980) was a one-man band with a band! Playing guitar with his foot pounding on a bass drum and a mic fastened to the collar of his robe so he could dance and twist around while he played alongside other musicians banging things and audiences hollering, Overstreet’s congregation was a total ruckus!
Overstreet was born and raised in Louisiana singing in gospel ensembles throughout his childhood. In 1958, while working at a local turpentine plant, he decided to follow his calling to become a minister, eventually settling in Phoenix, AZ, where he started his own congregation called… get this: St. Luke’s Powerhouse Church of God in Christ. No joke — this dude was ferocious! Part rock ‘n’ roll dance party, part voodoo madness, and a whole lotta believin’, this video clip showcases just a sample of the madness that went down when Overstreet’s preachin’ came to town!
Reverend Cleophus Robinson
Referred to as both “the male version of Mahalia Jackson” and “the World’s Greatest Gospel Singer,” Cleophus Robinson’s (1932-1998) blues-influenced style errs a bit more on the churchy side of soul music, but, man, was he soulful. And, brother, did he have a voice made of velvet. He got his preaching-through-music education hosting a weekly radio show out of Memphis called The Voice of the Soul, which eventually led to hosting a gospel television series lasting for 20 years.
Reverend Richard Coles
Richard Coles (b. 1962) went from ’80s Brit-pop superstar to celibate vicar. A trained musician growing up, he joined the band Bronski Beat as a saxophonist in his twenties. Due to “personal and political” differences, singer Jimmy Somerville left the band in 1984 and recruited Coles to form a new dance-pop duo called the Communards. They went on to release chart-topping singles, such as the disco-cover versions of Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes’ “Don’t Leave Me This Way” and the Jackson 5’s “Never Can Say Goodbye.” (Below, Coles is the flamboyant, bespectacled sideman.)
Their version of “Don’t Leave Me This Way” starts with Coles playing a very gospel-aligned piano introduction, so how does the ordained thing actually work for this openly gay cultural icon? Coles met his partner, David Oldham, also an Anglican priest, in 2007 after a sermon and they entered into a civil partnership soon after.
In 2005, the Church of England began to recognize same-sex partnerships, but expects its ministers to live a life of celibacy — one of several personal disagreements Coles has with the church’s official position on a variety of matters. But that doesn’t stop him from spreading his love to every member of his Northamptonshire congregation on a weekly basis.
Reverend Horton Heat, Reverend Freakchild, The “Rev,” and Father John Misty, none actually ordained
Here’s where we need to take a couple steps back in order to continue to push forward. As we’ve discovered, there are some clear connections between the universes of religion and music that manifest in a number of ways, personal to each performer. Whether or not religion and spirituality exists at the core of these artists’ messages, their drive to preach a gospel of their own manifestation, via music as the conduit, to the ears of the world, is not totally dissimilar to that of the many actual ministers standing on street corners and at the alter on Sunday morning.
So while this list is primarily focused on those actual ministers, it’d be lacking if we didn’t mention some of the more influential artists who have taken on pseudo-evangelical personas in their own right.
We come first to Reverend Horton Heat, the pen name of singer Jim Heath (b. 1959). RHH is a self-dubbed “country-filled punkabilly” band that formed in 1985, combining surf rock, country, big band, swing, punk, and rockabilly. In 1990, they signed to the on-the-rise Sub Pop Records, making them labelmates with the likes of Nirvana, Soundgarden, and Mudhoney. The band has been spreading their gospel ever since, and, no, they’re not actual ministers.
You know who else was picked up by Sub Pop Records? Josh Tillman (b. 1981), a.k.a., Father John Misty, former drummer of the Seattle band Fleet Foxes and former artist who used to call himself by his own name, at least in an abbreviated fashion. No, Tillman is not an ordained pastor, but he did seriously consider it as a career path… when he was six years old.
Having grown up in a conservatively evangelical Christian household, Tillman was not allowed to listen to “secular” music until he was 17, and even then, the rules were only slightly bent to include music that has a “spiritual theme.” Luckily for him, he could argue his way into being able to listen to folksters like Bob Dylan and others on the fringe of religion. Anyway, he does kind of have the vibe of an impassioned preacher when he performs, doesn’t he?
And if it’s that ability to transcend to higher states in performance that, in some way, justifies one’s right to change their name to “Reverend,” then the bluesy Reverend Freakchild gets the okay from me, too. Although he grew up in the paradise islands of Hawaii, for some reason, he decided to trade that in for the concrete of New York City and the dreary precipitation of Boston, no wonder he’s got the blues so bad!
Freakchild was a founding member of the band Soul Coughing, but his long career has also brought him as far as Carnegie Hall with the Metro Mass Gospel Choir, with pit-stops in hippie joints around the country on the way.
It’s not entirely true that Reverend Freakchild isn’t ordained. He’s just not, like, a real minister, but he is technically “ordained.” You see, in the internet age, anyone can be anything, and Freakchild has actually obtained his minister status from the Universal Life Church Monastery website, a trait he shares with one Conan O’Brien.
And of course, the internet would not forgive me if I failed to mention “The Rev” himself, although never was there ever a falser stage name, James Owen Sullivan (1981-2009), the late drummer of the Huntington Beach-based pop metal band, Avenged Sevenfold, whose other members include M. Shadows, Zacky Vengeance, Synyster Gates, Johnny Christ, and Brooks Wackerman.
“The Rev” died tragically at age 28 not as a result of an overdose, but from complications associated with the combination of alcohol, some painkillers, and an undiagnosed medical condition that he didn’t know he had. Eerily, he penned a song for the bands’ fifth record, Nightmare and handed it to the other members, calling it “Death,” only three days before he accidentally died. Weird.
Reverend and the Makers is another example of a band, fronted by a nicknamed “Reverend,” with no religious affiliation.
Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band
Unlike the above imposters, Reverend Josh Peyton (b. 1981) is actually an ordained minister and a Kentucky Colonel to boot! You wouldn’t think it, though, if you saw him parading through the backwoods with a freakshow caravan of gypsies screaming “we came to raise a little hell,” as he does in the video below. It has been said that although his Indiana-based Big Damn Band “is in reality just a trio… they kick up a hell of a ruckus.” Perhaps Overstreet was an influence!
Last but definitely not least, how could we possibly forget Joseph Simmons (b. 1964), a.k.a., Reverend Run of Run-D.M.C.! And no, he’s not just the pastor of the house of hip-hop and ADIDAS track suits, he’s actually a practicing Pentecostal minister, too. Even though he was only ordained in 2004, he’s always been a very spiritual person in his private life. (And now that I know that, it gives hits like “Mary, Mary,” below, a slightly different vibe!)
Rev. Run is certainly not shy about talking up his religious beliefs in interviews and guest appearances on televised church events, but in the past few years, he’s mostly appeared on TV just being a regular, dad-type dude. Neither religion, nor rap, feature prominently in any of his cable TV shows, Run’s House, Rev. Run’s Renovation or Rev. Run’s Sunday Suppers.
That’s all I got for now! I’ve surely missed some spectacular Reverends out there. Feel free to right this wrong in the comments below, and if you’re an aspiring singing reverend looking to up the emotional impact of your music, consider checking out one of our many Mainstage courses, including Unlocking the Emotional Power of Chords and The New Songwriter’s Workshop.