"I'm from a Mississippi momma," Evelyn Turrentine-Agee told the audience of several hundred Sunday afternoon during her emotion-charged ninety-minute performance at Good Hope Baptist Church. "My momma and daddy had eighteen children." The Detroit-based gospel singer went on to talk about how the family was so poor that, while she was growing up in St. Louis, her mother would feed them with trays of home-baked biscuits with sugar-water syrup and some fatback grease to give the meal a meaty taste. Turrentine-Agee also said that she and her husband have 11 living children and 54 grandchildren.
Good Hope pastor Joe L. Smith normally books leading male quartets such as the Mighty Clouds of Joy and the Gospel Keynotes to appear at his East Oakland church, but Sunday was Mother's Day and he instead presented three groups featuring mostly women. The First Ladies, a sextet of local Baptist preachers' wives, opened the program with three selections that were rough around the edges but rife with spirit. They were followed by the Miller Singers, four sisters from Stockton whose lead vocalist, Sherrill Easter, bounced up and down the aisles while singing in throaty alto tones to the unrelenting 2/4 shout beat of a four-man rhythm section. She remained in motion after telling the audience that she'd had hip-replacement surgery and began lifting her legs even higher. "I got a brand-new walk," she wailed over her sisters' repeated chant of "saved and sanctified." The musicians kept the groove going even after the women left the stage, and guitarist Thomas Smith Jr. took a turn in the aisles, picking molten shards of blue notes as he pranced.
Turrentine-Agee opened last year at the church for the Mighty Clouds of Joy and was back this year as headliner. One of the most dynamic singers in African-American gospel music, she is billed as "the Queen of Quartet." Although she and her four backup singers, which include her son Harold and daughter Chara, do not technically qualify as a quartet — an overwhelmingly male genre — they have found fame with quartet fans by appearing in recent years on bills with such top quartets as the Clouds and Lee Williams and the Spiritual QC's. Indeed, her current Shanachie CD, There's Gonna Be a Meeting, was produced by guitarist Al Hollis of the Spiritual QC's.
Wearing a loose-fitting canary yellow dress, her auburn hair pulled back tightly into a bun, Turrentine-Agee shared some recent misfortunes with the audience after opening her set with a rendition of the slow, reverent "Welcome Holy Spirit," filled with cascading curlicues and dramatic pauses. Just the night before, upon arriving in Los Angeles for a concert, she explained, the promoter told her, "There ain't no money." And three weeks earlier in Detroit, she'd had "major surgery." Her doctor advised her not to go back on the road, but she didn't listen.
"I expect the impossible today," she said, adding, "I'm gonna shut up, 'cause you know I'm glad to be here — cancer free."
Sitting down in a chair in front of her singers, Turrentine-Agee sang "There's a Meeting (Over Yonder)" in remarkably pliant contralto tones, alternately raspy and clear. She rocked back and forth in place to her four-man band's gentle shuffle beat, lifting her feet to the line, I'm gonna wear my golden slippers. The tempo quickened for "Work It Out," which guitarist Morris Sanders Jr. kicked off with a blistering blues lead. Turrentine-Ageee broke the first word — He'll — into four descending syllables as she began her testimony in song, eventually turning the vocal mic over to her leather-lunged son Harold. Holy Ghost fervor began taking hold in the crowd. Women danced in the aisles, and children stood to rattle their tambourines.
Harold Turrentine took the helm for the next three selections as his mother beamed with admiration. The other vocalists chanted, I'm gonna trust in the Lord, their harmonies filled with subtle crescendos as he moved effortlessly between a raspy low tenor and a stratospheric falsetto. His songs, including "I Will Trust in the Lord" and "Amazing Grace," soon turned to testimony about how he had once attempted suicide after his wife left him and how he had been illiterate, even after graduating high school, until the Holy Ghost miraculously gave him the gift of reading.
His mother was soon back on her feet, crying out, seemingly uncontrollably, in high-pitched shrieks. "I wasn't afraid when I went under the knife," she said of her cancer surgery. "I'm glad I've been born again."
Sitting back down, Turrentine-Agee closed out the set with "God Did It," the hit that finally propelled the veteran recording artist into the national spotlight a dozen years back. Everything that happened to me that was good, God did it, she sang over her band's rousing shout beat. Spiritual pandemonium broke out in the building. Members of the audience screamed with joy, their arms flailing as they danced in place and in the aisles.
What's His name? Turrentine-Agee sang, her voice soaring with passion, to which her singers answered in fervent harmony, "Jesus!"