For 50 years, Pastor T.L. Barrett has delivered his sermons and gospel songs to his congregation in Chicago, but his musical impact has spread much farther. A sample of Barrett’s 1976 song “Father Stretch My Hands” laid the foundation for Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo tracks of the same name. The transcendent “Like a Ship” has featured in commercials, TV shows and the Oscar-nominated, Obamas-produced documentary Crip Camp, and most recently covered by Leon Bridges. His “Nobody Knows” has been sampled nearly 10 times in the past decade alone, including songs by DJ Khaled (“Nobody”), T.I. (“Black Man”) and Vic Mensa (“The Fire Next Time”).
While Barrett’s most notable albums — including his 1971 masterwork Like a Ship… (Without a Sail) — have been routinely rereleased as small batch reissues over the past decade, beloved archival label Numero Group will offer the first deep-dive retrospective of the pastor’s work with the upcoming collection I Shall Wear a Crown.
While Numero Group has released standalone reissues of Barrett’s albums, the comprehensive box set features four of his 1970s LPs — the self-released Like A Ship… (Without a Sail), I Found The Answer (released on Stax’s gospel-oriented Truth Records in 1973) and Do Not Pass Me By Vol. I & II — as well as over a dozen singles and sermons he wrote, recorded, performed and preached between the 1960s and 1980s.
“Unsung Meaningful Music is like buried TREASURE; Even after 40 years, if discovered, it gives the Soul much PLEASURE,” Barrett emailed of the collection in a statement to Rolling Stone.
Ahead of I Shall Wear a Crown’s release on September 24th on CD, vinyl and streaming (and available to preorder now), Rolling Stone is sharing the first singles from the set, Barrett’s long-out-of-print 1979 single for “Lord’s Prayer” backed with “Said It Long Time Ago,” the latter co-written by the pastor.
Fans of Barrett’s more well-known and oft-sampled work, often backed by his 45-person Youth for Christ Choir, may be surprised by the uncharacteristically contemporary and secular rendition of the gospel staple “Lord’s Prayer,” with Barrett turning the traditional hymn into a funk odyssey. “Said It Long Time Ago” similarly employs the disco-funk sounds of the late 1970s to spread the word of God.
“The work we have done with the music of Pastor T.L. Barrett is amongst Numero’s most rewarding achievements in our 18-year history,” Numero Group co-founder Rob Sevier told Rolling Stone in a statement. “When we first met with Pastor Barrett in his church basement in 2008 on Chicago’s South Side, this music was a footnote in his storied career. Fifty years later, it’s rising to the front page.”
In addition to being a favorite among cratediggers and producers (as well as fans like My Morning Jacket’s Jim James and Radiohead’s Colin Greenwood), the Jamaica, New York-born Barrett remains an icon in his now-native Chicago, where he moved in the late Sixties to serve as pastor at the Mt. Zion Baptist Church. It was there that the then-24-year-old Barrett — a distant cousin and former student of the famed minister (and Aretha’s father) C.L. Franklin — presided over a congregation that included local R&B legends like Donny Hathaway and Earth, Wind & Fire’s Maurice White, delivering sermons and crafting gospel music that fused devotional song with activism amid the civil rights movement. A decade later, Barrett founded his own church, the Life Center Church of God in Christ in the Windy City’s Washington Park neighborhood.
“He was formerly a jazz singer,” the Rev. Edmond Blair wrote of Barrett in a note that accompanied the sermon recording Dry Bones in the Valley, “However, being the son of a preacher, there was always a deep yearning to answer what he knew was God’s command for him to ‘Preach’ the gospel… Although he never pastored a church before and was only 24 years old, the Lord immediately worked tremendous works through him.”
Barrett’s legacy hasn’t been without controversy: He was alleged to involve his congregation in what the Cook County District Attorney’s office considered a pyramid scheme, with the pastor forced to pay $1.3 million in restitution. “Nobody was arrested, and I didn’t spend one minute in jail,” Barrett told Vanity Fair in 2016. “I was helping people, not hurting people. The attorney general appointed a receiver and I turned over all the money. In the attorney general’s words, I was accused of violating the letter of the law, not the spirit of the law. You cannot transfer money without a product. I did not know that.”
However, Barrett remained a beloved figure in Chicago, with Illinois Congressman Bobby Rush passing a House resolution in 1998 that honored Barrett’s work as “an outstanding motivational speaker and teacher.” When Barrett’s youngest daughter was murdered in 2007, Barack Obama, then a presidential hopeful, called Barrett to offer his condolences on the day of the funeral.
“The music speaks for itself, but Numero is incredibly proud to shepherd it into the world, sharing it with producers, DJs, music supervisors, and fans who never would have encountered his music otherwise,” Numero Group’s Sevier added. “I Shall Wear A Crown is an organic culmination of our journey together over a dozen years, a body of work that’s time has just arrived.”