My dad had Jimmy Swaggart on his stereo. I remember the tape case with the man himself on the cover — smiling. And every time I would visit my dad’s apartment the great speaker would be on in the background, pleading for me to take Jesus into my heart. I didn’t know how I felt about it back then, but I knew he was sincere, and that changed the way I heard his music.
Then I would go back home and my mother would be listening to Wintley Phipps, the great gospel singer with the baritone voice. When I thought of him I recalled the mini-fro he wore on the cover of a few of his records. My mother owned them all, and at times it seemed like he was all she listened to.
Wintley Phipps came to my church one time when I was young, and I recognized his voice although he looked different from those record covers. It was my first brush with the faraway coming close enough to see in person, and I was struck by the fact that he honestly looked like any other man I had met in my life. Even though he was larger than life before that, when I only knew him through his voice and through his album covers.
And about the same time I met Wintley Phipps at my church the scandal regarding Jimmy Swaggart was just taking wing. It was vague enough to me, though I did realize he wasn’t played nearly as much at my dad’s apartment after that. I think I asked what was up, and my dad gave me the tape. I guess that was my answer.
It was that dichotomy that ruled my music-listening world back then, but what both artists shared was the Christian base. They both sang gospel music somewhere on that glorious spectrum. There were more singers, too, that I remembered hearing a lot of while I was growing up. There was Evie, and Twila Paris, and The Winans, and the Maranatha Singers, and the Gaithers. And the list went on, but it was the only thing we listened to back then.
Those songs shaped me too, including the hymns we sang in church as well. In fact, sometimes I find myself singing one of the tunes without even realizing it, or humming one of them while I’m writing or reading. They were so pervasive that even when I’ve been apart from the vast majority of that music it all comes right back to me in a blink. When I went to a church service about five years ago, after not having gone for about 10 years, I sang right along with every song without even consulting a hymnal.
They felt like home, like members of my family, because I was so close to them all the time it seemed. Christian music (not just gospel) became the basis for everything that interested me in the late 80s musically, and it is still a huge part of my digital music library. But my tastes have moved on from those “old time religion” songs to newer contemporary fare like Casting Crowns, TobyMac, Switchfoot, and Flyleaf.
But, when I go back to visit my mom, without fail I look through her CDs and I’m comforted when I see some of those old Wintley Phipps albums sitting right there where they belong, where they’ve always been, and where I always hope to find them, keeping my memories safe within their cases. As for that Jimmy Swaggert tape, I lost that ages ago.