Growing up in Memphis, Carlos Hale's first musical heroes were soul artists, particularly those on the Stax and Hi labels. But one day he heard an astonishing voice that grabbed his attention.
"There were a lot of records in our home, and I'd heard people like Al Green, Isaac Hayes, The Bar-Kays and Ann Peebles, but this guy Rance Allen was incredible," he recalls. "He was shouting and soaring and doing everything vocally like the great soul singers, but the message was totally different. It was about salvation and the gospel. It was awesome and inspiring, unique and special. That really turned me around in terms of my musical appreciation."
Hale later became friends with famed choral director and arranger O'landa Draper, a dominant figure in contemporary gospel circles during the '80s and '90s before his death of renal failure at 34 in 1998. Draper's death came only two months before he was scheduled to be married, and it shocked many in spiritual and secular circles.
"O'landa befriended me, taught me the history of gospel music, and encouraged me to become an advocate for it," says Hale. "His death was a real blow to the gospel world, but it inspired me to take the things he taught me and put them to use in service of the music."
Hale eventually relocated to Nashville and became a gospel DJ, but he felt he wasn't having the desired impact behind the microphone. So in 2005, he founded the Urban Soul Cafe — a combination advocacy-promotion entity that has evolved into one of the country's premier gospel organizations, which regularly stages major concerts across the South and has thus far presented shows featuring more than 200 performers. Hale has also emerged nationally as a major player and key figure whose friends include some of the genre's biggest stars and personalities. This week his profile is at its peak as USC presents "Access Granted Weekend," a series of events in conjunction with the 27th Annual Stellar Gospel Music Awards. The Stellar Awards show, the premier program of its type for African-American gospel performers, returns to the Grand Ole Opry House Saturday night. It will be co-hosted by Marvin Sapp and Dr. Dorinda Clark-Cole. The taped telecast airs locally Feb. 5 on WUXP-30 at 7 p.m. and nationally Feb. 11 on the Gospel Music Channel at a time to be determined.
USC has landed an impressive list of sponsors for the weekend, among them record labels, gospel and secular radio stations, websites and promotional/publicity firms. But the biggest hook is the unprecedented access to high-profile gospel stars provided to the audience.
"We see these events as the gospel equivalent of what the country music community has done for decades with Fan Fair and the Country Music Association Festival," says Hale. "It's a chance for fans to see these performers away from the stage, interact with them, get autographs, or just be able to appreciate them in a relaxed atmosphere. It is also a chance for artists to see each other, and for the gospel music community as a whole to come together."
The biggest event is Thursday night's Urban Soul Cafe's Awards Show at Cannery Ballroom. Hale will present 2012 Lifetime Achievement Awards to Clark-Cole and Allen, while honoring Pastor Kim Burrell as Urban Soul Cafe's 2012 Artist of the Year. Performers include Canton Jones, Da' T.R.U.T.H., Myron Butler, Shirley Murdock, Regina Belle, Wess Morgan (a Song of the Year nominee) and several others. A midday mixer Saturday at Jazz and Jokes Lounge blends worship and fellowship. The concluding "Thank God I'm Fresh" affair will be held after the Stellar Awards Saturday night at the Limelight.
"A lot of people in other cities were slow to realize how much gospel music interest, talent and enthusiasm was here in Nashville," Hale says. "But now that the Stellar Awards Show keeps coming to the Opry House, it has generated a lot of energy and awareness about the city and the fan base that's always been here for gospel. The Opry House has proven an ideal location for the awards show, and the artists leave with very positive feelings towards the city. I also think gospel is still growing and booming across the country. It has historically been the root music for many other styles, but there are increasingly more performers, especially young ones, who want to stay in gospel and make it their life. That's the goal of Urban Soul Cafe — to ensure that the people who want to perform this music get the same exposure and opportunity as secular acts, particularly those in Music City."
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