Interview: The Relatives

Mike McGonigal

By Mike McGonigal

on 02.19.13 in Interviews

The Relatives are a Dallas, Texas-based gospel funk act formed by brothers Gean and Tommie West in 1970, after Tommie had begun to write topical material in a gospel vein. Then in his mid 30s, Gean had already spent decades with regional gospel quartets, but yearned to connect with a hipper and younger audience. The Relatives merged a full, heavy funk group with a gospel quartet, resulting in an eight-piece band, like some genius gospel take on P-Funk.

They never achieved much success, and disbanded in 1975—until the release of their early material by Heavy Light in 2009 (on the album Don’t Let Me Fall) brought them out of retirement. They’ve since toured the world, bringing the funk gospel to Australia and France and New York City. Their propulsive new record The Electric Word for Yep Rock is the Relatives’ first proper album, ever, and was produced by Spoon’s Jim Eno with help from guitarist Zach Ernst.

eMusic’s Mike McGonical spoke with the almost-77-year-old Reverend Gean West by phone about singing in church and rediscovering his voice.

You first sang professionally about 55 years ago, with the Sensational Golden Knights, in the late 1950s. And then in the 1960s, you were with the Southernaires out of Shreveport, Louisiana and the Mighty Golden Voices of Dallas, Texas. How did you get started singing?

I’ve been singing since I was five years old! A lady in the community had a little group. There were about five of us; she would take us around. I wasn’t a lead singer at the time; I was in the background as a tenor. As time went on and I grew up a ways, I began to really develop my voice, you know. I remember once the Southernaires went to Odessa, Texas. All the other fellas [singing lead] in the group had real pretty voices, like Sam Cooke’s, while I always had a more of a rough voice. Our manager would stick them pretty voices up all the time to perform. Then right at the end, he would call me out to sing.

In Odessa, he had me standing on the side until finally I sung this song about “Somebody Always Talking ‘Bout Me.” And man the people just went wild. As they used to say, “The church was tore up!” People were screaming all over the place, reacting to my singing. This older woman came up to me after and she said, “I seen that the Lord has his anointing upon you.” After that, I would sing background and lead; I became the main lead singer.

What were people’s reactions to your music, when you first put the Relatives together?

At the time, we were used to performing in the church, so that’s where we tried to take it. We wanted to bring this different sound into the church, you know? After we had rehearsed about a year, we started to test it, to see where it worked. So we got a little church that we used to perform in all the time, and we went in there. The younger generation was amazed! But the older generation was just kind of…looking at us. Later, the minister of the church came out of his office and said “I don’t know what they’re doing, but it sound good to me”! Still, we didn’t do too many churches after that.

After the Relatives broke up, I understand that you had a gospel radio program and that you also ministered? How was that different from leading these groups?

It was a lot easier, to be back home in one town, I will tell you that! But preaching, that’s something I’d done even before I was singing. As a little bitty boy, I used to preach for ‘em — and they would get a kick out of me preaching. This is back when I was three or four years old. I used to hear my dad fussing at my mother before church. So my message was that “My mother was good, but my daddy got the devil in him!”

Did saying that in church get you in trouble at home?

No, no. My daddy got a thrill over it. He was a minister, himself, you see.

After your older music was reissued, what was it like to reunite and perform with the Relatives again?

When all this came up, I didn’t realize I still had a voice! I’d been off for singing for about 15 years or more. When they found me, and we started talking, I got in touch with those that were still able to perform from the Relatives. The night we started rehearsing, I was surprised that I still had the voice to do it with.

One night, after we’d first brought it to the people, I went home and asked the Lord, “Why did you wait till I got old to bring it to me in this manner, in this way?” And a voice told me that, “The reason I want you to do it at your age is I want you to encourage other older people that it’s not over yet! And all they need to do is have the will to get up and they don’t have to just sit in the rocking chair. They just have to have the will. This is what I’m anointing you to do.” So, it’s just…I think it’s more or less a gift from God, my voice.