Last week, Reverend Gean West died at the age of 78. He was one of the founders of the band, The Relatives. They were an unknown West Dallas group that faded in the early ‘80s only to reunite and gain national acclaim the past five years. KERA’s Jerome Weeks has this appreciation of one of the pioneers of gospel-funk.
In a 2012 interview, Gean West explained how the Relatives, the gospel group he started with his younger brother Tommie, had limited performing options in the ‘70s. “We was really afraid to go in churches,” he said. “We didn’t know how they were going to accept it.”
What they might not have been willing to accept was the Relatives’ music. A song like “Evil World” may seem safe enough now — even a bit pop-soul, given the world-changing phenomenon of hip-hop — but this was still too down and dirty for many churches back then. The Wests had grown up soaked in traditional gospel. Gean said he’d been singing it in groups since he was five and besides, their mother’s house in West Dallas was a layover spot for many black touring acts that couldn’t stay in segregated Dallas hotels. Aretha Franklin, Shirley Caesar, Sam Cooke: People like that, West said, taught him how to deliver a note. So it only seemed inevitable in 1959 when Gean West left town to perform with groups like the Sensational Golden Knights, the Mighty Golden Voices and the Southernaires.
But in 1970, when the West brothers started their own group back home, they mixed gospel with funky dancefloor rhythms and a bit of psychedelic guitar. The Reverend Tommie West explained, “We wanted to give the younger generation something, you know, put a little funk behind it. And we came up with that beat.”
But that mostly meant they were too sanctified for commercial radioplay and too “street” for many churches. Twenty years after Sam Cooke was dropped by the Soul Stirrers for releasing a pop single under a pseudonym, a split remained between the spiritual mission of gospel and the wide, rude, rambunctious R&B marketplace.
So in the early ‘70s, when the Relatives played the Bronze Peacock Club in Houston, it was possibly their chance at the big time. Club owner Don Robey was a pioneer in both gospel and R&B. A decade before Berry Gordy founded Motown, Robey had his own record label (Peacock, later Duke-Peacock) and managed dozens of artists like Clarence ‘Gatemouth’ Brown and the Mighty Clouds of Joy. Even Little Richard had a contract with Robey in the early ’50s
And Robey liked Gean West’s voice. Listen to the original track of “Evil World” — right at the 50 second mark, you’ll hear Gean West take over the lead vocals with what he called “the squall,” an imploring, urgent, gargling shout that would make James Brown himself take a step back. That sound nearly made the Relatives famous.
According to West, during their show at the Peacock, he let it loose. He said he jumped into the orchestra pit. “But I couldn’t get out,” he recalled laughing. “It was so dark, I couldn’t find the stairs to head into the audience. I was down there, boy, I was squalling in the pit, man. So that Monday, we went back in the Peacock. When we walked in the door, Don Robey said, ‘Send him back here.'”
He pointedly asked only for Gean, no other band member.
“And he said, ‘Why don’t you let me make that squall you got famous — in R&B? I said, ‘Oh man, I can’t do that.’ At the time, I was preaching. He said, ‘Don’t you want to eat?’ I never will forget that.’”
Don’t feel sorry for any lost chance at stardom. Robey, who died in 1975, was never charged with anything. But he was notorious among musicians for claiming royalties for songs he didn’t write, hiding profits from mega-hits like Lieber and Stoller’s “Hound Dog,” even for resorting to threats and outright violence. He reportedly once shot at Little Richard
In any event, by the early ‘80s, the Relatives broke up. The biggest crowd they’d ever played for was in a city park for the West Dallas Community Cleanup Campaign. Gean West returned to West Dallas to minister to God’s Anointed Community Church of God in Christ, while brother Tommie still runs the No Walls Ministry in South Dallas.
Then in 2000, Austin DJ Noel Waggoner heard an old, limited-edition single the Relatives had released back in the ’70s. “I was floored,” he recalled. “A gospel record that sounds like early Funkadelic?”
He went looking for the Wests — and the rest has become a favorite story in the media, a feat of musical resurrection. The Relatives’ old session tapes from 1974 were dug out and released in 2009. These were guys in their 60s and 70s playing old-school funk with religious fervor, but joined by members of Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears — and with Tommie taking over more of the lead singing chores from Gean — they rocked SXSW in Austin, and played on Austin City Limits. They played France and Lincoln Center and released a new album in 2013, The Electric Word. It got streamed exclusively on Texas Monthly‘s website, they were written up in the New York Times and on NPR.
But in October last year, Gean West’s heart and kidney troubles were so serious, a fundraising campaign was launched online to pay his hospital bills. (Robert Wilonsky has the medical details.) West was still recording another album with the group on January 26th – they were only one tune short of completion — but he died in Parkland Hospital February 4th.
In 2012, before all the national attention had really started to kick in, West was asked what he felt about this belated discovery, this improbable reunion. He was amazed at their luck, he said, then he corrected himself. No, it was not luck.
“It was really a miracle. And I believe it was all in God’s hand.”
A wake for Revered Gean West will be held tonight from 7 to 9 p.m. at the West Dallas Community Church. And a homegoing service will be held there tomorrow at 11 a.m.