McAllister Singers: Kid-fronted Detroit gospel from the early 1970s

May 11, 2015 at 10:41 am

Here's a treat: three cool tracks from the local Saint label, of the kid-fronted McAllister Singers. These tracks were all captured from the original 45s and uploaded to YouTube by noted gospel collector and DJ Aaron Bushman. I'm pretty sure I have at least one of these, but my records are currently not in any order, at all.

We'll intersperse a little prose on the act, courtesy of those intrepid Chicago crate diggers at Numero, who included one of their tracks on a collection called Good God: Apocryphal Hymns. I love the bit at the end where it says they still perform; I wonder at which church? I'm curious if any of the grown members now encourage their own children to sing lead? Kid-fronted gospel can be such a treat.

On the Louisiana side of the Delta that Mississippi made famous, Willie McAllister came of age in the tiny parish of St. Joseph as part of the Spring Hill Baptist congregation. Alongside siblings James and Charles, his cousin Dewey Scott, and their close friend Clem Foster, he formed the Golden Stars in his teens in the early 1940s. Needing money to wed Waterproof, Louisiana’s Keolia Gordon, Willie sought his fortunes at “sinking mats”—an erosion prevention technique—on a Mississippi riverboat, leaving St. Joseph and gospel behind in 1947. After returning four years later to marry his childhood sweetheart, McAllister was whisked into the Korean conflict through 1953. Upon Willie’s discharge, the couple took their lives off hold and, like hundreds of thousands of their peers, migrated north.

Finding work in a Detroit mattress factory, Willie McAllister watched his family grow quickly. Though he never managed to find time to join an organized group, he and Keolia sang at home. As each of their children came of age, they joined in, picking up instruments if they could. Thelma, the oldest, played piano and sang. Juanita picked guitar, as did third-eldest Willie Jr. DeWayne, fourth in line, played drums and keyboards. Shirley and Alice, McAllisters #5 and 6, sang and played piano, respectively. The youngest two, Peter and Bernadette, lent their voices upon maturation. The McAllister family performed only for fun, but the novelty of the group’s youth quickly made them a desirable act in the large Holy Cross congregation. Hoping to capture family history in the making, Willie picked up the phone book and found a cheap Warren Avenue recording studio operating out of a former dress shop. It was owned by Ed McCoy, best known for his eponymous Big Mack label. McCoy’s studio had deep gospel roots via his Brighter Day concern, but he paid bills with custom work, often lining up quartets and running them through on a Ford-like assembly line. McCoy’s large room was perfect for the large McAllister ensemble, which cut their first single live to 8-track in 1970.

“Peace When He Comes”—meant to reassure Detroiters amid the violence of the 1968 riots and the intensifying conflict in Vietnam—was written primarily by DeWayne and Thelma, who got top billing on the 45’s Saint label, the McAllister’s very own brand. “Somebody Bigger Than You & I,” a leftover from Willie’s Golden Stars days, took the flipside. The second and final Saint release reinterpreted the traditional “Calvary” (and was issued bearing #Mc2650, the same McCoy catalog number as the first). Despite their recording efforts, the group remained a hobby, never really leaving the Detroit area. In 1984, local disc jockey Ollie McLaughlin (who famously owned the quartet of daughter-named labels Carla, Karen, Moira, and Ruth) produced a 3-song 12” on the family, though he died unexpectedly of a heart attack while completing the project. Ruth McLaughlin, Ollie’s widow, generously helped the McAllisters issue Carla 1904—the label’s final release. The McAllisters, with DeWayne at the helm, continue to perform and teach music to this day.