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 Interview w/ Joe Ligons (Mighty Clouds Of Joy)


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: Joe Ligon

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EMI Gospel

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"In The House Of The Lord"



In The House

Order My Steps

Ride The Mighty High


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It’s been an incredible run for one of Gospel music’s best known and most revered artists of the last half century.  The amazing Mighty Clouds Of Joy have been churning out memorable church music for over 45 years, from their unceremonious days in Southern California to their current status as International pop icons.   

Outlasting legends like The Caravans and Sam Cooke, the Mighty Clouds of Joy are still riding the mighty high and there’s no sign of them losing momentum.  Much like today’s luminaries – Kirk Franklin, Yolanda Adams and Mary MaryJoe Ligon and the Clouds were responsible for making a likeable impression with music fans, who had no affinity nor interest in the church.  Their trendsetting suits and cutting-edge choreography caused a buzz that could be heard from coast to coast.   

Joe Ligon, the heart and soul of the group, has been the unofficial voice and showman of the Mighty Clouds Of Joy, with his gleaming stage presence and tried-and-tested vocals.  With songs like Ride The Mighty High and I’ve Been Through The Storm Too Long, the Clouds have found a diverse audience that includes both glove-wearing Sunday parishioners and i-pod goatee sporting music heads.  Whether you’re a Bible-totin’ believer or a prolific digital downloader, you’ve probably heard a tune from the Clouds that still gets you shoutin’.

BLACKGOSPEL.COM spoke with Joe Ligon, the man who’s given a voice and face to the Clouds since its early days doing the ‘store-front’ church circuit in Los Angeles, California.  His delightful stories and original insights add up to a memorable interview with a living legend.

Christopher Heron: Joe, the first question I’ve got to ask goes back to the late 1950’s when The Mighty Clouds of Joy started with Johnny Martin, Richard Wallace and Elmo Franklin.  All of you came from all parts of the U.S.: Louisiana, Georgia, you, of course, from Alabama, and Johnny from Los Angeles.  What brought the four of you together in Los Angeles?

Joe Ligon: I met another gentleman who went on the road with me; he’s now a professor and a preacher out in California.  I met him in junior high school.  His name was Jerome Brown.  Jerome knew I was a singer so he invited me to rehearsals.  Johnny Martin and I first met at rehearsal.  Now we were all from different groups in Southern California, at the time.  The original Mighty Clouds of Joy consisted of members from three different groups from Los Angeles 

Rich Wallace was singing with his relatives, Johnny Martin was singing with a local group down in Los Angeles, and I had met Jerome Brown in junior high school.  Before we really teamed up as The Mighty Clouds of Joy, we would all sing on the same programs in the city.  We all liked each other and would watch one another.  We picked the best singers from different groups and formed The Mighty Clouds of Joy

CH: Whose idea was it to name the group – The Mighty Clouds Of Joy - and what was the inspiration?

JL: There was an older gentleman who’s deceased by the name of Dale Goldsmith.  He gave me the name because I was the first one to make the record to get us going.  There was another group at that time in Los Angeles called the Clouds of Joy.  So when they quit, he said we shouldn’t just be called Clouds of Joy.  We should be called the Mighty Clouds of Joy.  That is a unique name, when you think about it.  

We started rehearsing two nights a week, and luckily enough, a gentleman who played Gospel music came to our rehearsal one night and heard me sing.  He said, ”My God, you sound wonderful.  You could make it.  Would you like to make a record?”  This was something I had prayed for and I said, “Ooh la.”  He then said, “Cut me a demo.”  We cut a demo on reel-to-reel back in those days and signed on to Peacock Records.  Don Reuben, Houston, Texas, had the big groups like the Blind Boys, Sensational Nightingales and the Dixie Hummingbirds.  Our first record was Steal Away To Jesus.

That record was so good.  It was so different from anything else out there.  People started asking other groups that traveled across the country like The Caravans, The Davis Sisters, The Nightingales and The Blind Boys, “who is that group?” They said that little group is from our label.  We began to get feedback about what the groups were saying.  Promoters started looking for us.  Our big program was in Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina.  It was the anniversary of the famous Dixie Hummingbirds.  It was jam packed; there were 5,000 people there.  The people were saying “Wow, what a group.”  

It began to be said there was a group out of California that was unique.  They move onstage, they dress different - they just got it!

CH: The Mighty Clouds Of Joy formed a reputation not only for being gifted singers, but for having choreographed moves.  You were later dubbed ’The Temptations of Gospel music.’  Who introduced the idea of choreography in your performance?

JL: I did!  We knew we could do everything The Temptations did.  But that’s not the reason I did it.  Our record was Steal Away to Jesus, [sings I ain’t got long to stay here].  We had never heard anyone who did it fast ‘cause most people sing it [he sings the song slow].  We were the first group to sing it fast with the beat.

 I told the guys that since we dance so different, why not do some steps?  So every time we said “Steal away…” we slid to the left, “Steal away…” we slid to the right, “Steal away…” we slid to the left again, come back to the middle then we turned around and came back to the mike.

CH: You guys always did things differently, not only from the way you moved but also using instruments.  In the 70’s, you performed with mainstream artists like Marvin Gaye, The Rolling Stones and Paul Simon.  How was that received?  Did you – Joe - feel comfortable performing with Pop artist, as you did with Gospel artists?

JL: I felt a little different performing with secular artists because I didn’t know what the public was going to say.  We sang with James Brown, Aretha Franklin and the Rolling Stones.  We were used to singing what we sang.  The promoter told us not to worry about it.  He said many doors were going to open.  We started to play at places like Carnegie Hall, Music Hall and the Kennedy Center.  A lot of the R&B audiences saw us.  They went home and said “Mama, we saw a Gospel group and they were different.  They didn’t just stand there and sing; they had choreography!”  Don Cornelius called us to go on Soul Train.  We kind of got in a kettle because we were doing contemporary songs on national TV before it was cool.

CH: Joe, it’s been 45 years as a member of the Mighty Clouds Of Joy and you’re still in the game, as a living legend in Quartet Gospel music.  You’ve been an inspiration to a lot of artists.  Who has been inspirational to you as an artist and as a minister of Gospel music?

JL: There were two of them and both are gone.  Rev. Julius Cheeks, the lead singer for the Sensational Nightingales, was an awesome lead singer, one of the best I’ve ever heard. The other person was Sam Cooke.  Sam was a personal friend of mine; in fact I was with him two nights before he got killed.  He tried to get me into R&B.  I didn’t want to do that; I was far more comfortable singing Gospel music and he understood that.  But Sam Cooke was a Gospel sex symbol; the women went crazy, even when he sang Gospel.  When he went into R&B, I saw he had that personality to work the audience, he had that unique voice.  It was perfect.  When he sang, you could understand every word, crystal clear.  I watched his mannerisms.  He would talk to people; he would talk to everybody.  He wouldn’t hide from you.  He’d sign your autographs.  I said when I get my group I want to be like these guys, lovable, good onstage.  They were different and those two artists were my mentors, Rev. Julius Cheeks and Sam Cooke.  I wanted to be somewhat similar to him but in my own style.

CH: You’ve done some incredible works, you know Grammy award winning albums.  I think of Cloud Burst, God is Not Dead

JL: You know them all!

CH: Yeah, yeah, you know the first one, ‘A Bright Side’ and in later years like Power on Intersound and The Mighty Clouds Above.  You’re on EMI now and you’ve just released your new project – In The House Of The Lord...Live In Houston, your hometown.  Is it still The Mighty Clouds of Joy or are you taking some of what you’re hearing today and reinterpreting it? 

JL: It’s still The Mighty Clouds of Joy, I feel better about this project than I do about any recording in 25 years.  What (Sanchez Harley) said is true. He said “Joe, I’m supposed to produce you on EMI.  I’m going to make you the biggest record you ever had.”  I laughed because we have had some great records.  But you know, now I’m not laughing because the reaction we’re getting from this record, there’s no limit about how big this record can be!

I’m just excited, I haven’t been this excited ‘bout a project with the Clouds in many years.  My whole group is excited, my band is excited.  They want to rehearse.  They are ready to sing and deliver it onstage like we did at the recording.  I’m also glad to hear how you’ve kept up with the Clouds through the years and how you know all our records.  I’m gonna tell you the exact truth, and I don’t know how I mean this.  It feels like we’re going to be reborn.  And you know we’ve done a lot…the Stellars, the Grammys, the Doves.  But it feels like we’re reborn.  I looked at people through the night and saw something that I haven’t seen on people’s face in a long time.  I saw that look!

I saw it years ago; I thought “You see those people, see the reaction?”  It wasn’t like “Oh that’s The Mighty Clouds, I seen them many times, they’re good.  They were like “Wow, this group has re-arrived!”  It’s really exciting, this is going to be good!

CH: It’s been about fifty years for you as an artist and performer.  Do you still get excited singing in front of crowds, still witnessing for the Lord? Or has your performance matured to a point where you take everything in stride?

JL: I feel very energized, even though I have to travel and do interviews in Oklahoma, Virginia, D.C. and Maryland.  When I see the smiles on people’s face, I know we’re doing something special.  I think about all the people who come and say, “I made it through a critical time; I had a little record player and played your music or “When it was your music, I made it through prison.”  One man said, “I was gonna kill myself.  Then I heard somebody in a record saying, ‘I’m now saved, born again and I’m preaching.’”  Things like that to me is better than money.  I just love what I do. That’s the bottom line. For more information on the Mighty Clouds Of Joy, visit www.emigospel.com  


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Posted: May.2005


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