Pastor T.L. Barrett

Pastor T.L. Barrett

After 50 Years, a Gospel-Soul Legend (Finally) Gets His Due

Five decades after T.L. Barrett released highly regarded but largely unknown funk and soul gems, a new, career-spanning box set helps spread the Chicago pastor’s message to the masses

9/23/2021 2:02:00 AM

Five decades after he released a series of highly regarded but mostly overlooked funk and soul gems, Pastor T.L. Barrett , who Kanye famously sampled for 'Life of Pablo,' tells us about getting a career-spanning box set.

Five decades after T.L. Barrett released highly regarded but largely unknown funk and soul gems, a new, career-spanning box set helps spread the Chicago pastor’s message to the masses

… little by little, music fans have come to discover the talent that Chicagoans have long cherished as their own.“He’s not an obscure figure in Chicago. He’s got a street named after him now,” says Rob Sevier, whose archival record label Numero Group will release the first in-depth exploration of Barrett’s musical career,

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, on Friday. For over 50 years, Barrett has preached within a two-block radius in Chicago. With the new collection, the pastor aims to spread his musical message to the masses.It’s a story Pastor Thomas Lee Barrett, Jr.has likely told his parishioners countless times, but he still relishes sharing it: His entire life was shaped by an encounter with a high school guidance counselor at Chicago’s Wendell Phillips Academy — “I was not a dropout. They pushed me out,” says Barrett — who told the teenager he “would never, ever amount to anything.”

Walking to his sister’s house two-and-a-half miles south of Wendell Phillips following that meeting, Barrett had what he considered an epiphany, and made an agreement with God.“That’s when I decided that nobody’s negative opinion would become my positive fact, because I am the master of my being,” Barrett says. “And I decided that I would keep my body clean, and I would make my mind keen. With a keen mind and a clean body, there’s nothing that can keep you from being successful. And so that was my deal with God.

“Fast forward three decades later, I own [the street corner] 55th and Indiana” — the site of Barrett’s church The Life Center C.O.G.I.C. — “My name is on the street.”“You know how valuable ships are to the economy, to the industrial complex… That’s how I saw myself.”

Preaching was always in Barrett’s blood: His father’s cousin was the Rev. C.L. Franklin, Aretha’s father and “the greatest black preacher ever.” “He embraced me,” the pastor says of meeting C.L. Franklin after his father Thomas Barrett died. The two preached at each other’s churches, though Franklin was left comatose and later died after being shot during a home invasion before the two families could become close.

Barrett instead focused his message on his adopted hometown of Chicago, where he moved after spending his adolescence in Jamaica, New York; after he was thrown out of school, he returned to New York, got married, and started playing on the jazz circuit. “I was the youngest pianist at the Waldorf Astoria every New Year’s Eve,” says Barrett, a self-taught musician who learned to play by sounding out the notes he heard in his head and modeled his playing after jazz legend Erroll Garner.

 “I told [my wife] that Chicago was calling me back because I cannot get out of my heart in my hand what that [guidance counselor] predicted. And I’ve got to go back and prove her wrong,” Barrett says, returning to Chicago in 1967. “We just got married and had no job, no political connections. I just had me and what I knew was the God presence and the power that was on the inside of me.”

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Numero GroupHe first established the Mt. Zion Baptist Church on Chicago’s Lafayette Church, where Barrett and the choir he assembled — the Youth for Christ Choir — first began recording music. He recorded four albums of gospel music in the Seventies — nearly the entirety of his music career —informed by soul, R&B, funk and disco.

The albums weren’t big sellers — they were primarily purchased by his Chicago-area parishioners — but Barrett’s congregation grew, thanks largely to his inspirational services, his politically tinged sermons and his connection to Chicagoans like the Rev. Jesse Jackson. (“When he ran for president [in 1988], I ran Operation Push for him. And kept the fiduciary responsibilities going,” Barrett says.)

Along the way, there have been tribulations: In the late Eighties, Barrett was implicated in an alleged pyramid scheme that he claimed was a “community development program”; after repaying $1.3 million in restitution, no criminal charges were filed. However, the incident did little to diminish his good standing in Chicago.

Now established as an icon in the Windy City, Wendell Phillips High School, the same school that booted him decades earlier, would later enshrine Barrett on their Wall of Fame, which includes Rock Hall alumni like Sam Cooke, Nat “King” Cole and Dinah Washington. (“I’m the only member of the Hall of Fame on that wall who doesn’t have an exit date,” Barrett quips.)

“I used that experience [and] all those experiences to give a message of hope and determination and intestinal fortitude to tap into young people who would be struggling along the road of trying to make it like I was at,” Barrett says. “Because that’s how I viewed myself. You know how valuable ships are to the economy, to the industrial complex? They keep cargo that’s very valuable for the commerce and industry of the whole world. And that’s how I saw myself. This lady said I would never amount to nothing, but ‘I’m like a ship, without a sail. Yeah, but I know I can make it.’ Are you familiar with that song?”

“Like a Ship” is, to continue the metaphor, the vessel that launched the resurgence of Barrett’s musical output. Numero’s Sevier rediscovered the 1971 track himself when he was crate-digging and gathering songs for what became the label’s 2006 compilation

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Good God! A Gospel Funk Hymnal; Sevier’s copy was unearthed from the basement collection of the influential Chicago DJ Lucky Cordell.“That came right out of my soul,” Barrett says now of his signature song, an affirming clarion call for navigating life’s tumultuous times and rough waters. “I sail for pleasure, but I found pain / I look for sunshine, but I found rain,” Barrett and his Youth for Christ Choir sings to his congregation, the listener. “But I’m not worried because I know / I know we can take it.” (Remarkably, for a song that has since become a gospel classic, the words “God” and “Jesus” aren’t sung once.)

While “Like a Ship” — the title track from Barrett and his Youth for Christ Choir’s first releaseLike a Ship… (Without a Sail)— did not make the track list for that firstGood God!, Numero Group made it the opening song and centerpiece of the second volume, with Barrett’s approval.

“Barrett was a bit of a tough nut to crack. He didn’t even have a copy of [Like a Ship… (Without a Sail)] when we approached him,” Sevier says, adding that the Chicago-based label was in the “pole position” to get a deal done due to their proximity to Barrett’s church. Ultimately, “we were able to close it at a time when he was pretty circumspect.”

“This is a record that actually is more on par with Aretha’s Amazing Grace” -Numero Group co-founder Ken Shipley onLike a ShipAfter “Like a Ship” featured on Numero’sGood God! Born Again Funkin 2010, they were approached by fellow archival label Light in the Attic, who — captivated by the song (like everyone who ever hears it) — wanted to reissue the entire

Like a ShipLP. “At that point, we were not really thinking about the LP as something that people were going to be interested in,” Numero Group co-founder Ken Shipley tellsRolling Stone. “We’d never done a whole album of a single gospel artist. We didn’t know what the marketplace was going to be.”

And then, like a ship without a sail, momentum stopped. Light in the Attic sold a few thousand copies of theirLike a Shipreissue, and the record went back out-of-print. And then, like a ship without a sail, the music began to drift out. Fans of the Numero and Light in the Attic labels spread “Like a Ship” through taste-making playlists and word-of-mouth praise. “There was a point in time when the reissue was a $200 record because you just couldn’t find it,” Numero’s Shipley said.

Then, in 2016, Kanye happened.A few months later, Steph Curry happened: “Nobody Knows,” also fromLike a Ship… (Without a Sail),soundtracked a commercialfor the Golden State Warriors star’s Under Armour sneaker; Shipley credits the Curry commercial, more than West’s sampling of an obscure and then-unavailable Barrett track, for being the catalyst for Numero Group — now in a financial position to risk reissuing a semi-obscure gospel LP — to repress

Like a Ship.“This is some pretty transcendent gospel music,” Shipley said. “This is a record that actually is more on par with Aretha’sAmazing Grace. A normal music listener can listen to this and be [like], ‘This is a great record,’ just on its own.”

As Numero Group dug deeper into Barrett’s catalog, they discovered an incredible body of work that featured legendary Chicago session musicians like bassists Richard Evans and Larry Ball, saxophonist Gene Barge and — on 1973’sI Found a Reason— Earth, Wind and Fire’s horn section. (The band’s Philip Bailey and Maurice White were members of Barrett’s congregation, and the pastor considered himself a “spiritual adviser” to the group.)

“We’ve had it in the back of our minds for a really long time that we wanted to turn T.L. into more of a culturally important figure, and it was up to us to figure out how to elevate him beyond just this one album,” Shipley added.“It was becoming more and more obvious that what’s missing is a really significant document of Pastor Barrett’s entire career, and so we decided this is what we’re going to do,” Sevier said. “We need to take it very seriously and do it right.”

“It was like a man who buried some treasure that nobody thought was worth anything, but he buried for security and put it away, then it being discovered 30 or 40 years later,” Barrett says of the resulting box set and Numero’s hard work. “The elation; it escapes the vocabulary. The elation is indescribable.”

I Shall Wear a Crown,, contains reissues of all four of Barrett’s Seventies gospel albums — 1971’sLike a Ship… (Without a Sail) Read more: Rolling Stone »

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