Pianist Richard Gibbs pays tribute to Inez Andrews and Aretha Franklin

Pianist, organist, and bassist Richard Gibbs comes from a mighty gospel lineage, and he recently released his first album under his own name, Just for Me (the Sirens), though he’s been performing publicly for nearly five decades. The disc is a tribute to two incredible women who were close to him. One is his mother, Inez Andrews, who sang with the Caravans and became a widely acclaimed soloist. Andrews also wrote a version of the traditional spiritual “Mary Don’t You Weep” that influenced Aretha Franklin’s performance on the 1972 album Amazing Grace. Gibbs had his own connection to the Queen of Soul—he accompanied her for 20 years.

On Just for Me, Gibbs’s sparse arrangements and spirited delivery connect to gospel’s Chicago origins. He also passes on this legacy to his son, Richard Gibbs III, who plays bass and organ on one track. Gibbs is an inspiring composer too, and his song “Whisper a Prayer” feels of a piece with the album’s many gospel standards, most of them associated with Andrews or Franklin. 

Erwin Helfer and Lluis Coloma with Cliff Dubose, Richard Gibbs, and Bishop Dwayne MasonThese shows are billed as “blues, boogie, and gospel keyboard parties.” Sat 11/19, 7 and 9:30 PM, Old Town School of Folk Music, Szold Hall, 4545 N. Lincoln, $24, $22 members (early show sold out), all ages

Gibbs will perform this weekend as part of what’s billed as a “blues, boogie, and gospel keyboard party” at the Old Town School of Folk Music. He talked to me about the people and experiences that shaped his debut album, speaking from his home in Bronzeville, just a few blocks from where he grew up.

Aaron Cohen: What were the most important things you learned from your mother?

Richard Gibbs: One of the most important things I learned is what she went through as a young artist. When the Caravans were in the 1950s and traveling with Reverend C.L. Franklin and a young Ms. [Aretha] Franklin, the troubles they had with hotels and just going different places, dealing with segregation—that stuck out. I learned how they managed and maneuvered and slept in the car and did different things to continue to sing and make a living. Because for me, it wasn’t a real reality—I was born in 1962, and when I got of age things were a lot better. 

Another thing that sticks out is their lack of knowledge of the business of music. They wrote these great songs and would leave the business to the record publishers or different publishers. As I got older and learned things about the business, I’d ask mom, “Why are you doing that? You can do what they’re doing.”

Inez Andrews leads her group the Andrewettes, most likely in the mid-1960s.

The other thing is how when she became a solo artist, she would be in concerts with the Mighty Clouds of Joy and these male groups—or other entertainers with six or seven people in their groups—and she would do so well by herself. She was fearless. In terms of her voice, when she was a much younger singer, the things she would attempt were just way over-the-top. She had almost a six-octave range and would just jump up there and grab those notes like she was just clearing her throat. “OK, I’m going to sing a D-flat over a high C,” and it’s like, “What? Who does that?” If she felt it, she was able to articulate it.

Your father, Richard Gibbs, was also in the classic gospel group the Soul Stirrers. Do you have many memories of him?

My father passed when I was two, so my memories of him are very few. Martin Jacox, who sang with the Soul Stirrers, gave me a VHS of my dad from a show called TV Gospel Time. My dad was singing baritone, but what stood out was they didn’t have a drummer—they just had a bass and guitar—but my dad clapped so loud that he almost served as the drummer. I felt like his voice was like a chameleon. It didn’t stick out but held things together. He was just one of the best chameleon hold-it-together types in the back. 

The Soul Stirrers in 1963, with Richard Gibbs’s father in the middle of the backing trio at the start of the clip

What I may have taken from my dad is that chameleon aspect. If I’m playing bass, because I also play keyboards, I already know what a keyboard player wants the bass to do, because I know what I want my left hand to do. I think I’m a pretty good chameleon, because I have a way of fitting in and finding that sweet spot, that groove spot, and I try to bring whatever is necessary to whatever situation I’m in.

What drew you to the piano, and did your mother intend for you to become a musician?

Early on, my mom used to have rehearsals right at home, and so we had a piano there. So she had James Cleveland, Jessy Dixon, Marvin Yancy—all these great pianists would come over. My mom told me I used to play on the windowsill in my bedroom, kind of mimicking them. Mom would cook mac and cheese and all of this stuff that they liked. They would rehearse for a while, and then when they’d go to the kitchen to eat I’d get on the piano and mimic what they were doing. 

I don’t think at that point she was expecting me to be a musician. She had a friend named Chessie Manning—she approached my mom when I was seven and asked her if I could play for her church. I started playing at Nazarene Deliverance Church of God in Christ. My mom thought, “It’s cute, it’s cool, he’s making $25 a week,” and thought it was fine. 

Richard Gibbs accompanies his mother, Inez Andrews. This clip was posted in 2013, a year after her death.

Around 13, mom fired her accompanist, and the first concert I did with her, we went to New York. The popular kids’ clothes were Garanimals. She bought me a blue one and a red one. I had my cool outfit, and we flew to New York—that was my first flight, first time I ever just played with my mom, and there were a zillion people there. She used to have me stomp my feet to let her know where the one is. On Easter we played the Superdome. Imagine it filled to capacity, filled with people—that was unbelievable, to experience that kind of stuff. It was really great to touch these people, know these people—and they respected my mom. It was just amazing.

What about the bass?

Criss Johnson, who played guitar for my mom, was a left-handed guitar player. If I tell you he was amazing, please believe me. He’s still amazing to this day. He plays with Shirley Caesar now and is one of the best guitarists I’ve ever seen. What happened was—I used to enjoy the Jackson Five so much when they had the cartoon out, and I told my mom I wanted to get a guitar for me, drums for my sister, and how I wanted everything. That Christmas she bought my older brother a bass and me a bass. Honestly, I don’t think she knew the difference. So we had two basses in the house. So my whole group situation went out the window. 

But anyway, having the bass, I would mimic the Jackson Five. I was just a musical kid having fun, but once I had the feel for the bass—I didn’t know I had it upside down because Criss was so great, I would watch what he was doing and mimic what he did. I went to my mom’s recording sessions and there were two guys, [bassists] Larry Ball and Richard Evans, and those guys were phenomenal. Gene Barge was my mom’s producer, so he would bring in [guitarists] Phil Upchurch, Byron Gregory, Cash McCall—I was just around these guys, and I was always watching, always a sponge.

How did Aretha Franklin hiring you come about?

My work with Ms. Franklin began in late 1997. I did one gig with her in New York, and it was a gospel performance, so she was doing songs off of Amazing Grace. But the week prior to that I was in New Orleans with Bishop Paul Morton, and he was doing his first full gospel record. The following Saturday I was in Ms. Franklin’s living room, auditioning. 

I felt I was so prepared for it, because my mom wrote “Mary Don’t You Weep” on Amazing Grace. So when you write on a record that big, that’s played in your house forever. I got whuppings to that album. I did my homework to that album. I went to sleep to that album, I woke up to it, I knew everything there is to know about that album. 

So that was my audition when I started with Ms. Franklin. She would call out songs—“Mary Don’t You Weep,” “Amazing Grace”—she just went all over the album. The first half of the rehearsal, we made it through that with no problem. And then during the break she asked me, “Do you ever play secular?” I said, “No, not really.” But I added, “I think I could, though.” She just said, “Oh, OK.” 

So we got back in rehearsal, finished the rehearsal, and at the end she said, “Come back into the kitchen.” I went into her kitchen and she was like, “Here are your first 12 dates. This is what you’re going to make. And get two tuxedos.”

What was something that you saw in an Aretha Franklin concert that audiences did not see?

When I started up with her, we got up to 17 songs per concert with an intermission. We would have all of these songs prepared, and Ms. Franklin would be in the wings with our librarian, Willie Wilkerson. We would play the overture before she came out, and during the overture, if Willie came out and whispered into [musical director] H.B. Barnum’s ear, it was like [exasperated], “Oh boy.” 

She would say, “OK, I’m changing number three. I’m going to change five and put seven in the place of four.” So while we’re playing the overture and they’re saying, “Ladies and gentlemen, Ms. Aretha Franklin”—we had a songbook of over 300 songs in our piano book, drum book, every book—so we would play the overture and H.B. would say, “OK, three is out, change seven to four.” 

We’d be in the book, still playing, try to find the other songs, while going through the song you have up already. Unless she just made a change while she was already onstage—and said she was making a change—that would have been the only way the audience would know. But if she was in the wings and she sent Willie out, the audience had no clue what Willie was telling H.B. But H.B. would let us know while he was still conducting, and by the time we get to those songs, that music had better be on your instrument and ready to play.

Richard Gibbs accompanies Aretha Franklin on piano at the White House in 2015.

Another thing is, Ms. Franklin would go off script sometimes. She would be singing, and she might get to a spot that she really liked and repeat it. H.B. had a panic sign, and he just would wave the horns out and would pass it over to me. The rhythm section would roll with Ms. Franklin for a while, while she was doing what she was doing, and once she was getting ready to get back to the song, I’d tell H.B., “Bring them back in, measure 84.” H.B. would tell the horns “84,” and as we’d play up to it he’d count them in. It happened so much that it would be effortless. 

In all actuality, it should work. She’s the queen. She earned the right to do that and have people who can respond to what she was saying. And for me, it went all the way back to my mom. If my mom wanted to put a measure of two there, she didn’t know it was a measure of two—that’s what she felt like, and Mr. Barge made it work. With Ms. Franklin it was all about making it work.

You have such a strong traditional sound on Just for Me. How did you plan the recording?

I didn’t do too many bells and whistles. This being my first CD, I wanted to respect what was there. When you have strong singers like Ms. Franklin and my mom, to mimic them is a feat—they’re so musical off the cuff. I tried to just re-create the feeling of just how they sang the songs. I know my mom’s riffs, I know Ms. Franklin’s riffs. I was able to play them, but it was my heart’s desire that they speak as they sang them. I tried to make them speak and feel the same way as best I could without lyrics. I played it as if I was playing it if they were singing it. 

Richard Gibbs plays “The Healer” on his new solo album, Just for Me.

Setting up that foundation, it made it kind of easy to do the solo parts on top. On “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” I may have stepped out a little bit, but I tried to stay close to what they did already. I tried not to change what was there and make it pure, make it what people appreciated from them, and I hope I achieved that.

How would you assess the gospel scene in Chicago today?

The gospel scene today in Chicago is well. There are young guns out there now like Jason Tyson, Curtis Lindsey, the list goes on. They’re producing great music, and I’ve always noticed that a lot of the R&B artists, prominent artists, borrow from Chicago a lot. The young guys who are really out there doing it now, they respect what has went on before. They’ll call me for sessions all the time. I’m the 60-year-old guy with all these 40-year-olds. They have a lot of respect for people like myself and Darius Brooks. 

Most of these guys eat ivory for breakfast, they play so much piano. A lot of good musicians still come out of Chicago. They are still sowing, just like Marvin Yancy and Gene Barge sowed into me and hopefully I sowed into Jason. Gospel in Chicago is good.

Wednesday, November 30, 2022 at the Museum of Contemporary Art

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