Gospel musician Bishop Rance Allen

The gospel great recounts the rise to fame of his Grammy-nominated contemporary group and reflects on still going strong with the release of “Amazing Grace.”

Bishop Rance Allen and his brothers Tom and Steve formed The Rance Allen Group (RAG) in 1969 and introduced a new contemporary and innovative sound to the gospel music audience, incorporating rock, jazz and soul into the music. One of 12 children, Allen preached his first sermon and started performing as a gospel singer at age 5. He began playing piano by age 7 and the guitar a few years later. Licensed to preach at age 12, he ministered and sang throughout Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania and has been pastor of New Bethel Church in Toledo, OH since 1985. RAG's rise from their early Monroe, OH days to their explosive success is chronicled in the documentary, Music Majors.


Tavis Smiley: Good evening. From Los Angeles, I’m Tavis Smiley. Tonight, a conversation with the incomparable Rance Allen, who just about redefined gospel music by infusing that spirit with the secular energy of R&B. Now celebrating four decades of making music, Rance Allen has released a new CD and DVD titled “Amazing Grace” with his two brothers.

But before we get to that conversation, as this is our 10th season on PBS, we’re introducing you to some of the folk who make this program possible every night, and joining now is my dear brother Danny Miles Davis. With a name like that, you, I’m sure, guessed that he is from St. Louis.

His mother named him after the great jazz trumpeter Miles Davis. So what a blessing it is for us every night to work on this show with Danny Miles Davis. Danny, a blessing to have you on our team, sir.

Danny Miles Davis: Well thank you; it’s a blessing to be here, Tavis. King said anybody can be great, but anybody can serve, and it’s a blessing to serve here on “The Tavis Smiley Show.”

Tavis: I’m glad to have you on our team. So tell us who we got coming up tonight.

Davis: We have a conversation with a gospel great, Bishop Rance Allen, coming up right now.

Tavis: Rance Allen’s history with recorded gospel music began some 40 years ago, when the trio he formed with his two brothers, The Rance Allen Group, became the first gospel group on the famed Stax label.

Over the years, he’s merged gospel music with R&B, creating a new sound that others have followed. The Rance Allen Group has recently released a CD and DVD titled “Amazing Grace,” featuring some of their most memorable performances.

But just to give you a sense of how radical Rance Allen’s music was to some back in the day, take a look at a performance captured in the great documentary – I play it all the time – “Wattstax,” where his combination of gospel and R&B turned the L.A. Coliseum upside-down that day. Take a look.

[Film clip of The Rance Allen Group from “Wattstax”]

Tavis: Rance Allen, get down. (Laughter) “Wattstax,” anybody who’s a music lover who has not seen – if they ain’t seen “Wattstax” yet, they ain’t lived, for one. I mean this. If you don’t have the “Wattstax” DVD in your collection, then you’re shortchanging yourself. You’ve got to get a copy of this.

This is an iconic moment in Black music history, and there you were, as a gospel group, on the stage, as I said, just ripping it at the coliseum. Now, I know the back story on this. You almost didn’t make it that day.

Rance Allen: Almost did not make it.

Tavis: You were – tell me the story right quick.

Allen: The plane left us. We were late; (laughter) the plane left us.

Tavis: That’s how that works, you know?

Allen: That’s how that works.

Tavis: If you don’t show up, they leave.

Allen: If you don’t show up, they leave.

Tavis: Yeah, yeah.

Allen: And instead of going back home, me and the brothers, we decided to pray, and man, you know who I am spiritually, so I believed in my soul God sent that plane back so we could get on it, make that show, and even 40 years later, I am still amazed when I see that clip.

Tavis: So the plane took off – and the plane literally came back.

Allen: The reason why it came back, it had problems with its toilets. (Laughter)

Tavis: The plane took off to get you here just in time for your performance.

Allen: That’s right.

Tavis: You weren’t going to make it.

Allen: Wasn’t going to make it.

Tavis: Had a problem with the toilet in the air. It turned back around. Y’all prayed that plane back on the ground.

Allen: Prayed it back on the ground.

Tavis: Yeah, and it took back off again, and you got on stage.

Allen: Yes, sir. And on top of that, we were scheduled for coach, but when it came back and we got on it, we rode first class.

Tavis: Look at God, look at God. You got in first class and came to L.A.

Allen: Got in first class.

Tavis: Yeah. This is a conversation that folk inside the gospel music arena have talked about for years, and that is the push-back that you originally got because of your sound.

Allen: Yes.

Tavis: Now what’s ironic about it, I literally walked into the studio today, went into the makeup room, as I always do, to see Sheila, my makeup artist.

Allen: Yes.

Tavis: I walk in, and Sheila was bumping Fred Hammond. Everybody loves Fred Hammond.

Allen: Everybody.

Tavis: We all love Kirk Franklin.

Allen: All of us do.

Tavis: We love Smokie Norful; we love – just run – Vickie – just run the list. Winans, Bebe and CeCe, all of them.

Allen: Love them all.

Tavis: But before all of them, and I love them all, you were really changing the sound. The message was there, but you had a different sound. But you got a lot of push-back for what now we think of as commonplace in (unintelligible) music.

Allen: Commonplace, yeah. Well, when we started, gospel music was somewhat restricted, whereas sound was concerned. You couldn’t push the parameter, shall I say.

Myself, my brothers, Tom and Steve, man, we lived in Monroe, Michigan, about 33 miles south of Detroit. Motown was in Detroit, and we were like young teenagers just holding on to the fence waiting for the next 45 to come out.

Because we were raised in a church, where we had to go every night, our grandmother saw it necessary that we do something musically with our gifts, such as singing and playing, to keep us interested in the church.

So we started playing some of those Motown songs during the service. The only thing different would be that I would, my brothers sometimes would help me, we’d change the words, the lyrics to the songs.

Tavis: You kept the groove.

Allen: Kept the groove.

Tavis: But you changed the words.

Allen: (Singing) My God, mmm. You know? (Laughter) Loving you can do (unintelligible) to my God.

Tavis: To my God.

Allen: My God.

Tavis: I got you, I got you, I got you. (Laughter) How did that go over at the church?

Allen: Now my grandmother and the people at our church, which was a family church; we had a crowd if we had 25 people in church – they would, oh, man, they would have fits over it. They loved it.

Back in the day, we were in a church building, no air, so the windows were up, screens were in. People would be lined up all around the building, looking through the screens, but they wouldn’t come to church. They’d just listen to us through the screens.

But when we took that music out of Monroe, even to progressive places like Detroit, especially in that day, our spirits were bruised, because we got put out of a couple of churches.

I can remember clearly, like it happened yesterday, we were in Chicago and I did a song called “What is This,” real bluesy, and when we got done, somebody yelled out from the audience, “If I wanted to hear the blues, I’d have went to the club.”

I’m a very tender-hearted person by nature, and I was going to either do one of two things – I was going to either cry, or God was going to do something whereby I would know that I was in the center of his will, and I’d keep going.

He did. He let me know – well, basically, the person got up, walked out, and five other people came in and took that seat and other seats.

So that was God saying to me, you know, you’re going to run into some of this, and you haven’t even experienced some of the things that you’re going to have to go through. But it’s all for the sake of my will being accomplished.

Tavis: Tell me about this voice, because there are a number of things about you that stand out when it comes to your gift, and one of them is the distinctive nature of your voice. I take it that in Monroe you weren’t taking voice lessons.

Allen: No. (Laughs)

Tavis: So how did you perfect this thing? Because when you hear Rance Allen’s voice, you know it’s Rance Allen, and you can get down, you can hit that falsetto, you can go anywhere you want to go with this instrument. How did you perfect this?

Allen: Being in church every night, you got to get good at what you do. My brothers and I, we were (unintelligible) literally Sunday through Sunday, and that vocal, I don’t know what you would call it, but whatever it is that you’re hearing, came over a great period of time of me trying to do the lead plus the background as I heard it in my ear.

My brothers were helping me with background parts and all, but it just seemed to me like still wasn’t enough of us to really round out the sound that I was looking for.

So I would be singing tenor one second and then jump up to a falsetto the next second, plus there were only three instruments. I was on guitar, my brother Tom was on drums, Steve was on bass, and I kept hearing piano licks or horn licks, and I kept trying to throw them in as we were singing.

But I was throwing them in with my voice, and then next thing you know, (sings). (Laughter)

Tavis: That’s what I’m talking about right there. (Laughter) I can remember like it was yesterday – there are two or three people that I got turned on to because of my father. I adore to this very day and always will, I adore Muhammad Ali.

Allen: Yes, sir.

Tavis: Because he never lied to the American people.

Allen: Yes, sir.

Tavis: Whatever you think of Ali, he never lied.

Allen: On top of that, he truly is –

Tavis: And he is the greatest of all time.

Allen: – the greatest, yeah.

Tavis: So my dad was an Ali fan. I used to sit on the living room floor with my dad and watch Ali’s fights, and that’s how I fell in love with Ali, and I could never imagine in my lifetime I’d end up being a friend of Muhammad Ali.

One of those other persons was Rance Allen. My dad, and I hope he’s watching –

Allen: Oh my God.

Tavis: – I hope he’s watching. I assume he is, back in Indiana. My dad was the biggest Rance Allen fan. I’m talking about back in the day when you had the reel-to-reel.

Allen: Yeah.

Tavis: He was rocking Rance Allen on the reel-to-reel, he was rocking Rance Allen on the 8-track.

Allen: On the 8-tracks.

Tavis: And my dad loved you so much, and I said, “Who is this Rance Allen?” So my dad introduced you to me, and I get such a kick now out of being your friend and how things have worked out all these years.

But I was in the choir at my church, and I loved the stuff that you did. But I could never understand how it is that you knew that the funky bass lines, or that the horns, or that all the stuff that you put on your music, how you knew that all of that would work on a gospel track.

Allen: I don’t know if I can actually say that I was certain myself that I knew. I just did it all by what I heard and what I felt. I felt like what I heard was natural, but what I felt was coming from God, and man, when they would bring musicians in and bass playing guys would go to popping and thumping, and the drummers really laying down that two-four, and here, oh, man.

Tavis: Just hearing it.

Allen: I was, oh my God, I was somewhere else. It just blew me away, and in here, God is saying to me, “How you like that? Take that out there, let them hear that. Let the gospel world hear that.” Man, you could talk about me, say whatever you want to say about me, but by that time I knew that I was going somewhere, and God was leading me there.

Tavis: How did you though not get discouraged? How did you not quit, because there were people who were pushing back, people who wouldn’t give it radio play, people who kicked you out of certain churches. How did you not quit? How did you not get discouraged?

Allen: Man, I loved what I was doing and still love it today. You want to get me excited right quick? Let me walk up in a place and see people waiting to hear me sing something. Something happens on the inside, and it (makes noise). (Laughter) It shows up on the outside. I’m like Ali – let me at them.

Tavis: Yeah, let me at them, yeah. (Laughter) How then did you end up going from being an artist, and an awfully good one, an artist, to being a minister of the gospel?

Allen: Minister of the gospel came first.

They tell me I was about four years old, and I went to my grandmother and said, “I want to preach.” Boy, did she ever take me serious, because by the time I was five, I had preached my first sermon, and by the time I was six or seven I was preaching in areas such as Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.

My grandmother still lives within me today. She was probably the greatest promoter that I’ve ever had. Every morning when I got up to go to elementary school, (laughs) she’d say, “You going to preach for me before you go?”

I said, “Yes,” (hums). “The Lord didn’t listen, God didn’t (unintelligible).” “Okay, baby. Go on to school, I’ll see you this, when you get home.” So I preached before I went to school, and I come home one day and she’s got an outfit laid out for me.

She said, “This is what you’re going to preach in,” and it was a top hat, like Fred Astaire (unintelligible).”

It was a cutaway tux, white gloves, and for years, at least five years, whenever I went to preach, that’s what I wore. She wanted me to be dressed in a way to get attention, because my grandmother truly, truly loved the Lord, and she loved the preaching ministry.

I would walk into these churches and the kids, they didn’t know me; they would just bust out laughing. (Laughs)

Tavis: Bust out laughing, yeah.

Allen: Right. But by the time I got through – I went through that same syndrome that you probably have heard other boy preachers talk about. I’d be in the pulpit, preaching, and my eyes are locked on my grandmother.

If she felt like I had done enough to where I should be able to “bust this house wide open,” she’d look at me and with one hand, and she’d say (gestures with hand). And I’d say (makes noise, hums). (Laughter) People would (unintelligible).

Tavis: How did you come to end up being raised by your grandmother?

Allen: My mom and my dad – okay, now you’ve got to picture this.

Tavis: Right.

Allen: My grandmother lives here. There’s a driveway. My mother lived there. On this side of my grandmother there’s a driveway. My great-grandmother lived there.

Tavis: So three houses right next to each other.

Allen: Right, in a row. Right next to each other. And my mom and dad were having some kind of marital problems, and my mother brought me over to her mother’s house and said, “Mother, could you keep Rance for this weekend? Tommy and I are trying to work out some things,” and my grandmother said, “Sure.”

Grandmother went to loving on me so tough, see, because I was the only one in her house, the only child in her house, which affected her, and me too. But in my mother’s house, there was like four or five at that time.

She came back to get me that following Monday, and they tell me that I just went off on them. I just started crying, and “I don’t want to go, let me stay,” and so my mother said, “Well, since we’re living right here, basically together, we’ll let him stay another few days.”

My dad tried to come get me the next time. He couldn’t get me. So next thing you know, the decision was made – (laughter) we’ll let Rance stay here with you.

Tavis: Your mama was right across the driveway.

Allen: She’s right across.

Tavis: But you lived with your grandmama.

Allen: That’s it.

Tavis: That’s funny.

Tell me about this new project, “Amazing Grace,” and how it is after all these years that you’re still finding stuff that interests you to do.

Allen: Oh, “Amazing Grace,” as most singers will tell you, that the latest piece of music that they have out just somehow, some way, automatically becomes the greatest piece of music that they’ve ever done.

Tavis: That’s how that works.

Allen: So – that’s how that works. (Laughter)

Tavis: The latest is the greatest.

Allen: Yeah.

Tavis: That’s true for all artists. (Laughter)

Allen: Yes. The Lord will do something to inspire me, and in this case, he inspired me with the song “Amazing Grace.” I’m sitting and I’m thinking, you’ve been doing this for 40-plus years. It has helped to keep your family together, you and your wife, your ministry, your church, your brothers, and that’s amazing.

And here you are, you’re 60 and none of your business years old. (Laughter) But I’m up there. Again, man, this is amazing. People still want to hear you.

And watch this – you got fans that are as young as three years old being brought to concerts by their grandparents. So this is amazing. So I told the Lord, I said, “Lord, you know I’ve always been considered the contemporary guy. ‘Amazing Grace’ is the old song.”

The Lord spoke it to me very clear. He says, “Sing it the way it was written for at least a verse,” and he says, “Before you get to the end, I’m going to let you put a little Rance Allen Group twist on it.” So that’s how that song came to be.

Tavis: How that song came to be, yeah.

Allen: But there is some music on there, Tavis, that is so great. I’m thankful to everybody who had anything to do with it. One of the problems with Rance Allen’s music, sometimes it takes a while to get to the people who really appreciate it the most. But there again, we’ve been doing it over 40 years.

Tavis: How blessed do you feel to have been doing this for four decades and to be able to do it with your brothers?

Allen: Oh, man. I don’t know – well, when I was with Bishop GE Patterson, I learned a word to always put before blessing, and the word is “bountifully.” So I’m bountifully blessed.

Tom Allen, my older brother, Steve Allen, he’s right beneath me, these boys have stuck with their brother so many years. That doesn’t mean that we haven’t had our fights.

Tavis: Sure, sure, sure.

Allen: But it does mean that because of the blood flowing through us, the ending of a fight makes the future even better. So where’s the camera that I can look at them?

Tavis: Right there.

Allen: Tom, Steve – man, I love you guys. You are my heart. I thank God for you. Oh, wait, can I do one more?

Tavis: Sure, go ahead.

Allen: Ms. Ellen Allen (laughter) – that’s my wife.

Tavis: (Unintelligible) Ellen Allen.

Allen: Baby, baby, I love you. (Laughter) Ellen Allen.

Tavis: That’s cute, I love it. Ellen Allen’s husband is a guy named (laughter) Rance Allen, and he is at the head of The Rance Allen Group, and has been for over four decades now.

Again, I’ll close tonight where I began – if you do not have the “Wattstax” documentary in your library, get it, number one, and while you’re at it, pick up anything that has the name Rance Allen on it.

You want to experience gospel music in a way that will move you; you’ll want to get anything that has his name on it. But the latest from The Rance Allen Group is called “Amazing Grace.” Rance Allen, I love you, I’m honored to have you on this program, and thank you for coming out to see us.

Allen: Thank you.

Tavis: Good to have you here.

Allen: Thank you, thank you so much.

Tavis: My pleasure. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

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Last modified: July 4, 2013 at 12:37 pm