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“What comes from the heart reaches the heart,” says gospel great Roy Tyler. “And when I sing I put all my heart into my music, so it touches the hearts of the people who listen.” Today he’s at the top of his craft, leading his aptly named band New Directions, and the sound of traditional gospel, into the future without sacrificing the style’s or his own deep roots. “I’ve created a new kind of music I call ‘swamp gospel’,” says Tyler. “It carries the same spiritual message that’s always been part of gospel music, but it incorporates down-home blues, pop, soul, and a little bit of rock ‘n’ roll. That blend helps people who perhaps haven’t been able to relate to gospel music before to enjoy it and maybe even hear its message.” Tyler and New Directions unveiled that sound on their critically heralded 2004 debut Three Way Calling. With fellow gospel hero Clarence Fountain of the Blind Boys of Alabama and his longtime protégée Raphael Saadiq of Tony! Toni! Toné! as his guests, Tyler leads his band through 13 numbers that revel in his warm, soaring voice — all honey and chocolate on numbers like the uplifting “Brighter Day” and “New Direction,” deep and commanding on the O.V. Wright classic “Four & Twenty Elders,” and arcing angelically heavenward on the traditional “Jordan River.” Produced by Robert Cray band keyboardist Jimmy Pugh, who plays organ and piano on eight of its numbers, Three Way Calling summoned Tyler back into the studio for the first time since he left the Gospel Hummingbirds in the late ’90s. “It was wonderful to get back to harmonizing and creating new music again,” says Tyler, “and right now I’m working on songs for a new album that will take my concept of swamp gospel even further.”Like the swamp blues minted by Excello Records artists Slim Harpo and Lazy Lester, Tyler’s music is based in the sounds of rural Louisiana, where he grew up in the tiny town of Delhi.“I liked those Excello records, although I wasn’t able to listen to them on the radio when my parents were home,” he recounts. “I grew up in a gospel family. But when my parents were out we would tune into WDIA in Memphis and WLAC from Nashville, and I heard B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf… I loved all the blues I heard.”Nonetheless, Tyler started singing in church, and joined his first group when one of its elder harmonizers didn’t show for a performance. “They called me up to the stage, and that was it,” he recounts. “Quickly, I felt like this was something I wanted to do.”By the time he attended Southern University in Baton Rouge on a scholarship, Tyler was leading his own Delhi-based quartet the Soul Gliders. Tyler’s rich, rounded tones and pure articulation still resonate with their influence, but there were other emerging singers who hit the social sciences student like a roundhouse punch. “I loved Wilson Pickett,” he says, laughing, “but my very favorite is O.V. Wright, who was leaving gospel music for R&B at that time.” So Tyler was inspired to form an R&B group that played at parties on campus and nearby.“I wasn’t perfect,” he says. “I had my little R&B band at school and the Soul Gliders at home, and I didn’t finish college because I partied too much.”Nonetheless, Tyler never lost his spiritual ties and when he followed his older brother to Oakland, California, where the 66-year-old still resides, he began looking for another gospel band. Tyler joined the Spiritual Eagles, whose leader Joe Thomas had started the Gospel Hummingbirds in the early ’60s. “I began writing and arranging more with the Gospel Hummingbirds, because I realized that was part of advancing as a musician,” Tyler recounts. “As we continued to tour the world and make records, I started to develop the ideas that would eventually become the foundation for swamp gospel. That happened because I was listening to all kinds of music — and I still do.”Tyler’s notion of mixing the spiritual and the secular was affirmed in 1987 when the Gospel Hummingbirds were invited to play at Oakland’s famed blues citadel Eli’s Mile High Club. Within a few years they were playing blues festivals around the world and recording for a blues label. And in 1991 Tyler began his association with producer Pugh, who captained the Hummingbird’s Grammy-nominated Steppin’ Out. But dissent and changes in personnel led to Tyler’s departure from the group in the late ’90s. So he slowly began assembling New Directions, drafting Hummingbirds organist Marcus Walker and a quartet of harmony singers as well as guitar, bass, and drums to fully realize his swamp gospel sound. Today Tyler and his ensemble play concerts all over the US and in Europe, for church groups, blues fans and all kinds of music lovers. But always with the same mission.“Uplifting people is my thing,” Tyler explains. “I don’t like tear-jerkers and sad songs, because there’s already enough sadness in the world. My voice is my gift, and I’m always going to use it to make people feel up and happy.”

Three Way Calling, Severn CD 0027

Gospel Hummingbirds, Steppin' Out, Blind Pig
Gospel Hummingbirds, Taking Flight, Blind Pig