“Oh What a Savior,” revisited (II of III)

One morning not too long after rediscovering “Life Will be Sweeter,” I put in the “Cathedrals Alive: Deep in the Heart of Texas” and turned it up (I lived in the far northern reaches of Minnesota at the time and my very unsouthern neighbors must surely have wondered). By the time I am out of the shower and dressed, “Oh What a Savior” is playing and Ernie Haase is standing ‘em up with that second verse and then the rest of the guys join in … “Oh what a savior, oh Hallelujah / His heart was broken” … Roger Bennett plays that little riff to bridge the phrases, and in the quiet of the moment just before the vocals return, some guy in the back rows (standing, I imagine to myself, as I walk into the living room and reach for the remote to increase the volume yet again), shouts “Praise the Lord.” George hears the guy and chuckles in that way he had, as if to say, “Oh, my goodness we’ve been so blessed,” and (here’s the best part) instead of singing the next line with Glen and Fowler and Haase, George, ever so kindly, lightly really, almost to himself, it seems, says, “Thank you Lord.” And that’s it. I can’t take it. I hop around my little living room, laughing and crying and just can’t stand it. The song tumbles toward that final climax, first gently, then more intensely, then fantastically, powerfully … the voices rising, reaching … Fowler’s bass falling, thumping steadily, syncopated against George’s attacks on the descending bass notes … until finally the resolution sets in and the crowd screams, babies fly, arms wave, hands clapping. … And George instinctively takes control of the moment: he laughs with such genuine rapture at what’s just happenned, “Yeah! … Ernie Haase … ” more rapturous laughter, “that’s thuh waytta sing that song right there, boys, Oh, whatta savior! Glooory!…” and so on and so forth. That’s the first time I had heard truly what was going on in that song. I had heard, of course, George chuckle between phrases in the chours every other time I had listened to the track. But that morning, with my freshly showered self and my scrubbed ears keenly peeled, that was the first time I’d ever heard the guy in the back rows of the audience … listen to it yourself: turn it up and put some head phones on (squeeze them really tight to your ears); you’ll hear him too, I bet. He couldn’t stand it any more either, just had to shout, and George magically makes that guy’s declaratory outburst a part of the song, a part of the moment, the phrase, the praise. It is not, in George’s deft, capable, brilliant stage hands, an interruption, but an augmentation to this tune they’ve staged countless times before. With that simple rhetorical trick, that split-second awareness, George gave those folks in that big Baptist church not the umpteen-thousandth rendition of “Oh What a Savior,” but a tune just for them, a creation of that night only, one that they won’t ever forget hearing.

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