Sister Lucille Pope

The Accidental Gospel Star

Sister Lucille Pope

Sister Lucille Pope

Sister Lucille Pope turns interview protocol on its head in the most disarming way. Since she lacks a publicist or website, this writer had to get the phone number for Pope’s husband, band leader and business manager, Brother Lewis Alexander, from an altruistic gospel and soul blogger. But it was Pope herself who answered the phone. Not only did she seem entirely unbothered by a music writer’s out-of-the-blue interruption; she was flat-out delighted somebody wanted to interview her.

But it’s more than just motherly warmth and informality that make Pope unique among professional singers, gospel or otherwise.

As a young gospel singer, wife and mother with a solid backing group, the Pearly Gates, and a 15-minute radio show on Griffin, Georgia’s WGRI in the early-1960s, she couldn’t have been less interested in a record deal and the demanding touring schedule that would come with it.

It took DJ Ed Shane much persuading to get Pope and the Pearly Gates to record a few originals—including one called “Almighty God”—after the jingles they’d done for the station excited teenaged listeners. Even when she agreed to take the group into the studio, she was adamant that their songs not be released commercially or played on the air. But Shane fudged that just a bit.

“When I was at work one Saturday morning, all of a sudden I hear the DJ say, ‘Got a brand new one,’” Pope recalls. “I hear this song ‘Almighty God.’ I said, ‘They got my song. How’d they know how we sung it?’ For a few minutes there—honest to God—I was trying to find out who these folks were. Because I had never heard myself on no record. I didn’t know how I sounded—I know how I felt [when I sang].”

Label (Mis)Adventures

Shane’s small Eddo label put out a 45-rpm single with “Almighty God” on one side and “Early One Morning” (with Pearly Gate Larry Bivens singing lead) on the other. Vee-Jay soon picked it up for wider release, then Chess did the same with their rollicking song “Jesus Tore My Heart To Pieces.”

But it was the mid-’70s before Pope and the Pearly Gates recorded again for a label. (At that point they began a several-LP run for Nashboro, beginning with Our Silver Anniversary in Gospel Music.) When Nashboro went under, Pope eventually—at the urging of yet another DJ—signed with Atlanta International, where she and the Pearly Gates have continued putting out studio and live albums, like The Great Reunion and Real Christians Stand Up.

But record labels haven’t always proven the group’s most trustworthy partners. That Nashboro released unfinished recordings without the group’s permission is just one example: “I did the lead part and [the Pearly Gates] was going to go back. They just did a dummy track on there. The songs was good but the sound, it was like we didn’t know what we were doing. And when we heard it, it was on the air, [and we were still] waiting on [the label] to call us and give us an appointment to come back [and finish recording].”

Label or not, Pope and the five different versions of the Pearly Gates who’ve been with her along the way soldiered on as live performers (The initial group featured two of her brothers, the second her now-deceased first husband, Willie Pope, and the current group includes her second husband, Lewis Alexander, her sons Reginald and Willie Pope, Jr., grandsons Steven, Shaune and Reggie Pope, Jr., godson Tuqwan Jordan and guitarists Arthur Capers and Rodney Keith.)

Vintage photo of Sister Lucille Pope and The Pearly Gates

Vintage photo of Sister Lucille Pope and The Pearly Gates

Only now—per her doctor’s orders—is she starting to slow down a bit. “We never had a month that we wasn’t working,” she recalls of earlier years. “We haven’t sung in Madison Square Garden, places like that, yet, but we’ve been in some beautiful places.”

More than just building a fan base, Pope and the Pearly Gates have created an extended family of sorts among their longtime listeners. “I got a lot of goddaughters and things,” she says. “They met me when we was there doing concerts. Some of them call me ‘Ma.’”

Audiences have connected with how much of herself Pope reveals through testifying about her life and faith (“I let people know when they see us, they see the finished package, but they don’t know nothing about what we go through before we get on that stage”) and writing her own songs. (Original songwriting isn’t a given for a gospel singer.)

A Unique Sound

As the youngest of eight born to sharecropping parents in Concord, Ga., Pope was already singing and spontaneously composing songs as she plowed behind a mule at a very young age. “I’d sing what came up in my spirit, and I’d sing it at church, in the fields and going to school,” she recalls. “When I was in school, when I got through with my lesson, if something come to my mind I would write it down. I never had anybody to write for me.”

The group’s sound always stood out, too. Pope’s smoldering, from-the-gut singing and bright, all-male harmonies were supported early on by a single electric guitar, blown-bass and hand-clapping. Later, they added organ, bass and drums to churn out raw, swaying, distinctively southern grooves. To have a gospel group with a woman singing lead and male backing vocalists was a rare thing.

“We really was the first in our area of Georgia,” she says, before clarifying, “The Swanees [as in, the Swanee Quartet] was the first, but they didn’t have no lady.”

Of course, as deep and gritty as Pope’s singing is compared to the Pearly Gates’ smoother, higher harmonies, people hearing them on the radio weren’t always aware of the group’s unique makeup. “People thought I was the man and the Pearly Gates was women,” she laughs.

Pope’s voice held its own with the gospel altos of her era, and the same would’ve probably been true in R&B, if she’d wanted to sing it. “[People] said, ‘Girl you could rack up with your voice singing blues,’” she remembers. “I said, ‘Now, I can do it, but it don’t do nothing for me.’”

Pope says she and the Pearly Gates never modeled themselves on any other groups, though she mentions an uncle who sang in a shape note trio with her father as an inspiration. “I’m one of them kinds that I go with what I hear inside of me,” she explains. “I love gospel. I don’t care who’s singing it. But I never tried to imitate anybody because what God gave them is for them. I just did what I did by feeling.”

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