Carlton Pearson's songs for the saints
By Thomas Conner
© Tulsa World
At the end of the interview, Carlton Pearson stood up
and gave himself away.
Throughout the conversation, Pearson gleamed, looking
immaculate as ever — trimmed hair, silk paisley tie, a
glittering ruby ring and a shirt so crisp you could strike
a match on it. He looked every bit the well-to-do,
business-like bishop of the multi-racial multitude at
Tulsa's charismatic Higher Dimensions Family Church. As
we chatted on our way out of the church office, though, I
couldn't help but notice his worn, faded Levis and
weather-beaten cowboy boots.
"Well, I didn't know if you were going to take pictures
today or not, so I put on a tie," Pearson said, smiling big
and broadly. Pretty and professional on top, earthy and
rooted down below — that's Carlton Pearson.
It's this personal philosophy of staying rooted that has
propelled Pearson into the top rank of his church and into
the top slots of the gospel charts. Aside from leading one
of this city's largest congregations, Pearson records
highly successful gospel records with his church's crack
band and choir. The latest, "Live at Azusa 3," is another
The boundary between Pearson the preacher and Pearson
the entertainer is barely traceable, though. The "Live at
Azusa" records are simply recordings of Pearson in action at
his annual Azusa religious conference in Tulsa. He preaches
a little, he sings a little, and he shares the stage with
other gospel stars — such as Fred Hammond and Marvin Winans
on the current album.
"This is just church. It's what we do every Sunday
morning," Pearson said. "I wanted to capitalize on it, and
share it. When I started playing with recording things,
people were writing songs for me and trying to mold me as
they would any other gospel singer. But I said, 'Let me
just do what I do. Let me tell stories and sing songs.' And
it has touched people."
Pearson's albums are reaching the audience at which they
are aimed. Pearson unabashedly calls them "old folks." The
subtitle of "Live at Azusa 3" is "Reminding the Saints of the
Hope," and Pearson said this album in particular was
tailored for the older members of the flock.
"I'm trying to do what that title says: remind them that
the hope is still alive," Pearson said. "The world is
changing so fast — without their permission. These people,
like the Bible, have come out of Egypt, but Egypt has not
come out of them."
"Live at Azusa 3" features Pearson and the immensely
talented Higher Dimensions band and choir, directed by
David Smith. While radical gospel stars like Hammond and
Kirk Franklin have juiced-up the genre with hip-hop beats
and loud sounds, Pearson's album captures a similar feeling
of excitement — but by using old, traditional black hymns.
No funky new stuff for Pearson, much to the dismay of his
"I try to play my stuff for my kids, and they say, `No,
Daddy, play something cool!' They want (Franklin's)
'Revolution' or anything Hammond does. I have pictures of
young people jumping up and down at my shows, so it's
reaching them . . . but these songs are meant for the
saints," Pearson said. "These old songs aren't written
horizontally; they're written vertically. The new songs are
evangelistic, taking a message to the people from God.
These old songs are singing directly to God. They're church
"These old songs are the ones that really seemed to touch
people the most, and they helped tear down those racial
divisions that often separate us," Pearson said earlier.
"They also remind us of the hope. I felt those old songs
gave us a sense of stability and a sense of security and
safe-keeping, because that's what kept us through the Jim
Crow lines, civil rights riots and the assassinations of
Dr. King and President Kennedy in the '60s."
Crossing racial lines has always been the driving force
behind Pearson's ministry. He's full of stories about
people of all colors and creeds who have found inspiration
through the songs he performs — the South African man who
explained how popular Pearson's videos and music were there
("You sing old hymns that carried the church here," the man
told Pearson) and the Muslim woman who attends Higher
Dimensions because of her attraction to the message of a
Pearson's music and ministry began at the same time,
when as an eighth-grader in San Diego he was captivated by
a performance of the visiting Oral Roberts World Action
Singers. The group was recruiting students, and Pearson's
mother said, "When you go to college, that's where I want
you to go." Lacking the funds to pay for college, Pearson
shut himself in his room for a week, emerging only to
shower. During that time, he prayed to God to find a way to
attend Oral Roberts University. At the end of the week, a
family friend called and offered to pay not only the
college tuition but a monthly allowance as well. In 1971,
he enrolled at ORU.
Soon he became a member of the World Action Singers with
a full scholarship. By 1975, Pearson was hitting the road
as an evangelist under the tutelage of Roberts himself. In
1981, he founded the Higher Dimensions Evangelistic Center
at a service of 75 people. The center's first building was
a storefront in Jenks — which at the time still had a 6 p.m.
curfew for blacks on the lawbooks. Within a year, the
congregation neared 1,000 people of every race and color.
Today, the church stands in a large building near 86th
Street and Memorial Drive, along with an adoption agency, a
home for unwed mothers, a preschool and a food pantry for
"I never wanted to be known as the singing evangelist,"
Pearson said of his beginnings. "I wanted to be an
evangelist who also sang." That's how he sounds on "Live
at Azusa 3." He introduces songs sung by such gospel
luminaries as Beverly Crawford, James Morton and Joshua
Nelson. He talks a little bit, giving brief homilies with
titles like "I Love Old Folks" and "Remind the Saints of the
Hope." These are often elongated introductions to other
songs, "I Know the Lord Will Make a Way Somehow," "Near the
Cross," and so on.
"These old songs — people just don't want to let go of
them," Pearson said. "For some reason people just want to
hold onto a good ol' piece of fried chicken, even though
they're out there every day eating sushi . . . I mean, when
I win an award for these albums, people aren't out there
clapping for me. They're clapping for their grandmas and
grandpas and all those saints that came before them and who
were kept going by these songs. And they're still going, so
we might as well keep these songs going, too."
These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.