Greg Belson & Tim Dillinger

Following contributions from Enchanted Rhythms and Budino, CWPT expands its tape series with a double-sided sonic missive courtesy of Greg Belson. To those in the know (and on the hunt), Belson is an undeniable figure in the gospel music community, a lifelong student of one of the richest and most inspiring musical threads to have emerged from the United States of America.

The tape takes a journey across two distinct sides: ‘Saturday Night’ and ‘Sunday Morning’, reflecting two different shades of bliss. On the former, ecstatic rhythmic hits reflect the communal euphoria of a weekend social on a dancefloor that could be Vegas or Atlanta, before the flip expands on the alternate transcendence of a Chuch service that begins to draw the weekend to a close.

While Greg Belson’s tape is a beautiful sonic experience certain to affect any listener, regardless of their spiritual standing, the records within are rich in context and history, inseparable societal struggle of the Black community in America.

As an accompaniment, Greg Belson spoke at length to his friend and contemporary Tim Dillinger, a music historian/writer with a focus on the worlds of gospel, soul, contemporary Christian, and women’s music. Tim is the Editorial Content Manager at and is currently completing a book on the progressive gospel sounds of the New York Community Choir. He writes bi-weekly features at God’s Music is My Life on Substack.

‘Saturday Night/Sunday Morning’ is available to order now, exclusively from the CWPT Bandcamp.

GB: Please introduce yourself.

TD: I’m Tim Dillinger, a child of the Fire Baptized Holiness Church. I’m a gospel music historian and essayist. I spent the front end of my life as a recording artist, in a sense, making music for Saturday night AND Sunday morning, fairly fluidly. I’ve spent this second half of my life focused on studying and writing the history of gospel music. Perhaps because of my own experience as an artist who couldn’t commit to one genre and my own inability to be a joiner of organized religion, I’ve focused on artists who either crossed over from gospel to non-gospel or who dared to take their gospel music into the general market.

The concept of the cassette release is a journey from a club night set in Las Vegas on a Saturday, and heading straight to church on a Sunday morning. Where often phrases like ‘the dancefloor is my church’ takes center stage, how similar do you find the two experiences can be, as a spiritual journey?

While many church people find the comparison sacrilegious, an ecstatic dance floor experience and the transcendence of a fiery, Sunday morning song service are deeply comparable experiences. The DJ serves as the worship leader, building the mood, setting the pace, watching the congregation’s response, improvising if need be, to find exactly what the crowd needs to hear to reach the climax, the most heightened moment of ecstasy.

While church services today, in many churches, are less improvised than they used to be, the motivation is still the same. Music serves as the conduit through which the congregation can join their voices, and, hopefully, create their own world—where the pressures of the external world can, for a few moments, evaporate.

That aforementioned moment of ecstasy often looks similar in both venues. It is the epitome of throwing caution to the wind, and losing oneself in the feeling. A surrender to the spirit in the dark.

What records have stood the test of time, as those that were played originally in the 70’s and still have a special place in the both gospel and clubbing worlds today?

There are three that immediately come to mind in terms of tunes that have stood the test of time and continue to have life.

In my opinion, the one that has most stood the test of time in both gospel and club worlds is probably The Clark Sisters’ ‘You Brought The Sunshine.’ There is rarely a Clark Sisters performance that doesn’t include it and it remains a favorite with disco aficionados.

Tramaine Hawkins’ ‘Fall Down' is key to the conversation as well. While gospel radio never embraced it—it actually harmed Tramaine’s gospel career for a period—enlightened gospel lovers still herald it to this day, as does the Black gay club scene that embraced it in the first place.

The New York Community Choir’s ‘Express Yourself’ is the third. I think it is the most important because it set a precedent for Tramaine and The Clark Sisters. While gospel had always had a place on the dance floor (Gloria Spencer’s ‘I Got It’ was possibly the first), NYCC was the first gospel group that I’m aware of to take performance dates in discos. Tramaine would follow suit in the ‘Fall Down’ era. The Clark Sisters did not go into clubs and that’s probably one of the reasons ‘You Brought the Sunshine’ has had a different kind of longevity. ‘Express Yourself,’ however, continues to receive vinyl repressings for clubs and I don’t know a gospel musician who hasn’t studied it.

Are there any artists today that are pushing a similar envelope and cross-pollinating gospel and dance music today and how are they accepted?

The gospel artist most consciously cultivating a relationship with both dance music and gospel music communities today would have to be Ann Nesby. She’s been a beloved figure in the club scene since the Sounds of Blackness days. The Sounds of Blackness has probably had the most dance hits of any gospel act! She’s been an ally for the LGBTQI community and has been unapologetic about that, performing at Pride events. That seems to prohibit her from receiving the kind of acceptance in gospel that she is due, despite her long history in the field, dating back to James Cleveland’s Gospel Music Workshop of America conventions and recordings in the 1980’s.

Ricky Dillard, whose professional career actually began as a house music artist, started recording gospel with his choir, New Generation Chorale in 1990 and has risen to be one of the most acclaimed in the field. While he has always toyed with some subtle house elements in his music (check his 1995 recording of James Hall’s “God Is In Control) and been featured with his choir on staggering dance tracks by both Ann Nesby and Vernessa Mitchell, he released a five track EP of Chicago house mixes from his 2020 album Choirmaster. While the original Choirmaster album was a best-selling, Grammy-nominated project, the remix EP wasn’t received as warmly by the gospel community. It seems to have gotten lost for dance music audiences as it was released in the first summer of the pandemic, but it’s an important project from a house and gospel music legend.

“an ecstatic dance floor experience and the transcendence of a fiery, Sunday morning song service are deeply comparable experiences” 

The most organized gospel-dance experiment happened in the early 90’s when Scott Blackwell, who’d done dance mixes for artists like Debbie Gibson and Stacey Q, founded Myx Records, a Christian label, and began producing house projects with a gospel bent. There he collaborated with established artists like Bernard Wright and Crystal Lewis as well as a handful of artists that he was developing. He created the most consistent output of intentional gospel dance music, ever, but there were several issues that kept the project from success. The (then) traditional preference of the Black gospel market at the time and the racism of the contemporary Christian music industry kept Blackwell’s work from finding ears, but additionally, Myx Records’ distribution (through a Christian label) did not have the access or ability to market Blackwell’s productions to the clubs where they might have caught on.

But the dance music community has long held space for inspirational tracks with a gospel foundation. We can see this most recently with the House Gospel Choir. They are a London-based group made up of people from a variety of faiths that also understand the long tradition of gospel-infused songs having a place on the dance floor.

Others flirt with dance music while maintaining steady ground in gospel. BeBe Winans as a soloist and as part of 3 Winans Brothers has had multiple collaborations with Louie Vega. CeCe Winans had a top 10 Dance Club Play hit with a Tony Moran mix of her “Let Everything That Has Breath” in 2006 as well. Similarly, Steve “Silk” Hurley remixed Yolanda Adams’ crossover single “Open My Heart” that had minor success in the clubs. Lastly, Mary Mary has long made dance music a part of their promotional efforts with remixes by Maurice Joshua, George Mena & Frankie Estevez, Karmatronic, Jamie J. Sanchez, Dave Audé, DJ Escape & Tony Coluccio, Harlan Pepper & AG III, but these ventures receive virtually no attention in gospel channels.

Do you feel that there’s a greater acceptance today in the current music scene for gospel music? ie preconceptions being pushed aside, as knowledge grows about the true meaning such as socio-condition, and the state of the world as a people.

I think there’s definitely a greater acceptance for current gospel artists in the mainstream today, even if not for their actual music in mainstream circles. There are a fair amount of collaborations between mainstream artists and their friends in gospel, but those collaborations themselves are limited in their reach. What they provide, however, is a certain kind of cache, or name recognition, for the gospel artist outside of their market.

Gospel music from the past seems to be attaining more and more recognition for its boundary-breaking and trend-setting ways. These conversations matter because gospel (now being referred to as “worship music” more and more frequently) very much operates in the inverse today—it’s chasing the trends rather than setting them and is, more often than not, politically regressive. Over the last decade, there’s been a real re-examination, outside of the gospel music industry, of the Savoy catalog and a deeper appreciation for the recordings of local/regional groups that never achieved breakout success during the era they were recording.

Gospel music has always held revolutionary potential for social movements, which is why I’m happy to see people discovering the older music and listening to it with fresh ears. Its role in the Civil Rights Movement is undeniable. While its presence was less forefront, gospel was still represented in the Black Power movement. It has also been an important force in the Black LGBTQI movement. Sweet Honey in the Rock blended all of these worlds together in their body of work, marrying their feminist sensibilities in original compositions with their covers of gospel, folk and political songs.

Labi Sifre’s ‘Something Inside So Strong’ is an example of that kind of political cross-pollination. Sifre, an atheist, wrote the song about apartheid in South Africa and his experience as a gay man. An original member of the Voices of Heaven, Vanessa Bell Armstrong, despite having a different positionality than Sifre, recorded the song in 1989 and it received airplay on both R&B and gospel radio. She re-recorded it in 1995 with an all-star gospel choir in tribute to Rosa Parks and again at a performance at the Apollo in 1997. Sifre’s lyric illuminates (as does NYCC’s “Express Yourself”) what I think is gospel’s greatest unspoken power: humanism. The Spirit is, in my opinion, more often than not, a euphemism for the higher self and the power that emerges when two or three people can, in church speak, “touch and agree.” The travail that lifts us in gospel is a calling up of the higher self to rise to the occasion.

You’ve been working on an NYCC project for some time…a group that would feature heavily in club nights in the late 70’s….can you share any experiences that you’ve encountered from any of the members, such as gigs & appearances, particularly at secular events?

The New York Community Choir is unique in that they did not live in the same paradigm that people from traditional Pentecostal churches did. They did not fear the secular or feel a need to distance themselves from it. The choir’s co-founders (Bennie Diggs, Arthur Freeman, Wilbur Johnson and Isaac Douglas) were all part of Christian Tabernacle Spiritual Church (later renamed First Tabernacle of Deliverance) in Harlem which was on the fringe of the mainline church. They were not spiritual separatists—rather, they understood the importance of being in the world, which is why both the choir and Revelation (a non-gospel entity composed of Diggs, Freeman and choir members Philip Ballou & Arnold McCuller) would exist simultaneously, following in the footsteps of The Sweet Inspirations (Estelle Brown of the Sweets was also a member of Christian Tabernacle) who defied convention and sang both gospel and secular music proudly.

Prior to disco, the choir rose to fame outside of the church by way of their recordings and tours with Nikki Giovanni, which placed them in the epicenter of the Black Arts Movement. They performed with Labelle, Elton John, Josephine Baker and others during this period. Additionally, Revelation opened for the Bee Gees on their 1975 world tour, bringing their unique fusion of gospel and soul to new ears. The choir (and Revelation) recorded and performed with Melba Moore, Vicki Sue Robinson and Sylvester at the height of their careers. Bennie began frequenting David Mancuso’s Loft and some of the choir’s members and musicians became aware of it through that connection. The experience inspired them in a profound way. When “Express Yourself” hit in 1977, the first club they performed it in was The Loft. They also brought the disco spirit to their church, by then re-named First Tabernacle of Deliverance, under the leadership of Rev. Louis R. Grant. Members have recounted that disco hits, like First Choice’s “Armed and Extremely Dangerous,” would be re-written with spiritualized lyrics and rendered in their Sunday morning services where the disco heat and holy ghost fire would remind each other of just how congruent they were.

Arthur Freeman was particularly moved by the time they spent in the discos both as performers and patrons. He wrote about it in Revelation’s “Children of the Discos,” and told me, “They [those in the discos] felt accepted there. They weren’t accepted in the church which I think is atrocious. A lot of them had been hurt by church people and they would just go in, relieved to express themselves. My spirit would leave. The children were jumping and dancing and sweating and I said, ‘dance, children, dance.’”

In closing Tim, please share any personal experiences on a musical level that correlate to this project.

I was born about ten years too late to have been in the discos. I was also a church kid. So, I learned about dance music from church people who were ensconced in both worlds when they were younger. They regaled me with tales of hanging out in the clubs, dancing their asses off, caught up in the music, grabbing breakfast when the club closed down at the Waffle House or whatever small diner was open all night, and going right to church. While the saints who shared these things had matured by the time I came along and no longer frequented clubs, there was such a tenderness in their voices when they recalled those days. Part of it was certainly nostalgia, but there was no denying that the music was better back then and life was definitely a bit safer. Those were the days before AIDS, crack and the escalation of gun violence.

Perhaps because I was always a historian, our conversations about those days went deep and they pointed me to records like Machine’s “There But For The Grace of God,” Musique’s “Keep On Jumpin’,” and Sylvester’s “Over & Over,” songs that had, in different ways, gospel impulses. Because my friends had been gospel singers since their youth, the songs they were most prone to talk about were ones that fused together both worlds, the worlds they were traversing.

While most of those people felt that these worlds were somehow separate, I couldn’t help but notice how similar the feeling was in both genres. When I pursued my own art as a recording artist, I put sacred and secular content alongside each other on my albums and went into clubs to perform and found that the energy we would raise in church would show up. One former Prelude Records disco artist came to one of my shows and knocked a table over in the throes of the spirit falling! Through the years, I witnessed people “getting happy” in my club performances just like they would in church. It happened time and again. That validated the thoughts I’d had as a teenager and how I’ve contemplated gospel music in my writing through the years.

That rich profusion of sound and emotion is evident in this compilation, the consistent groove that suddenly takes a turn and you realize you’re not just riding the groove, but entirely caught up in it and letting your inhibitions go. While some would say that one venue satisfies the body and the other satisfies the spirit, I’d argue that both locations touch the totality of our beings. The preacher at the beginning of the B side of this cassette brings that point home! Soul translates in all the worlds.

© CWPT 2023

© CWPT 2023