An iconic pastor, singer, songwriter, recording preacher, community organizer and civil rights leader, the Reverend Dr. Clay Evans was born June 23, 1925, in Brownsville, Tennessee, to Henry Clay and Estanauly Evans. He moved to Chicago at the age of 21 with plans to be an undertaker, but he could not afford the tuition to attend mortuary school. Instead, he worked at the Brass Rail, a local lounge, and dreamed of a future as a big band singer.
Meanwhile, Evans was invited to join Chicago’s famed Lux Singers, a gospel group that included a young James Cleveland. Evans’ first song composition, By and By, became a Lux Singers staple and was an early 1950s hit for the Davis Sisters of Philadelphia. By September 1950, Evans had received a calling to ministry. He organized the Hickory Grove Baptist Church on Chicago’s South Side, though the name was soon changed to Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church. That same month, Evans organized the church choir and asked his sister, Lou Della, to shepherd its music ministry.
Evans’ church, nicknamed “The Ship,” secured a radio broadcast in 1952. The weekly broadcast introduced the region to Evans’ preaching and the choir’s vigorous singing. Fellowship’s music ministry brimmed with top-notch singers and musicians. At one time or another, members of the music team included Albert A. Goodson, Charles Walker, Milton Brunson, Robert Anderson, Frederick Young, Willie Webb, Royal “Mickey” Warren, Stanley Keeble, Curtis Fondren and Billy Jones. Lou Della Evans Reid was the vivacious choir director. The Reverend Jesse Jackson was an assistant pastor and Rev. Consuella York was radio announcer. Sam Cooke and other professional singers attended Fellowship to enjoy the choir and listen to Evans preach.
Evans’ choir recorded its first album in 1962. The independent project was produced by pioneering female record company owner Idessa Malone and included a cover of Stuart Hamblen’s It Is No Secret. The song became Evans’ pastoral theme and personal mantra.
During the 1960s, Evans became involved with the civil rights movement and was the founding national board chairman of Operation PUSH (People United to Serve Humanity). His support of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his outspokenness on Chicago’s legacy of segregation and discrimination came at great personal cost. Local government and business officials who took umbrage with his and King’s stance conveniently delayed loans for, and stopped construction on, the new Fellowship Church building at 45th and Princeton Streets.
After several independent releases with Malone, Fellowship landed a record deal with Jewel Records in Shreveport, Louisiana. For 15 years, beginning in 1970, Jewel released albums and singles by the choir as well as album-length sermons by Evans. Songs such as May the Lord Bless You Real Good, Come on Down and It’s Real gave the Ship a national reputation. In 1975, Evans organized the Broadcast Ministers Alliance of Chicago, an association of radio and television preachers, to assist with advocacy of quality healthcare, voter registration, and other social services for the disenfranchised.
Fellowship signed with Savoy Records in the mid-1980s. By then, the contemporary sound reigned in gospel music, but Evans and the Ship remained true to the traditional gospel choir sound pioneered in Chicago. Their stance was successful. The choir released a series of popular albums for Savoy, including Things Are Going to Work Out Somehow (1985), He’ll Be There (1988) and Reach Beyond the Break (1990).
Savoy also released albums on Evans’ African American Religious Connection (AARC) Mass Choir, which featured some of gospel’s finest traditional singers, including Rev. James Lenox, Cleophus Robinson Jr., Loretta Oliver, Shirley Bell, Shun Pace-Rhodes, Rev. Milton Biggham and Rev. Oris Mays. I’m Going Through (1992) reached the No. 1 position on the Billboard Top Gospel Albums Chart. So did 1996’s I’ve Got a Testimony, recorded on Meek Records; it earned a Stellar Award for Album of the Year.
Evans continued to record throughout the 2000s, but in 2010, he transferred the pastorate of Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church to the Reverend Charles Jenkins. He continues to serve as its Senior Pastor.
The legacy of the Reverend Dr. Clay Evans is being properly curated. The Chicago Public Library has a collection of his papers, and the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project at Baylor University is digitizing hundreds of hours of his taped sermons. The Stellar Awards honored the nonagenarian Evans in March 2017 with the Ambassador Dr. Bobby Jones Legends Award.
—Robert M. Marovich and Patti Nolan-Fitzgerald