Rev. Robert Ballinger

While he is not widely known today, Rev. Robert Ballinger (sometimes misspelled "Ballenger" in credits) generated considerable excitement in his day, with fiery, blues-laden vocals and rollicking piano style. His body of work may be rather small (comprising only two LPs and a few singles), but the ferocious intensity of his music makes up for that.

Born in Cincinnatti in 1921, Rev. Ballinger grew up in the Church of God in Christ, no doubt honing his formidable keyboard skills with the abundant musical opportunities that the denomination provided. The renowned COGIC musical pioneer Arizona Dranes was clearly an influential figure, with impressions of her pounding ragtime piano and vocal style clearly spilling over into some of Ballinger’s early recorded works.

Little Black TrainBallinger’s style is a combination of infectious, rowdy piano and compelling tenor vocals. Together, his two talents make for some great moments, especially when he put his knack for putting scriptural lyrical quips and zingers to work.

Rev. Ballinger moved from his hometown to spend some time in Detroit, before moving on to the Gospel hotbed of Chicago, where he served under Bishop J.E. Watley. It was the milieu of this most nurturing of musical cities that the artist came into his own, gaining the attention of record label executives.

He recorded a number of singles in the early 1950s for the respected jazz and blues specialist United label, founded by Leonard Allen and Lew Simpkins (and also the early label home to Robert Anderson and The Caravans). Among the cuts recorded for United were “Walking The Road”, “Standing In The Safety Zone”, “Drop Your Net”, “My Soul Loves Jesus” and “John Saw The Number”. These songs did not garner great attention at the time, but you can hear them on Delmark’s worthy album, Working The Road (The Golden Age Of Chicago Gospel), which was released in 1997. Ballinger’s State recordings served to set him up for his finest recorded works, to be unleashed nearly 10 years later on Peacock Records.

After his time on the State label, Ballinger moved on to another Chicago-based record house, Chess Records, where in 1955 he recorded sides such as “How I Got Over” and “This Train”.

Swing Down ChariotThen in the mid 1960s, Ballinger signed to Don Robey’s Peacock Records, one of the most prestigious and prolific Gospel labels of the time. His labelmates included the tremendously popular quartets Mighty Clouds of Joy, The Dixie Hummingbirds, Sensational Nightingales, and The Five Blind Boys of Mississippi, as well as the standout male soloist, Rev. Cleophus Robinson. Good company indeed.

In addition to several 45s that Peacock issued in 1963, the Houston based label also released the first of Ballinger’s two full-length LPs, Little Black Train (PLP-110), complete with eye-catching illustrative artwork on the front of a train powering through a mountain line. The album featured Ballinger’s speciality —full blown interpretive scriptural melodies set to rhyme, accompanying himself on piano, and bellowing out his now fine-tuned hollering vocals. Proficient sidesmen such as Willie Dixon on bass and Odie Payne on drums accompanied the singing reverend. Some of the songs included on this first LP (“Standing In the Safety Zone”, “John Saw The Number”) were re-recordings of material that Ballinger had introduced on previous labels ten years prior, but performed now with much more fervour.

Two years later, in 1965, Peacock saw fit to put out a second LP for Ballinger, Swing Down Chariot (PLP 119). With an even more impressive front cover (a chariot of fire in the heavens, pulled by white horses), the album continued where Little Black Train left off. “Swing Down Chariot” and “God rode in a Windstorm” are particularly impressive, with their bluesy, fireball vibes. A small backing chorus frequently supported Ballinger’s performances, adding in choice harmonizing, as on songs such as “Sweet Lamb” and “Don't Wonder 'Bout Him”.

One of the favored cuts from his Peacock period is "He Rode", a masterful telling of the account of Jonah melded to the story of Jesus with his disciples on the Sea of Gallilee, with the joining theme of times when God inhabited a windstorm. Frequent vocal squalling and an impeccable riding, driving, boogie woogie piano combined with inventive rhyming lyrical couplets makes Ballinger’s work exciting.

Rev. Robert Ballinger died in the fall of 1965, soon after his second LP was released, at the young age of 43. He left behind a too-short legacy of powerful Gospel music. If you know more about this artist than is presented in this brief overview, including photos, please reach out !

CD sources of Rev. Robert Ballinger’s Music:
  • Mighty Day: 25 Gospel Greats, Document Records, 2006 (one song: “This Train”)
  • Working The Road (The Golden Age Of Chicago Gospel), Delmark, 1997 (5 songs).
  • 1950s Gospel Classics 1950 – 1958, Document Records, 2000 (5 songs)
  • Golden Bells of Gospel, Black Music in the 50’s, Vol. 2, Delmark/P-Vine, 1981 (one song: “Walk The Road”)
Special thanks to B. Grimmel for introducing me to the work of Rev. Robert Ballinger. Thanks also to those who have written about Rev. Ballinger in various CD liner notes, discographies and song commentaries: A. Heilbut, B. Marovich, D. Edwards, M. Callahan.

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interview by Stan North

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