We met Pastor Champion a few years ago while we were putting together another release, The Time for Peace Is Now: Gospel Music About Us. We found him in a collection of YouTube videos from the37th Street Baptist Church in Oakland, California, put together by the pastor there, Bishop Dr. W.C. McClinton. There was quite a lot of talent in those videos, and among them was Pastor Champion whom we liked so much that we decided to make a record with him.Pastor Champion wasn’t like any other pastor you’ve ever met. As an itinerant preacher, a carpenter, and a father of five, he made a name for himself traveling up and down the California coast with his electric guitar. He traveled alone and he played alone, well into his seventies. The easiest way to describe him would be as an outsider gospel artist. Other than these bare facts, we never learned much about him—except that he was also the brother of the well-known soul singer Bettye Swann.
In fact, most of what we knew about him we got from his sister’s Wikipedia page.We decided that because we met Champion through the 37th Street Baptist Church, we would record him there too. We recorded him live on a two-track Nagra reel to reel, as we wanted the album to be analog in the style of traditional gospel recordings. Over the course of two evenings (when the workday was done), Champion taught his band—musicians who had never played together before—a handful of songs, a small selection of the nearly 2,000 fragments of songs and sermons that he regularly performed. We listened in as they all got more familiar with the material and each other over time.
At some point, we mentioned to Champion that he would have to be interviewed by someone to write notes for the album. He wasn’t too pleased with this idea, saying he’d had a hard life and he didn’t want to talk about it. Over the next few months, we kept asking Champion to talk to someone about his life. He told us that he didn’t want to talk about growing up in Louisiana, his mother being accosted by the Klan, or that his father was a gambler. He didn’t want to talk about being jailed for 90 days for using a whites only bathroom, being in gangs or having a street name. We told him that was fine—he could talk about what he wanted to talk about. And he told us that he didn’t want to talk about anything.
You know, there are times when you make a record where it’s already made in your mind before you start. But then in the end, the record you thought you were making is not the record you made. We spent years puzzling over this one, trying to figure out what it was saying, who it was for, and how to get people to pay attention to it.
But Champion knew that this record wasn’t going to be for everyone. He didn’t really care. The important part for him was just getting the message out there in the same way that he always had, travelling alone with his electric guitar. “I want to say what I mean,” he said, “be practical, precise, to the point, and, at the same time, diplomatic.” In other words, he just wanted to be a good man. "