The Craig Brothers

GOSPELflavaís "Take Me Back" columnist and resident historian, Gregory Gay (read columns), was privileged to talk with Bishop Charles Craig, of the legendary Craig Brothers. Read on to find out their fascinating background, from the legends themselves.

GOSPELflava.com: You have a great family heritage in Gospel music. Share with us some history of your Dad, Prayer Tabernacle and your relationship with Rev. James Cleveland.

The Craig Brothers Bishop Charles Craig: My dad, Reverend Charles A Craig, Jr. was a musician and songwriter. Dad came to Detroit with Dr. James Lofton and united with the Church Of Our Prayer, which was a mighty, mighty church in Detroit. They had a 500 voice choir. The Church of Our Prayer rivaled Reverend Clarence Cobbís First Church of Deliverance in Chicago (read album review). After Dad and Reverend Lofton severed ties, he opened Prayer Tabernacle Church and joined the Metropolitan Spiritual Churches of Truth under the leadership of Reverend Cobb.

Prayer Tabernacle had a 125-voice choir named The Voices of Tabernacle (VOT). Leslie Bush was the assistant pastor and Rev. James Cleveland became the first minister of music of VOT. Being from Chicago, James knew about First Church of Deliverance and Church of Our Prayer and the rivalry. James had some success recording with Albertina Walker and The Caravans and other groups; he was now concentrating his efforts on the Voices of Tabernacle. The choir caught the attention the HOB record label and they started to record.

Jamesí first bonafide hit was "The Love of God" recorded with the VOT. VOT turned out a number of great soloists including Hulah Gene Dunkin Hurley and her daughter Carolyn, Louise McCord, Richard Roquemore and so many others.

The VOT became the first traveling Gospel choir ever (there was the Wings of Jordan choir, but they mostly sang spirituals.) We were the first traveling Gospel choir that gained notoriety.

Interview with Charles "Volley" Craig (2004)
CD "I have my own aggressive style. I grew up listening to a lot of bass players such as Marcus Miller, John Pattatuci, Leonard Brantly, Steve Huff, Terry Lewis, Andrew Goucheí and a host of others. I created my own style from a compilation of all of those phenomenal bassists..."

Read full intereview.

As kids, our jobs in those days were to hold coats and hats and watch purses when the choir went to sing. We were not allowed to display our talent at that time, my brother and I. We were Dadís guinea pigs at home. When he wrote songs, we would learn the music first and then he would present the songs to the choir. Being on the road with the VOT was different because all we saw on the road was quartets and female groups (the Davis Sisters, The Harmonettes, etc), so the VOT with the beautiful big choir sound was quite different.

We traveled using buses sometimes, but mostly in cars. Carmen Murphy, who headed up the HOB label, started renting station wagons for the choir to travel; we would have a caravan of station wagons traveling up and down the highway and the turnpike. We traveled a lot with the Caravans, the Soul Stirrers, the Highway QCís; and all the big-name quartets at the time.

James was quite an influence on us; he was a godfather to us. As his popularity grew, he eventually left HOB and signed with Savoy. You know the story of him teaming up with Rev Lawrence Roberts and the Angelic Choir. Even as he went and recorded with his group, The Cleveland Singers, and other choirs, he would always come back and do something with the VOT; that relationship never died.

My parents ended up divorcing and my mom moved back to St. Louis. She met her future husband in St. Louis, got married and we moved to Los Angeles. So when James came out to Los Angeles, we were already there.

I got back to Detroit driving with James, Billy Preston and Leslie Parham, the four of us drove back. When James settled in California and started Cornerstone, he would always come to Detroit and spend a week there after his anniversary. Detroit was a special place in Jamesí heart. It was here that the Gospel Music Workshop held its very first convention. In later years, he even contemplated moving back to Detroit.

My dad and Prayer Tabernacle had just as much influence on Rev. Cleveland and his ministry as he had on us. Cornerstone was the West coast Prayer Tabernacle.

The Craig Brothers After James left for California, we had a Minister of Music named Alonzo Atkins. After the demise of my dad, Alonzo went to LA and became the Minister of Muic of Cornerstone. Even the setup of Cornerstone was just like Prayer Tabernacle. When we would go out to Los Angeles, James would always be hospitable and not have us stay at a hotel, he would have us to stay at his home, sometimes waiting up all night until we got in.

GOSPELflava.com: How did you move into taking the reigns of the music ministry at the church and then into your own music ministry without the choir?

Bishop Charles Craig: My dad passed and my uncle David assumed the pastorate of the church. I did a tour of Vietnam and then returned home. Finally, my brother (James Craig) and I took leadership of the choir. The choir continued to record, sometimes with James and sometimes on our own. My brother and I would always do a song on the VOT recordings. They were received well. James would always listen and tell us ďYou all have the potential to really get out there and go it on your own.Ē

Finally, James felt it was time for us and brought us into the Savoy fold. He presented us on our first LP, James Cleveland Presents The Craig Brothers (featuring the hit, ďHeís Always Doing Something Good for MeĒ).

James wrote music for the LP and the album introduced the world to the music styling of Thomas Whitfield. We found Tommy; he was over at one of the big churches, Greater New Mt Moriah Baptist Church. We could get Tommy to come and play for us on Sunday nights for a slab of ribs. Thatís how we hooked up. Tommy had such a unique style and his music was on the cutting edge. Tommy played on another album for us and brought his protťgť, Rudy Stanfield. Then Armen Boladian took notice of Tommy and the Whitfield Companyís recording career began with the Sound of Gospel label here in Detroit. Listening to Rudy play today reminds me so much of Tommy. He is certainly missed and made such an impact on gospel music.

The Craig Brothers with Thomas Whitfield on keyboardWe went on to do three albums for Savoy. The problem with Savoy at the time was they didnít like Tommyís style; it was too contemporary and mellow and they didnít know quite how to push us. James would often say, ďAinít nobody playing all them chords, canít nobody play them chords but him.Ē We also did an album for Jamesí label, King James Records, and then we went on hiatus for 16 years as we moved into the pastorate.

I wanted to concentrate on building the church and it was kind of bad being on the road every week when people needed their pastor. We did keep our name up by appearing on others recordings. Rudy had me on one of his recordings. Then we came up to our latest recording on the DoRohn label.

GOSPELflava.com: What would you say are the differences in the Gospel music of today as opposed to when you first started traveling with the Voices of Tabernacle?

Bishop Charles Craig: Well, all the music back in the day was written out of peopleís experiences. It resonated with the listener and touched the hearts. It was the music that took us through and got us over. Todayís music has more rhythm and syncopation and the message is sometimes lost. I donít have any problem with contemporary music just as long as it has a clearly identifiable message. The Craig Brothers are fine, we can do all types of music and we can hang with the best of them. We are featured often on programs where the contemporary singers go on first and after everyone gets through stomping and dancing and carrying on and then they call the old Craig Brothers and we come and take them to church

GOSPELflava.com: What do you attribute your success and longevity to?

Bishop Charles Craig: Itís simply living the life and putting God first. Back then, we traveled up and down the highway, sometimes not knowing what we were going to be paid or if we were going to be paid at all. I did the Bobby Jones retreat this past year and was a featured panelist with Shirley Caesar, Albertina and others and we were telling people that we traveled in the old days by car (the airplane was almost unheard of), had to sleep in peopleís houses because either the hotels wouldnít let us in or the people bringing us in couldnít afford them, the promoters skipped out in the middle of the program, the house would be packed and the promoters would tell us they didnít make the money. Through all of that , we did it because we loved God and we loved singing Gospel music. Today, I am not so sure if that is the prevailing thought among the artists of today. If the finances are not there, than most of them wonít perform. I honestly donít know if the young people today would have made it back then.

The Craig BrothersWe experience it even as pastors when hiring musicians. A musician will leave you to make 5 dollars more about the road. Itís all about the money, there is no sense of loyalty any more. We were loyal back then; no one was trying to steal anyoneís members from their groups or choirs. Today no one is loyal to anybody. Itís a really different ball game. Before, people joined church on the basis of what they could do for the church and now, itís about what the church can do for them; and if the church doesnít cater to them they donít want to be a part of it.

The other thing is that the Gospel community doesnít pay tribute to the people whose footsteps they are following in. There are so many people who helped to shape Gospel music who have been almost forgotten if not forgotten entirely. This needs to change. I support honoring the people who carried the message and the music. We canít forget from whence we have come. It is the key to where we are going.

GOSPELflava.com: Tell us about the sound of the Craig Brothers and where it originated and who were some of your musical influences.

Bishop Charles Craig: There were originally three of us, my younger brother Thomas passed away at an early age. We were influenced by all of the artists that we saw while traveling with the VOT as well as being under the tutelage of my dad. The Craig Brothersí sound was patterned after another group of brothers out of St. Louis, the OíNeal Twins. They knew us before we were born. My dad was originally from East St Louis, Illinois and my mother from St. Louis. It was in St. Louis that my parents met and married. I was born in St. Louis. The OíNeal Twins were of great encouragement to us in the early days. They never failed to call us and keep our spirits lifted.

When the Gospel singers came to town they came to Prayer Tabernacle and eventually ended up at our house. I vividly remember dinners at our parentís home in Detroit. Today, people are always trying to go to the restaurant. Back in the day, people were happy to go and get a good home-cooked meal. The house would be filled with the Gospel greats. Dad was well known as well. It was nothing for us when we were in Chicago to go to Mahalia Jacksonís house for dinner. Mahalia had a reputation for being a great cook and hostess to the preachers and singers. Mahalia and dad were friends. We were all one big happy gospel music family.

Every Sunday night was like a concert at Prayer Tabernacle. Everyone came to see what the VOT were doing. People like Rev. Charles Nicks before he started pastoring St. James, he would come to Sunday night service at Prayer Tabernacle. He really had my dadís spirit, he was a pastoring organist. My dad was a great organist. Back in the day, he and Rev. Maceo Woods were the kings of the Hammond organ

GOSPELflava.com: Both you and your brother are now in pastoral ministry. How hard is it to keep balance between music and the Word?

Craig Brothers Discography
LP The Craig Brothers have four albums out, in total:

Live In Detroit
Majestic Records, 2006

Christ Won't Fail
Savoy, 1990

He Wants A Place
Savoy, 1982 (SL10642)

James Cleveland Presents: The Craig Brothers; Work On Me Jesus
Savoy, 1980 (SL14590)

Bishop Charles Craig: We have been pastoring for about 23 years. My brother and I started Craig Memorial in January of 1984. My brother serves as the assistant pastor. People still look to us as a music church. We have a balance that my dad didnít have. Whereas Prayer Tabernacle was truly a music church, we have a great balance of music and word. The first year that we started I didnít even put together a mass choir, because I didnít want people to think that we had to sing our way through. We had to prove to the people that we could preach and also that we did know the Word. As much as people love music, we cannot sing our way to heaven. I do know today that there has to be a balance. People need to know and live by the Word of God more than ever before.

GOSPELflava.com: The music tradition passed on to you by your dad has been passed on to your son. Tell us about Volley Craig.

Bishop Charles Craig: Volley started playing drums and piano when he was three years old. My hope was that he would be a great keyboard player. Then he discovered the bass. The first bass I ever bought him met with a horrible fate. This rascal, he tore off all the strings and took the amplifier and hooked it up to his boom box. When I got home and saw what he had done, I was furious. He grew fond of the bass. I had to stay on him because he really didnít want to learn to read music and he hated reading from the bass clef. I didnít let him play anything unless he could read it. I impressed upon him and Tommy and Rudy and all of the musicians that I worked with to learn to read music.

We used to do a lot of work with Motown. I was a music major at Cass Tech High School They would call me to bring some voices down to sing a new Holland Dozier Holland arrangement, they would put the sheet music in front of you and if you couldnít read it you would miss that money. I had to put that in his spirit, because I wanted him to be a versatile musician. The VOT was unique in that we just didnít do Gospel music; we could also do any anthem under the sun. My dad preached to us all the time, that if you Ďre going to have a complete service you need an anthem, a hymn, a Gospel and a spiritual in an effort to meet the needs of all the people in the audience and that is something that we try to preach and teach.

That is one of the reasons Volley can go anywhere you need him to go. I told him whatever you end up, you will not be one dimensional, you will be versatile. He started developing his talent and shaping his craft to where he was good enough and he first went out on the road with The Whitfield Company. Of course, today, you know he has worked with the likes of Puff Daddy and Lilí Kim. My mother-in-law would often get on me ďwhy you letting him go out with them?Ē I told her he needed to get the experience that he could and I assured her the Bible was right. Train them up in the way they should go when they are old they will not depart. Experience is the best teacher; if you donít have a test then you donít have a testimony. Volley has the mind of a great musician.

We donít see everything the same. My dad told me musicians go hungry, go get a job, so I went and got a degree and worked in the Chevrolet office for over 30 years, Volley is a little different from me, he still has stars in his eyes, so we are yet praying for him. He is currently playing with Aretha Franklin, that is what he wants to do and thatís where he wants to be. He is a great musician, thatís for sure. The bible says your gift will make room for you and bring you before great men. I look forward to seeing all the Lord has in store.

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interview by Gregory Gay

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