The celebrations for the new Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge start Friday. Closing Saturday’s festivities will be a band most North Texans have never heard. But KERA’s Jerome Weeks reports they’ve been hailed in New York, France, Australia. And now they’re back home, playing in West Dallas after 30 years.
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Twelve years ago, Mike Buck of Austin’s Antone’s Records handed Noel Waggener an old cracked 45 rpm record. Waggener is an Austin DJ, and he runs the Heavy Light record label with Charisse Kelly. He’s had an interest in out-of-the-way soul groups, Texas funk obscurities — and here was an old treasure like nothing else.
Noel Waggener: “I was just, I was floored. A gospel record? That sounds like early Funkadelic or Sly and the Family Stone?”
A gospel record – by an unknown group Waggener would spend years tracking down. They were the Relatives. They were formed by two brothers from West Dallas: the Reverend Gean West and the Reverend Tommie West
Gean West (above) got into music early, hitting the road in 1959, singing gospel with such groups as the Mighty Golden Voices and later, the long-established Southernaires.
Gean West: “It was seven of us in a ’52 Cadillac. Believe it or not, we left with a tank of gas and six dollars between all of us.”
At the time, black touring artists couldn’t stay in most hotels. Tommie West says the family’s West Dallas home became a layover for performers like The Mighty Clouds of Joy. Sam Cooke…
Tommie West: “Aretha Franklin, Shirley Caesar. And, what’s this girl’s name? Tina Turner! She even visited my mama’s house.”
Gean West: “And that’s how we learned a lot about singing. We was hooked up with all the traveling groups.”
Back in West Dallas in 1970, the Wests formed the Relatives with five other musicians. They recorded three singles with a feverish fusion of funk rhythms, acid-rock guitar, gospel fervor and raspy James Brown-like vocals. That mix was intentional — a way to reach beyond the usual churchy audience.
Tommie West: “We wanted to give the younger generation something, you know, put a little funk behind it. And we came up with that beat. And it worked out.”
Except on radio. The Relatives’ music didn’t fit gospel or pop station playlists. So the Relatives were stuck playing apartments and the occasional church. In fact, they were fearful of playing churches because of the possibly angry reception, so they slipped a few gospel standards into their repertoire — “something to fall back on,” Gean West says. The group’s biggest event was playing outdoors for 5,000 in a public park for the West Dallas Community Cleanup Campaign in the early ’80s. That got them Dallas nightclub bookings — for the first time. But without airplay or record-label support, the group soon disbanded.
End of story. Until, that is, Noel Waggener heard that cracked old 45. By then, the Wests were ministers of their own small churches: Gean West with God’s Anointed Community Church of God in Christ in West Dallas, Tommie West with the No Walls Ministry in South Dallas. That’s how Waggener finally tracked them down – through a fellow minister. When Gean West told fellow band members like Earnest Tarkington (below), their original drummer, about the contact –
Gean West: [laughing] “They didn’t believe me.”
Tarkington: “Really. Me and Tommy.”
Gean West: “Him and Tommie thought I’d just gotten old.”
The second happy surprise came when looking around for more recorded material, they learned veteran Dallas sound engineer and producer Phil York still had session tapes from 1974 — with five more unreleased songs by the band. In 2009, Waggener put out the Relatives’ first album, Don’t Let Me Fall.
With the addition of younger members, including Gean’s son, Cedric, the Relatives rocked the South by Southwest conference in Austin that year. They’ve played on Austin City Limits and have toured (and recorded) with Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears (they’ve dubbed their collaboration on ‘You Been Lyin’ ‘gospel punk.’) They’ve played major festivals in France and Australia. They’ve toured to Houston and New Orleans, performed outdoors at Lincoln Center in New York with gospel legend Mavis Staples. And in two weeks, they’re scheduled to head back into the studio — to record a second album, this time with Spoon’s Jim Eno as producer (who also did the honors on the Honeybears’ new CD, Scandalous).
After all that, the Relatives are still pretty much unknown in their hometown. Their Bridge-O-Rama concert Saturday is the group’s first outdoor event in West Dallas in 30 years — the first, in fact, since that West Dallas Cleanup Campaign (their first area nightclub gig was at the Loft last year). Yet after all these years, the band isn’t really an oldies act. They never made it big, never had a hit to sit easy and coast on. Which may be why they feel utterly classic, yet utterly fresh.
The original Relatives are in their 60s and 70s. (“What amazes me,” says Tarkington. “I’m the youngest original, and I’m 65.”) Yet onstage, they have an open-hearted energy — with the shouts and hand claps, the soul-group glides and spins, their evident joy in singing, passing the leads and harmonies back and forth. When it comes to onstage energy, Waggener even compares them to Iggy Pop’s early punk group.
Noel Waggener: “When they book the Relatives, I think a lot of times, people think they’re going to be getting the Blind Boys. And they end up getting the Stooges.”
One secret to their fountain of youth is clear on a Sunday morning at the Reverend Tommie West’s No Walls Ministry tucked behind a concrete bunker of a shopping strip on South Lancaster. West (in orange shirt, left, blessing a church member) preaches and sings, and members testify for two-and-a-half hours. It’s already been a workout — West has taken off his suit jacket — but then he says the spirit’s moving him to run and he zips off, jogging. About a dozen church members follow as he lopes around the congregation three times. Then they start back to singing and praying, non-stop. Like many preachers, the reverend will do it all over again for another service this evening.
Before and after any show in a nightclub or on a concert stage, the Relatives can be seen praying together. Tommie West says that’s because there’s no difference between this service and the Relatives’ nightclub shows. It’s all a part of getting outside the walls of the church, trying to appeal to younger people. It’s a form of electrifying ministry.
Tommie West: “God said take the Word into all the world. Even though it’s a nightclub, everybody in there is still God’s peoples.”
When the church music wraps up in West’s church, he announces: “You may be seated – if you can!”
With Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears at South by Southwest, 2011:
The Relatives at the Ponderosa in New Orleans, 2010:
Teaching the French how to groove in Cognac’s Blues Passion festival, 2011
Playing Outdoors at Lincoln Center, 2011: