Pastor T.L. Barrett's Five Decades Spent As A Current For Our Sails

Originally published on September 30, 2021 1:15 pm

"I grew into love of my music and of my ministry because it was actually a way out," says Pastor T.L. Barrett, Jr. in an interview with NPR's Mary Louise Kelly. Barrett, now 77 years old, recalls his difficult youth; as a teenager, he turned to songwriting to express himself. And 50 years ago, in the years following the Civil Rights movement, he released his classic album, Like a Ship (Without a Sail). The title track described how he was feeling at the time.

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"Ships carry cargo, much needed cargo. The commerce and industry depends on ships and trucks to ferry cargo from port to port. But if they don't have a sail, if they don't have a means of navigation and motivation, they're just out there in the water — and that's how I was ... like a ship without a sail," Barret says. "But I knew I could make it with the power and the presence of god in me. I knew that no matter what life brought to me I could take it, and if it was negative, I could shake it off. And I put those words to music."

In the 1970s and '80s, the pastor rewrote the rules of gospel, with songs like the transcendental "Wonderful." In recent years, his recordings have been sampled by hip-hop artists, such as Kanye West and DJ Khaled. And last week, his collected work was reissued in a box set called I Shall Wear a Crown.

Listen to Mary Louise Kelly's interview with Pastor T.L. Barrett in the audio player above, and stream Barrett's latest collection below.

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(SOUNDBITE OF PASTOR T.L. BARRETT AND THE YOUTH FOR CHRIST CHOIR SONG, "WONDERFUL")

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Pastor T.L. Barrett's songs rewrote the rules of gospel in the 1970s and '80s; like this song. It's called "Wonderful."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WONDERFUL")

T L BARRETT: (Singing) He is wonderful.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

More recently, Barrett's recordings have been sampled by rappers like Kanye West and T.I. And last week, his collected work was reissued in a box set called "I Shall Wear A Crown."

KELLY: A few weeks ago, I reached the pastor, now 77 years old, in the sanctuary of The Life Center Church of God in Christ. That's in Chicago, and it's where he preaches every Sunday morning and Wednesday night.

BARRET: I'd seen some colored windows. It's one of the most beautiful sanctuaries in Chicago - anywhere, really (laughter).

KELLY: As Barrett was telling me this, his wife walked by. And then we got the full story of why this church, known as the Prayer Palace, looks the way it does.

BARRET: When I built this church, I said, what would she look like if she were a building? And that's - this is what came to my mind.

KELLY: And Barrett didn't only want to build a beautiful building, he wanted to repair his community - the south side of Chicago.

BARRET: It was called the hole. That's how awful it was and enigmatic it was. But we had faith in the power and the presence of God within us and that we could turn this community around. And now, it is one of the most enviable communities to live in in the city of Chicago.

KELLY: Barrett's music is intertwined with the story of Chicago, and gospel offered an escape to him when he was dismissed from high school.

BARRET: And the guidance counselor who told me - the last thing she told me was, and I just want you to know, T.L. Barrett, Jr., you will never, ever amount to anything. And I just decided that I would not allow her negative opinion to become my positive fact.

KELLY: Do you remember your earliest memory, earliest encounter, singing or hearing it?

BARRET: Yes. Well, the earliest memory was of my father putting us into a singing group called the Barrett Singers. I was 3 years old. And then I - of course, in my teenage years and after they put me out of school, I turned to writing music to express my pathos.

KELLY: Yeah.

BARRET: And as a result, I wrote a song called "Like A Ship." I don't know if you're familiar with that.

KELLY: Well, that's the one - if people know your music, they know it.

BARRET: (Laughter) Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIKE A SHIP")

PASTOR T L BARRETT AND THE YOUTH FOR CHRIST CHOIR: (Singing) Just like a ship without a sail.

BARRET: Like a ship without a sail - that's how I was. Ships carry cargo. But if they don't have a sail, if they don't have a means of navigation and motivation, they're just out there in the water. And that's how I was, like a ship without a sail.

But I knew I could make it. With the power and the presence of God in me, I knew that no matter what life brought to me, I could take it. And if it was negative, I could shake it off. And I put those words to music. And I went back and harnessed a lot of young people from those schools, that same school that put me out.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIKE A SHIP")

PASTOR T L BARRETT AND THE YOUTH FOR CHRIST CHOIR: (Singing) I sailed for pleasure, but I found pain.

KELLY: This was 1971 - right? - 50 years ago now...

BARRET: Yeah. Yeah.

KELLY: ...That "Like A Ship" came out, that you released it.

BARRET: Yeah.

KELLY: And I'm thinking about that moment in this country, you know, when everyone had just lived through the hugely consequential years of the civil rights movement and the leadership and then the loss of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

BARRET: Yes.

KELLY: How did you find that song resonating where you were, south side of Chicago?

BARRET: Yeah. I was a newly elected pastor in 1968. That's when I started my ministry.

KELLY: Wow. What a moment.

BARRET: Right. So I had not put out any music yet, but I was writing. And I gained a lot of fame and notoriety by going on the radio and giving people hope, giving them a will to repair out of their despair and showing them that it can happen. And that's what that flagship song was about - if we can make it, and we can take it.

KELLY: In recent years has come a twist that I don't know if you were expecting, which is your work has gotten really popular. Kanye West has sampled it in the song "Father Stretch My Hands."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FATHER STRETCH MY HANDS PT. 1")

KID CUDI: (Singing) Beautiful morning, you're the sun in my morning, babe. Nothing unwanted...

KANYE WEST: (Singing) I just want to feel liberated.

BARRET: (Singing) Who can I turn to? After all, who can I turn to if I don't turn to you? No other help I know. I stretch my hands.

KELLY: I'm curious how that came to be. Did they come to you? Did you come to them? What happened?

BARRET: No. When I found out about it, it was already trending. I don't know how Kanye heard my song, heard my music, but I know he grew up in Chicago. And I've been well-known in Chicago for many years, so it could be that he was just aware of my music.

KELLY: Do you mind or are you just happy to be - have it out there?

BARRET: Oh, I'm happy to have it out there. Plus, according to the rules and regulations of BMI, every time my music is played, I must be paid because I'm a registered artist with BMI. I mean, it's just trendy.

KELLY: Yeah. Did you ever think that's...

BARRET: It's almost like buried treasure.

KELLY: ...That's where you would find yourself in 2021 - trending on the charts?

(LAUGHTER)

BARRET: Right. I didn't know when, but I knew that something good that God gave me would come to fruition. I just knew.

KELLY: Do you listen to Kanye's music? Have you heard those gospel albums?

BARRET: Yes, I've listened to them. And I approve of what I have heard. Kanye is a musical genius.

KELLY: Amazing. How big is that church in terms of what you would count as gospel music?

BARRET: Well, you see, I think that the time is going to come when the wall separating secularism and gospel or religion will be torn down because the concept of that old-time religion is kind of fading. Actually, the meaning of the word gospel is good news. And good news does not have to be defined nor confined by or to any specific religion. Good news is what mankind needs to hear. So whether it is badged as gospel or rock gospel or hip-hop gospel, it's all good news.

KELLY: I love that.

(SOUNDBITE OF PASTOR T.L. BARRETT SONG, "MEDLEY")

KELLY: Thank you so much. This has been a pleasure.

BARRET: Thank you.

KELLY: That is Pastor T.L. Barrett, Jr., speaking with us about his new box set, a collection spanning a lifetime of gospel. It's titled "I Shall Wear A Crown."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MEDLEY")

YOUTH FOR CHRIST CHOIR: (Singing) I know the Lord, He heard my cry. And every... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.