His thick shock of hair, black suit and underlying white shirt gave Robert Darden the look of a musical composer as he walked into Starbucks carrying the wood-handled umbrella that shielded him from the day’s downpour.
The former Billboard gospel music editor turned Baylor professor has spent most of his life listening to, collecting and writing about black gospel music.
Around the corner from the coffee shop, inside the Moody Library, a digital collection of the genre not only bears his name but was also part of the Smithsonian’s African American History and Culture museum that opened in September.
“There’s something about this music,” Darden said. “I feel like I’ve just seen a little glimmer of what’s still out there as to how this music changed America and the world.”
Darden, who attended the museum’s opening with his wife, Mary, talked about seeing iconic musicians dressed in “spectacular, electric blue, zoot suits,” the appreciation he received for helping make the collection available, and the mini reunions that took place throughout the museum every few minutes.
“Some of these people haven’t seen each other in 50 years,” he said.
While at Billboard, Darden received scores of albums, but he had also scoured thrift shops, garage sales and online auctions searching for bits and pieces of what is now part of the Royce-Darden collection at Baylor. The Black Gospel Music Restoration Project, which spans the 1940s to 1980s, makes about 4,500 individual songs available for public access at no cost via streaming audio at baylor.edu/library/gospel.
“We’ve expanded it the last year to include black preaching,” Darden said. ”Our rationale is black preaching and black music is essentially the same thing. We’ve been trying to save the sermons of the famous black preachers from the '50s, '60s, and '70s civil rights era.”
Among the collection are sermons from C.L. Franklin, Aretha’s father.
With several clear tubs full of record albums and a disc cleaner nearby, audiovisual digitization specialist Stephen Bolech talked about the process of preserving the albums and their covers.
“This is where the actual digitization takes place,” he said as he walked toward a small sound room. Darryl Stuhr, associate director of digital projects, then talked about the science behind storing and duplicating sounds and images digitally.
“There are multiple copies on multimedia,” he said. “The decisions we make now are helping to ensure we can open the files 50 years from now.”
Digital Collections Curator Eric Ames transcribes data from the discs onto the database, which now includes more than 2,700 albums. Ames pulled an image up on a computer screen of a 45 by the Gospel Clouds of Joy from Columbus, Ohio.
“There’s a brighter day a-coming boys,” came the gospel bluesy sound.
As Darden, who plays drums for a band called After Midnight, made his way to the library’s third floor listening room, he lamented a loss of hearing he attributes to “the many perils of being in a rock 'n' roll band for many years.”
Darden, a self-described military brat, said his family had moved around with the U.S. Air Force, which was not segregated at the time.
“I always grew up with African-American kids,” he said. “[Gospel] was the music I was listening to when I’d go into their houses.”
Darden, who is now 62, has written entire books about it.
"Among the richest of the lavish gifts Africa has given to the world is rhythm,” reads an excerpt from People Get Ready, one of his many books. “The beat. The sound of wood on wood, hand on hand. That indefinable pulse that sets blood to racing and toes to tapping. It is rhythm that drives the great American musical exports, the spiritual (and, by extension, gospel), the blues, jazz and rock 'n' roll. But first you must have the spirituals — religion with rhythm.”
Maddened that he could not find and listen to copies of some of the music he wrote about, Darden once penned a letter to The New York Times calling the loss of gospel music a sin. And they published it.
“The next day, a gentleman called and said, 'I’ll pay for it, if you’ll figure out how to save it,’” he said.
The gentleman was Charles M. Royce. Darden said he wishes he knew exactly why, but Royce’s reasoning went something like this, “I knew what you were saying was true, and if it was true, then someone was going to be called to step forward to make it happen, and it was my turn.”
Sitting near a wooden pew inside the listening room, Darden reflected further on the decade-old project.
He said some of the early black gospel music has been re-released, but much of the genre was still under copyright, and since there was no way to profit from it, nobody was trying to save it other than individual collectors. He also said it concerns him when labels he has never seen show up because nobody knows how much of the music the label produced that may still be missing.
What may not have been safe to say in public during the civil rights era, Darden said, black gospel singers were singing on a rare B-side somewhere.
“This [collection] survives because it matters,” he said. “Royce could have given to a lot of other things.”
As “Old Ship of Zion” sung a cappella by John Stewart Jr., played in the background, Darden talked about the self-pressed 45 by the Mighty Wonders of Aquasco, Maryland, which he considers the holy grail of the collection. Darden said because of an interview with Dan Rodricks of the Baltimore Sun, he was able to locate the group.
“Four of them were still alive in their 80s,” he said. “They were still singing in their little, tiny churches. They didn’t have a copy.”
Darden also talked about various record labels like Vee-Jay, Apollo, Savoy and Gotham.
“Peacock out of Houston had Little Richard and Big Mama Thornton,” he said. “Malaco out of Jackson, Mississippi, they’re still releasing good, old-school gospel.”
The music, Darden said, has been sung across the globe by Christians and non-Christians alike from the fall of the Berlin Wall to the funeral of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
“These songs are still here,” he said. “There is something happening around the world, people still sing these songs. I don’t have a handle on that yet. I want to know why. What is different about this subset of songs?”
Darden said he is happy the music has been preserved, but he does not consider the collection his life work.
“Something is still bothering me,” he said. “There’s something still missing. And I know that this music, these words, these people are going to help me find it.”
As he talked about interviewing people who told him that nobody had ever asked about their music
before, Darden’s voice cracked. Some, he said, even asked if they could just sing it for him and Mary while they were still alive.
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“Sitting in these terrible, little living rooms in projects in Chicago and Birmingham and having these saintly, little people sing to us, gosh, what’s not to like,” he said. “It’s our privilege, and our duty, and our honor.”
Ames said one of the great things about Baylor’s black gospel music collection is that future generations won’t need to “scrounge around in record bins to try to find them like Bob did.”
But Darden didn’t mind.
“I still do it everywhere I go,” he said.