Music Is Our Church: A Conversation with DJ Greg Belson
by Tim Dillinger
Greg Belson describes himself as a “vinyl archeologist.” He very much is–but the ways he shares his work–as a club DJ, online musical curator, compilation producer and archivist–make his discoveries reach a broad span of people. While he places an emphasis on gospel, he integrates the form with psychedelic soul, funk, disco and more. His most recent release, a cassette-only collector’s edition, titled Music Is Our Church explores the fine line between the sacred and the secular with a rich mix of gospel and disco tracks.(Purchase here). In December, celebrating the 10th anniversary of his Divine Chord Radio Show, he partnered with Cultures of Soul to release a limited edition 45 of Betty Griffin’s “Free Spirit,” an underground classic for funk gospel aficionados. SoulMusic.com recently had the chance to sit down with Greg to talk about his unique work.
SoulMusic.com: The work that you curate isn’t typical. There’s a feeling underneath it that reflects a deep connection to the music and an intense sense of communicating a particular message through the songs that you stitch together in your sets and compilations. How did your relationship with music begin?
Greg: I grew up in a town just outside of London, a place called Kingston upon Thames specifically, in Tolworth. There was a place called the Toby Jug, which was just literally a stone’s throw from my house. And the Toby Jug was the music venue where David Bowie premiered Spiders from Mars. It was a stop between the outside of London and central London. I think I was about five years old actually when the place got bulldozed tragically. It was an interesting little area to grow up in because you could feel there was something going on at the time, which was a place of significance, no doubt. It was literally a sign of trouble over there, you know?
I had an interesting upbringing because when I was young, I wasn’t a very well child. I had some illnesses and was under a doctor’s supervision a lot. The significance of that was that my mom would go out and buy me some music.
So when I was four or five, my mom would bring back a single or an LP and that would be my reward. so I’d feel better, or have a smile, you know? It instilled positive thinking, good times and thoughts. Music as a whole was a good, positive thing to get involved with.
SoulMusic.com: That you grew up in England makes your attraction to gospel music even more interesting. How did that come about?
Greg: I had my first real experience of a gospel record in 1993. I had a guest deejay that came to play for us at Urban Soul, an event that me and a couple of DJs put on. He actually got on the microphone and announced it as his new discovery into his play box. And so that made me go, Oh, so this is going to be good. I had no idea it was going to be a gospel record. It was “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” by Clarence Smith on the Gospel Truth label. I was just blown away. I wasn’t actually familiar with this!
It took me a minute to realize that I’d bought my first gospel record, but as soon as I realized it, my digging habits changed almost straight away. Gospel became an interesting avenue to explore from the get go. I was never really a religious person from the onset. Everything has a certain style, but with gospel, it’s a huge umbrella.
I went to the Midwest and I decided I’m going to look in the gospel sections this time. I went looking and I found my first gospel 45, which was by the Lovers of God. I bought that for $0.25, which is crazy! I just thought, you can’t lose! Well, I got that home, put it on the turntable, and I was absolutely floored. So those two records, Clarence Smith and the Lovers of God, are the records that sent me off in a direction. And these are the records that I purchased 30 years ago. That’s how my journey started.
SoulMusic.com: What I love about your compilations is that the artists you choose are not at all the obvious ones. You have a particular focus on local talent in various regions of the United States, versus the ‘national’ artists who were on the major labels. How did the projects start for you? And how have the artists responded?
Greg: When we started doing the Divine Chord Gospel Show and accumulating set lists of records, somebody just came along and said, let’s put together some compilations and it made perfect sense.
I’ve been friends with Keb Darge for a long time and it’s almost like a mirror image of what he did when Deep Funk was coming out: the way that the sound grew, the notoriety of certain records and the popularity of them rose because he put them on tape.
When making compilations was offered to me, it just made perfect sense that this was the next stepping stone of getting this music out there. I also recognized it was not just a gospel environment. Yeah. I’ve met some amazing people along the way whose knowledge of gospel music is just astounding. Gospel music is a deep rooted passion…I would suggest more so than secular.
When you meet passionate people about gospel, they really feel it deep in the soul. Yes. And if I can try and convey some of that enthusiasm to the world by doing these concerts, I think we shine a little bit of a light on that world.
I’ve seen the look on people’s faces when they realize that their work from 40 years ago has significance today, arguably more, given the world’s condition and the ways that gospel can talk to people. Some of the comments–particularly about the Staples Jr. Singers and people like that, are that their music just speaks volumes about where we’re at, albeit it was recorded in 1976. Here we are in 2022, It gives me chills thinking about it sometimes.
Greg: We weren’t entirely sure initially what we wanted to do because Savoy was arguably the greatest label to ever put out a gospel record. How do you tackle any kind of release that focuses on Savoy? We thought about separate volumes. We thought about a single CD with maybe 30 tracks on it, but none of it made sense. That was about six years in the making.
We went backwards and forwards for a long time. Savoy was sold to Malaco at some point during that time, so we were chasing down the rights at one point to get that one out.
I am very pleased with the way that it was handled, the packaging, the way it was put together, the nods to Harvey (the artist) on the front cover.
SoulMusic.com: Harvey! Yes! And you have a project developing about him as well. Can you talk about that?
Greg: Harvey’s identity was a mystery. Nobody knew his last name. Nobody knew who he was. There was a website that had speculation of who Harvey was, all of which was wrong–but at least somebody started the conversation. Eventually what happened was Harvey’s son, Keith, contacted somebody in a group and said, Harvey is not a mystery to me.
Fast forward to two years ago. I suggested putting a book together with the artwork [from the album covers] and was trying to figure out the best way to do it. I contacted Robbie Rogers at Baylor University, Bob Marovich and Bob Darden. Robbie actually wrote a thesis on Harvey. His whole thesis is fascinating, looking at how Harvey’s work correlated to what was happening in America at the time (1959 through 1969): the Vietnam War, JFK, Martin Luther King. Harvey was emulating history in America.
We can actually tell a very, very important story of an unsung hero that was just quietly painting album covers that changed the face of how gospel was presented. We’re at the contract stage right now. Fingers crossed because we’re not quite over the hurdle yet. Hopefully we can do it justice and get it done.