'He Was Just That Anointed': Remembering Gospel Star Joe Ligon

Dec 13, 2016
Originally published on December 14, 2016 12:49 pm

Gospel singer Joe Ligon died Sunday at the age of 80. He was the electric and vibrant frontman for the Grammy award-winning group Mighty Clouds of Joy, which helped bring gospel to the mainstream.

Ligon was born in Troy, Ala. in 1936. He spent some time in Detroit, then moved to L.A., where he joined the Mighty Clouds of Joy and proved himself in the band. In an interview with the Malaco Music Group, Ligon revealed that he wasn't originally chosen as the group's lead singer. One night, as the group was rehearsing, the lead vocalist was having trouble with part of a song.

"I showed him how to do the part," Ligon says. "And the old man who's really responsible for our career ... was listening. And he told me that night, 'From now on, you're gonna be the lead singer.'"

Gospel star Pastor Shirley Caesar says Ligon brought a remarkable energy to his performances. "He was the type of singer that would never sit down until he had torn the house up," she says. "Just leave the house in a spiritual frenzy.

Caesar adds that no gospel singers — herself included — ever wanted to follow Ligon and his Mighty Clouds of Joy. "By the time Joe and the Clouds would've finished singing, there was really nothing left — the people were really ready to go home," she says.

Alabama-based music journalist J. Matthew Cobb also noted Ligon's singular performance style. "He always gave a fiery, Sunday-morning preacher-like delivery," he says.

The Mighty Clouds of Joy's biggest hit, "Mighty High," came out in the '70s, and Cobb says the single was emblematic of a transition gospel was going through at that time. It incorporated sounds from soul and pop music and appealed to younger and more secular audiences. Not everyone was comfortable with the change.

"It allowed them to perform on Soul Train," Cobb says. "They were being played in discos. And they got a lot of flack for doing that." Flack aside, the song ended up charting on the Billboard Top 100.

Despite the criticism he got for his crossover success, Ligon certainly maintained a base of committed fans. Ceasar says that when Ligon walked into a room of gospel fans, he inspired a special sense of adoration.

"Everybody wanted to get close to him," she says. "They wanted to touch him. He was just that anointed."

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

We're going to take a few moments now to remember gospel singer Joe Ligon. He was the front man for the Grammy-winning group Mighty Clouds of Joy, which helped to bring gospel to the mainstream. Ligon died this week at the age of 80. NPR's Andrew Limbong has this appreciation.

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: Late into the Grammy-winning album "Pray For Me," Joe Ligon goes into a parable about a boy with a beautiful voice.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PRAY FOR ME")

MIGHTY CLOUDS OF JOY: (Singing) And one day a man came to church, heard that young boy singing.

LIMBONG: It's a riff on temptation and drugs and love and redemption that eventually hits this climax.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PRAY FOR ME")

MIGHTY CLOUDS OF JOY: (Singing) Pray for me is what he said. Pray, pray, pray, pray for me. Oh...

SHIRLEY CAESAR: He was that type of a singer that would never sit down until he had torn the house up. Just leave the house in a spiritual frenzy.

LIMBONG: That's Pastor Shirley Caesar, a big-time gospel singer in her own right. She says that no gospel singers, herself included, ever wanted to follow Joe Ligon and his Mighty Clouds of Joy.

CAESAR: By the time Joe and the Clouds would have finished singing, there was really nothing left. The people were really ready to go home.

LIMBONG: You can hear that in a performance they did together back in 2007. Pastor Caesar gets the momentum going.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SWEEPING THROUGH THE CITY")

CAESAR: (Singing) Can I get somebody, can you help me lift it higher?

LIMBONG: And then Ligon comes in.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SWEEPING THROUGH THE CITY")

JOE LIGON: (Singing) Higher.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Higher.

LIGON: (Singing) Higher.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Higher.

LIGON: (Singing) Higher.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Higher.

LIGON: (Singing) Higher.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Higher.

LIGON: (Singing) Everybody on a roll.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Higher.

J MATTHEW COBB: He always gave a fiery, Sunday-morning kind of preacher-like delivery.

LIMBONG: Music journalist J. Matthew Scott says that it was in the '70s when the group came out with its biggest hit, "Mighty High."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MIGHTY HIGH")

MIGHTY CLOUDS OF JOY: (Singing) Come on and ride the mighty high.

LIMBONG: That single was emblematic of a change gospel was going through at that time, incorporating sounds from soul and pop music appealing to younger people. Not everyone was comfortable with the change.

COBB: It was a crossover hit. It allowed them to perform on "Soul Train." They were being played in discos. And they got a lot of flak for doing that.

LIMBONG: Flak aside, the song ended up charting on the Billboard Top 100.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MIGHTY HIGH")

MIGHTY CLOUDS OF JOY: (Singing) Take a load off your mind, ride the mighty glory. Listen to my story, ride the mighty high. Take a load off...

LIMBONG: Joe Ligon was born in rural Alabama in 1936. He spent some time in Detroit. Then he moved to Los Angeles, where he joined the Mighty Clouds of Joy and proved himself in the band.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LIGON: And one night we were rehearsing, and the lead singer had a problem with a certain part of a song.

LIMBONG: This is Ligon in an interview with the Malaco Music Group.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LIGON: So I showed him how to do the part. And the old man who's really responsible for our career today - he's gone to live with Jesus - he was sitting there and he was listening. And he told me that night, he said, from now on, you're going to be the lead singer. That's how I started singing lead for the Mighty Clouds of Joy.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHO'S GOING DOWN IN THE GRAVE WITH ME")

MIGHTY CLOUDS OF JOY: (Singing) Who is going down in the grave with me? I wonder sometimes.

LIMBONG: From there, they'd go on to win three Grammys and were beloved by their listeners. Pastor Shirley Caesar says that when Joe Ligon walked into a room of gospel fans, the feeling was transcendent.

CAESAR: Everybody wanted to get close to him. They wanted to touch him. He was just that anointed.

LIMBONG: Andrew Limbong, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHO'S GOING DOWN IN THE GRAVE WITH ME")

MIGHTY CLOUDS OF JOY: (Singing) Oh, Jesus, pull me back...

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In the audio of this story, we incorrectly give J. Matthew Cobb's last name as Scott.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.