Like our divided souls, the separation between church and state — for pop music, that would be gospel and secular — is often crossed. So it was when an unidentified “Male Quartette” held a “Camp Jubilee Meeting” on the aptly-titled Little Wonder Records in 1910 and used the words “rock n’ rollin’” in their sermonizing; so it was when Sam Cooke and Aretha Franklin ferried across the River Jordan and into the pop charts; and so it is today, when I am side stage at a gospel shout-out in Cleveland featuring Kirk Franklin, courtesy of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s induction week.
He’s not an imposing figure, but he packs a lot of dynamo into his deliverin’-the-word preacher’s stance. He doesn’t so much sing as exhorts, accompanied by tightly wound dancing and driving his backing band — a full complement of muscular bass and drums, male and female back-up singers — into ever more ecstatic grooves, akin to a soul revue. From my point on the compass, he could testify with James Brown or Prince, all no stranger to fire-and-brimstone.
But the key to Franklin is salvation. His early life — and he shares it freely with the audience when he enters the stage — was brutal. Abandoned by his mother, his grandmother encouraged his love of music, and held watch for him while he went through difficult times as a teenager. By 1990 he had seen the light, in more ways than one, and two years later founded the Family, a choir that gained him his first recording contract. The breakthrough came in 1995, and to celebrate two decades of leading his testifying clan, Sony Legacy has assembled this Essential two-disc set, beginning with Kirk’s first recordings for the GospoCentric label. “Silver and Gold,” “Speak to Me” and the epic “Family Worship Medley” herald his debut album’s inspirational power, his charisma and staunch belief in the healing power of song elevating him as well as his willing audience. Highlights on this compilation include a 2005 duet with Stevie Wonder (“Why”), his Nu Nation incarnation which brought more R&B seasonings to his loaves-and-fishes recipe, and a most recent cut from his newest release, “Hello Fear.” Live in Cleveland, he made me a believer, and begat the revelations of this Essential collection.