Music Interview: Bishop Harold Branch celebrates 62 years of “Down Home Gospel”

Bishop Harold Branch’s decades of supporting the gospel scene have not been ignored. Last year’s anniversary was marked by a Boston City Council proclamation that it was Bishop Harold Branch Day.

Bishop Harold Branch’s 62nd Anniversary Celebration at the Russell Auditorium, 70 Talbot Avenue, Dorchester, MA, June 5 at 3:30 p.m. (For more information call Bishop Branch at (857) 258-2076).

Bishop Branch Photo: Noah Schaffer.

Bishop Harold Branch at the microphone. Photo: Courtesy of Noah Schaffer.

By Noah Schaffer

It was 1959 and a 19-year-old gospel guitarist from Mobile, Alabama decided to seek a new life as a seaman. He was told to head to New England, where work could be found aboard the ships that docked in Boston.

But Bishop Harold Branch never boarded the ship. Instead, he found that Boston was “just his speed.” Soon he was performing with local groups like the Silver Leaf Gospel Singers and Lynn Harmonizers and appearing on a string of radio stations.

Decades later Branch is still on the air and still sings and plays guitar at gospel programs throughout the year. He celebrates his 62nd  anniversary as a broadcaster  — a number that includes his time as a teenage Alabama radio personality — with a program Sunday afternoon at the Russell Auditorium on Talbot Avenue in Dorchester.

On a recent Friday afternoon Branch brought a weathered bible and a bag of CDs to the shaggy Central Square studios of WRCA (1330-AM), where he prerecorded his program “Down Home Gospel,” which airs Sunday mornings at 6 a.m. (His longtime cohort Skippy White comes on at 7 a.m. with his “Gospel Train.”) His mailbox at the station contained a letter penned by a listener in prison and a notice from an area church announcing its next gospel event. His show opened with personalized greetings to a dozen faithful listeners, followed by a scripture reading and selections from local and national gospel recording artists.

The fact that he is a singer and energetic guitarist, who usually performs songs from his southern childhood either solo or with a small rhythm section, makes Branch a unique artist on Boston’s traditional gospel circuit, which is generally made up of “quartet” style groups with four or five singers and a full band.

“I was in these groups and then they started having problems, some of them got sick, some of them couldn’t get along, so I said I’d just go it alone,” confesses Branch, who first started singing on the street at the age of five.

While his mother “never liked going to church,” Branch became religious at a young age. “Down south, on a Sunday you would leave home at 6 in the morning, do a radio show, and then go from church to church — you wouldn’t get home until 1 the next morning,” he recalls. His involvement in the local religious community also led to him marching from Selma to Montgomery with Martin Luther King.

Mobile was also a regular stop for artists on the touring gospel circuit, and Branch fondly remembers seeing guitarists like Sullivan Pugh of the Consolers and Pops Staples of the Staples Singers. “Pops let me hold his guitar — he said ‘you can hold it, just don’t drop it,’” remembers Branch. “Right then I said I wanted to be a musician, so I started playing guitar. I learned how to play myself. Nobody taught me.”

A Consolers song, “Give Me My Flowers While I’m Here” has been Branch’s closing theme (via a cover by Slim and the Supreme Angels) for many years. It’s a phrase he frequently repeats as he urges his listeners to support the station and its programs. “Don’t wait until I’m dead,” he laughs.

Secular artists like Ray Charles and Chuck Berry also made an impression on Branch. “When I was in the 9th grade I went to see Little Richard. Out of a crowd of a 1000 people he picked me out and said ‘God wants to use you.’”

The influx of Southern transplants meant that Boston’s traditional gospel scene flourished between the ’60s and the ’80s, culminating with the establishment of the  city’s full-time gospel radio station WLVG, which operated from 1983 to 1991 with shows by both Branch and White as well as local legend David Adams. Branch would often be called on to be the opening act on big time programs at the Strand Theater that featured greats such as Lee Williams, the Pilgrim Jubilees, the Gospel Keynotes, and the Blind Boys of Mississippi.

“Playing that heavy guitar all by myself and singing and not taking a break I’d really start to sweat,” says Branch, explaining why he started wearing his trademark headband. “Now when they see me they say ‘Here comes the Indian.’”

Time on stations like WRCA is rented out by the hour. Branch supports his airtime through his job as an overnight home health aid and from listener donations. “It hasn’t been easy — sometimes I get support, and sometimes I don’t,” he observes. “But I keep going on.”

Branch has overcome many hurdles, from the major, radio station format changes, to the minor, touring groups failing to show up. He faced his biggest challenge in 1983. At the time, he was the pastor of Jesus of Nazareth Holiness Church on Bowdoin Street in Dorchester. A man came to him insisting that he be baptized immediately. Branch asked if the man could wait a few days until more church members could be present, but the man said he would harm himself if he wasn’t baptized that day.

The baptism at a Natick lake ended in tragedy when the man, who couldn’t swim, drowned. Branch, who also couldn’t swim, tried unsuccessfully to save him. “He wasn’t trying to save himself — he weighed 250 pounds. There wasn’t anything I could do,” recalls Branch. “It was suicide.”

Although the incident was ruled an accident, Branch remembers turning on his television “and seeing my face and it said I was wanted for murder.” The death generated international news coverage. “People were trying to destroy me,” he says. “But I didn’t do anything wrong. If I did I would have gone to jail. Now, people in Boston love me.”

After the tragedy Branch left his church. His ministry now focuses on helping those on the street and in prison. He is frequently a guest pastor at churches around New England. The headliner on Sunday’s celebration, Lou Dobbs and the Christian Sons, are based in New Haven, CT, where Branch often sings and sermonizes. “I wish people in Boston supported each other like they do in New Haven,” he says. “Whenever someone there gives a gospel program, everyone else shows up with an envelope” that contains a donation. “If I give you a turkey and then take it away and give you chicken wings, I’m not helping you!”

“Whenever someone asks me to sing at their program I do it,” he says. “I live on the top floor, and my guitar and amplifier are heavy, but I’ll be there. All I ask is that people support me just once a year.” Branch’s decades of supporting the gospel scene have not been ignored. Last year’s anniversary was marked by a Boston City Council proclamation that it was Bishop Harold Branch Day.

Besides Dobbs, Sunday’s program will also feature appearances from what Branch likes to call “Boston’s own,” a line-up that includes the stirring A cappella Spirit Gospel Singers and the Spiritual Encouragers. Branch will also appear at Delaware gospel great Jay Caldwell’s Father’s Day appearance in Dorchester on June 19.

Another annual event that Branch always attends is the wintertime Alabama Day, which recreates the all-day church hopping that was a vital part of Branch’s childhood. “Preachers come up from down south, and we start at one church, and then go to another, and then another. We have a shoutin’ good time!”

Over the past 15 years Noah Schaffer has written about otherwise unheralded musicians from the worlds of gospel, jazz, blues, Latin, African, reggae, Middle Eastern music, klezmer, polka and far beyond. He has won over ten awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association.

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