Author Robert Stone Talks Sacred Steel

West Perrine is rough. From the Circle Plaza Projects to Dada 5000's fight compound, choppers, yard boys, and black flags rule. Every Sunday, on 168th street, the scream of amplified steel rings out from the Church of the Living God as Keith Dominion tries to save their souls. The church, progenitor of a worship music known as Sacred Steel, is part of an international pentecostal alliance that rejects the secular world and whose services are dominated by the electric steel guitar. Members describe their style of worship as "taking the brakes off" because of their level of passion in the moment.

On October 28, author Robert  L. Stone, responsible for documenting this movement since 1992, will speak on the music's history, its move into pop culture (Conan O'brien's featured the style more than once), and the church's tenuous relationship with this dichotomy. Learn about Sacred Steel's Hawaiian origins, when Stone speaks on his book Sacred Steel at Books & Books Coral Gables. We spoke to him about how this musical and religious tradition has its roots in South Florida.

New Times: What's the story with Sacred Steel?

Robert Stone: It's a national phenomenon, and it's unusual that it's a family of black churches, where the electric steel guitar dominates the service and is at the top of the hierarchy of instruments.

You've documented it not just through writing, but recording too right?

Yeah, I also worked with Arhoolie record company and produced nine albums on it. Robert Randolph, from New Jersey, now has a big recording contract with Warner Bros. He's toured with Clapton and Santana and been on the Conan O'Brien show.

Courtesy of U of Illinois Pres. Photo by Robert Stone
Glenn Lee plays for the Keith Dominion Florida East Coast State Assembly, Pompano Beach, Florida, 1992
How'd you first come to know the music?

I was living in South Florida, I'm originally from Cutler Ridge. I was in a band called Gumbo-limbo, you know like the tree. I was the fiddler and the lead vocalist. Mike Stapleton was a partner in The Banjo Shop in Hollywood where musicians black and white that played string instruments came to. Mike led me to these guys, he would record them over the telephone. It was very unusual to find these African American guys playing these traditional country instruments. Guys like Aubrey Ghent in Fort Pierce, and Glenn Lee in Perrine.

I was working for the state Folklife Program. For what it's worth I did a radio series called voices of Florida......google Florida Folklife Program. I recorded a couple samples of them and got an endowment. Sacred Steel was the very first album and that was how the term came to be. We later licensed that to Arhoolie Records, they have really good international distribution.

What's the history of the church?

The church started from a woman, Mary Tate, in 1903. She started in Alabama and Tennessee as a street preacher and founded the Church of the Living God.

And the music itself, how'd it develop?

Unlikely as it might seem, there's a direct connection to the Hawaiian music fad of the 1930s. It was huge; it was like hip hop or disco; it was everywhere. The steel guitar comes out of Hawaii, and some of the early Sacred Steel pioneers actually  took lessons from Hawaiians.

Does it sound like it?

It doesn't sound Hawaiian, it sounds very African American, and it basically imitates the gospel singing voice. It's instantaneously identifiable.

Talk about Perrine....

The Lee Boys, that's the popular group from down there. They play all over the world  about 150 gigs a year, they were on

Conan O'Brien too. They're a real high-energy group, a real family band: three

brothers and three nephews, the three sons of the three sisters of the three brothers.They came up at the church on SW 168 street and that particular church has a national reputation and the music is really hot. I've been around to several other states, and that could be the consistently hottest music in the whole system of 200 churches nationwide.

Can anybody just walk in off the street to hear it?


Is there fallout between musicians in the church and the people running it over the outside popularity of the music?

It's been signifcant. Most Lee Boys are not in the church anymore. The main thing is, this type of church, they see "The Church" and "The World," and you can't be both. They're very strict: no movies, women can't wear makeup, they holy dance in church, but they don't dance as couples anywhere, and their diet is very close to kosher: no vinegar, no grapes fermented or not, no pork.

And the music?

Very moving, lot of feeling, real passion comes through. They like to say "we let the brakes off." It's very uninhibited, that's a big part of their service.

Courtesy of U of Illinois Pres. Photo by Robert Stone
Roosevelt Collier, pedal-steel; Keith Lee, vocal, Derrick Lee, vocal.

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Jacob Katel
Contact: Jacob Katel