The Butthole Surfers were the kings of drug-fried musical insanity in Austin in the ‘80s, but an even more off-the-wall act was playing twice a week in East Austin at the time, to fanfare barely contained inside the walls of a dingy storefront church.
Bishop Ray McDonald Jr. strapped on an electric guitar at the Guiding Angel Church of God In Christ at 1916 E. 10th St. and raged his hardcore gospel blues to the beat of a drum machine and at the urging of a clump of Pentecostal parishioners. Luckily, some of those frenzied services are preserved on McDonald’s Big Tex label, which put out a couple albums in the 1980s.
All that crazy tongue-people music would be forgotten today if “Rock Daniels,” McDonald’s almost unidentifiable cover of a Sister Rosetta Tharpe song, wasn’t included on the collection Fire In My Bones: Rare + Raw + Otherworldly African-American Gospel, which came out on Tompkins Square in 2011. Curator Mike McGonigal was hipped to McDonald by Friends of Sound Records in South Austin, where he searched for obscure gospel sides whenever he was in Austin from Portland, Ore.
McDonald sold his albums Electrifying Gospel and The Rain Done Fell On Me (a double LP), as well as those of other regional and national gospel acts, at his Big Tex record shop on E. 12th St. A traveling COGIC evangelist born in Austin in 1932, McDonald returned to his hometown in the early ’80s to help take care of his aging parents and founded the Guiding Angel church. The McDonald family originally came from Bellville, about an hour west of Houston.
McDonald’s primitive music sounds like he’s been dead for years, like it was recorded in the ‘50s, but the good Reverend was still living in Austin’s far eastern “Hogpen” neighborhood, named so because many residents raised livestock on their large lots until April 2016. Even frail and near-blind, Ray Jr. still had the musical set-up in his collage-wrapped living room: a cheap Roland synth for drums, an electric Epiphone guitar and a little Fender amp. “I mess around with my music every now and then,” he said. “But I don’t got it like I useta.”
McDonald said he started making collages, most with an African-American history theme, in the ’60s to commemorate his travels as a “fire-rock” preacher. “I took a little bit from every place I been, every magazine or newspaper.” McDonald put all his collected words and images together in the pamphlet The USA Montage Treasure of Black Song Legends Plus!, which, like all McDonald’s works is right with intention and passion, but short on a professional polish.
One of McDonald’s 12 x 15-inch collages is titled “Austin Texas History” and it covers such local notables as longtime Ebenezer Baptist Church music director Virgie DeWitty, World War II hero Doris Miller, pioneer gospel announcer Elmer Akins, the Bells of Joy hitmakers and Austin’s 1940s mother and sons gospel act, the Famous Humphries Singers. The upper right hand corner commemorates COGIC pioneer Luvenia Taylor, who established 18 missions in Central Texas before she passed away in 1929. Google is entirely unaware of Ms. Taylor or her assistant Sister Brown, but if there’s anything Rev. McDonald knows, it’s COGIC history. One of his finest works of cut-and-glue-and-type is a 27 x 40 inch sheet filled with cut-out heads of Church of God In Christ leaders. Nascent COGIC musicians included the Austin-educated Arizona Dranes, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Blind Willie Johnson, Ernestine Washington, Utah “Two Wings” Smith and the Angelic Gospel Singers. Also coming up in the COGIC tradition are Texas’ two top gospel groups- the Relatives from Dallas and the Jones Family Singers from Houston.
“I was always Church of God In Christ,” said McDonald, who lived alone, but had a nurse check up on him. “That’s all I ever knew.” His father Ray Sr. was a laborer, a house-party blues guitarist, who wasn’t religious, McDonald said. But his mother Elizabeth (maiden name: Bynum) was a true believer and took her nine children to church with her.
Pentecostals, derided as “holy rollers,” were the first to play instruments in church and their belief in unbridled spiritual release is the foundation of rock n’ roll. “I would say my music resembles everyone’s music that came before, like boogie woogie and blues,” McDonald says. “But I still have my own style.”
McDonald said he tried concentrating on music as a career when he moved to Dallas in the ’70s, but “everybody kept telling me ‘that’s rock n’ roll. That’s not gospel.’ But I make it about the Lord.”
Usually starting off with a sermon, in McDonald’s calm, descriptive style of overwrought vocabularizing, he kicks into drive when he starts flailing on his electric guitar and screaming barely intelligible lyrics, while the congregation sings them back to him tenfold. It’s all so raw, going back to the birth of “Holy Ghost baptism” at the Azusa Street Revival in Los Angeles in 1906. Sanctified churches had been around before then, but when Houston preacher William Seymour added a third act of grace- the speaking of tongues- as the purest connection to God, he created a sensation that inspired Azusa participant Charles H. Mason to form the Church of God In Christ in Memphis. Rather than assimilate to the staid, white style of church services, which is what mainstream black Baptist and Methodist churches were doing in the years after the end of slavery, COGIC’s philosophy was to celebrate blackness in all its emotive glory. That attitude instantly found followers and 100 years after Azusa, COGIC can count a flock of nearly 8 million worldwide.
McGonigal said “Rock Daniels,” which begins with a Bible recitation from McDonald’s then-wife Lucinda (who did taxes for hire at the record shop), was a favorite of many listeners of Fire In My Bones. “I love how his guitar playing was just the same riff over and over again, but you still want to listen to it multiple times in a row,” said McGonigal, who has plans to one day release a full album of Bishop Ray McDonald’s rudimentary, yet passionate, gospel music. “I love how you can see the process in his work- in the pasteups for his cover art, and in the tape splices on his recordings.” McDonald was the pure outsider artist, the visionary with limited means and education.
The former bishop, whose legal blindness and lack of a ride kept him away from church most Sundays, said he found out that his version of “Rock Daniels” was on the Fire In My Bones compilation when his neighbor across the street informed him. McDonald had been telling the hipster kid he was a gospel singer, but even the old man was shocked when he heard his record from 1985 on an international release.
When I visited him at his rundown mobile home one Friday afternoon, I played the track from my iPhone and McDonald had an incredulous look, like he’d just seen a magic trick. He was a humble man, a lone wolf, a living link to the Pentecostal pioneers who found the best way to praise the Lord through music is to lose themselves in the spirit. He can’t do it like he useta, but Ray McDonald Jr. was mighty tickled to see that newer generations were discovering his “electrifying, but not shocking” Wednesday night and Sunday morning wailing sessions from 30 years ago.