plus years in gospel music demonstrate the extraordinary
staying power of Joe Ligon and The Mighty Clouds of Joy.
Experience, in life and music, resonates in everything they
sing and through the years, The Mighty Clouds of Joy have
poured that experience into more than seventy eight
recordings. They were one of the first gospel groups to
incorporate R&B techniques—such as drums and stylized
choreography. Known as the "Temptations of Gospel," the
Mighty Clouds of Joy, like the Motown group, exhibit a
sophisticated masculine style.
Joe Ligon formed the group
in 1955 during his high school days in Los Angeles,
California. He spent his childhood in Alabama, then moved
west to live with his uncle. He found several other young
men from the South in his Watts neighborhood. Bass singer
Richard Wallace came from Georgia and baritone Elmo Franklin
from Florida. They were all familiar with the gospel singing
of the southern church. The fourth member of the group,
Johnny Martin, was a native Californian, and his cooler
urban style blended well with Ligon’s dramatic flair,
derived from the Southern Baptist shout.
Formed 1955 in a Los Angeles
high school by Willie Joe Ligon, born Sept. 11, 1942 in
Troy, AL; original members were Ligon, lead, Johnny Martin,
Franklin, baritone, and Richard
Wallace, bass; Ligon and Wallace continued with the group
for the next sixty years while adding a some new faces along
Their first recording "Steal
Away to Jesus" 1960; debut album Family Circle 1961;
started with traditional gospel sound but began
experimenting with contemporary R&B elements; utilized
guitars, organ and drums, later a full orchestra; one of the
first gospel groups to choreograph their songs; became known
as the "Temptations of Gospel"; moved to ABC Records.
Awards: First Grammy for
Live and Direct, Best Soul Gospel Performance:
Traditional 1978; second Grammy for Changing Times
1979; third Grammy for Pray For Me 1991.
Inspired by the music of
Reverend Julius Cheeks of the Sensational Nightingales,
Ligon organized his friends into a quartet, singing
four-part gospel harmonies. Soon, Elmo’s brother Ermant
joined them, and then Leon Polk and David Walker. The
seven-man Mighty Clouds of Joy toured extensively, traveling
as far as Houston, Texas. A neighbor took an interest in the
group and tutored them in gospel singing while trying to
arrange concerts for them. Over the next four years, the
Mighty Clouds sang all over the Southwest.
In 1959 a local gospel radio
deejay heard them and made some on-air recordings, some of
which were later collected by HOB Records in Sing "Live"Zion
Songs. The deejay sent the
recordings to Peacock Records, who had recorded the
Sensational Nightingales. Don Robey, the president of
Peacock, liked their version of "Steal Away to Jesus," but
wanted it to be longer. Joe Ligon had been listening for
several years to the Reverend C.L. Franklin on the radio,
and he added a sermon in the preacher’s style to the song.
This declamation in the middle of songs became his
trademark. "Steal Away to Jesus" was released as a single in
1960, and was followed by an album, Family Circle in
Along with preaching, The
Mighty Clouds of Joy put other innovations into their
dramatic stage shows. They wore bright color-coordinated
suits and sported pompadour hair cuts. Their singing was
extremely energetic and their voices wide ranging. The
Clouds would whip the audience into a frenzy with moral
tales exhorting the people to faith. This drama secured for
them a reputation as the country’s premier male gospel
ensemble, although they were only in their twenties. They
cut another album for Peacock
Records, The Bright Side.
The next three decades often saw the Mighty Clouds doing
as many as 200 concerts in a year. Bass, drums and keyboards
were added to the traditional gospel instrumentation of solo
electric guitar. These amplifications provided rich
accompaniment for Joe Ligon’s explorations into the
stratosphere of emotion.
inventiveness alienated some conservative gospel listeners.
During the 1970s, the Mighty Clouds began experimenting with
more commercial forms, particularly the smoother R&B sound
that later became the province of singers like Al Green.
Some listeners felt this was moving away from the true
meaning of gospel. The Mighty Clouds believed that through
the commercial market they could reach a whole new audience,
especially young people in the black ghettos, who they felt
needed to hear gospel’s message. Meanwhile, the group was
embroiled in a bitter dispute about money with their record
company. They had been selling great numbers of records but
had realized very little profit from them. These troubles
led to an unproductive period for the Mighty Clouds.
Eventually, they signed with ABC Records, and began to
produce gospel for a mass audience.
The group managed an unusual
crossover hit, the number one dance single "Ride the Mighty
High." Controversy among their gospel followers exploded
when The Mighty Clouds of Joy appeared on television’s
Soul Train to promote the record. Joe Ligon found the
response from both old and new fans bewildering: "We were
the first gospel group to do that show. All the kids were
dancing like mad, and, boy, the mail started pouring in. The
diehard Gospel fans gave us flak like you wouldn’t believe.
It wasn’t churchy enough for them. They said we’d sold out
and gone funky."
However, the Clouds never
really abandoned gospel. They recorded a very spiritual
album, 1978’s Live and Direct, which won Best Soul
Gospel Performance in the Grammy’s traditional category, and
repeated the triumph the next year, winning Best Traditional
Soul Gospel Performance for Changing Times, 1979.
After their tenure at ABC Records, they moved to a smaller,
more traditional gospel company, Myrrh Records, and later,
Word Records of Nashville. The Mighty Clouds became one of
the only traditional gospel male ensembles surviving into
By then they had become an
international phenomena. Audiences in Europe and Great
Britain responded with the same enthusiasm as those in the
United States. Mainstream artists such as Paul Simon, the
Rolling Stones, and Aretha Franklin were delighted to
perform with them.
Ligon reflected on the
group’s long career, "We see ourselves as singers who
minister to the people and encourage them that the Lord is
real and there for us, and that commitment has only grown
stronger over the years. People today seem hungry for much
more than entertainment. With all the terrible things
happening in the world now, their souls are looking for
nourishment—for something to believe in. That spark that
only the Holy Spirit can give you is still burning strong in
us. If we ever lost that, we might as well pack it in and go
The Mighty Clouds of Joy are
celebrating more than 60 years of ministry with their 78th
recording project entitled "Down Memory Lane: Chapter 2" on
MCG Records which was recorded live in Atlanta, Georgia and
it features new songs as well as some of their classic
Grammy Award winning hits.
You can find this project on
CD and DVD and all music by Joe Ligon and The Mighty Clouds
of Joy wherever music is sold and at all digital outlets.
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