A Gospel-Soul Singer Is Now Preaching Godliness in His Music and Ministry

Of the seven Christian-oriented acts performing tonight at Goodies--on a bill dubbed "The Night Before the Night Before Christmas"--probably the one that's closest to godliness is Billy Watkins. The Rev. Billy Watkins.

A veteran gospel-soul singer in the style and tradition of the late Sam Cooke (with whom he once worked), Watkins decided to enter the ministry about 14 years ago.

"I found myself spiritually inclined in everything I was doing then," said Watkins, 49. "I started finding that I needed to go further than just going to church on Sunday--I wanted to give my entire life to the Lord.

"It was just something that I needed to do. I went to the seminary and learned more about the Word. Then I was ordained and started being a pastor."

He has since established a church in Los Angeles, the nondenominational Freedom of Spirit Church. Watkins and his congregation are deeply devoted to providing food, shelter and clothing to the needy in the church's neighborhood and nearby areas. (Watkins, who lives in Pasadena, is also involved with World Opportunity International, an organization that pursues these goals on a worldwide basis.)

And, of course, he conducts services at the church every Sunday morning. Not surprisingly, given his increased spiritual awareness and activity in recent years, the music he writes and sings is now of a more pious bent.

What that means is that Billy Watkins has come full circle. Born in Little Rock, Ark., the son of a sharecropper, Watkins began his performing career as a young boy. Or, as he puts it, when he "was knee-high to a grasshopper. . . . My four brothers and I started off singing together in churches and choirs."

The family moved to California when he was 11. Not long after that, Watkins landed a job shining shoes in a barber shop, where he met an artist who greatly influenced--and encouraged--him: Nat King Cole.

"One day he was in the barber shop getting a haircut," Watkins recalled in a recent phone interview. "And just when he finished, I hopped right in his seat and said, 'I'm gonna sit where the King was sitting.' He was my idol. I loved him all the way through life until the end."

Likewise, Watkins was apparently important to Cole because he served as a pallbearer at Cole's funeral with, among others, Danny Thomas, Peter Lawford and Sammy Davis Jr.

Spurred by the inspiration of Cole and others, Watkins first pursued a professional gospel career, singing for many years with a group called the Zion Travelers. "And then when my father passed, I wanted to become an entertainer to try and buy a home for my mother 'cause that's what my father was trying to do," he said. "That's why I went into the popular (music) world. . . . I stayed in it for a long time."

And he earned his performing stripes in some pretty good company. "I worked with Sam Cooke when Sam was in his prime (singing) gospel," he said. "I worked with Lou Rawls and Della Reese and Aretha Franklin--all of us came up together."

He certainly appears to have done well, enjoying some chart success with his records and touring throughout this country, Europe, Australia and the Orient. It was after returning from one of those major tours in the early '70s that he felt it was time to make significant changes in his life--spiritually and musically. "Yeah, I went to Australia, Tokyo and Manila, and when I got back, I got back into gospel--and stayed there."

So now, in addition to his pastoral duties at his church, ministerial tasks at a nearby convalescent hospital, volunteer work for World Opportunity International and other organizations and regular appearances on Los Angeles' Christian television station KAGL, Watkins maintains a full slate of concert appearances with his band Free Spirit International.

Watkins' set tonight at Goodies places him in the middle of a wildly diverse lineup that also includes the self-described "psychedelic punk" band Breakfast With Amy and the progressive power trio Bastille. Goodies' entertainment director Jimmy Caravan said the club will serve no alcohol--and impose no age limit--and emphasized that children and families are welcome.

Watkins acknowledged that he operates at a rather frantic pace, but he doesn't mind. "I believe that's the pace that the Lord has set up for me. I don't find myself tired at any time, with the exception, sometimes, of at the end of the day.

"The first thing I do when I get up in the morning is to try to give someone some encouragement that the day is a beautiful day. . . . The more joy you give to others, the more you have. This is what I really and truly, in my heart, have found out."

Goodies is at 1641 Placentia Ave., Fullerton. The schedule of bands for "The Night Before the Night Before Christmas": Upstairs at 6 p.m., Pristine at 7 p.m., Breakfast With Amy at 8 p.m., Glory Glory at 9 p.m., Billy Watkins at 10 p.m., the Holidays at 11 p.m. and Bastille at midnight; guitarist Daniel Williams will entertain between acts. Admission: $5. Information: (714) 524-7072.

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