We spoke with Chicago legend Pastor T.L. Barrett about his musical legacy, his relationship with Earth, Wind & Fire, and what it’s like seeing contemporary rappers like Kanye West embrace his gospel all these years later.
Nobody knows how to tell their own story quite like Pastor T.L. Barrett. Chaptered, paced, and page-numbered, the scroll can read like a well-rehearsed pitch. But that’s because it is. Barrett has led a congregation on the same two-block stretch of Chicago’s south side for more than 50 years, more time than most of us get to polish a personal narrative. Then again, most of us also never ran our own radio show or inspired Earth, Wind & Fire’s Phillip Bailey to start his own church, or founded a youth-focused ministry with a rotating cast of iconic musicians and politicians in attendance.
These are just a few scattered plot points from the pastor’s improbable path from self-taught Queens pianist with a left hand modeled after the late Erroll Garner’s to revered Chicago pastor with four seminal gospel albums and credits on songs from Kanye West, T.I., and DJ Khaled. Barrett’s story and only recently uncovered catalog of albums (widely considered grail in the crate-digging community) are the subjects of a new retrospective boxset from Numero Group. Released on Friday (September, 24th) I Shall Wear a Crown contains all four of Barrett’s studio albums with The Youth for Christ Choir, as well as a bonus album of sermons and singles.
Weeks before the release of the 5xLP collection, the charismatic Chicago legend recounted a few of his many lives with us, unwinding his jaggedly determined trajectory, unpacking the pathos of a singular gospel sound equally grounded in the sacred and secular, and celebrating the continued resonance of the music he recorded nearly a half-century back.
Across these five albums in the Numero Group boxset, it feels like you very naturally landed in a space that is rooted in the sacred, but heavily influenced by the secular. Was your work in gospel always this accessible or did it progress over time from a more traditional approach to, let’s say, a less conventional one?
Pastor T.L. Barrett: Maybe if you knew a little bit more about my past, you could understand my pathos. I was kicked out of all the schools here in the city of Chicago on the South Side. I never graduated even from grammar school. I had to go to a summer school program just to get into high school. And then, once I got there, they judged me uneducable. They put me out once I was 16. And I remembered, out of all the things that had happened that day, the thing that stood out in my mind was… I guess she was the student counselor or dean… but after telling me that they were dismissing me and I was leaving the office, she said, “One more thing, TL Barrett, Jr. Come back over here.” She shook her well-manicured, colored finger in my face. The fingernail polish was a deep ruby-like red. And she said, “I just want you to know that you, TL Barrett, Jr, will never, ever amount to anything.” And that was her negative prognostication on my life.
That seems pretty harsh for a 16-year-old.
It was. I didn’t know why she was so angry with me, but she took that opportunity to pronounce that negative outlook on my life. And get this, my homestead was 35th and Vincennes, which was north of Phillips High School. My sister lived at 57th and Indiana, which was south of Phillips High School. Phillips High School was at 39th and Giles. So being that my parents weren’t home, I had no other alternative but to go south to my sister’s house, because my parents weren’t expecting me to get expelled from school. So I had to walk from 39th and Giles. My sister lived at 59th and Indiana. Don’t forget that. I walked from 39th and Giles over to 39th and Indiana, and I crossed over and walked south on Indiana until I got to my sister’s house, which is 57th and Indiana.
My church that I built 37 years ago is at 55th and Indiana. Which means I walked over that corner the same day that that lady told me that I would never amount to anything. And now I own that corner, and my name is on that street. The city council put my name on that street and honored me with a six block stretch of Garfield Boulevard, where my old church was. It’s TL Barrett Boulevard.
Now, I only told that story because I made a deal with God as I walked from 39th and Indiana to 57th and Indiana. I said to God that, “I will keep my body clean from drugs or alcohol or anything, and I will make my mind keen. With a clean body and a keen mind, you can work wonders with it. If you would come out of that sky and just reveal yourself to me, let me know the power that really is you, that power cannot be in the sky anymore. It has to be in me.” And God kept that deal with me. And I kept my deal with God. That’s why I wrote the song [“Like a Ship.’] Because I was like a ship without a sail. But I had the determination that I could make it.
When my father died shortly thereafter and I moved back to New York, it was always in my mind to come back to Chicago, make a success of myself, and purchase a home so I could invite that lady to come and see what happened to me. How her prediction of my life failed. So I came back to Chicago with that purpose.
Did you ever get the chance to invite her over?
Listen, I became very, very famous, because I became a radio personality in ’76 on the biggest black outlet. It’s called WBMX, the Black Music Experience. And I told my story on the radio, and I invited her. I said, “Wherever you are, I want you to come and be a guest in my home. I have a seat for you.” After I built the church, [I] said, “I have a seat for you that I’m reserving for you in my church.” But she never responded.
And listen to this. I was selected by the area principals to be the guest speaker at a district luncheon. So about the third time I was speaking, I told my story about how I was dismissed from Wendell Phillips and what that lady had said to me. When I finished speaking, the current principal stood up and made a motion to the area principals that they would petition the Board of Education, and would grant me an actual high school diploma from Wendell Phillips High School.
I got my diploma. Then, as my notoriety began to explode, I adopted Wendell Phillips. I used to give away brand new cars to the valedictorians because it was my desire to inspire young people to stay in school. So I adopted those two schools which were in proximity to my church. And the Hall of Fame committee voted to induct me. So today, my picture is on the wall at Wendell Phillips. But it’s the only one up there that doesn’t have an exit date, because I’m the only member of the Hall of Fame that didn’t graduate. And that’s because they kicked me out. So when you hear my music, that comes out of my pathos. And I’m speaking for other young people. Nobody knows all of their sorrow. That’s why we have to have faith in them, and we must invest in our youth.
That’s how I developed my theology. The people at our church, we don’t look for God in the sky. We look for God in our eye. Whomever we can see. And the energy that produces trees and flowers and birds and bees and everything that you see that has life in it, God is the true cause and the essence of all of those living things, especially human beings. And we have to honor God wherever we see God. We bow to each other. We are honored and humbled to be in each other’s presence because we know the true divinity of each other’s identity. I know your divinity. Your identity is really God. So therefore, I have to treat you like I would treat God. That’s the secret to world peace. Don’t do to each other what you wouldn’t do to God.
When did you start your congregation?
That was March of 1968.
When did the ministry start attracting local musicians? Specifically, how did Earth, Wind & Fire’s Maurice White and Phillip Bailey come across the congregation?
Maurice’s mother was a devotee of mine. She used to listen to me on the radio because I was on early in the morning. And she would attend our services. And then, when Earth, Wind & Fire were just really getting started, and they heard about me through her, then they came to one of my youth meetings. I used to teach my young people on Tuesday nights. Phillip Bailey, Andrew Woolfolk, Larry Dunn, those were the three. Andrew Woolfolk was part of the horn section of Earth, Wind & Fire. Larry Dunn was a keyboard player, and Phillip Bailey was lead singer. And they came to my youth meeting that night. Larry and Andrew were smokers. And they were so touched and so moved by the message that they heard that they left their cigarettes on my altar that night. And Phillip Bailey acknowledged his call to ministry that night. I became like a spiritual counselor to the group.
Is that how you ended up working with Maurice?
Yes, that’s why Maurice helped produce one of our albums. He went down to the recording studio with me. When Phillip’s mother passed away, and he was living in Denver, Colorado, they flew me to Denver to do her eulogy. And when Maurice’s mother passed, they had me to do the eulogy at Rockefeller Chapel in Hyde Park at the university. To this day, Phillip acknowledges me as his godfather. But whenever they’re in Chicago, they will come and invite me to come down to their shows. And their horn section is on some of our recordings, if you read the liner notes. Like on Do Not Pass Me By, that’s Earth, Wind & Fire’s horns.
I read that Donny Hathaway was also in attendance at your sermons at one point.
Yeah, he came to one of our youth meetings. And Phil Upchurch, one of the most world-renowned guitar players in the music industry. He’s on some of our recordings, too.
Would you say they influenced your writing at all?
Definitely. You can hear it in some of my music. But I always had an ear for music. I started out as a jazz pianist. My favorite pianist of all times was Errol Garner. And the reason why he became my favorite pianist is because people were telling me that I had an Errol Garner syncopated left hand. And I didn’t know what they were talking about until I listened to him. He would keep rhythm with his left hand. What a phenomenal pianist he was. And he never learned how to read music. He played by ear. My music was influenced greatly by him. And some of the other artists. I just love music. I never learned how to read music either.
But the radio gig brought you even closer to what was happening in popular music.
Oh, yes. But I had started writing music long before I became a DJ. One of the highlights of my program that people would tune into would be the phone calls that I would get from Earth, Wind & Fire. Wherever they were traveling, overseas or wherever, they would call me, and talk on the radio to my audience. It was a great relationship that we’ve had over the years. And to get a chance to counsel with Maurice White, sharing with him universal truths that he employed even in his performances. He was of that Eastern philosophical, theological mindset.
He was open to unorthodox teachings. One of the things I shared with him while we were on our way to a session was that, “When you are performing,” I asked him, “what do you see out there?” He said, “I see thousands of people.” And I said, “And what do you get from them?” He said, “I get energy from them.” I said, “OK. But let me show you another dimension of what you should see when you look out there… Instead of seeing thousands of people, if you believe in the indwelling presence of God in people, just imagine God being in those thousands of people. So you’re seeing a thousand different faces of God. And you are receiving thousands of vibrational energy coming from God.” ,
The two of you seem to have been kindred both in your musical and theological openness. Earth, Wind & Fire was also pulling from all over the place.
That’s soulful eclecticism. And it’s not something you ask permission for. That’s one reason why my music is just now trending, because it was way before its time. Nobody had ever heard of gospel in that form. So the gospel DJs didn’t want to play me because I didn’t sound gospel.
I could see that being a little conflicting for a Sunday morning AM radio broadcast.
Right. I even borrowed from the Beatles. They’re pulling from all over the place too. And we all do it.
On that note, how did you feel when you heard what Kanye did with “Father Stretch My Hands”?
Oh, I loved it.
How did it come to your attention? Did he reach out?
No, I just heard it through the grapevine,”Kanye West is sampling your music.” Just like I heard that the rapper T.I. and DJ Khaled sampled my music. He had me singing with Nicki Minaj and Alicia Keys. The three of us are singing together.
Did that feel, in itself, like a full circle moment for you?
Oh, yes. Vindication, elevation, graduation, all of the -ation superlatives. And the check from BMI don’t hurt, you know?
So no issues then?
I have no qualms about it as long as it’s not used to promote any satanic rituals or anything. But as long as it’s part of some good music presentation, I don’t mind. And my estate doesn’t mind.
I think each man’s journey in life has to be guided by his own spiritual and moral compass. Therefore, his navigation must be done by his spirituality. And I’m all for it. If it improves his living conditions, if it improves his conduct, I’m all for it. And I understand that you can’t get Kanye to use drugs or alcohol, that he’s almost religiously fanatic on that. And to be honest with you, I feel, if not fatherly, at least avuncular towards him, because I feel that my music may have had something to do with influencing his positive change. You know, Kanye grew up in Chicago. And I’ve been well-known in Chicago for many, many years. So I understand from some inner circles that Kanye knew about me long before I put the music out that he sampled.
A lot of musicians of your generation are not as accepting of their work being reinterpreted for new generations.
Let me put it to you this way. I am a physical as well as a mental organ donor. If I were to get into an accident and they look at my credentials, they’ll see, “Take me straight to the science lab. Use every part of my body you possibly can.” That’s the reason why I don’t drink, I don’t smoke. When I’m through with this body, I want somebody else to be able to use eyes and ears and livers and whatever they can use. And I feel the same way about other members of my mental and spiritual body. If my music, that came through my mind and my soul, can help someone else, take it, use it, in a way that I won’t use it.
That’s how I feel about Kanye and others sampling my music. They’re using it in ways that I didn’t use it and wouldn’t use it. So why let it go to waste? Can you imagine how many hearts, how many livers and how many lungs could be breathing and could be giving life to other people if there would be more people donating their organs?
That’s how I feel about my message. But I hear preachers saying, “I’m going to use that.” I stood up in a visiting church the other day, and I said, “If you want me to be terrific, then you must be specific.” And the preacher hollered out, “Oh.” He said, “I like that.” He said, “You know I’m going to use that.” I said, “Be my guest. Use it.”