None of these artists expected anyone to care 40 years after they recorded these songs—in a different life and a different time. And we didn’t expect the stories about what their lives were then to resonate so powerfully now. We set out to make a documentary on gospel, but by the end of our trip it was clear that there was so much more to it than just the stories of the music.
During the Civil Rights era, under the leadership of Martin Luther King Jr., progress was made, though memories of what had come before were still fresh and there was an awareness of lengths still to go. It was during this time that gospel music, rooted in the black church experience, started to move towards the popular music that was sweeping the region. Labels like Stax were starting to mix radio-friendly soul music with gospel themes and rock arrangements. It was out of this historic moment and its musical diversity that the songs on The Time For Peace Is Now emerged.
Albert Floyd and the Floyd Family (Monroe, GA)
The Floyd Family Singers made this lovely and super groovy song called “That’s A Sign Of The Times”. Like many of the other groups, they had been a family band.
We learned that Albert was the leader of the group, and once we reached him, he invited us to come see him.
As we looked on the map, we realized that these three artists more or less all lived on a straight line—Interstate 20 from Georgia east of Atlanta to Mississippi south of Memphis! So we flew to Atlanta and drove over to visit Albert Floyd and the Floyd Family.
Albert was in his late 70’s. He had been an illiterate farmer, but through his own gumption—starting out by taking construction jobs he didn’t know how to do and hiring others who did to train him—became a businessman and respected member of his community, and a bridge between blacks and whites there. In a way this was the most emotional visit we made, ending with him showing us where his uncle was hanged in 1946 when he was just a small boy.
He told us he was in singing groups as a young man, and when he had kids and realized that they could sing too, he formed a family band. The ingenuity he used to create a business he also employed to make his family group a local success.
These days Albert has a trained horse that can count, which he takes to county fairs.
The next visit was to Willie Scott and The Birmingham Spirituals
As a 12 year old boy, Willie Scott was recruited to join the Birmingham Spirituals by a manager who was trying to emulate the success of pop groups like the Jackson 5. Various members came and went over the years, though Willie remained and over time became the Spirituals’ de facto leader.
Of all the groups on the compilation, The Birmingham Spirituals were the only one run like a commercial group. Everyone had day jobs, yet each weekend they would tour the South, playing shows and selling records. Ever the self-promoter, Willie was in charge of all the booking, merchandise, marketing and logistics, the proof of which is seen in the instruments and memorabilia that is meticulously organized in his basement.
This third group we visited was Annie Brown (now Caldwell) of the Staples Jr. Singers
We were looking for a person named Annie Brown, and as you can imagine that’s a ubiquitous name to search for. Somehow we figured out that there could be some relation between her band called the Staples Jr. Singers, to a band now called the Caldwell Singers. The singer of that group was named Annie Caldwell. Could she previously have been Annie Brown? Musically, it sounded like her… maybe it was worth a shot?
So we called every Annie Caldwell in Mississippi. There were seven. “Hi, we’re calling from a record label in NYC, are you the Annie Caldwell that was Annie Brown in the Staples Jr. Singers?” The seventh person called Annie Caldwell picked up and said “Yes that’s me!” We silently started jumping up and down and dancing around the office.
Growing up in Mississippi, Annie Brown loved the Staples Singers, singing along and memorizing all of their songs. It was only natural then that her family formed a gospel group and decided to name themselves the Staples Jr. Singers. Annie would riff with her brothers, coming up with lyrics that led to tracks such as “Race to Run” when she was only 14 years old, and recorded it at Muscle Shoals. She eventually got older and got married (she’s now Annie Caldwell), but she continues to lead a family gospel band when not running the dress shop that she has owned for the last 35 years.
At the end of the Day
These were groups that existed outside of the normal music industry framework of today. There were labels, but they weren’t labels like we knew them. Labels would record and press the albums, only to sell them back to the bands who then had to turn around and find a market. These groups had to book their own shows, market themselves, and find radio stations to play their music. The hustle these people had knew no bounds.
And they managed to do this during a time rife with division and strife. The Civil Rights era may have ushered in new laws and an awakened sense of equality, but the day-to-day experience was quite different. Annie Brown and The Staples Jr. Singers were asked to leave establishments because of being black, while Albert Floyd still drives past a bridge where a family member was lynched. These memories have never fully receded, and the way in which these artists have lived with them can be a lesson to all of us in the divided times we are currently living.
We set out to make a documentary on gospel, but by the end of our trip it was clear that there was so much more to it than just the stories of the music.