Bobby Jones: Gospel Music on the Rise

Gospel music impresario Bobby Jones discusses the rise of the gospel music industry and the longevity of his BET show, Bobby Jones Gospel

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(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) Help me, hey, yeah.

Unidentified Chorus: (Singing) Pray, pray...

ED GORDON, host:

The unmistakable sound of gospel. And Bobby Jones is one of the undisputed icons. Jones' hugely popular show on Black Entertainment Television was the first nationally syndicated black gospel music program in the country. The show is now in its 25th year. Jones was on the front end of what became a booming industry, but even in the early days, Jones always saw big things ahead for gospel music.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Chorus: (Singing) Lord Jesus Christ, O Lord.

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) Help me call to you...

Unidentified Chorus: (Singing) Help me, Jesus...

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) Jesus...

Mr. BOBBY JONES ("Bobby Jones Gospel"): I got a feeling from it. I listened to how people reacted when, you know, we were demonstrating and all. They would go into the churches and they would respond to the music that was gospel. And I thought, well, this music has something about it that stirs the soul and brings the people together. And--because I'm Methodist. I didn't come up--I didn't grow up with it. It's not one of those things where I started out with gospel music. No, no, no. I came from a very conservative musical environment. But when I heard this music, I fell in love with it and I thought it would be good for the world.

GORDON: What has it been about the relationship with Black Entertainment Television that has made such a grand marriage between Bobby Jones and BET? One might not believe how high your ratings are on a network that otherwise really speaks to young people in a different--some would say even a different ideological and certainly image bent and slant.

Mr. JONES: Well, I don't think people would realize how many years this show has had the ratings that it's had. In fact, many years I didn't know what the ratings were because they probably didn't want me to know. They thought maybe I would ask for more of something, I don't really know. But it has--the reason why that relationship is so strong, I think, is because of need. They needed it, BET, some music like that to kind of counterbalance the other kind of presentations that happen there. And I needed it. We needed it. The gospel world needed it. And at this point, we are still the only black gospel show with a format for music as it is, like it is, that serves the nation on cable television.

(Soundbite of gospel music)

GORDON: How did you, Bobby, at a time that perhaps it wasn't as popular as it is now, find a way to mesh the idea of delivering the word and delivering it in a way that was entertaining, almost--and no stigma meant here--showy?

Mr. JONES: OK. Yes, the music was rejected, Ed, initially, especially in your what we call high-order black churches in America. They wanted no part of gospel music because it was mostly that music that was designed and presented in churches of the low socioeconomic settings where people were. So they kind of like pushed it to the back and never wanted to do it. But when I saw how interesting the music was, and I thought if we could add a little bit of--excuse this word, but just for a better word--class to it that it could be acceptable if it was organized and presented in a way where people could just enjoy the raw elements of gospel music rather than tagging it with all of the other social idioms that go along with that; that it would be accepted and that it would be a piece of work that could go anywhere any other music could go. But it was a struggle to get it there. But that's what I had to do initially, to get this done. Thank God for the opportunity to to do it.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) O happy day.

Unidentified Chorus: (Singing) O happy day.

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Yeah, yeah, yeah, happy day.

Unidentified Chorus: (Singing) O happy day.

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Sing it for me, Italy.

Unidentified Chorus: (Singing) O happy day.

Mr. JONES: The biggest market that we have is in Italy, actually. They love the gospel music. Europe has been excellent for us. When BET was airing all over Europe, the citizens of those nations were eager to get that music live. And anybody that goes to Europe can tell you what response we have. Ed, we got anywhere from 20 to 30,000 people a night in a sitting, 10 nights in a row, just us on stage. We go to Perugia, Italy every year, every year for the umbria jazz. And that area is just packed and jammed with people. So I kind of came off of that Southern acceptance a little bit to take you a little bit international, to let you know what kind of impact that this music is having throughout the world.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) When Jesus walked.

Unidentified Chorus: (Singing) When Jesus walked.

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) Oh, yeah, when he walked.

Unidentified Chorus: (Singing) When Jesus walked.

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) When Jesus walked...

Unidentified Chorus: (Singing) When Jesus walked.

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) ...he walked to save the world.

GORDON: Bobby, before we let you go, I want to ask you about the state of what we call gospel music and the church today. Give me some thoughts on how you see things.

Mr. JONES: I see gospel music being very impressive to a lot of people, and there is a monopoly as far as as the recording industry's concerned. There are only five majors and one of that that has most of the artists there. So that's going to limit a lot of the exposure from some of the artists unless we start independent record label presentations. And they have a hard time getting their music out. And I see the church has now entered into the gospel music business. These high-powered ministers are now developing their own systems for putting out music and any other aspect of what happens in the church. And I find it phenomenal, actually, to see the growth of these churches, these--what we call these megachurches and its association with the gospel music industry. But I see we're in kind of a quagmire when it gets to trying to see the purity of what it is that we're doing. And I see us kind of moving upward in some ways and then stagnant in other ways. And I know that's not an easy way to describe the state of gospel music in the church, but I see that we do have some challenges ahead.

GORDON: Well, quagmire it may be, but one of the lights that has tried to work through that quagmire for a long, long time and of--a quarter of a century time on Black Entertainment Television is my friend Bobby Jones. Bobby Jones, good to talk to you.

Mr. JONES: Thank you. Thank you, Ed.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Chorus: (Singing) There is a train a-comin'.

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Picking up passengers...

Unidentified Chorus: (Singing) Picking up passengers...

Unidentified Man: (Singing) ...from coast to coast.

Unidentified Chorus: (Singing) ...from coast to coast.

Unidentified Man: (Singing) All you need is faith.

Unidentified Chorus: (Singing) All you need is faith.

Unidentified Man: (Singing) You can hear the diesel.

Unidentified Chorus: (Singing) You can hear the diesel humming.

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Don't need no ticket.

Unidentified Chorus: (Singing) Don't need no ticket.

Unidentified Man: (Singing) No, no.

Unidentified Chorus: (Singing) Just thank the Lord.

Unidentified Man: (Singing): Don't need no...

GORDON: Thanks for joining us. That's our program today. To listen to the show, visit npr.org. NEWS & NOTES was crated by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Picking up passengers...

GORDON: I'm Ed Gordon. This is NEWS & NOTES.

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