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Andrae Crouch Brings Power of the Pulpit to Pop

Times Staff Writer

Although Andrae Crouch’s musical mission is to do the Lord’s work, that hasn’t precluded him from helping the lords of the pop charts do their work too.

The veteran gospel-pop singer and his group brought the power of the pulpit to Michael Jackson’s hit “Man in the Mirror” (the stirring gospel choir heard on the song, which is a Grammy nominee for Record of the Year, also includes the Winans, another notable pop-gospel act).

And when Madonna’s new single, “Like a Prayer,” debuts next month, Crouch and his singers will be heard lending a taste of the sacred in support of this most secular of stars.

“They respect me as one they enjoy in my particular kind of music,” Crouch, who sings Monday night in a benefit concert at the Hop in El Toro, said recently from his home in Woodland Hills. “If they need us and we can contribute, we’ll do it.”

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But before committing his group to any pop star’s project, Crouch asks to see the lyric sheet.

“I just have to read the words first to make sure. We’re trying to see if it goes against how I feel.”

Crouch, whose mainstream credits also include writing and arranging gospel songs heard on the sound track of “The Color Purple,” said it doesn’t bother him that the Madonna song will be part of a soda pop ad campaign. Actually, he said, his group won’t be on the commercial’s sound track: For reasons having to do with business and production procedures rather than ethics, the Crouch chorus’s parts are being duplicated by other singers. But Crouch, 46, sees no ethical problem in rendering music unto the marketplace. If he had been asked to sing on the commercial, he said, he would not have turned down the offer out of hand.

“It takes money to live,” he said. “Bibles are not free.”

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Over the years, Crouch has gotten used to criticism from some gospel purists who feel that even his religious message songs, because they are grounded in contemporary pop music styles, don’t hew to appropriately holy ground.

“I don’t pay any attention to it anymore,” Crouch said. “I’m free, and I play what God gives me to play. Our environment certainly affects us. Our music should expand. The message is the same, but there’s no limit to the music.”

In pursuing new musical influences, Crouch doesn’t restrict himself to sanctified precincts. For example, his 1981 song, “Hollywood Scene,” is a lament of a young man’s downfall and corruption that Crouch said was inspired by watching male street hustlers on Santa Monica Boulevard. Musically, the number resembles a Steely Dan production, with Crouch’s husky baritone echoing the tone of Steely Dan’s singer, Donald Fagen--not exactly a noted source of gospel music.

Musicians who come from church backgrounds always have had to deal with the tension between what’s sacred and what’s popular. Sam Cooke was one of the first gospel stars to become a pop singer, and he was reviled as a turncoat in some gospel quarters. Al Green and Aretha Franklin have straddled the same line during their careers.

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Crouch said he shared some purist beliefs in a firm separation between gospel and pop back in the early 1960s, when Aretha Franklin moved from church music to pop music.

“When she first sang rock ‘n’ roll, it kind of (bothered) me a bit,” he said. “It kind of hurt me. She was so powerful, and I thought I wouldn’t be able to hear her sing songs that would really touch my heart. But now that I understand more, I still love her anyway. I don’t see anything wrong in people singing pop music as long as it doesn’t go against their beliefs and what I feel God’s standard is. I think it’s wrong when people turn it around to a purely sexual thing, or something that says nothing.”

Although appreciative of pop that is not exploitative, Crouch said he has never considered crossing the line himself and making pure pop without religious themes.

“I was never even tempted that way,” said Crouch, who got his start in music as a boy when, he says, his minister father prayed for him to receive the gift of music, on the condition that he would always use it for divine purposes. “I wanted to teach that gospel music and God’s principle were good, so it shouldn’t take a back seat” to pop. As for his collaborations with Michael Jackson and Madonna, Crouch said, “I don’t look at it as a jumping board” into the pop market. “Of course, I want as many people to hear my music as possible, but I’m not going to compromise it to do that.”

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Crouch’s longstanding willingness to sing gospel music in pop settings makes it less surprising that he and his 11-member ensemble will be the headliners Monday for an evening billed as a “ ‘50s Sweetheart Prom.”

The show, which includes dinner and dancing to a disc jockey spinning ‘50s hits, will benefit three causes: the Dean Miraldi Foundation, headed by a former Los Angeles Raiders football player who visits high schools to talk with students about moral and ethical issues; Concept 7, an organization that provides housing for abused children, and the social outreach programs of the Ocean Hills Community Church in San Juan Capistrano.

“We have fun with music, so we might even kick off into something like (a ‘50s medley),” Crouch said. “Just having fun--we’ve done that before.”

Andrae Crouch sings Monday in a “ ‘50s Sweetheart Prom” benefit at the Hop, 23822 Mercury Road, El Toro. Comedian-singer Jason Chase will open. The evening starts at 6:30 p.m.; tickets are $75 per person. Information: (714) 493-4020.

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