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Pastor Champion - I Just Want to Be a Good Man Music Album Reviews

Pastor Champion - I Just Want to Be a Good Man Music Album Reviews
The debut album from the late Oakland pastor is a powerful showcase for his guitar work, his singing, and his ministry.

Halfway through his debut album, right before he launches into the soulful “To Be Used, By You (I Just Want to Be a Good Man),” Pastor Wiley Champion takes a moment to teach the song to the small band backing him at the 37th Street Baptist Church in Oakland. He runs through the chord progressions, explains the chorus repetitions, and demonstrates the foundational riff before leading them through a song he had performed many times throughout his life. It’s exactly the kind of material that would be excised from a typical live album, but after two nights of sessions, he declined to put any more music to tape. And yet, this bit of filler is revealing, as Champion emerges as a gentle, encouraging instructor who passes along his wisdom humbly. “It’s all simple,” he assures them. “Ain’t nothin’ complicated about it.” It brings you right into the church, where Pastor Champion made music as a vehicle for a higher message.

He’s something of a mystery. While Champion refused to speak about the details of his life, we do have a broad outline of his upbringing in the Deep South and all the horrors that might imply. We know he migrated to California, was involved in street gangs and possibly prostitution, got saved, devoted his life to Jesus, and raised a family. He worked as a carpenter, but also toured extensively as an itinerant preacher in churches and homes. In the late 2010s, he worked with the label Luaka Bop to make a solo album, although it’s unclear how committed he was to documenting his ministry on tape. The producers set up an analog recorder and invited members of the small congregation to attend; it’s not a Sunday morning recording, in other words, but a staged reenactment, which means it can feel staged at times, even a little stiff.

Still, it’s a powerful showcase for his guitar work, his singing, and his ministry. Champion plays rhythm guitar rather than lead and only rarely takes a solo—as though that might draw too much attention to himself and away from God. His chugging, repetitive rhythms are based in secular blues, not dissimilar from the hill country strains in Mississippi or the electrified riffs that blasted out of northern factory cities. He strums and finger-picks like he’s been collecting these songs all his life, learning a new trick here or a technique there, and he matches it with a throaty, soulful baritone that’s surprisingly forceful for a man in his seventies.

And that band, which hadn’t played together until they assembled for these sessions, follows him closely and churns up a joyful noise that makes “Who Do Men Say I Am” and “Storm of Life (Stand by Me)” sound especially volatile. His greatest collaborator, however, might be the congregation itself. “Talk to God” offers a lesson on how to energize a docile crowd, as Champion encourages the audience to sing along and shout back at him. They do so hesitantly at first, but grow more animated as the song progresses, clapping and singing and punctuating his proclamations with hearty affirmations. By the time he winds the song down, that small audience sounds many times bigger.

Champion had a term for listeners who might feel suspicion toward organized Christianity and who might be skeptical of gospel in 2022: “I know you’ve been wounded, you’re calling it ‘church hurt.’” It’s a couplet that he sings in several of these songs, and while he didn’t invent the term, he invested it with deep compassion. He never makes it explicit, but his ministry seems to acknowledge that institutions can damage people, that religion has historically been used as a bludgeon against minorities in America. That only makes his music sound all the more extroverted and his empathy all the more radical. I Just Want to Be a Good Man prizes humility and understanding over shame and scolding: The church should serve the people rather than the other way around. Sadly, Champion died in December 2021, leaving behind this humble album as his final testament. It’s not perfect, but it’s all we have from him. In that regard, it sounds like a small miracle.

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About Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera

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Pastor Champion - I Just Want to Be a Good Man Music Album Reviews Pastor Champion - I Just Want to Be a Good Man Music Album Reviews Reviewed by Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera on Tuesday, April 12, 2022 Rating: 5

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