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Elder Utah Smith - I Got Two Wings: Incidents and Anecdotes of The Two-Winged Preacher and Electric Guitar Evangelist

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Artist: Elder Utah Smith

Album: I Got Two Wings: Incidents and Anecdotes of The Two-Winged Preacher and Electric Guitar Evangelist

Label: CaseQuarter

Review date: Feb. 18, 2009

Take one look at Elder Utah Smith and you know this man is serious about saving your soul. Guitar plugged in and turned all the way up, face stretched in rapturous joy, a pair of angel wings with a span that framed the already larger-than-life evangelist: the photograph on the cover of Lynn Abbott’s book I Got Two Wings says as much about the reverend as any of the howling, full-volume gospel recordings of his signature song, “Two Wings.”

I Got Two Wings reveals the personal history of the man arguably responsible for changing the electric guitar into a holy instrument, turning it from a tool of the Devil into “nothing short of a sanctified soul-saving device,” according to Doug Schulkind. Buried in an unmarked grave in 1965 after a 30-year career as one of the pre-eminent preachers of the massively influential Church of God in Christ, Smith’s legacy has been limited to three commercial releases from 1944 to 1953 and the tall tales of his legendary revivals, told mostly among church circles. And while the recordings are certainly remarkable, with Smith’s holy manic energy coming through loud and clear, the collection of stories, reminiscences and articles Abbott has compiled finally flesh out Smith’s role in the rise of electric guitar rock.

According to Smith’s family, he was one of the first, if not the very first, black man to own an electric guitar. The arrival of his instrument is recounted by the son of the founder of the Church of God in Christ, Bishop James Feltus, Jr.:

    When he got this electric guitar he was conducting a revival…And I’ll never forget, he put in an order for it, and everybody was waiting for it to come. They had just come out, and I had never seen one; so many of the people had never seen one. So, when it finally did come he announced he would have it the next night, and the people were there.

As historic as its arrival, though, is Feltus’s account of Smith’s emergence as the electric guitar evangelist:

    I remember the first time he hit on that guitar, it sounded good, and he had Catholics, Baptists, Methodists, everybody. The tent was full and all the grounds were full of people to hear him play that guitar. And he turned it way up high, and you could hear it everywhere, for a long distance.

These stories of wonderment and inspiration are commonplace in Abbott’s extensive research and documentation. Despite his obscurity in the wider popular culture, Abbott found a mention of Smith in a 1982 review of the gospel musical Your Arms Too Short to Box With God, putting Al Green’s over-the-top character in context by describing Smith’s own performances:

    You ought to have seen the Rev. ‘Utah’ Smith come to your town with his circus tent. Opening up the program with his theme song “I’ve Got Two Wings,” with the sleeves of his robe practically touching the floor, this 250-pound man would run down the center aisle, arms spread-out, and jump 10 feet in the air, backed-up by a 100-voice choir.

On the accompanying disc, Abbott shows himself to be as capable a curator as a documentarian. The arrangements and original sources of Smith’s songs go even further in placing him within the gospel canon. Looking at the reverend’s repertoire in isolation would have missed the communal nature of this kind of music; the ancestors, contemporaries and followers that appear on this CD speak to the historical importance of the music, not just the musician.

Holding up Smith’s electric take on “Take a Trip” to Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s version of the old standard “I Have Good News to Bring” demonstrates how a little bit of wattage can completely reinvigorate and reinforce the old gospel ship. The stateliness and majesty of Tharpe’s interpretation remains the underpinning of a newly interpreted Word for a more kinetic post-war America. Separately, both songs are beautiful in their own right, but taken together, the shared history of the American vernacular tradition is manifested. Similarly, Abbott reveals how Smith would come to inform the next generation of soul singers by including Rev. Robert Ballinger’s “New World.” This hot and heavy R&B riff on Smith’s “A New World in My View” sizzles with the same energy as the original’s electric blues while sanctifying the emergent form of popular soul music.

Smith’s performances of “Two Wings” always varied, and to have four recordings of it showcases the versatility of both the composition and the singer. The song’s message was consistent, the words literally heaven sent (he would have you believe), but how they were delivered, and for whom, provides present-day gospel enthusiasts with invaluable insight into what distinguished Smith as such a force. Be it the professional quality of the 1953’s Checker Records “Two Wings,” the original 1947 version “I Want Two Wings,” or the BBC-recorded ethnographic “Two Wings and Everyman’s Got to Lay Down and Die,” Smith showed how adaptable his message truly was in his singular goal of spreading his good news.

The most stable element of the reverend’s sermonizing is the steady and unshakable clapping of his congregation. Such a strong foundation lets Smith really take off to reach out and up with a palpable fervor. It’s this chorus of the faithful that makes him so eminently followable. He becomes a real leader of men and women instead of another bombastic street prophet with an amp. Holiness comes from the congregation’s belief in the word rather than the reverend himself. On “Glory to Jesus I’m Free,” no matter what kind of ramble Smith and his guitar veer off upon, the congregation’s extolling of Jesus keeps the song’s feet on the ground, eyes turned upward. Convincingly preaching with such abandon through riff and sermon requires a constant context, and his choir provides just that.

There’s no denying the power and singular importance of Elder Utah Smith’s sanctification of the electric gospel. It’s easy enough to hear his sacred exuberance in the post-war blues, gospel, and soon-to-be rock ‘n roll sound. Yet, despite the charisma and influence Smith wielded – not in just in his own Church of God in Christ but in African-American scared music as a whole – his legacy has not been understood outside of his small community of friends, appreciators, scholars and collectors. What Lynn Abbott’s small but enlightening investigation of the man behind the religious force does is provide a personal and definitive document on Smith’s place in history. The rarities of both song and story present here illuminate a real character worthy of story, and praise, and a whole lot of testifying.

By Evan Hanlon

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