The sacred-steel playing of slide guitarists Robert Randolph and the Campbell Brothers caused quite a stir among hipster music fans drawn to their unique vocal-like lines. Whereas that sound is more blues-based and commercial, there’re other instrumental gospel groups that make music just as compelling and unique. For more than 40 years, the McCollough Sons of Thunder Brass Band has played instruments with the same vocal quality. A gospel choir and marching band rolled into one, the 16-piece shout band replaces human voices with brass while maintaining gospel’s choral harmonies and dramatic presentation.
The Thunderbirds, as they are called, come out of the long-running shout-band tradition, which is the house music for the United House of Prayer for All People, a religious group formed by Bishop Daddy Grace in 1919. One can walk into many of the 134 chapters to hear this kind of music, but none of them are as acclaimed or as long-running as the Sons of Thunder.
Ranging in age from their late teens to their mid eighties, the group includes seven trombonists, one sousaphone player, one trumpeter, one tenor tuba, two drummers, two cymbal players, and two guys on tambourine. All are volunteers, and none have any formal musical training.
The band is led by Elder Edward Babb, a man who plays trombone with the kind of fire and brimstone usually reserved for ministers—he dances down the aisles soloing on his horn, jumping around and exhorting the audience (in church or out) to embrace the music, to let it inspire them as it obviously has inspired him.
“Our music is only about touching the individual person’s soul,” Elder Babb says from his Queens home. “As opposed to commercializing our music, making a top-selling record, or whatever may come.” Not boring church music, this is the true, high-energy soul music: The sound is undeniably visceral and uplifting, designed to lend comfort and healing with enough volume to be heard in the heavens.
Babb leads them through improvised sets, calling out songs and hymns as they go by, blowing the opening notes on his trombone. The rest join in behind him, vigorously swaying to the music as they build to one ecstatic crescendo after another. Remarkably, none of the music is written. In fact, none of Babb’s compositions, which make up 90 percent of the group’s material, even have titles. Those that do are the gospel standards that Babb will also toss in if the spirit so moves him.
Babb has always been the Thunderbirds’ leader, getting the job at age 18 even though he was then the youngest member. The group still retains eight members from the original lineup, doggedly carrying out the words from Psalm 150 (“Praise him with the sound of trumpet”) to their logical conclusion.
Plans for a lunchtime performance, in which the group will be driven around Lower Manhattan on the back of a flatbed truck, are being put together by the same organization that did the WTC Tribute of Light.
“You can sing blues from your soul, and it will make you cry,” Babb acknowledges. “But if you put God in there, then it’s something different. Sickness will be gone. It will heal you.” Babb says this with the certitude of a true believer. And to see the band in action, it’s hard to doubt him.