Bob Bailey: "The Church Is Wherever We Are"
The highly sought-after vocalist opens up about his evolution from PTL Singer to solo artist and his 1983 Grammy and Dove nominated solo album I'm Walkin'
Over the last ten months, you’ve read four articles that tell a portion of the story of Nashville’s contributions to both contemporary Christian music and contemporary gospel. The Nashville series began with our feature on Reba Rambo, whose work troubled both racial and gendered expectations within the network of Christian music. The second focused on Johnny Whittaker and his Twenty-First Century Singers who were a part of integrating country recording sessions in the early 70s and, through their own catalog and performance, challenged ideological perceptions of gospel music as ministry by asserting their presence as entertainers. The third installment focused on Donna McElroy, a singer who entered Nashville’s world of session singers just a few years after Johnny Whittaker and the Twenty-First Century Singers. Donna’s path took her into both country and contemporary Christian music and, after over a solid decade of work in the background, she emerged with her debut solo album at the top of the 90s. Her story was steeped in racial and music industry politics as she presented her individualized notion of contemporary Christianhood through music. The final installment of this series introduces the experience of Bob Bailey, a singer who, like Whittaker and McElroy, experienced a variety of all of the aforementioned elements, but throughout his career also migrated from the background to centerstage and returned to the background again.
Bob Bailey came to national prominence within the Christian world when he joined Jim & Tammy Bakker’s PTL Singers in 1977, seen daily via their highly syndicated PTL Club broadcast. His musical path, however, had begun in Portland, Oregon singing with his family in The Bailey Family Singers, a group made up of his father, sister and brother, and accompanied by their mother on piano. Bob took piano lessons and spent his high school years continuing to sing with his family, arranging older gospel tunes.
Through his high school years he also interned for a radio station in Portland, which served as a gateway for a broader musical palette. “I saw thousands of records being thrown away every week. The reason I knew that was because it was part of my job to take them to the dumpster! I went to the program director and asked if I could listen to some of the albums before I threw them out. He said I could keep whatever I wanted and throw away the rest. That started my record collection. Most of it was country, which I was a little resistant to at first, but I started listening to these albums coming out of Nashville and noticing names that were consistently on these albums.”
The only member of his family who desired a career in music, he went to the University of Oregon in 1975 to continue studying music. His college years broadened his musical horizons. He played keyboards and became the lead vocalist for a rock band for a period, and then toured internationally with a contemporary Christian group, New Hope, headed by Cam Floria. “I had always been involved in black gospel music, and this was my first experience with the broader scope of contemporary Christian music. I discovered that the music I had been singing all of my life was universal and that it shouldn’t be pigeonholed or limited in scope.” New Hope’s sound was a richly orchestrated, modern choral sound that modeled, in many ways, a younger sound still palatable to older audiences, not unlike what Richard and Patti Roberts displayed with their group on Oral Roberts’ televised program, Miracles Now at the time.
“Once we went to a church in Virginia. Typically, we got to a city, set up our equipment in the church, do a soundcheck and then families from the church would take us to their homes, feed us dinner, show us where we were going to sleep [in their homes] that night. We’d go back to the concert and then sleep at our hosts’ home, get up the next morning and head to the next city. But when we got to Virginia, I was told I had a hotel room, which was fabulous for me. Most of the time, people would want to touch my hair, want to know what Black people smelled like, which was my cross to bear. But I had a hotel room this time. I go back in time for the concert and I did lead vocals on the first three songs. We got halfway through the third song and the pastor of the church stood up and said ‘I can’t take this anymore. This concert is stopped. We cannot allow this.’ They made us shut down and leave the church because they didn’t want black people singing in their church.”
After the New Hope tour ended in 1978, Bailey returned to Oregon, took a job at a fast food restaurant where he faced a different manifestation of racism. Not allowed to cook the food, he scrubbed floors and washed windows.
“I’ll never forget the day I went into work and had scrubbed the floors and washed the windows. The manager came back in and said to re-scrub the floors and re-do the windows. I put the mop down and said ‘I’m done.’ I drove home on the last fumes of gas I had in my little ’64 Plymouth Fury. I was living in a trailer that cost fifty dollars a month and was three months behind in the rent. I walked in to a ringing phone. The voice on the other end said, “We’ve heard about you. We want you to come and be a PTL Singer, but we need to hear you first.’ I went to the youth pastor of a church I was working with and we recorded ten songs on a reel-to-reel tape and Federal Expressed it to PTL on Wednesday and that Friday I was on a plane to PTL in Charlotte, North Carolina, to a new world that I didn’t even know existed and I was so euphoric about.”
By 1978, The PTL Club was one of the most popular evangelical television shows, hosted by Jim and Tammy Bakker. The broadcast began in 1974 and served as a Johnny Carson-esque presentation of conversation between the Bakkers and Christian personalities of the day, peppered with musical guests. Bakker had not yet launched his own network, so the show was syndicated around the United States via small Christian television networks, independent stations and network affiliates. The show was undergirded by an orchestra and singers known as the PTL Singers. When Bailey joined the Bakkers, he was the first Black member of the group. Jim Bakker said that “there are few people who we have seen on our show who are more talented or more exciting than Bob Bailey. We are proud to have him as a part of our musical family.”
Bob told the Associated Press in an interview in the 80s, “It was a marvelous learning opportunity for me both spiritually and musically and otherwise. This was one of the best, if not the best, examples of how to do live television.” Being on television on a daily basis, changed his reality. “I would go to buy groceries and people were yelling ‘Oh my God! It’s the colored guy from PTL!” His personal bookings for church concerts increased as did the opportunity to work in the recording studio doing voice-overs and jingles for PTL, in addition to background vocals on Tammy Faye’s albums.
But being the first Black PTL Singer wasn’t his only distinction. In addition to his multi-octave voice that knew no limitations, Bob’s presence made him stand out in comparison to his peers in the PTL Singers. He was a performer comfortable in and with his body, communicating with his eyes, hands and gestures, expressing a theatricality that wasn’t common in Christian circles. Bob Bailey made his presence known.
The opportunity to record his first solo album emerged during his tenure with the Bakkers. “A friend of mine, Bob Krogstad, came to me with a record deal with Good Life Records in Scottsdale, Arizona. He said we could spend $40,000, record strings in London and hire any musician you want. Of course, I jumped at the chance!”
With Paul Stilwell at the helm of the production, the finished result, Looking Forward, was a fusion of what the public would expect from a PTL Singer (highly orchestrated covers of popular songs like The Imperials’ “Praise the Lord” and the worship tune, “I Love You Lord”) and what Bob’s vision for himself was as a solo artist.
Bob contributed four original tunes to the album, including the album’s title track and “New Hope,” which were arranged by David Diggs, an in-demand session player and producer on the cutting edge of contemporary Christian music. Bailey had wanted Diggs on the project because he’d heard an album Diggs had produced for Myrrh Records’ signee, Donn Thomas. Diggs recalls, “I really wasn’t familiar with Bob or PTL. That was my first exposure to him, but I was immediately impressed with his chops. It’s effortless. Thirty-eight years ago, there wasn’t auto-tune and he didn’t need it!”
The album’s title track was a soul-infused duet with Reba Rambo, one of CCM’s leading artists at the time. “I’d met Reba at PTL. I had loved her records and she and [her manager] Judy Gossett kind of took me under their wings. They happened to be in Los Angeles when I was cutting the album. Judy said, ‘What are you doing?’ I said, ‘I’m in the studio and tell Reba she’s got to come because I want her to sing this song!’ And she showed up in the studio, had never heard the song and we figured it out. She did that for me and I’ll never forget that.” Rambo and Gossett also joined the choir on “New Hope.”
It was the original compositions that held the potential to present Bailey beyond the PTL audience as a viable artist who held promise in the Christian music industry–which was not synonymous with the audience that Christian television was reaching. The originals spoke from the heartbeat of Bailey’s individual experience while also developing commonality with his listeners. His was a unique expression of faith—not one loaded with recycled cliches.
But there were problems once the album was turned in to the label. “The album was finished and pressed. The head of the label looked at the cover and said, ‘Heck no. I’m not going to release this.’” Bailey remembers that there had already been 30,000 pre-orders for the album from retail outlets, so the label used the first pressing to fulfill those orders and immediately put the album out of print.
As the Looking Forward label drama unfolded, Bailey was fired from his post in the PTL Singers. “I was so euphoric about being in a safe place, being around a bunch of Christians who were ‘kingdom building’ and doing it on a massive scale. I didn’t really see the reality of what was going on, but eventually it came to light. The Spirit said ‘I need you to go.’ And I was like, ‘No. I can’t do that.’ The next thing I knew I was on the street, out of there. But it formed an understanding in me: If you’re ever going to be Robert, you need to be yours. You need to be true to yourself. You need to be who you are and let these experiences inform you–but you don’t need to let them defeat you. And then I wrote ‘Rainy Day Christian.’”
Tell me rainy day Christian
Where are you brother
I’m in a whole lot of trouble
You see I’ve lost my way
Rainy day Christian
Talk to me sister
Help me out of my misery with words of compassion
‘Cause the clouds of my life are crying
Ushering in my rainy day
(from “Rainy Day Christian,” words and music by Bob Bailey)
As Bailey began to write new songs, he ended up making the move to Nashville, the city he’d crossed off of the list of possibilities a few years earlier. “My dreams needed some feet,” Bob said in press materials in the early 80s. “Moving to Nashville has been a good thing in that it allows me to see how things can be done, step by step.”
Moving to Nashville, however, was not a fly-by-night idea, however. “The first time I ever came to Nashville, I came with Tammy Faye Bakker to sing at the Grand Ole Opry. She brought a group of four guys [from the PTL Singers] to sing background for her. They put us up at the 12 Oaks Motel at 100 Oaks. I realized I’d left my black socks at home, so I ran [across the street] to the mall to buy some dress socks, walked in the mall and saw two people sitting at a card table signing people up to the KKK. I was in the process of divesting from PTL and looking for a place to go, so Nashville was on my radar as an option but that settled it for me. [I thought] No, I will not be moving to Nashville…but I moved to Nashville in October of 1981.”
“I hadn’t been there a week and I got an invitation to appear on a show on TNN called Country Gospel. They didn’t want me to appear by myself. Because I’m black, I needed to come with a choir.” Bailey says the only person he knew in town was Everett Drake, alumni of both the Johnson Ensemble and the Twenty-First Century Singers. “Everett is the person I credit with introducing me to Nashville because he took me around and introduced me to everybody. I called him and said, ‘I need a choir.’” Drake connected Bailey with Mt. Pisgah United Methodist Church Choir. For the Country Gospel appearance, they were backed by Lisa Nelson, who was working with Bobby Jones & New Life at the time. Bailey found himself connected to the network of Nashville singers and musicians like Donna McElroy, Vicki Hampton, Kim Fleming, Johnny Whittaker, Derrick Lee, and others, who helped him find a sense of community in a new city.
Before long, Bob signed a production deal with Elwyn Raymer’s 19th Street Productions, who immediately began working on Bailey’s behalf, purchasing the Looking Forward masters from Good Life Records for $42,000, repackaging the album and arranging distribution through Triangle Records, home to CCM artist Cynthia Clawson. Triangle had distribution through The Benson Company, which made Bob’s debut album widely available to both Christian retail and radio. Sadly, Triangle made the choice to release one of the album’s safer choices as the single, the worship tune, “I Love You Lord,” with Bailey’s original “New Hope” as the B-side. 19th Street also offered him a publishing deal and he continued writing the songs that would comprise his next album.
19th Street Productions gave Bailey a budget of $25,000 to record his sophomore album, a much smaller budget than what he’d recorded Looking Forward with, but he knew who to call. He’d remained in communication with David Diggs who he’d met while recording Looking Forward and he agreed to produce the new project. “I had no second thoughts,” Diggs says. “He mentioned he’d picked the tunes and I don’t remember rejecting anything. He had ten tunes that were pretty much ready, which isn’t always the case.”
In the two years since Looking Forward, Diggs’ production work had increased. He’d done a second project for Donn Thomas on Myrrh, Sweet Comfort Band’s innovative Hearts of Fire and Richie Furay’s Seasons of Change. When Diggs first emerged in the mid-70s in the Jesus Music band Good News, a jazz-rock fusion group with a Top 40 edge, his work, both as an arranger and producer, was already in a league of its own. He was making music that seemed more geared for mainstream radio than Christian radio. Diggs reminisces,
“The people I liked, David Foster and Quincy Jones, probably show on the stuff I produced. I saw no reason not to make it as great as we could musically, even though a lot of people couldn’t hear it or didn’t really want to hear it. I got a call from DJ Rogers, who I loved as a kid, and he said, ‘Wow! What you did on Donn Thomas’ album was amazing. I haven’t heard anything like that in Christian music,’ Those kinds of things were what kept me going.”
Diggs booked Weddington Studios in Los Angeles and assembled some of the best the city’s best studio musicians to record the rhythm tracks with Ed Greene (Nancy Wilson, Barbra Stresiand, Barry Manilow) on drums, Paul M. Jackson, Jr. (Cher, Patrice Rushen, Donna Summer) on guitar, Dennis Belfield (Rita Coolidge, Seals & Croft, Kenny Rogers) on bass, Larry Williams (Seawind, Rufus, Minnie Riperton) and Jai Winding (Karla Bonoff, Olivia Newton John, Judy Collins) on keyboards. “I don’t remember how long it took, but [recording] went pretty fast. I was very prepared. I had taken what Bob did [with the demos], charted it out and we laid it out pretty quickly. The charts were ready to go. We would go in for three hours and want to do four or five songs and plow through them. We probably tracked it in one or two days, then started overdubs and lead vocals,” Diggs remembers.
The bulk of the background vocals were handled by Bill Champlin (Bette Midler, Deniece Williams, Elton John) and his wife Tamara (Russ Taff, Amy Grant, Rita Coolidge) as well as Steve George & Richard Page, who were known around Los Angeles as a band named Pages (later known as Mr. Mister) but had also been making a name for themselves as session singers, contributing substantially to albums like Peter Allen’s Bicoastal and Al Jarreau’s Breakaway.
For the two more gospel-infused tunes, “Ebenezer” and “Stand,” Diggs brought in Marti McCall (Linda Ronstadt, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Reba Rambo), Myrna Matthews (Steely Dan, Quincy Jones, Christopher Cross) and Edie Lehmann (Aretha Franklin, Tower of Power, Herbie Hancock). “Those were the divas of background singing!,” Bob says with a laugh. “I’ll never forget when they came in to sing ‘Stand,’ It was summertime and they came in furs because the studios get so cold. They just dropped their furs down around their ankles and they sang! They were the sweetest. They looked at their watches and said, ‘We would love to stay and chat but we’ve got a Kenny Rogers session at two’ and left. That was just fabulous, I thought.”
The finished product was a collection of songs that felt more personal than Looking Forward, but was also even more commercially viable. The collaboration between Diggs and Bailey proved that Bailey had broken out of the PTL Singer mold into his own, unique identity. “I wanted my records to breathe and be real. Not just me going into the studio singing ten songs.” I’m Walkin’ marked a coming together of the forms of music he’d been ingesting throughout his life, a refusal to acquiesce to pressures to fit into the music business’ or the Christian world’s expectation that he look and sound a particular way.
“It’s about collecting all of the influences, sounds, sights and smells and whatever is around you and turning that into your essence. I get so angry when outside forces want to lecture me about how I should be influenced and what I can and can’t listen to. The disparate and various influences that I love have distilled into something that is uniquely me.”
When Diggs finished mixing the album with Billy Taylor, Bailey says “We brought that record in for $26,500. I remember weeping when I called the label because I was so afraid because we’d gone over budget. I remember Raymer’s voice on the other end of the phone. He couldn’t stop laughing! He said, ‘We actually budgeted $35,000-$40,000 for the record but we told you $25,000 so you’d stay under that!’” 14th Street negotiated an agreement with Light Records in the fall of 1983, home to one of CCM’s most progressive and diverse rosters. Artists like Andraé Crouch, Reba Rambo, Resurrection Band, Walter Hawkins and Dino were all part of the label at the time. I’m Walkin’ was slated for a late 1983 release, always a challenging time to release a non-holiday album.
With tunes like “Rainy Day Christian,” “I Can Do All Things,” and “Since I Met Jesus,” the album seemed destined to be on the radio alongside 1984’s most played CCM songs like Kathy Troccoli’s “I Belong To You,” Amy Grant’s “Where Do You Hide Your Heart,” and Debby Boone and Phil Driscoll’s “Keep the Flame Burning,” but that didn’t happen. While Light boasted a significant roster, their success on Christian radio had always been slim. Andraé Crouch’s 1982 arrest had significantly altered his popularity on Christian radio, and he had been their greatest success story. Light’s other artists were typically too progressive for Christian radio’s Top 40 format. Bailey’s album did fit, but between Light’s insufficient radio promotion, a deeply ingrained racism on the part of Christian radio, and frequent misplacement on Christian retail’s record shelves, I’m Walkin’ was not the big seller it could have been.
Both Contemporary Christian Magazine and Musicline, the two leading industry journals, published rave reviews, predicting the album would “go over well with A/C (adult contemporary) programmers.” But they also knew their audience and tried to address the industry’s well-known racial politics by assuring retailers and radio outlets of Bailey’s unique placement, writing that as “a former member of PTL, Bailey should have a white audience established.” But Light did no print advertising for the album and only issued the album’s title track as a single with no B-side.
Touring also proved challenging. He toured with two leading CCM artists on a triple bill tour, which should have been a major career boost, but the experience was riddled with racism masquerading as industry competition facilitated by industry gatekeepers. The album did, however, benefit from an hour-long televised concert at Heritage USA with Cynthia Clawson, with whom Bailey shared a manager, which aired throughout 1984 on the PTL Network, Bailey’s former employer. He also made appearances on Canada’s 100 Huntley Street.
“It was an uphill battle from the start,” asserts Bailey. “I don’t think they ever understood what the record was trying to say. Back then, if you had melanin in your skin, you were supposed to emote in a certain way and you were supposed to present yourself in a certain way. If you didn’t scream, if you didn’t sweat, if you didn’t jump over pews, your music was not Black and they were not about to market you to white people. It was just that simple. They took the project and they worked it, but they didn’t know how to work it.”
In early 1985, Bailey flew to Los Angeles to meet with Light executive Bill Cole. “He took me to dinner and basically told me that the label was dropping me because there was not a place for me, that they did not know how to market me. Black churches were not accepting the music and white churches were not accepting the music. It was sort of an outlier, so they were divesting themselves of the project, which was devastating to me. I left that meeting with my tail between my legs and got on the plane. I came back to Nashville to my apartment and there was a telegram from NARAS (The Recording Academy) telling me that the record had been nominated for a Grammy.” Ironically, while CCM radio ignored I’m Walkin’, Bailey had been nominated in the Best Gospel Performance, Male category alongside Leon Patillo (one of CCM’s only Black chart toppers in the front end of the 80s), Michael W. Smith (who would win the award), Steve Taylor, and Phil Driscoll. A Dove nomination would follow for the album’s title track (which included a clever nod to Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’”) co-written by Bailey and Marvin Morrow in the Song of the Year category. It would be covered by The Staple Singers in 1985 as “Start Walkin’” on their self-titled album on Epic Records.
Billboard columnist Bob Darden interviewed Bob in 1985, post-Grammy Awards. Darden wrote of I’m Walkin’ that it was not “black gospel or even soul. In fact, it is closer to pop than anything else.” Bailey told Darden, “I categorize myself as a pop singer. I know that sounds strange, but I’m coming out of a totally different bag than most rock singers, black or white.” Echoing his friend Johnny Whittaker who’d said similar words to the Tennessean in 1976, Bailey said “You see, in capturing the audience’s attention, you have to be entertaining first. Entertainment is the lubricant for ministry. I think I’m entertaining. I would say, more than most gospel singers because my approach is not typical or ‘churchy.’”
But I’m Walkin’ served as a foreseeing set of songs for Bob personally, full of affirmation, strength and assertiveness, born out of a quest for self-acceptance and wholeness that was just beginning. He says, “During that period, I was really struggling with personal issues with my sexuality, the juxtaposition of that with what my calling was. I was smoking marijuana during the making of that album, but it got a lot worse after that. There was a lot of self realization taking place, a lot of angst during that period of time.”
I am a poem
Crafted in wisdom
Molded and sculpted
Will skill and with flair
Sculpted of ivory-textured expressions
A fond recitation
Of God’s loving care
(from “Poem,” Words & Music by Bob Bailey)
I’m Walkin’ remains his last contribution to the world of CCM as a solo artist.
He found his greatest success within the field in 1986 when his friend Cynthia Clawson (and Paul Smith) recorded “Bring It To Jesus,” a song that Bailey had written with Derrick Lee and Raymond Brown.
“When I moved to Nashville, Raymond was the head writer at the company I was signed to and had written a lot for Cynthia. I had heard his music through her. Raymond showed me his stuff and he completely blew my mind. He became a mentor for me and was such a wordsmith. He taught me so much over the years. He inspired me to be better as a writer. I had written a good portion of ‘Bring It To Jesus’ and was scared to show it to anybody. You don’t want anybody to say your baby’s ugly! It just wasn’t finished and I couldn’t figure out how to finish it. Necessity forced me to show it to him and he immediately thought it was brilliant which warmed my heart. But he also knew what the fix was. We got 75% of the way through it and we showed it to Derrick Lee and Derrick finished it.”
The result was a Top 10 Christian radio hit, peaking at #4, that went on to be recorded again by Philip Bailey of Earth, Wind & Fire the same year, and then in 1994 by Bobby Jones & New Life, led by Beverly Crawford, which made the song a hit in the gospel world.
“Mike McKinney, who was also managing Cynthia Clawson at the time, kept me working. I sang in mostly white churches, but also a lot of Black churches, churches of every denomination. I’ll never forget singing in a Menonnite church, singing the first few songs and they just looked at me. I powered through and finished the whole concert and when it was over, I spent something like four hours in a receiving line afterwards with people just weeping and crying, saying ‘Oh this was the most beautiful thing.’ I thought, ‘Well, you could have let me know during the concert!’ but it just wasn’t their way. It was a beautiful sojourn.”
He recorded a mainstream album in 1988, but his primary focus for the last thirty years has been session work, contributing backing vocals for Reba McEntire, Vince Gill, Faith Hill, and Trisha Yearwood in addition to becoming a long-time part of the touring and recordings units of Wynonna Judd, Brooks and Dunn and, currently, Garth Brooks.
While both Looking Forward and I’m Walkin’ remain out of print today, Bailey re-recorded some of the songs from both albums in addition to some newer compositions for The Gospel According to Bob Bailey, which is available in all of the digital music outlets. Diggs says, “Obviously, [I’m Walkin’] was Bob’s whole life and, to some degree, mine. I had high hopes for it. It holds together lyrically in ways I didn’t even remember. I wish more people could hear it.”
Bob doesn’t see the work he does today as disconnected from where he left off with I’m Walkin’, but, rather, an expansion of the unique path he was carving out for himself.
“There is no conduit [with the Christian music market] for artists, creative people, who want to express their faith and stay in the community. We are forced to go outside and do it, and then we’re ostracized because we went outside. I agonized over that for years. I’ve been a Christian most of my life and I love the Lord. Always have, always will…but the more I see of ‘the church,’ the less I want anything to do with it and that hurt my heart for a number of years; but I’m learning to release that and let that go because other opportunities have presented themselves. The church is wherever we are.”