By Daniel Margolis | Published September 2021
Chicago-based Numero Group has long excelled at unearthing music that never should have disappeared from public consciousness, and the label has outdone itself with I Shall Wear A Crown, an archival box set summarizing the 50-year career of Pastor T.L. Barrett.
Based on the South Side of Chicago, Barrett is backed primarily by his 45-piece Youth For Christ Choir, and still leads his same congregation at the Life Center COGIC (Church of God in Christ), known colloquially as Chicago’s Prayer Palace.
So, one might assume this is standard gospel music. Wrong. The music resurrected here feels more like listening to classic, empowered ’70s soul than what you’d expect to hear in church. This stems from Barrett’s obvious innovation, first of all, but also his ability to attract the participation of Donny Hathaway and Earth, Wind & Fire’s Maurice White and many of Chicago’s top session musicians.
Perhaps that’s why Barrett is, strangely, everywhere these days. He’s been sampled by Kanye West, T.I., DJ Khaled and more. People as far afield from each other as Radiohead’s Colin Greenwood and Golden State Warriors point guard Steph Curry sing his praises.
For the uninitiated, I Shall Wear A Crown does it all. It gathers up four of Barrett’s ’70s LPs — Like A Ship…(Without A Sail), Do Not Pass Me By Volume 1 and Volume 2, and I Found The Answer — records that it’d take a lot of crate-digging and Discogs-surfing to find. The box then stretches even further, offering a bonus album of singles and sermons. Across 49 tracks, Barrett blends social and racial commentary with biblical parables, using synthesizers, citing then-current r&b and interpolating songs by Aretha Franklin, The Beatles, Carole King and more.
Speaking to DownBeat, Barrett explained his unique perspective. “Both my theology and my musicology are different,” he said. “I was considered a renegade in the pulpit because I just didn’t teach the quote-unquote old-time religion gospel. My God is not up in the sky. My God is in my eye. Wherever you see life, particularly expressed in another human being, which is the highest form, that’s where God is and that’s where you should honor God.”