Slightly OT Bleg: Billy Graham Crusade Music

So last night, I watched Frontline’s biography of Richard Nixon (fascinating stuff, natch) and about half-way through, we get to the part where Nixon is bogged down in Vietnam. You may well remember this bit of history: In an effort to rally his core supporters, he goes to a Billy Graham Crusade and gives what would have probably been a forgettable speech except that it introduced “silent majority” into the sociopolitical lexicon. Blah blah blah. This is all preamble to my point, which is about the music that immediately precedes Nixon’s entrance. It’s the first 24 or so seconds of this clip:

I love the way the Frontline edits of this Crusade footage give the impression that Nixon gets to stride up the stairs of the platform riding the enormous upswelling energy created by the song, the choir of singers, and the songstress whose music is still in the air when when Nixon’s head pops into view. Like I say, that’s an illusion of the edits — it didn’t actually happen that way (you can see Nixon is greeted by Graham at the dais immediately, one presumes, after he has delivered his introduction of the president). But at first, I missed this sly splicing and in thinking about Nixon walking on to the fading notes of “Oh How I Love Jesus,” I started thinking about stagecraft of the Graham Crusades. And it occurred to me that the grace and dexterity of Nixon’s entrance (as created by Frontline’s edits) could arguably be said to capture the key to Graham’s success, which was always as much about the optical tones of his crusade events and the style of his pageantry as it was about the substance of his sermons.

Though he preached a conservative Christian gospel almost theologically identical to the likes of, say, Falwell, Graham never was the lightning rod the Falwells of the evangelical right were, not least because Graham’s crusades perfected the art of populist theater, of conveying evangelicalism as a community event that tapped and channeled the bedrock values of ordinary evangelical Christians … Nixon’s silent majority, given a voice - a glorious, wonderful, outsized George Beverly Shea voice - for a few hours each year when the Graham Crusade would come to town. And it was that wholesome, Christian populism that Nixon was hoping to tap into when he visited (also: it’s easy to forget or dismiss how politically gifted Nixon really was in many ways, right down the way he walks on stage … as gifted, you might say, as he was malevolent, petty, and bad). My initial read of the Frontline scene was wrong, but I think the larger point about Graham still stands, or is at least worth throwing out there for discussion.

And even if it isn’t, that’s not my primary point, so despair not: what I’m really curious about here is the music. First off, does anyone know the name of the woman leading the chorus of “Oh How I Love Jesus”? Her high notes lose their warmth in the crummy audio of the video clip, and the youtube visuals are all washed out at first so you can’t really see her that well early on when the camera angle shows her commanding the round with that massive choir behind. But last night when the screen cut to her in this scene, I positively snapped up off the couch, captivated by the easy, breezy gracefulness of her quietly charismatic manner, the way she manages to seem to be speaking to just me, across all this time and that sea of thousands … and I thought, now that’s a Jesus I can get on board with.

And finally, the piano. The Graham Crusades didn’t invent the type of accompaniment you hear here, full of arpeggiated runs and wide-armed fills that give the effect of acoustically encouraging each vocal phrase with an elaborate and filigreed flourish of piano commentary, but certainly Graham helped popularize this style. Does anyone know who’s playing the piano here? You can see him briefly, and at a not very helpful angle, about minute marker 1:50.

Update: Thanks to all who have responded to my blegs, even if blegging did reveal in this case my mildly embarassing ignorance of what Ethel Waters looked like.

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  1. David Bruce Murray wrote:

    Can’t say about the piano player, but the lady singing is the legendary jazz vocalist, Ethel Waters.

  2. CVH wrote:

    I can’t say for sure because it’s a quick shot but John Innes played piano for them a lot at that time. It might have been him; sounds like his style anyway.

    The woman singing looks very familiar but I can’t put a name to the face just yet.

    BTW, saw the new Billy biopic…good acting and the soundtrack is quite good too. But the script is weak and thin. Too bad.

  3. rr wrote:

    The pianist could also be Ted Smith.

  4. rr wrote:

    I researched this a little, and found an article stating that John Innes was the pianist for the crusade after 1965. Ted Smith was probably there prior to 1965, so it is more likely that this is John Innes on the video. This would have been around 1970, correct?

  5. Scott wrote:

    You know that old lady is Ms. Ethel Waters–a protege of Bessie Smith, Alberta Hunter, et al.

    Her big number of the Billy Graham Crusades was “His Eye is on the Sparrow.”

  6. J wrote:

    And a grand lady she was. Many Friday nights at Sky Pilot Radio Church (Doris Akers) she would come striding through the back doors and any semblance of an orchestrated service went out the door and we had CHURCH.

  7. JL wrote:

    First of all, I love your site, having been a reader/lurker for quite a while now. I’m a little surprised that you didn’t know that it was Ethel singing “Oh How I Love Jesus/To Me It’s Wonderful.” That particular medley is from her early ’60’s Word album “Reminisces” (which I have at home!). I think the pianist on the LP is Reginald Beane–not necessarily the pianist at that crusade, naturally. As a child, it was a particular thrill to see Ethel on the crusades, and what a joy to see her again from time to time when TBN runs the “Billy Graham Crusade Classics” on Saturday nights!

  8. Stan Hodges wrote:

    I attended a crusade in Tampa Fl in the early 80’s. John Iniis was still the oranist and Tedd Smith was the pianist. When John took over later as pianist his style was identical to Tedd Smith. In my opnion they both added much to the crusade music.

  9. john Thornhill wrote:

    your ‘insights’ regarding the Billy Graham Crusade reveals a gross lack of knowledge of the Billy Graham ministry. There was no ’stage craft’ as you put it. IN fact once Billy Graham finished his message and there was no choir singing at all but still folks came in response to the gospel message clearly proclaimed.
    But the Billy Graham music emphasizes the importance of music to man! OF course it can be misused. But it was not misused in the Crusades. It was there for the enrichment and encouragement of people
    John Thornhill

  10. Randy Stafford wrote:

    With VERY RARE exceptions, Tedd Smith played the piano at just about ALL Graham crusades well into the late-’80s.

    And it was Ethel Waters at that Knoxville, Tennessee Crusade at Neyland Stadium the night Richard Nixon was there.

    He borrowed $5 from Graham that night to put in the offering, and later sent a $5 check as repayment. He also sent another check (amount not disclosed) to the Billy Graham ministry.

    All this is documented at the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte, NC.

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