The opening lyric line of Charles’s 1959 “I Believe to my Soul” comes from a couplet found frequently in gospel songs of the day: “One of these days and it won’t be long / You’re gonna look for me and I’ll be gone.”
Brother Ray is one of the best known artists to turn gospel songs into soul standards, but he wasn’t alone. An earlier example of the appropriation of gospel music for commercial purposes is 1941’s “Rock Me,” Sister Rosetta Tharpe and the Lucky Millinder Orchestra’s spiritually-ambiguous take on gospel songwriter Thomas A. Dorsey’s “Hide Me in Thy Bosom.” Not that Dorsey’s lyrics explicitly reference God or Jesus as the object of affection, but it is implicit. On the other hand, Tharpe’s change of lyric from “singing” to “swinging” opened the song’s main conceit, writes Tharpe biographer Gayle Wald, “to various secular interpretations.”
Dorsey himself entered the fray, writing a terse opinion piece in 1941 opposing his gospel songs being denigrated or sung in nightclubs. Truth is, Dorsey, the Father of Gospel Music, was similarly criticized ten years earlier for “jazzing the hymns” with his elision of sacred lyrics and the beat of blues and jazz.
In late 1951, the Royal Sons Quintet began recording gospel for Apollo in New York at the same time that the Bells of Joy were cutting their smash hit, “Let’s Talk about Jesus,” for Peacock in Houston. More than a decade later, the Royal Sons, having crossed over into R&B as the Five Royales, converted the Bells of Joy’s iconic hit into a hip-swinger called “Talk about My Woman.” The Royales retained most of the song’s original lyrics, but switched the gender of the pronoun and replaced “Jesus” with “girl” and “woman.” Even the loping bass vocal solo from the original makes it into the Five Royales’ version.
In September 1963, James Cleveland the Angelic Choir of the First Baptist Church of Nutley, New Jersey, recorded “I Had A Talk with God” for its best-selling album Peace Be Still. The song, written by Cleveland and led by future Voices of East Harlem vocalist Gerri Griffin, left an indelible impression on American popular music. Years later, R&B star Mitty Collier told historian Robert Pruter that one day, while she was under contract to Chess Records, her manager-producer Billy Davis was at the Chess studio in Chicago and came upon session musician Leonard Caston listening to Peace Be Still. Caston was searching the album for songs to teach his church choir, but Davis heard something entirely different. He reckoned that with some adjustments to the lyric, most importantly replacing “God” with “man,” “I Had to Talk with God” could be a soul smash for Collier.