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Rance Allen, frontman of a new-sounding gospel group, dies at 71
The Rance Allen Group was at the forefront of contemporary gospel, fusing traditional music with pop, rhythm and blues, jazz, even disco.

by Neil Genzlinger

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- “Whatever we feel like doing, we do that very thing,” Bishop Rance Allen told an audience at Sounds of Brazil in New York in 1986. “But we do it to the glory of God.”

It was a summary of the music he and his brothers had been serving up for almost 20 years as the Rance Allen Group — gospel, to be sure, but blended with other influences that, when the group began, made it a pioneer of today’s contemporary gospel sound.

“The Rance Allen Group’s repertory mixes traditionalist gospel — hymnlike songs that build to fervent, shouting climaxes — with more modern kinds of funk,” Jon Pareles wrote in The New York Times, reviewing that 1986 performance, “from chugging soul music to pop-jazz to thumb-popping disco rhythms.”

There was, for instance, “Just My Salvation,” which reworked the tune and lyrics of the Temptations’ 1971 hit “Just My Imagination.” There was “There’s Gonna Be a Showdown,” an up-tempo number off the group’s 1972 album, “Truth Is Where It’s At” — the song was a riff on a secular hit of the same name by Archie Bell and the Drells. And yes, that was Allen (solo for a change) performing “When He Returns” on the 2003 tribute album “Gotta Serve Somebody: The Gospel Songs of Bob Dylan.”

“I sing basically what I feel,” Allen told the Chicago Sun-Times in 1996. “The minute I think I’m traditionalizing my approach to music, the Lord will take me way out there again.”

Allen died on Oct. 31 at the Heartland at ProMedica care center near his home in Toledo, Ohio. He was 71. His brother Steve, who with their brother Thomas constituted the Rance Allen Group, confirmed his death. The cause was not specified, though Allen had had health problems recently.

Rance Allen was born on Nov. 19, 1948, in Monroe, Michigan, to Thomas and Emma Pearl (McKinney) Allen. He grew up in Monroe, graduating from high school there, and attended Monroe County Community College for a time. But he was already feeling the dual pull of ministry and music.

“It was preaching first,” he told the newspaper The Commercial Appeal of Memphis, Tennessee, in 2011, describing how he would sometimes proclaim from the pulpit at his grandfather’s church as a child, “then singing, then picking up the instruments. I was maybe 9 or 10 years old when I picked up the piano. From there it went to guitar and drums and everything else I could get my hands on.”

He fronted a family band that included Steve on bass and Tom on drums, with another brother, Esau, sometimes joining in. Monroe is not far from Detroit, and Allen had dreams of being signed by a certain record company of note there.

“We tried to go to Motown,” he said, “but Motown didn’t do gospel at all.”

When the group won a talent show in Detroit in 1971, Dave Clark, a promoter for Stax records of Memphis, was in the audience. He was impressed. Stax, too, didn’t do gospel, but it took a leap of faith and created an imprint, Gospel Truth Records.

“When you’ve got a record company that will say, ‘We believe so much in this artist that we will create a label for them’ — well, I’m forever grateful for that,” Allen told The Commercial Appeal.

In addition to “Truth Is Where It’s At,” the group released another album in 1972, titled simply “The Rance Allen Group.” Many more followed over the next 40-plus years. Three were nominated for Grammy Awards. In April 2015, Allen was among the artists who performed for President Barack Obama and family at the White House in a tribute to gospel music.

Allen did not neglect his other calling. He was ordained an elder in 1978 and served 6 1/2 years as associate pastor of Holiness Temple Church of God in Christ in Monroe. In 1985, he became pastor of New Bethel Church in Toledo, where he served for the next 35 years. At his death he was prelate of the Michigan Northwest Harvest Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction of the Church of God in Christ.

Allen married Ellen Marie Groves in 1970. She survives him, as do his five brothers, Thomas, Steve, Esau, Manuel Lito Mendez and Andre Mendez; and six sisters, Anita Rocker, Judy Rocker, Annie Ford, Linda Mendez, Cecilia Chapman and Teresa Mendez.

In addition to its albums, the Rance Allen Group was known for its celebratory, energetic live performances, which Allen said were influenced by his grandmother.

“She wanted us to learn how to entertain,” he recalled. “She’d say: ‘If people don’t see you’re enjoying your stuff, they’re not going to enjoy you. Entertain, perform, make folks laugh, make ’em cry. You got to be able to work the area of emotion.’ We always took that advice to heart.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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