ELDER UTAH SMITH
BETSY BURLESON PHOTOGRAPH
The hard times and resurrection ministry of Elder Utah Smith is a tale of epic strivings. In times such as these, when organized religion takes a heavy battering from internal scandals and prolific atheists, Smith’s life opens a window on how the Church of God In Christ nurtured music as wedded to “The Word.” The transcendental Sam Cooke, before his hits such as “You Thrill Me,” started in the Church of God In Christ, an early 20th-century denomination of the Deep South where the intensity of preaching and singing in services, as people spoke in tongues and danced in pews, generated a spiritual current of near-electric power.
Cooke began recording beautiful harmonies with the Soul Stirrers in the down-home tradition. The vault from gospel to blues or rhythm-and-blues is a common one in Southern music. Think of Marva Wright and Juanita Brooks, local divas, dearly and recently departed. Showmanship in churches is a reality more assumed than understood by most people outside the tradition.
Smith never achieved the success of Cooke; his voice had nowhere near the sweetness or range. Nor did he even compete as a pop singer. Perhaps because his stylized sermonizing was surreal, this nearly forgotten singing preacher, who was based in New Orleans for many years, carried his witness to such remote environs as the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
Well before Guitar Slim thrilled rhythm-and-blues fans of the 1950s by dancing on top of 9th Ward bars with his guitar linked to a power supply by 20-foot lines, Smith had his own walking guitar act; he wore a pair of wide wings as he pranced and sang, touting himself as the “two-winged preacher,” establishing himself in New Orleans in the ’40s.
Born into threadbare rural poverty near Shreveport, deserted as a boy by his mother, Smith was raised by a grandmother. He never got beyond grade school. The biographical facts – which suggest a sad, bleak childhood – are dispensed with rather quickly by Tulane University Hogan Jazz Archive resident scholar Lynn Abbott in his book I Got Two Wings: Incidents and Anecdotes of The Two-Winged Preacher and Electric Guitar Evangelist Elder Utah Smith.
Abbott chronicles a life triumphant. He draws on substantial interviews with Smith’s children and religious colleagues, interlaced with long citations from newspapers, particularly The Louisiana Weekly. “For his signature song, ‘I Got Wings,’” writes Abbott, “he had a pair of feathered seraphim wings fashioned to wear while he was ‘performing.’” The winged motif came from a follower’s dream. A man in wings singing to the Lord bestirred a recollection from Ernie K-Doe: “Someone hooked Smith up to an invisible cable connected to a system of pulleys and lifted him up into the air. He appeared to fly back and forth across the church and didn’t miss a lick!”
His church from the late 1940s through ’65 was a converted warehouse on South Tonti Street near the Calliope housing project. The place held about 1,200 people. There, Smith put on revivals, welcoming singing quartets and small groups in the era before large choirs. He called his church “A Two-Winged Temple in the Sky.” He wore his wings and played the electric guitar with a long chord. “He was preaching from the casket,” one colleague recalls.
Another citation gives a forecast of a revival event in Shreveport: “The main feature of the program Rev. Utah Smith will dramatize a Bible demonstration – the Resurrection of Lazarus. He will raise a real man out of the casket.”
Smith was a traveling evangelist whose exotic style won notices in The New York Times and many smaller papers.
He worked tirelessly to make his two-winged persona a statement of religious drama. In that, he shared a tradition with Sister Gertrude Morgan, the renowned folk artist who sang as she played guitar using the Book of Revelation as inspiration for her spiritual dramas.
One of the church bishops credits Smith as the “first one to get us, to get black people on the air in New Orleans ... He prayed for the lady [the wife of the station’s owner]; she was getting a divorce from her husband, so she told him that if he would pray that she would get the station, that she would get us on the air, so he prayed for her and she got the station, WJBW, and so that’s the way we got on the air.”
Lynn Abbot has recovered a grand piece of gospel history. A CD of Smith’s songs accompanies the book in a sleeve. The music may be a tad thunderous to some ears; but it resurrects the spirit of Elder Utah Smith.