Melvin Booker, father of S.F. gospel, turns 90 and plays The Chapel
“My daddy was a gospel singer and my brothers were professional gospel singers,” said Melvin Booker, founding vocalist of the San Francisco gospel quartet the West Coast Spiritual Corinthians.
“I was just blessed, born with it,” he said of the voice he’s been raising in song since he was a child in East Texas and later filled rooms in the Bay Area, shaping the distinctive, West Coast gospel sound.
“There wasn’t much going on here,” Booker said of the gospel scene when he arrived in 1951, freshly discharged from the military.
Growing up inside the singing and composing world of gospel, Booker was inspired by its a cappella style and his brother Ernest who sang with the Pilgrim Travelers and the Soul Stirrers, also from Texas. With the arrival of African American workers and musicians to the West Coast after World War II, Southern gospel also landed in the greater Bay Area, where it forged a kinship with subsequent generations of singers. So popular was the quartet style that when Booker and his army buddy Walter Morgan, Sr. formed the Truetones, they had singers to spare.
“They kept adding on and adding on and adding on vocalists,” said Walter Morgan, Jr., who performs gospel music with Sons of the Soul Revivors in the Bay Area and beyond it, an outgrowth of his father’s and Booker’s collaborations.
“Eventually, my dad stepped away and formed the Soul Revivors and Mr. Booker formed the Spiritual Corinthians,” he said.
Originally styled after the aforementioned quartets from gospel’s golden age and others like the Dixie Hummingbirds, the Corinthians’ West Coast twist on roots music held a super-funky groove, rooted in harmonic rhythm. An early incarnation of the group featured the well-known blues singer, Oakland’s Esther Phillips, then known as Little Esther.
Electric music hadn’t taken hold in churches yet, but by the ‘60s, gospel music, like everything else, was changing. And the Bay Area was a flashpoint for a new kind of gospel: The Stewart Four, a family group from Texas, and its young prodigy had settled in Vallejo and ultimately evolved into Sly and the Family Stone, taking their gospel roots to the highest heights of rock ’n’ soul. The homegrown Hawkins Singers of Oakland took their now-classic arrangement of “Oh Happy Day” to the top of the pop charts.
“Booker’s open-mindedness meant there was a real experimental full throttle aspect to the group that was unique, even in the Bay Area scene,” said musician Marc Capelle, organizer of several tributes to Booker, including this week’s 90th birthday revue at the Chapel. Capelle got his professional start with the Spiritual Corinthians, as did a wide range of local performers, like soul singer Raphael Saadiq, bluesman Joe Louis Walker and guitarist Ray White, best known for working with experimental rocker Frank Zappa.
“There was a time when you really weren’t allowed to crossover,” explained Walter Morgan, Jr., who formed his group with his cousins as a kid and has been performing gospel ever since.
“We found you don’t have to change your style to play in clubs and at festivals,” said Morgan Jr. “People really like gospel music when they hear it, and the beauty part is, we get to be ourselves.”
Morgan Jr. and his brother Sidney are among the assembled band of intergenerational, multiracial, mixed-gender musicians slated to perform with Booker on inspirational repertoire like “Rise Up and Walk,” Sam Cooke’s anti-racist anthem “A Change is Gonna Come” and the Corinthians’s show-stopper “Lord Remember Me.”
The Morgans and the Bookers once lived in Oceanview, one of the few San Francisco neighborhoods where African Americans were allowed to buy homes due to the discriminatory practice of redlining. Booker and Morgan Sr. both worked at San Francisco International Airport while raising their families and playing music.
“I didn’t start at the top,” said Booker. “First I was a cleaner, washing the plane. I kept moving up, to mechanic,” he said, becoming United Airlines’ and SFO’s first African American shop steward of the mechanics’ union. “I was working as an aircraft inspector when I retired.”
“I remember Melvin would go to work all day, come home and load up the Volkswagen van with equipment,” said Jonathan Benjamin, a family friend of Booker’s son Mervyn (a beloved local athlete and coach who has since passed on). Neighborhood kids would gather at the Booker home, learning how to fix cars or jamming on the guitars and piano always at the ready.
“I knew Melvin was an entertainer, and knew he was talented, but I never got to any shows,” said Benjamin who’s since reconnected with Booker, outside city limits: Both keep horses.
“Melvin’s a horseman, one of the original Black cowboys,” said Benjamin. “His is a gaited horse, highly desirable. The ride is smoother than the average horse.”
“She’s a special horse. I raised her,” said Booker. At one time he kept up to five horses on his ranch near the Sacramento Delta, but he’s scaled back to just one, CoaCoa, a 21-year-old Tennessee walker.
“I don’t travel much even though I can go anywhere in the world,” said Booker, satisfied with his life at 90. “I wanted to show my talent and what I was about. And I did.”