CHICAGO — The music many of you love is made by a man you may not know.
His name? Pastor T.L. Barrett. Yes, you read that right.
Barrett, who has served in the church for more than 50 years and leads the Life Center COGIC Church, was also a prolific musician. Beginning in the 1960s, Barrett wrote, recorded and performed a signature brand of funk and soul-inspired gospel music. Although Barrett collaborated with the likes of the beloved Earth, Wind & Fire, his music was largely confined to a small group of gospel music listeners in the Chicago area. However, in the last decade, Barrett’s music has found a second life through sampling, mixing and covers by notable contemporary artists such as Kanye West, DJ Khaled, The Knocks and Leon Bridges.
Now, much of Barrett’s work has been collected for “I Shall Wear a Crown,” an all-encompassing and comprehensive box set featuring 49 songs spread across five LPs. “I Shall Wear a Crown” is out now on Numero Group of Chicago.
It took a long time to get to this moment.
Born in New York and raised on the South Side of Chicago, Barrett grew up in a religious household with a pastor father. His father was also a gospel singer and a guitarist. As a child, he formed a singing group called The Barrett Singers which included Barrett, his brother and his sister. The group even toured with the Staple Singers.
Yet despite this strong musical and religious upbringing, Barrett’s teenage years were more troubled. He was considered a “lost cause” by many of the adults in his life. At age 16, Barrett’s father died. Soon after, Barrett was kicked out of Wendell Phillips High School because “they no longer had to put up with me.” His last memory of school was a conversation with the school’s dean of students who had dismissed him.
“She said, ‘You will never amount to anything. I just want you to know that,’ ” Barrett recalled.
But he did not let the experience define him. “It’s not what they say; it’s what I do,” he said.
While walking to his sister’s home, Barrett made a deal with God. “I said, ‘God, if you will just become personal to me, no more God in the sky and all of that … I want a God within myself. I will keep my body clean and I will make my mind King,’” said Barrett, who eventually went on to receive his GED in New York.
The experience inspired one of his most popular tracks, “Like a Ship.” Barrett described the song as a reminder to young people that they may feel like a ship without a sail, but they can make it. Ships have cargo that is valuable to humanity. They also carry passengers. However, the ship would never reach its destination if it didn’t have some kind of sailing apparatus. “And that’s how I felt,” he began. “I knew that I had something that would help and uplift and benefit humanity. But they didn’t give me a chance.”
In the years after leaving school, Barrett worked as a shoe shiner and a jazz musician in New York, playing a regular gig at the Waldorf Astoria. Still, something continued to nag him, Barrett recalled. “The church prepared me for life after death. I felt that it did not prepare me for life after breath,” he said. “And that’s the reason why I came back to the church, to pastor a church so that I could take that God that is up in the sky and place it within the eye.”
Upon returning to Chicago and beginning work as a pastor in 1966, Barrett’s congregation soon grew in popularity with local musicians, including Donny Hathaway and Maurice White and Philip Bailey of Earth, Wind & Fire. Barrett also began writing gospel music of his own.
“This is a cosmic place that I go to,” Barrett said about his songwriting process. “Every time I prepare a sermon or write a song, it’s called the ‘thunder of silence,’ where God speaks to me.”
Barrett eventually signed to Stax Records, the Memphis, Tenn.-based soul, blues and funk label known for artists like Otis Redding and The Staple Singers. In 1971, he released his debut album, “Like a Ship (Without a Sail)” under the name Pastor T.L. Barrett and the Youth for Christ Choir. The choir grew out of his church and included 40 members between the ages of 12 to 19. “Like a Ship” featured contributions from musicians such as Phil Upchurch and Gene Barge. Additional albums were released throughout the decade.
It would take another 40 years for Barrett’s music to be rediscovered by the masses. In 2016, the inimitable West sampled Barrett’s track “Father I Stretch My Hands” from his 1976 album “Do Not Pass Me By” for his songs “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1” and “Pt. 2” off the album “The Life of Pablo.” Other artists discovered his music soon after, and after retaining his masters with the help of his label, Barrett’s music regained a new popularity with music heads the world over.
“I think that my songs were beautiful and meaningful,” Barrett said about why his music continues to connect with new generations.
“It feels wonderful, you know, that I didn’t have to fight my battles,” Barrett said about all he has accomplished. “All I had to do (was) wait for the outcome. And I just knew that in God’s own time, that I would be rewarded for my efforts.”