Steel's the Show

A Southern-style church service is a magnet for eerie, heavenly harmonies

The pedal steel guitar is a thing of strange beauty. Call it a musical contraption: a guitar neck flattened on a board of wood and resting on spindly metal legs, with sometimes a second neck, or even a third. The strings number eight, ten, or twelve, too many for a proper guitar. A half-dozen or so slender foot pedals rest on the floor, attached to the board above by thin metal rods.

It looks intimidating, this machine of chrome and laminate. But in the hands of a player such as Roosevelt Collier, of Richmond Heights in southern Miami-Dade, the pedal steel wears a halo and takes on a magical life of its own: purring like a kitten one moment, growling like a lion the next.

You won't find the pedal steel much outside country music strongholds such as Nashville or Austin, where musicians make regular use of the instrument's lonesome, twangy fills. But sprinkled around Miami-Dade County, from Florida City to the Broward line and farther north to Pompano and West Palm Beach, are the African-American Holiness-Pentecostal churches of the House of God. Show up for a Sunday service at many of the 22 House of God, Keith Dominion, churches in South Florida, and you'll hear it a hundred feet before you arrive: a long plaintive wail, a sweet beckoning, or a joyful romp galloping at such a fevered pace that the doors and windows practically strain at their hinges. To the side of the pulpit and surrounded by drums, electric bass, and guitar, sometimes a Hammond B3 organ or saxophone, you'll see the pedal steel -- the lead and loudest voice in holy service to the Lord's worship.

Lee Boys Keith Lee (top) and Roosevelt Collier 
(middle) in action; guitarist Bernard Hampton (bottom) 
plays at the House of God church in Perrine
photos by Jonathan Postal
Lee Boys Keith Lee (top) and Roosevelt Collier (middle) in action; guitarist Bernard Hampton (bottom) plays at the House of God church in Perrine
The Lee Boys (top) aim for the heavens; Elder Tommy 
Philips (middle left) and Deacon Gary Slaton (middle 
right) praise the Lord
photos by Jonathan Postal
The Lee Boys (top) aim for the heavens; Elder Tommy Philips (middle left) and Deacon Gary Slaton (middle right) praise the Lord

"The steel guitar is traditional in the church," says Alvin Lee, who grew up in the House of God in Perrine, playing drums, guitar, bass, and the pedal steel. "House of God churches are always looking for good steel players. The music is about 75 percent, if not more, of the reason people come to church."

For churches of fewer than 50 members, in which an organ might prove impractical, the pedal steel, both easily portable and musically versatile, is a logical instrument to accompany the service. Adept players can coax a range of sounds out of it, filling the air with praise, pushing the pace of the service with volume and tempo, then pulling back with long vibratos when the occasion calls for solemnity.

Sacred steel music is what this is called, and it is not just played in South Florida. Drive up the coast, and you'll find House of God congregations in Fort Pierce, over in Ocala, up through Jacksonville, and into the panhandle. The House of God has more than 50 churches in Florida, as well as others in South Carolina and Georgia. But it was in New Jersey where a young House of God pedal steel guitarist named Robert Randolph first cut his teeth, the same Robert Randolph who played the instrument at the Grammy Awards this past February.

How the pedal steel guitar, whose country drawl has long put the "honky" in honky-tonk, became such a prominent fixture in an African-American church with fewer than 8000 members nationally is a fascinating story in its own right. But equally amazing is the rich tradition that follows the guitar, the mastery achieved by a number of House of God musicians, and how this all remained discreetly within the four walls of the church for nearly 60 years until its discovery by the secular world in the mid-Nineties.

"It's a generational thing, where people are coming into the knowledge of it, kind of like a period of obscurity and then popularity," says Elder Tommy Philips, pastor of the Perrine church.

The story of the church begins with Mary Magdalena Lewis Tate, who was the first African-American woman to establish a Holiness-Pentecostal church in the U.S. In 1903 she founded the House of God, which split into the Keith, Jewel, and Lewis dominions after her death in 1930. The church continued to expand in the eastern U.S. in the 1930s and '40s, as early leaders such as Bishop W.L. Nelson and Bishop J.R. Lockley traveled to preach at tent revivals, churches, and in homes.

At the same time, Hawaiian music, with its quivering lap steel guitar sound, had become all the rage in the country, piquing the interest of House of God member Troman Eason, who began taking lessons in the mid-Thirties. Soon Eason was playing the guitar at his Philadelphia church and traveling with Bishop Lockley on a revival circuit through the South during winters. The powerful resonance of this new instrument was a hit with congregations, and it wasn't long before Troman's younger brother, Willie, had picked it up as well.

The charismatic Willie Eason developed his own style on the lap steel, giving a passionate and energetic voice to the instrument -- which became known as his "talking guitar" -- while introducing House of God congregations to its musically sacred possibilities whenever he traveled. He inspired his young brother-in-law, Henry Nelson, in Ocala to master the instrument, and Nelson became a key figure in standardizing the style of play within the church. Nelson later passed the art to his son Aubrey Ghent, one of the first steel players to perform to an outside audience, at the National Folk Festival in Chattanooga in 1994.

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