Fifty years ago, Pastor Thomas Lee Barrett, better known as T.L., went into The Sound Market Studio in Chicago with his Youth For Christ Choir and recorded a testimony of faith. The result: “Like a Ship … (Without a Sail),” Barrett’s signature song, and a gospel album of the same name.
The pastor hasn’t spent the past 50 years wandering the wilderness. Barrett continues to record music and minister to his congregation at The Life Center COGIC (Church of God in Christ) on the corner of South Indiana Drive and 55th Street, once one of the city’s most troubled areas. “A prayer palace amid the malice,” Barrett has called it.
And the pastor is still writing songs. (One idea, about his former ex-wife’s ex-husband came during this interview.) But until recently, Barrett’s music—his testimony—languished without a wide audience, unrecognized as a gospel soul masterpiece.
“Like a Ship” may have been a Holy Grail for record collectors, but grails are by definition rare and hard to attain. In the realm of religion, testimonies and grails sit at opposite poles: one is supposed to reach as many people as possible; the other stays hidden until the right folks come along, if they ever do. Barrett has always been clear on his preference.
But though his work has been lauded and sampled by the likes Radiohead’s Colin Greenwood (“the most euphoric celebratory music”), Jim James (“one of the most important albums ever made”), Kanye West, DJ Khaled, TV shows and sneaker commercials, only the most devoted seekers could find pastor’s full musical output.
It will be easier now. This month the Numero Group, a Chicago-based archival label, is releasing a five-album box set of Barrett’s work, I Shall Wear a Crown, spanning everything from 1971’s “Like a Ship” to his sinfully underestimated Stax album I Found the Answer, and even a few sermons.
It can be hard to describe the contradictions in Barrett’s music: the raw, jagged vocals of the young choir blending with the smooth studio session players; the haunting electric keys and you-can-feel his-sweat intimacy of Barrett’s soul-baring vocals. Sometimes, the contradictions lie between lyrics and melody. “I Don’t Know How Long,” from 1973’s “I Found the Answer” is surely the funkiest, most uplifting song you will ever hear about being left behind on Judgment Day.
Barrett’s music and his New Thought theology, which teaches that God is present in everyone and everything, don’t try to resolve those contradictions. They encompass them, as he explained in a recent interview. Aquarium Drunkard spoke to Pastor Barrett recently from his home in Chicago. Now 77, he sounded spry. | d burke
Aquarium Drunkard: You recorded some of this music fifty years ago. How does it feel to have it finally reach a wider audience?
T.L. Barrett: I was kicked out of every school in the South Side of Chicago—even grammar school. Then, when I was 16 my father passed away. My father was obese so we had no life insurance. I left Wendell Phillips High School, where the counselor told me I would never amount to anything, and walked from 39th and Indiana to 57th and Indiana. I made a deal with God. I said, “I will keep my mind keen and keep my body clean if you reveal yourself to me.”
I knew that I had something that was good for people. I was like a cargo ship, but I didn’t have a sail because nobody wanted to guide me. That song, “Like a Ship … (Without a Sail)” is my signature song, my testimony. I had to find my calling within. It had to come from God. And God was no longer the god in the sky, for me. God became the god within my eye. I wrote that song for other people like me, who were experiencing all the sorrows of life. But it was before its time and radio stations wouldn’t play it.
But now look what happened. It’s almost like a man burying treasure and it being discovered forty years later. But you know I have a belief system steeped in my christology, and I really believe that God has a plan for our lives, and sometimes it doesn’t go according to our chronological reasoning. I am more seasoned now. I have a greater appreciation for family, for true relationships, for ministry. I have a greater understanding of who and what I am that I didn’t have forty years ago. Who knows how stable I would have been had I received that much notoriety at a younger age?
AD: There’s a rawness to the “Like a Ship” record. It feels like you’re in the studio or the sanctuary. At the same time, people have called the choir’s sound “eerie,” and I hear that, too.
T.L. Barrett: These are young people who came out of impoverished areas, from what was called the Robert Taylor Homes, one of the worst housing developments in Chicago as far as crime. They found hope and meaning by coming to our youth meetings on Tuesday nights. I told them, You don’t sing because you have lyrics, you sing because you feel something. If you don’t feel, you don’t belong in this choir. Some people try to teach their choir to sing professionally. I taught them how to feel spiritually. That’s where that eerie sound comes from.
AD: You’re still an active pastor, and a lot of clergy were hurting during the pandemic. How has your church fared?
T.L. Barrett: We have assumed the philosophy of developing new ways for new days. We have to be like water. Water doesn’t argue with any container. Pour it into a maze and it will find its way. I don’t argue with life. For the first eighteen months we could not gather in our sanctuary, but we still communicated through Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and the conference (phone) lines. Now our sanctuary is open on Sunday mornings only, but we soldier on. You know that song, “I Shall Wear a Crown?”
AD: I love that song.
T.L. Barrett: It’s about having a consciousness of being royalty, of being kingly and queenly. We call our people the Royal Family of Holiness. We come from royalty and we’re on our way back to royalty.
AD: It makes me smile every time I hear the choir sing those “wah wah” sounds in “I Shall Wear a Crown.”
T.L. Barrett: Isn’t that great? That came to me while we were recording it. I created it on the spot. I said “Hey why don’t y’all make this wah wah sound when I sing ‘when the trumpets sound.'” And they did, and it worked.
AD: So much of your music centers on sacred things. How do you feel about it being used to sell sneakers and in songs with crude lyrics about women?
T.L. Barrett: As long as it’s not hurting people, it’s all good. Sell those sneakers. It’s providing a livelihood for somebody and that’s good. I can’t separate God from good. If it’s good, it’s God. God inspired my music. That’s what makes it sacred. God is not an anthropomorphic being to me. God is the first cause and essence of life. When I see a flower, tree, birds, bees, I see God. Like right now you think I am talking to you, but I know that I am talking to God.
AD: Hmm…I’m not sure about that. [Laughs]
T.L. Barrett: We have to honor the presence of God in each other! When you travel to the East, you see people bow to each other. I teach my people to do that because they are in the presence of God. You don’t go to heaven, you are heaven. I know people are not comfortable with my theology and I understand it, but it works for me.
My wife and I have been married for fifty-three years. Twenty-five years ago, she decided she wanted to divorce me. And I told her, if you get into any trouble, I am going to be there to bail you out. And she stayed married to that man for ten years before seeing that the grass wasn’t greener, it was meaner—hey, that’s good! I’m going to write a song about that.
When I saw my wife’s ex-husband I gave him a big hug. I called him my “husband-in-law.” That blew his mind. He couldn’t understand how he could take another man’s wife, and that man would forgive him. I take the Golden Rule one step further: I do unto others as I would do unto God.
AD: What are your hopes for this box set?
T.L. Barrett: I want something good to happen for a lot of people. I hope I get a Grammy or it sells a million copies, so that all the people who made it can have a better life on this Earth. It’s not just about me. It’s about us.