PASTOR CHAMPION (Nov 23, 1946 - Dec 28, 2021). This album is a tribute to the outsider gospel artist Pastor Wylie Champion, who died while we were in the process of releasing this, his first record, and his wife, Mother Champion, who died a few months earlier.
Pastor Champion was a badass.
A preacher, a pastor, an outsider gospel singer who was raised in the Jim Crow South. He fled to California and joined a gang before becoming born again, spending the rest of his days traveling with his electric guitar to congregations and people’s homes from San Jose to Shreveport. There isn’t much known about Champion, except that the beloved soul singer Bettye Swann happened to be his sister and confidant— a secret that the pastor only shared later on.
We started working with Champion a few years ago while we were researching another release, The Time for Peace Is Now: Gospel Music About Us. We found him on the YouTube channel of the 37th Street Baptist Church in Oakland, California, put together by their pastor Bishop Dr. W.C. McClinton. We liked Champion so much that in 2018 we decided to make an album together, and to record it analog like the gospel recordings we love, on a two-track Nagra reel-to-reel. Over the course of just two evenings (when the workday was done), Champion taught his band—musicians who had never played together before—a handful of songs that he regularly performed.
What followed was several years of trying to figure out how to move forward – Champion refused to be interviewed for the liner notes or to come to New York to keep recording. But there was something special that happened with everyone in that room those days, never to be repeated. It wasn’t perfect, but it was honest.
As time went on, Champion kept refusing to be interviewed, saying that he’d had a hard life and he didn’t want to talk about it. He didn’t want to talk about growing up in Louisiana, his mother being accosted by the Klan, or about his father’s gambling. He didn’t want to talk about being jailed for 90 days for using a “whites-only” bathroom, being in gangs or having a street name. We told him that was fine—he could talk about what he wanted to talk about. And he told us that he didn’t really want to talk about anything.
Unfortunately those conversations ended as Pastor Champion died in late December, 2021, following a short illness. So we have this album as a remembrance of him. It’s quite a different record for us, almost Alan Lomaxian in feel, if Alan Lomax recorded outsider, soul gospel artists who played electric guitar.
Champion knew that this record wasn’t going to be for everyone. He didn’t really care. The important part for him was just getting the message out there in the same way that he always had: traveling alone with his electric guitar. “I want to say what I mean,” he said, “be practical, precise, to the point, and, at the same time, diplomatic.” In other words, he just wanted to be a good man.
God bless Pastor Champion and Mother Champion, peace be with them and their family. Love to all.