Church and religious music have been fundamental influences on singers and musicians for decades, inspiring stars and legends like Ella Fitzgerald, Aretha Franklin and Elvis Presley.
For many musicians, the earliest memories of music and performance occurred in church or a place of worship, and that early exposure to gospel or religious music often indelibly shaped their performance skills and personalities.
The Star talked to several performers about how church and religion inspired and influenced them.
Ryan J. Lee
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Lee’s earliest music memory is as a 2-year-old attending a service at the Cleveland Avenue Baptist Church in Kansas City, where his mother and her brothers sang in the choir and his grandmother played piano. That’s where he noticed the drummer in the band.
“I remember watching him,” he said. “That’s what inspired me to want to play drums.”
Lee gradually graduated from banging pots and pans with spoons to playing snare drums in the elementary school drill team, then on to playing clarinet and drums in the concert and jazz bands at the Paseo Academy of Fine and Performing Arts, from which he graduated in 2007. He earned his degree in jazz performance at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, and through it all religion and church music were fundamental to his growth.
During his freshman year in college, Lee was hired to play drums in the band at the Evangelistic Center in Kansas City, Kan., an experience that changed his outlook on music.
“I was exposed to the greater possibilities of music. It was a lot more heartfelt and less academic, a little more ‘in the moment,’ really spiritual, which music should be anyway, whether in church or not.
“I was kind of blown away. I also experienced the ability to play by ear and to hear where the music is going before you choose your notes. The page wasn’t dictating what you played. It was the spirit and a lot of other elements that directed your musical choices,” he said.
“This was the first time I was connecting music with certain emotions. This was not playing for yourself. It was being more vulnerable, more open, a vessel for a bigger message and spirit. That’s the first time I understood that deeper meaning of music. And now I can bring that to a lot of other music that isn’t necessarily church music but still have that element.”
For the past three years, Lee has been part of the music presentation at the City Center Church, formerly the Lenexa Christian Center. There, he has learned even more about music production and presentation, skills and techniques he can apply to his many outside projects. That includes Mezzo String, an ensemble he founded that blends the music of a chamber string quartet with that of a jazz quartet.
“At City Center, the music is more modest than what it was at other churches, but the production and how it is all brought together for a specific message is much different.
“Now I’m learning more about the bigger picture. The music doesn’t necessarily have to be musically or vocally acrobatic for the message to come across. It can be really simple as long as the music team and lighting team and the dance team are working together.
“So I’m learning a lot about storytelling. That’s the key. It’s simplifying me as an artist and player, and I think that’s going to help me in my career and where it goes next.”
Henry’s first love was jazz, but her first music experience was in the church.
“My mother was a gospel singer, and she used to sing all the time in the church. She invited me onto the stage one day. I was probably 6.
“My earliest memory of being onstage and in front of a large crowd was at church. It was very different from being in your bathroom singing into your hairbrush.”
Henry has been part of the Kansas City jazz scene since her late teens. Her interest in jazz was born while she was in elementary and middle school.
“In fourth grade I first read an autobiography of Billie Holiday. That’s also when I heard my first Billie Holiday and Miles Davis records, and both had a big effect on me. I also saw some footage of Ella Fitzgerald and Dinah Washington. I was a chubby black girl so I looked at them and thought, ‘Oh, this is where the big women hang out. And they can do what they want to do and sing how they want to. I like this.’
“Even at that age, I realized jazz represented options and freedoms for women who did not meet the conventional beauty standards. I also realized through the music, you could really be a powerful force.”
She also acknowledged the deep influence of the church and its music.
“I’ll go out on a limb to say this, but I don’t know many jazz and blues artists who won’t say that gospel, jazz and blues are all part of the African-American experience musically. I don’t think you can divorce one from the other.
“I like to tell my (vocal) students that jazz is my main house, but I have summer homes in other genres. But I also tell them that gospel is the foundation.
“As a people, that’s all we had within this American experience, was hope and faith. So we gave everything we had to express that. A lot of people fear going to the place of authenticity, and that’s what gospel has always represented to me. That’s where it came from.”
John Paul White
John Paul White found his voice in the church, where he also discovered the rewards of live performance. The former member of the Grammy-winning duo the Civil Wars, who performs Saturday at Knuckleheads, was in elementary school in Loretta, Tenn., when he first sang in public.
“My mother is a very devout Roman Catholic. I grew up in a small town, and it was all German-Catholics. Church was a huge part of our everyday life. I went to Catholic school. I was taught by nuns. And my formative music years were connected to all that, the school and the church. It was all very straight and traditional. All the hymns were very old and sung in a very specific ways.”
Singing was practically required of everyone, he said. “If you could carry a tune, you had to sing. … It never entered my mind to say no, because everybody did it. That was a Catholic thing. You did what you were told and questioned nothing.
“I definitely enjoyed singing, but what I really enjoyed was the way it made people react and watching people’s faces when I sang. It opened up something in me and made me a completely different person — more outgoing.”
Then came high school.
“And that’s where I met the rock ’n’ roll guys and it completely skewed everything, in positive and negative ways. All of my experimentation, figuring out who I am and what I really loved, didn’t start until I was about 16. But everything started with singing in the church; that was really formative.”
Dieker was born into a family also deeply involved with the Catholic Church.
“My mother was always a church musician so we had to sing in church. There was no other choice. We played instruments as far back as I can remember. As soon as we were able to sight read on the violins when we were 7 and 8 years old, my sister and I were playing at church.”
When she was 15, a church hired Dieker to be its accompanist, a job that paid lucratively but also nurtured her music skills.
“I got paid like $50 a Mass, and there were five Masses a weekend,” she said. “It was a sweet gig for a 15-year-old. And my supervisor was very encouraging and let me do my thing and kind of explore the piano. It was my first experience in improvising.”
Years later, another accompanist gig would change her life. In 2012, Dieker was asked to substitute at the Temple, Congregation B’nai Jehudah in Overland Park. That went so well that in 2014 she was asked to sit in as the interim music director. In 2015, she was appointed to the position, which she has transformed — composing music, arranging performances and assembling bands and performers.
“I love giving people a place to play music and sing. There are so many talented people, but a lot of them are busy being a parent or a lawyer or running a business. But they can still come to temple, where they belong, and play with me. And I put the band together. It’s so gratifying to make music with people and give them a place to do it. It’s so important.”
Dieker takes other church gigs, and plays and collaborates with other bands and ensembles, including Mezzo Strings. But the temple job has transformed her, too. In December, Dieker converted to Judaism.
“When I was the accompanist, I ended up learning so much. I loved the music and I loved the people. And I realized I already conformed to many of the most important principals and practices of at least reformed Judaism.
“Through the music, I poured my soul into the place and helped create this new sound they’d never had. I was so happy about everything there. Then it became something I wanted to do, and it was a big deal. I already felt like I was Jewish; it was just a matter of making it official.”
Gospel music was everywhere in Langston’s childhood.
“I’m a preacher’s grandchild. My grandfather was a pastor, though I didn’t really get my church experience through him. But my dad and most of my uncles and aunts were singers. So at the house there was frequently some type of religious-themed music performed.
“They’d get together, like you’d see in the movie where everyone crowds together in a living room and they’d all sing. It was all gospel music. I remember being mesmerized by that.”
Langston didn’t consider being a performer until he was in his early 20s. But when he did, his first step was into nonsecular music: a five-year stint with Isaac Cates and Ordained, a contemporary gospel band from Kansas City.
He is now involved in several secular-music projects, including the Buhs, a jazz/funk/hip-hop band, and various tribute shows he organizes. But gospel music is typically at the root of whatever he does.
“There are so many things about gospel music that come from feelings. It’s very spiritual. You can notice people with gospel backgrounds: people who feel music as opposed to just reading it. You can give some musicians a chart and they’ll read through it. … But you have other people who really reach down and go for it. That’s when you know gospel music is the primary influence in their performance.”
Kansas City’s most popular rapper and successful music export is famous for his outlandish live shows and his provocative music styles and techniques. But Tech N9ne, born Aaron Yates, says his music roots are deep in the church.
“I was raised in a Christian home, and we went to church like Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday. That’s where I learned octaves and harmonies and melody. That’s where I sang with the Sunshine Band at Barker Temple Church of God in Christ.
“I was there for everything, the choir rehearsal, the Sunshine Band rehearsal, when they would meet about the mortgage. My mom was always involved in the church, every day. My mom and aunt were in the choir as well.”
Religion and the Bible have been explicit components of his music, as evidenced by song and album titles.
“Without all those teachings, I wouldn’t be Tech N9ne. Everything you see, like (the song) ‘Show Me a God,’ which was about when my mom was sick; or (the album) ‘Anghellic,’ which is about hell, purgatory and heaven because that’s what they taught me in church; and (the song) ‘Evil Brain Angel Heart,’ the fight between good and evil: All of it comes from my religious background.
“So much of my career has been based on the church because of my family’s religiousness. All through my life, my mom would say, ‘Baby, I love what you’re doing, I just wish you would do it for Christ.’ So, every once in a while, I’ll do one. But it’s going to be edgy, like ‘Need Jesus,’ which is pointing at people who say I need Jesus. I know I’m good inside; you need Jesus because you’re judging me.
“C’mon, man, I used to come onstage wearing a bishop’s robe. My Auntie Linda named me Aaron. That’s Moses’ older brother, a name out of the Bible. Look up Aaron in the dictionary, it says ‘high priest.’ Everything about me is religious.”