The Famous Gay Sisters (comprised of Geraldine Gay and the late Mildred Gay and Evelyn Gay), along with their kid brother, Donald Gay, aka Preacher Gay or The Boy Preacher) were one of Gospel's mainstays through the 1950s and 60s, recording not only for Savoy Records, but also Checker, Dolphin, Decca, Davis, Regent and Faith labels, among others.
Among their hits were "God Will Take Care Of You", " We're Gonna Have A Good Time" and "I'm A Soldier", imprinted into memory by all who heard them, by way of Geraldine Gay's and Evelyn Gay's raucous piano stylings, and Mildred's powerful soprano. Many of these tunes are still popular today witness Fred Hammond's Somethin' 'Bout Love album, in which he breaks into the 'old church classic' "I'm A Soldier".)
The Famous Gay Sisters wielded considerable influence among their peers, working with Mahalia Jackson (Donald Gay at age 7, and his older sisters appeared with Jackson at Carnegie Hall), The Clara Ward Singers, The Soul Stirrers, Jessy Dixon, The Staple Singers and many, many others.
In The Right Hands calls on several sanctified Chicago keyboardists, including Jessy Dixon, Nash Shafer and Geraldine Gay, with Donald Gay Sr. providing vocals for several songs.
GOSPELflava.com: Notwithstanding its historical importance, In The Right Hands is simply an incredible recording. What does the new album mean to you, personally?
Donald Gay Sr.: This recording marks a brand new decade of music for us, a new and innovative period for us. The last time we recorded was with Anthony Heilbut, back in 1993 (for some sides of the Soul Of Chicago project on Shanachie Records). This is regeneration for us.
The last time Geraldine and I did a record together was 1967 for Chess Records. We did two sides, "Let Me Alone Let Me Be", "He's Calling Me", which was on the B side. Back then we had Lee Charles (a member of The James Cleveland Singers), and Imogene Greene, as backup singers. Geraldine played piano, Jessy Dixon played organ with Louis Saterfield on bass later on he went on to play trombone with Earth, Wind and Fire. Al Duncan was on drums.
So when this new opportunity came along, I was ecstatic. I was supposed to just be a guest soloist, to accompany my sister, but she asked me to come along to sing on several of the songs, so it truly was as spur of a moment thing.
GOSPELflava.com: You cover several hits from The Famous Gay Sisters on the recording. Obviously these songs are now integral to the Gay Family.
Donald Gay Sr.: "God Shall Wipe Away All Tears", that was Evelyn's song. Mildred sang it on the God Will Take Of You album (released in 1951), so I’ve always known the song. "That's What I Like About Jesus", that was another one of Evelyn Gay's compositions. Then "I Have A Friend", this was a song
We had already two songs in the can, "I Have A Friend" was already on tape. The producer, Steven Dollins. heard us sing, and he said "I’d like for you to sing that song", and so we just booked another studio date.
GOSPELflava.com: You began singing Gospel on stage at a very early age. Can you outline some of the highlights for you?
Donald Gay Sr.: I started singing with The Gay Sisters in their heyday, and started traveling with them. When I was 6, we were at Carnegie Hall with Mahalia Jackson. They would sing, they would bring me on, and say "we brought our brother with us", and I would sing by myself. One of my great songs back then was "I'm Getting Nearer to My Home".
I started preaching when I was three years old. I was a bit of a child prodigy, and was the first Black to be on Joe Kelly’s Quiz Kids, which was filmed out of The Garrick Theatre by CBS.
When I traveled with my sisters, they would sing and I would deliver my sermonette. One time I recall, I came on to preach, and the theme I used was “you can’t take it with you”. Well, we were getting ready to get paid, and the promoter took the money with him. That was in Mobile, Alabama.
GOSPELflava.com: How do you describe the work of your sister, Geraldine Gay?
Donald Gay Sr.: Geraldine is a performance piano player, that is my own particular dissertation on that. Some play, and some perform. Geraldine is a stylist. To sing with Geraldine, well, she will accompany you, but she has so many different styles, so you have to constantly pay attention to her. You may have a way worked out in your mind, but she may play it a different way!
She's a virtuoso. Sister Rosetta Tharpe's mother, Mother Katie Bell Nubin, was staying at our house. My mother, Mother Gay, she said, "Mother Bell, I want you to pray for me that my daughter would play like Rosetta plays the guitar." So Geraldine was born, and she began playing piano with no lessons. Evelyn, she took lessons. Evelyn was the oldest, and Gerladine was the youngest.
GOSPELflava.com: How important do you think it is that the Gospel community of today keep connected with their pioneers.
Donald Gay Sr.: Oh, I think it is very important, especially in order to fully understand how the music has evolved. One of the great singers of the past decades, the father of modern phrasing, is Sam Cooke. He was a great pioneer, but you seldom have any of the young people hear anything about him. A lot of the quartet singers too Claude Jeter, who is still alive, from The Swan Slivertones he was very innovative. The young peole don’t even know who these people are. The paved the way. It is very important to remember the past, or else we lose touch with a lot of our basics.
When it comes down to our Gospel music, it's good to hold on to the new, but hold on to the basics as well, don't let that die. Many of the youth don’t know any of the old songs, but these are the songs that can tell you where you come from, such as Herbert Brewster's "How I Got Over". These are things you need to know.
Another example is Eugene Smith, one of the original pioneers, an original member of The Roberta Martin Singers ( and writer of "I Know the Lord Will Make A Way"). He has a wealth of information to share. And Little Lucy Smith, who used be with The Roberta Martin Singers, There are not too many of them around any more. We do need to preserve our treasures.
So Geraldine Gay is an important artist whose work needs to be preserved. If enough people open their doors, maybe they will be able to provide a means to that.
GOSPELflava.com: Listening to In The Right Hands, it is clear that your own vocal style is distinct. There's no missing it. Who do you claim as your vocal influences?
Donald Gay Sr.: One of the great influences, as far as gospel, is Sam Cooke of course. He sang a great deal, and I was moved by him. I remember sitting in a radio station many years ago, when he had just changed over from pop to R&B. Robert Anderson, I enjoyed him. James Lennox, another great singer. And another guy, Romance Watson, who sang with The Roberta Martin Singers.
Gospelflava.com: It seems that an everlasting refrain in Gospel music is the degree of controversy that it generates in the church. I understand that with respect to The Gay Sisters, and yourself as well, there were those upset that your sound had a 'bluesy' feel to it. Was that style a purposed thing, or was it just simply the way that you and your sisters sang it?
Donald Gay Sr.: As far as my style is concerned, I just sing by the inspiration of the Spirit. I listen to my sister and how she lays down her piano line, and I just put it together. She plays by inspiration, and I sing by inspiration. If it comes out blues, quote unquote, then that is just the way it is. I’m just a gospel singer.
GOSPELflava.com: One often hears about the particular challenges that face a 'child star' as they grow older. Was that something that you encountered as well?
Donald Gay Sr.: Really, the only challenge was to get recorded. Or to get somebody to listen to you, to get on a label, to get the general public just to be heard, just to get out there. And it’s still basically the same today. In the Gospel business, not too many singers were there to give you the opportunity to get noticed. A lot of artists have been selfish, there's a lot of insecurity out there.
But that's what I appreciate about Jessy Dixon. He stands above the crowd, and has always been one more than willing to provide you with opportunities to be heard.
GOSPELflava.com: Any final thoughts on the In The Right Hands album?
Donald Gay Sr.: I think everybody should just take a listen to it. It's a very innovative, very creative piece of work. There are great piano layers and songs from some of the best songwriters of this and the past century. Jessy Dixon is a fabulous writer, just fabulous, and Geraldine is tops in her particular style.
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