Pastor Donald Gay had long been a fan of pianist Elsa Harris before they met in the 1980s. Now, more than 30 years later, Gay and Harris have released new gospel albums on the same label, on the same day.
Gay’s baritone can be heard on On A Glorious Day, and Harris’ piano is front and center on I Thank God.
“Elsa has always been right there on top of it,” Gay said. “She’s the type of person that you can put her into any particular predicament as far as music is concerned, and she’ll pick it up.”
Gay and Harris released their respective 14-track albums on The Sirens Records, a small label based in suburban Highland Park that specializes in under-the-radar Chicago jazz, blues and gospel. Founder Steven Dolins said the albums are a “labor of love.”
“The common theme is gospel music should be better recognized than it is,” Dolins said. “They’ve been taken for granted.”
Ties to the golden age of gospel
Gospel has deep roots in Chicago — Thomas Dorsey, the “father of gospel,” plied his trade during the 1940s and 1950s, as did many of the greats from Mahalia Jackson to Sam Cooke.
Gay is one of the last living links to Chicago’s golden age of gospel music. In 1952, when he was 6, he performed with his three older sisters at Carnegie Hall. The gospel trio The Gay Sisters had a series of hits at that time, including “God Will Take Care of You” and “We’re Gonna Have a Good Time.”
“I was always just enamored by [my sisters] and wanted to sing,” Gay said. “I think it’s always been kind of natural.”
Gay said he could have pursued music full time, but instead chose to dedicate his life to the church. He leads the congregation at West Woodlawn’s Prayer Center Church of God in Christ, which was founded in 1959 by his mother, Fannie Gay.
“We were always taught that if you put the Lord first, there’s always a blessing in store,” Gay said. “I don’t regret being in the church and singing for the Lord. I’ve had a lot of opportunities.”
Still, Gay laments how the gospel genre has changed “a great deal” in the last few decades to appeal to a more mainstream audience.
“Young people are forgetting our own music,” he said. “It’s changed so dramatically, and some of the songs now … sometimes you think you’re hearing them sing love songs. And then just as a forte they’ll say ‘Jesus’ or ‘Him.’ I think gospel should stay within the framework that it was started.”
The importance of reading music
Harris said she developed an ear for music at an early age. Her mother bought an old piano off the street for $5 and enrolled her in classical piano lessons when she was 5.
“But it helped me — even with half the keys missing,” she said. “I took it on through college, and I’m grateful today that I do know note reading.”
By 23, Harris became a founding member of the Jessy Dixon Singers group. They toured and recorded for more than two decades, including eight years working with Paul Simon. Now, she regularly travels to Scandinavia to help train gospel choirs.
Harris performed with Gay at the Old Town School of Music this year, and is hoping to take the stage again this summer.
She said Gay has inspired her to start writing a book on easy ear training to teach people how to hone their listening skills and learn to play music on the spot.
“In church, you better know how to do that,” Harris said. “Because they already think you know everything. And if you don’t, the other musicians are going to tell you to move over.”
Nereida Moreno is a producer with The Morning Shift. Follow her on Twitter at @nereidamorenos. Click the “play” button to hear the entire conversation produced by Jason Marck and follow him @jasonmarck.