The small gray van pulling the battered utility trailer sits parked outside the doors of the empty venue. A few early arrivals mingle around the van, joking with the musicians as they gather in the last of their equipment. Inside, the men unpack their instruments, adjusting amps, tightening bolts on drum cymbals and testing microphone volumes. The guitarist plucks out a few hesitant, quicksilver notes, then turns a knob on his amp and cuts loose with a flurry of distorted, blues-rock riffs. “All right Mick Jagger,” says one of the singers, unpacking a case of microphones, “you cut that out. You’ll have us singing out on the street.”
It’s a scene played out nightly across the country: a small group of hardworking musicians setting up for one more gig in yet another small town in Anywhere, USA.
Yet the fans making their way out of the rapidly cooling October dusk into the Littleton Community Center are decked out not in jeans and T-shirts but instead don their Sunday best suits and dress hats, high heels and flower print dresses. As they make their way to the seats, the musicians gathered around the stage greet them like long lost family members.
“I think I’ve just seen a ghost! Where you been hiding brother? You want a piece of sweet potato pie.”
“God bless you sister, so glad you could come out tonight.”
Clearly this is no ordinary concert. Just as clearly, The Roanoke Jubilees are no ordinary group.
Originally formed in 1931 in Roanoke Rapids, the Jubilees — which currently consists of singers Clentis Wilkins, Telly Wilkins, Edward Allen, Tracy Parker and James Gatling; guitarist Tony Branch; bass player John Allen and drummer Kevin Doby — are the longest running gospel group currently playing the Roanoke Valley area. All original members save one have passed away.
“This is something we do because we love it,” said Branch, the bands unofficial businessman, as the group relaxed following their community center performance. “It’s just like a baby with a piece of candy. About the middle of the week the guys will start calling me and I’ll start getting excited.”
“We do it because we love the Word,” echoed Gatling, pushing his shoulder length dreadlocks back from his face.
Though all the band members are married with families and hold down full-time jobs, they still manage to perform two to three times every weekend and practice at least once a week.
“There’s really no money involved, if we were doing it for the money,” said Clentis Wilkins, who’s been performing gospel music for over 60 years, “we’d all be starving. Most of what we do is for free.”
Performing up and down the East Coast for audiences in New York, Maryland, D.C., Virginia and South Carolina, the group hasn’t let economic troubles or high gas prices slow them down.
“It hasn’t stopped us one bit,” said Edward Allen, who, along with Wilkins, acts as the self-described “daddy” of the group. “And I’ll tell you something else, in 40 some years we’ve never had a flat tire. The Lord has always looked out for us.”
While the church provided both framework and inspiration for each of the musicians growing up, the eight member group interacts more as a family unit than a traditional, career-minded gospel outfit, no surprise when one considers the father and son team of Edward and John Allen and the fact that drummer Kevin Doby is Wilkins’ son-in law.
“That’s what this is, one big family,” said Parker, who handles most of the groups cooking, “If one of us is in need, we’re all in need. But we do fight, we do disagree.”
Though the group admits brotherly conflicts do arise occasionally, their performances bear testament to their years of practice and dedication to craft, offering congregations across the country a seamless, sweat-drenched lesson in communal kinship and rapturous rapport.
Dressed in matching gray and black pin-stripe suits, the musicians waste little time with introductions or pleasantries, diving headlong into traditional classics such as “Somebody Touched Me” and “Never Let Go of God’s Hand” with a drive and force that belies the members combined ages.
As each singer trades off lead vocal duties, the other members quickly fall in around him, offering the kind of call and response harmonies that have been a hallmark of the African-American church experience since the early days of Emancipation.
During a rollicking, fire and brim stone reading of “God Told Noah,” Wilkins wipes the sweat from his face and, eyes shut tight, lifts his head to the ceiling, shouting out a raw-voiced message of sin and retribution, invoking both 9-11 and Biblical prophecy.
“We got a lot of people that they think the fire gonna fall from the sky, but the fire’s already here,’ he cries, as his fellow Jubilees intone a sere, hypnotic chant in response.
“No more water, fire this time. No more water, fire this time.”
Wilkins also handles lead vocal duties on the self-penned “Never Let Go of God’s Hand” whose refrain “Some days my body is wracked with pain, but I still go in Jesus’ name,” echoes another of the group’s most explosive numbers, “Hallelujah Square,” during which Edward Allen recites his long-running battle with cancer and his eventual recovery.
“Somebody in here may be sick and don’t even know it,” he offers in a hushed yet commanding voice, “I was sick. The doctors thought I had cancer, cancer of the bone, of the liver and the prostate. The last checkup I had was three months ago. I was cancer free. Whatever’s wrong with you God can fix it!”
The congregation members rise to their feet in celebration and Allen slowly retreats into the wall of sound and harmony behind him, taking up the final chorus as the Jubilees bring the song to a close.
“Won’t be no cripple (in Hallelujah Square). Won’t be no blind (in Hallelujah Square.) Won’t be no cancer…”
As the performance draws to a close, Branch sets down his guitar, draws the other members around him and leads them slowly down the venues center aisle as they sing out a final, a capella hymn. Their voices growing slowly dimmer, the Jubilees disappear behind a side door as wide-eyed children and stone-faced seniors clap their hands and turn in their seats to watch. Cries of “Hallelujah” and “Praise God” follow them from the room, which, grown suddenly quiet after their departure, rings with the high, bell-like tones of their passing.
In the dimly lit storage room the members grab bottles of water and relax before beginning the process of breaking down their equipment and loading up the truck.
As they discuss the night’s performance, friends and family crowd around the tables.
“You know, there’s another Jubilees you may not see,” smiled Gatling, “Our wives. They’re there every program, supporting us. They might as well be up on stage with us.”
One of those “other Jubilees,” Jean Wilkins, Clentis’ wife, discussed the importance of the group in maintaining her husband’s sense of purpose and devotion over a 60 year performing career.
“It’s great. He’s got to love it because he’s been doing it so long, since before we got married. He just enjoys singing. If he misses a Sunday or is feeling bad, he goes to the program and he feels better. If you really want to do something and do it from the heart, it will turn out right.”
The fall light fading quickly, the members excuse themselves and begin packing up, hauling amps, monitors and bass drums out to the utility trailer, packing away their sound until next weekend finds them on the road to one more church or community center in one more small town somewhere on the East Coast.
“We sing as hard if it’s five people or 1,000 people in the room,” James said earlier, noting the somewhat sparse attendance, “It doesn’t matter. I love these fellows. I wouldn’t sing with nobody else.”