Rex C. Curry/Special Contributor
From left: Earnest Tarkington, Tommie West, Gean West, Tyron Edwards and Tony Corbitt make up The Relatives.
To hear the Rev. Gean West tell it, this is how it was supposed to happen — the decades’ worth of waiting, of wanting, followed, finally, by all this attention, all this acclaim.
His band of soulful, funky, far-out, God-fearing West Dallas proselytizers broke up forever ago — sometime around 1980, give or take, when Gean’s young brother and bandmate Tommie hopped off the stage and into the pulpit, Gean close behind. Theirs was a brief, glorious and nearly forgotten run that began in 1970 and was highlighted by a few national tours and the release of a handful of singles that turned into fading echoes.
And that would have been that, had He not intervened.
“It’s a God-sent thing,” says Gean one cloudy, chilly Friday afternoon in January. Dressed all in black, from his fedora to his patent leathers, the 76-year-old sits at a table perched near the front door of Tommie’s No Walls Ministry. It’s a cavernous house of worship tucked away on the deserted side of a bustling strip shopping center, facing a South Lancaster DART light-rail stop. The occasion for this visit: On Tuesday, The Relatives will release a new album, The Electric Word.
It will also be the band’s first.
“My nephew, he’s kind of in that world,” Gean begins, his voice full of the age and gruff that vanishes when he slips on his shiny suit and finds an open mike.
“He do that stuff — drugs and stuff,” says the reverend. “And he sat down one day and said, ‘I wanna tell you something. You know what y’all doing, the singing?’ And I said, ‘Yeah.’ And he said, ‘What you used to do?’ Because I hadn’t done it for 30 years. He said, ‘One of these days, I can feel it in my soul, one of these days somebody’s gonna pick y’all up.’ And he was on that stuff. I sat and listened to him, and something about him talking, even though he was on that stuff, it called me.”
Gean’s voice rises. “It called to me. I felt what he was saying. And it came to pass just like he said. He told me. And that was about, hey, that’s been about seven, eight, 10 years ago. He sat down and told me that. It’s just …” A pause. “It’s a gift from God, and when God orders something to be, some way and somehow, it’s coming to pass.”
On this afternoon, Gean is surrounded by his closest allies, his choir of angels. There is brother Tommie and percussionist Earnest Tarkington, along with Gean, the last of the original Relatives. There is guitarist Zach Ernst, the young fan once the anchor of Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears — maybe the most beloved band in Austin — who is now a full-time Relative and wears grooves up and down Interstate 35 for band practice and performances. And there is Charisse Kelly, co-owner with husband, Noel Waggener, of the Austin-based label that rescued these men from the unwanted fame afforded shoulda-been legends long after they’ve gone.
This record coming out Tuesday, The Electric Word on Yep Roc Records, wouldn’t have been possible without Waggener and Kelly, who were hipped to a cracked copy of one of the Relatives’ few surviving 45s from the 1970s and spent on-and-off years tracking down Gean. They’d never heard anything like it: the gospel group Mighty Clouds of Joy raining down a hailstorm of Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone, gospel and soul drenched in fuzz and feedback. And they needed to hear more.
In time they found among engineer and producer Phil York’s possessions a collection of unreleased tracks made at his Dallas studio in 1974. Thirty-five years after those songs were recorded, Waggener and Kelly made them available on a collection titled Don’t Let Me Fall in 2009, which you’d swear was a greatest-hits culled from albums’ worth of material.
Even those few songs were not easy to find: York, who died last year, couldn’t recall the band’s name. So he labeled the box of tapes “The Electric Word.”
That just had to be the name of the new album, which was produced by Jim Eno, drummer for Austin’s pop ’n’ rockers Spoon. It’s fitting: The Electric Word may be the grooviest gospel record ever made — sin and salvation sharing the same speaker.
“When we started out, we wanted to reach the younger people and the older people,” says Tarkington, explaining the genesis of a sound born in 1970, resurrected for the true believers in 2009 and now widely available for the heathens come Tuesday.
“When we started out, the younger people got with the beat,” he continues. “They didn’t listen to the words. But the older people listened to the words. And some of them said, ‘I like what y’all are saying, but the music …!’ They weren’t into the music. Now God has put it all together.”
“We always believed there was no such thing as what they call a sinner note or a worldly note or a church note,” says Gean. “E is E. Music comes from heaven, you know what I’m saying? It’s all in the person who’s playing it.”
Here, Tommie chimes in: “We’ve always sung in the church, and we’ve always had a message, but we wanted to go beyond the church. We wanted to reach the world.”
Now they have: The band broke in Austin upon its return, sharing stage and studio with Black Joe Lewis; then began making trips to out-of-town festivals; and just returned from an extended stint in New York City. It took awhile for the locals to take note of the Relatives’ return; Jeff Liles at the Kessler Theater began booking the band, first at the opening of the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge last March and then at the Oak Cliff theater, where the band returns for an album release on March 22.
Now, the comeback is complete. Like the song says, “Things Are Changing.” Finally.
“God just … what would you say? Reserved me?” says Gean. “I found I still had a voice. He brought it around in my old age. And I said, ‘Why would you wait till I get to this age to do this?’ I pondered it in my heart. I wondered about it. I was driving in my car, and a voice spoke to me. And it said, ‘You’re gonna be an inspiration to older people as well. And it’s gonna prove to them that when they go and sit in the rocking chair, it’s not over for them.’
“God’s using us as the instrument, to set things in order the way he wants things set in place. We’re not doing anything for ourselves. It’s his work. He’s setting it in motion.”