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The Enduring Influence of Rance Allen
Throughout its history, Toledo has been home to a number of innovative musicians whose impact is hard to overstate; most notably, jazz giants Art Tatum and Jon Hendricks. And then there’s gospel great Rance Allen.
Just as Thomas Dorsey, “the Father of Gospel,” merged jazz and blues with gospel to mesmerizing effect, Rance Allen used the music he was exposed to during his youth – rhythm & blues, jazz and rock & roll – to shape a style that was the foundation for contemporary gospel music.
Rance Allen was actually from Monroe, Mich., but his second home was Toledo. He was a child preacher with a musical gift that he nurtured by learning guitar and piano and forming a gospel group with his brothers, Tom and Steve – a union that lasted his entire career and illustrated his loyalty to home and to family.
The Allen brothers caught the ear of a promoter for Stax, the vaunted Southern soul record label, at a Detroit talent show in the late 1960s. Before long, Stax had created a label – The Gospel Truth – as a vehicle for the Rance Allen Group. National exposure followed in 1972 with the release of the their debut album and an appearance at Wattstax, a Los Angeles benefit concert that commemorated the L.A. Riots of 1965.
In the summer of ’75, the Rance Allen Group dropped “Ain’t No Need of Cryin’.” It promptly found a home on R&B station playlists, including Toledo’s WKLR, and on record players, including the one at our house.
The song, written by Dave Porter, whose pen produced many of the great Stax records (including Sam & Dave’s “Soul Man” and “Hold On, I’m Comin’”), was an early lesson in how music can comfort us, how lyrics can speak to and for us. It also showed how soulful and funky gospel music could be. The chill, conga-laden groove was the perfect backdrop for Rance’s lead vocal, delivered in a lithe falsetto that was by turns sweet and explosive, punctuated with the sonorous grunts and growls that became his signature and brought home the inspirational message that “everything is gonna be alright.”
As his musical star rose, he established his spiritual base and space at New Bethel Bountiful Blessings Church of God in Christ, where he was senior pastor from its 1985 founding until his installation as Bishop (Jurisdictional prelate of the Michigan Northwest Harvest Jurisdiction) in 2011 – a position he held until his passing on October 31, 2020. His Service of Remembrance at Toledo’s Cornerstone Church attracted a mix of masked mourners and virtual viewers from around the globe.
Rance Allen’s musical ministry was fortified by his sonorous voice, dynamic vocal style and a captivating stage presence that was the template for future gospel/R&B performers. He was rewarded with a loyal audience, Grammy nominations for his group, and the honorific “Father of Contemporary Gospel Music.”
During his 50-year recording career, Rance Allen inspired and mentored scores of gospel and secular musicians, both near and far. His influence can be heard in the recordings of Detroit’s future legends, including the Winans, the Clark Sisters and Commissioned.
Rance Allen’s Toledo musical progeny have followed his artistic blueprint, using their gospel roots to launch successful gospel and R&B careers:
- Shirley Murdock became a pro at Toledo’s Calvary Baptist Church. She quickly rose to fame once she joined forces with Zapp (“Computer Love”), the chart-topping Dayton, Ohio-based funk/R&B band. As a solo artist, she released several R&B albums and hit singles (including the 1986 smash “As We Lay”) before returning home to her first love, gospel.
- Lexi, a Bowsher High School, released her debut album, “Call Her Lexi” in 1990 while still a student at Bowling Green State University. She was in the vanguard of urban gospel artists that emerged in the early ‘90s and produced stars – Yolanda Adams, Kirk Franklin, Fred Hammond and Mary Mary – whose crossover success brought the genre into the mainstream.
- Lyfe Jennings honed his musical skills as a youngster in church, as part of a family group, and, later, while serving a 10-year prison bid for arson. Fired up and inspired upon his release, he took his songs and guitar to Showtime at the Apollo and won over the notoriously hard-to-impress audience with his gritty voice and street songs. Before long, he was an acclaimed, platinum-selling R&B star whose well-crafted morality tales became hit songs that made the streets say “Amen.”