By James L. Stroud, Jr.
When you think about going out to see a classic, old-school, soulful gospel group perform live, the last place you might look is a venue like the Dakota Jazz Club in Minneapolis — unless that old-school gospel group is the Mighty Clouds of Joy. On April 13 and 14, the Mighty Clouds of Joy did more than hold church at the Dakota: They took the Dakota fans on an old-school gospel musical journey that made a few stops into some R&B, rock, country, funky soul and even disco. For more than half a century, the Mighty Clouds of Joy have been performing for fans of gospel in smoke-filled nightclubs, churches, concert halls, jazz festivals and revivals. This June 2011 will mark the 50th anniversary of the group in the music business. Make no mistake, their willingness to appear anywhere is no threat to their unwavering commitment to serve God and/or witness and minister to fans. “You have to be consistent when you serve God,” says Joe Ligon, who is the group’s founder and last original performing member. Now 74 years of age, Ligon does not believe that gospel groups should leave out the name of Jesus or God in lyrics just to please a record company that mistakenly believes it will hurt CD sales. Ligon should know: The group has original fans who have children and grandchildren that have joined the rest of the Mighty Clouds of Joy faithful followers. Two of those children influenced while growing up listening with their parents to the Mighty Clouds’ music are Raphael Saadiq, formerly of the R&B group Tony! Toni! Toné!, and Devante Swing from the R&B group Jodeci. Saadiq called Joe Ligon and asked to collaborate with the Grammy-winning group. The results of that collaboration with Saadiq and Swing as producers/composers is the 2010 Stellar Award-winning and Dove Award-nominated Mighty Clouds of Joy CD At the Revival. The first half of the Dakota performance mainly highlighted songs from the At the Rival CD and closed with tunes from the Mighty Clouds of Joy’s 50 Year Celebration CD. The Mighty Clouds performed one show the first night and two shows the second night, and gave the fans their money’s worth both nights. The Dakota fans were repeatedly shouting amen to the Mighty Clouds’ powerful voices, smooth showmanship and velvety four-part harmonies, along with the instant charm and raspy vocal style of the group’s leader, Ligon. At one point, Ligon told the crowd he was going back down memory lane for a moment. That’s when the group broke out with “Mighty High,” a hit song from the album Kickin’ (1976) that reached number one on the Billboard club/dance music chart. The Mighty Clouds of Joy are probably the first and only gospel group to perform a gospel/disco song on Soul Train. According to Tracey Douglas of EMI Records, who does promotional work for the Mighty Clouds of Joy and frequently travels with them, the Mighty Clouds have performed for every U.S. president since the Nixon administration. They have not performed for President Obama at the White House yet, but they did entertain him while he was a senator. Also according to Douglas, the Mighty Clouds perform every year for Queen Elizabeth II of England, and they are her favorite U.S. musical group. The Mighty Clouds also are a favorite of talk show queen Oprah Winfrey and have performed at her home. Douglas shared some very intimate stories about how Joe Ligon came to the attention of Reverend C.L. Franklin (Aretha Franklin’s father) shortly after the group got started 50 years ago. Franklin heard through the grapevine that this guy named Joe Ligon of the Mighty Clouds of Joy had a voice that was identical to his own. So Franklin arranged to see the Mighty Clouds perform, met with Ligon and from that point claimed Ligon as a godson. Shortly thereafter, the Mighty Clouds of Joy were on tour with C.L. Franklin and the likes of the late James Cleveland; and the rest is history. Ligon keeps regular contact with his godsister Aretha Franklin and has recorded and performed with her on several occasions. At the end of the Dakota performance, the crowd not only gave the Mighty Clouds of Joy a 12-minute standing ovation, they also shouted, “We want more!” Later, the chant changed to “Two more… two more,” as in two more songs. According to one Dakota employee, “In the history of the Dakota Jazz Club, I have never seen a standing ovation that long or ever heard anyone shout, ‘We want more’ that long, either.” If you missed your chance to ride the mighty high this time, hold on to your prayer cloth because they plan to come back in the near future. James L. Stroud, Jr. welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.