Robert Jr. Whitall knows good things when he hears them, and he likes to share. Things like sacred steel, a musical genre born in the House of God Keith Dominion (a group of small African-American churches) in the late 1930s and one of the best-kept secrets in the blues. It’s faith-inspired slide guitar music, a fertile crossbreed of gospel and the blues. This heartfelt expression of religious conviction was performed only in those churches for more than 60 years.
Now, Whitall and Detroit’s own Calvin Cooke and the Rev. Ted Beard are taking it to the streets — more specifically to a fundraiser sponsored by Whitall’s publication, Big City Blues Magazine. The beneficiaries of Sunday’s “service” at downtown Detroit’s Fifth Avenue are the Koko Taylor Celebrity Aid Foundation and the Blues Foundation.
Cooke, a headliner, is one of sacred steel’s big-leaguers. He recently appeared on PBS’s “Austin City Limits,” and is collaborating with Beard, pastor of the local House of God church. Both men’s work have appeared on several sacred steel compilations, mainly on the Arhoolie label.
In a recent interview with Big City Blues Magazine, Beard said he believes his talent is a “gift from God.” And he and Cooke use their talents as such.
Transforming the steel guitar from flowing accompaniment to a driving wall of sound, the momentum that surges from sacred steel performances is as innovative and intense as anything modern blues can offer. Sacred steel worship services at the House of God have been known to go for six hours or more.
“It looks like it is going to be a big deal,” Whitall says on his cell phone as he drives down the “Music Highway” between Nashville and Memphis. “We have transcended Detroit, and have brought something special for the show.”
He sounds like a proud father.
“I have some of the biggest musicians in the country who want to play these shows for Big City Blues Magazine because we are willing to spotlight them,” says Whitall, a photographer whose passion for R&B led him to found the publication in 1995. “Most of them want to help the magazine out.”
“We do these shows about six times a year to coincide with the issue. The celebration of the music and the magazine … has been hugely successful.”
Also appearing will be Doug Deming and the Jewel Tones (featuring Kim Wilson of the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Lazy Lester and Greg “Fingers” Taylor), and the acoustic blues of Paul Miles.
The Big City Blues Magazine Holiday Fundraiser happens Sunday, Dec. 22, 7 p.m.-midnight at Fifth Avenue, on the north side of Comerica Park in Detroit. $10 donation; $7 for members of the Detroit Blues Society. Call 313-471-2555 for more info.Eve Doster is the Metro Times listings editor. E-mail [email protected]