Andrae Crouch: his life and legacy

One of the all-time greats of what eventually would be called 'Jesus music' has died.

Andrae Crouch, whose influence on gospel music was immense.Andrae Crouch/Facebook

In recent years Andrae Crouch has had a variety of health issues, including diabetes and cancer, pneumonia and congestive heart failure. His passing came from a heart attack.

I heard Andrae Crouch at a major gospel concert in Oslo. Naturally he sang Soon And Very Soon We Are Going To See The King. Now he knows the truth of his song.

Death was never far from his thoughts. His mother died from cancer before he hit 50. It nearly shattered his faith as he wondered why God did not heal her. His father died of cancer a year later. The album Mercy, which won a Grammy, was born out of those tragedies. 

Crouch says his faith matured; it had to, and quickly. Within a year – this was 1995 – his brother Benjamin Jnr died of colon cancer. Andrae took over as senior pastor of Christ Memorial Church, Pacoima, California – the congregation his father had in God's good grace brought out of 12 people who met in a garage.

Crouch and his twin sister Sandra, were born San Francisco July 1, 1947. His pastor father ran a steam cleaning business and his gospel-fuelled home meant he heard music from almost his first cry. He says he hit the keyboards by the time he was 10. Initially he suffered from childhood stuttering, and Sandra sang his songs. But at aged 14 he says God healed him. He did suffer from lifelong dyslexia.

At 16 he formed Andre Crouch and the Disciples. Sandra was on drums/percussion. Then, he had no idea he would become for many the most important gospel singer of the modern era, some would say, even now, of all time.

He went to Valley Junior College and later Life Bible College, but everyone really knew his future lay in music.

Crouch would change the sound of gospel music and open the door to numerous black artists who with church pressures encountered the general music world with timidity and even fear. Many credit Crouch with the emergence of such artists as BeBe Williams and Kirk Franklin, to cite the most obvious.

He infused the traditional feel of gospel with the persuasive influences of R&B and rock 'n' roll. Naturally it didn't go down well in some American quarters for whom these genres, let alone the blues, seemed the devil's music. One of the eventual great names of black music, Billy Preston, would line up with him.

Crouch arrived at the right time in the modern travelogue of youth culture – in his case the new hippie Christians, the 'Jesus freaks' in his Californian backyard. As I know from being there myself, the music of the late 1960s and the next decade was the rock and R&B beloved by black artists. Crouch became a hero to young Christians, mostly white. He would record and be marketed in somewhat aggressive fashion through Light's distributer Word/Myrrh records.

Such is life in the Christian world that for a while radio stations such as WQBH in Detriot, with the formidable DJ Martha Jean 'the Queen', resisted turn-tabling his music because of his influence among the white crowd. There was nothing new in the attitude – Johnny Mathis and Sammy Davis Jnr have been among famous names initially marketed by management and the record company to a white audience and consequently finding rejection in the black community.

Things would change, though, through encountering such people as Ralph Carmichael. Soon Crouch would be instrumental in leading other black artists to introduce worship songs into the black church. In church terms there would be a veritable explosion that had the force of a bush fire. Crouch became wanted property. His albums flowed. The tours became pencilled in. He hit the record charts, with one of his hit songs I'll Be Thinking of You. The major record company Warner signed him.

In 1983 things came to an unpleasant and potentially devastating halt when he was arrested for cocaine possession. He denied wrongdoing and the charges were dropped. It was time to call a halt to his activities, to disappear, as it were, for a while. Even so, his album of the time, already in the can, No Time to Lose, won a US Dove Award. It was an interesting record title, bearing in mind what was happening, and this was the time of family deaths.

Crouch would devote more time to his parents' church, which had grown to 1,000 or more every Sunday. He would become involved in film scores. He worked with the celebrated Quincy Jones on the soundtrack for The Color Purple, and this led to work on the film of The Lion King.

Crouch has never been far from controversy of one kind or another. In record land his Andre Crouch singers became a 'wanted' group on recording sessions for such luminaries as Diana Ross, Michael Jackson (a revamped Discples sang on his Man in the Mirror) and Elton John. They backed Madonna on her exceedingly controversial song Like a Prayer, the video of which Pepsi withdrew after a barrage of public outrage. He would fly against the ruling and scriptural beliefs of the Church Of God In Christ against female preachers by ordaining Sandra as co-pastor of their father's church.

His discography is immense. And while Soon And Very Soon is a song that has found its way into various British songbooks, he will be remembered too for such powerful songs as Jesus is the Answer that would be recorded by Paul Simon, My Tribute (To God Be the Glory), and The Blood Will Never Lose Its Power. His song I've Got Confidence was recorded by Elvis Presley in 1972.

In strictly British terms Crouch has never achieved the notice he has found back in the US. This is partly due in more recent time to the smallness of the British gospel and Jesus Music scene, even more so when taken against the overall exciting times of the 1970s – 1990s when such magazines as Buzz and New Christian Music carried pages of record reviews, artist profiles and a plethora of concerts and festivals featuring Christian artists.

At this moment, other than Soon and Very Soon, the most poignant song of his repertoire must be Who We'll See In Heaven on his 1997 album Pray. As the choir testify to hope eternal, Crouch is heard calling over the chorus "My mother! ... my father! ... My brother!"

Tony Jasper is an author, broadcaster and expert on the Christian and general music scene.