Make Your Mama Proud

The Gospel According to Bill "The Mailman" Martin and Chester Baldwin

Bill “the Mailman” Martin (l) and Chester Baldwin
Bill “the Mailman” Martin (l) and Chester Baldwin (Photo By John Carrico)

In many respects, gospel music has twice the burden to bear as its musical cousins who sleep in on Sunday mornings. It must evolve while conveying a steadfast message. It must uphold sacred traditions in a world of the here and now. It must translate the idea of eternity to an audience groomed for three-and-a-half minute pop songs.

To nurture and expand its artists and audience, gospel must also employ the same methods as non-religious music (promotion, distribution, compensation), while scrupulously avoiding the perception of secular influence. Considering the secular for a moment, few of the rewards often sought by musicians -- sex, wealth, fame -- are even remotely acceptable in the teachings of gospel music. So why on Earth would anyone heed the call?

Because it's God's work. All glory and honor go to God.

Bill "the Mailman" Martin and Chester D.T. Baldwin can speak to this firsthand. Two of the most recognizable figures in Austin's gospel community, the latter feting the former on Saturday at Texas Folklife Resources' "A Joyful Noise -- A Gospel Tribute to Bill 'the Mailman' Martin," both decided music was the best way to serve the Lord a long time ago. Almost as important, however, both do what they do out of devotion to someone nearly as influential as God himself: their mamas.

And yet when he first went on the air in 1980, Bill Martin didn't think he'd last a month, let alone become dean of Texas gospel announcers, or that his name would become synonymous with gospel music in Austin. By the same measure, when Chester Baldwin's Music Ministry Mass choir filled Austin's Shoreline Christian Center in May 1999, all the aspiring singer wanted to do was raise money for his summer youth camp. He had no idea his ensuing CD would linger on Billboard's gospel chart for almost a year and make him one of the fastest-rising gospel stars in America.

Outside the congregation of St. James Baptist Church, his home church for more than 40 years, Bill Martin is best known as "the Mailman," delivering the good news Sunday mornings 5-11am on KIXL-AM 960. In addition to spinning inspirational records old and new, he announces upcoming concerts and special events, reads prayer requests over the air, and basically acts as town crier for anything church-related. Retired from the Postal Service since 1992, he is one of the most celebrated gospel announcers in the state, as well as founder and president of the Texas Gospel Announcers Guild.

Listening to Martin's robust, Carolina-accented voice, it's hard to believe he wound up a disc jockey out of sheer circumstance. As part of the St. James congregation, it was his job to bring the pastor's sermon from the church to KIXL and introduce it on the air. One fateful Sunday morning, the announcer abruptly quit and the station's desperate owner, Dick Oppenheimer, asked Martin to fill in. He obliged, and everything went relatively smooth until the third week, when the man appointed to train Martin got sick and didn't show up.

"Boy, I did everything under the sun that's unimaginable for a radio announcer to do," he laughs. "People would call up, and without cutting the mike off, I'd pick up the telephone and say, 'Hello.' Then, all the lines would light up with people saying, 'Bill, you forgot to cut the mike off!'

"After that Sunday, I went to [Oppenheimer] and said, 'Dick, I don't think I'm gonna do it.' I was so embarrassed, so humiliated by it. When I got to church, everybody was saying, 'Man, what's wrong with you?!?'"

Martin went for advice to his brother-in-law Junior Franklin, late founder of Austin's gospel legends the Mighty Clouds of Joy. Franklin set him straight: "Don't get off that radio," he said. "We need all the promotion we can get." After praying and fasting for a week, Martin went down to the station to give it one more shot.

The Mailman, circa 1950
The Mailman, circa 1950

"I guess God answered my prayer," he says. "I only left the mike open two or three times."

The clincher came when a woman at a local nursing home told him, "I heard your program this morning, and that was the only church I got." He remembers thinking, "Lord, I guess this is what you want me to do."

Truthfully, by the time he went on the air, Martin had already been promoting gospel music for years. Through his mail route, he'd become close friends with Elmer Akins, host of the long-running Gospel Train program on KVET-AM. In the Seventies, he and Akins used to canvass East Austin in a truck outfitted with a loudspeaker; Martin drove while Akins announced the lineup for their latest program, which most likely featured one or more of the era's leading gospel names, including the Five Blind Boys, Soul Stirrers, Jackson Southernaires, or Williams Brothers.

"We'd go all up and down 11th Street, Chicon -- the whole black neighborhood," he recalls. "We'd do maybe an hour, then we'd get on the major thoroughfares like 12th and Chicon, and just sit there. We had a cassette of whoever was coming to town, and we'd put it on that microphone and let it play. People just gathered around the car."

Martin and Akins forged a lasting bond through spreading the word in this fashion; the Mailman says their relationship was "like father and son." When Akins went on to his greater reward a few years ago, Martin inherited his mentor's mantle of senior gospel advocate in Austin, and has tried to carry out his duties in such a way as to honor Akins' memory.

"Brother Akins and I never had an argument, and he used to pride himself that he and I got along," Martin says. "We never had an argument about any money, about who was the boss of promotions. He got me into it, so consequently I always looked up to him."

Martin was born in Asheville, N.C., the youngest of 10 children. His family could afford few luxuries, and "being the baby, everybody felt like they had the right to whip your butt." Every Sunday morning, though, harmony reigned when the house awoke to the righteous sounds of the Wings Over Jordan radio program.

"My mother believed in the Lord with all her heart and soul," says Martin, his throat tightening noticeably. "It was one of those things where there was no doubt on Sunday morning what you were gonna do, because you were getting up and going to church. You were going to Sunday school, you were going to the 11am [service], and that evening [youth meeting] and then night service."

Too skinny for football, Martin took an interest in the saxophone during high school. After graduation, he moved to New York City to study music and was accepted at Juilliard, but couldn't afford the tuition. Living with his sister, he worked odd jobs and took classes at the Washington School on 14th Street. He idolized Lionel Hampton, Erskine Hawkins, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, and Charlie Parker, and became immersed in the city's booming post-WWII jazz scene.

He was a frequent visitor to nightspots like the Savoy Ballroom, Minton's Playhouse, and Rockland Palace on 151st Street, and fantasized about bringing the house down on some future amateur night at the Apollo Theater. By the time he'd finished a four-year tour of duty for Air Force during the Korean War, he found his moment had essentially passed him by.

"I was four years behind," he says. "All those guys that were just starting out when I left, man, they would make you put your horn back in your bag."

That didn't stop Martin from resuming his old habits, however. Neither did being newly married; he met his wife Evelyn, daughter of longtime St. James pastor Rev. E.M. Franklin, while stationed in the supply corps at Bergstrom Air Force Base. Since Martin still had his musical connections, notably his nephew Johnny "Spider" Martin, who had gigged with Hampton, Count Basie, and Dizzy Gillespie, he made the rounds to Birdland, the Village Vanguard, and notes that at one point, his upstairs neighbor was none other than Thelonius Monk. He kept this up, driving a subway train to make ends meet, until his church-reared wife put her foot down and said it was time to move back home.

Make Your Mama Proud

"Eventually, my wife said, 'I was not raised up in this environment,'" he says. "She made the decision to come back to Texas, not me. If it had not been for her, I think we would all be dead."

While adjusting to Texas, Martin got a job at the post office and found his way back to the church. He delivered the mail to the same area he and Akins would traverse in that speaker-equipped truck, watching many children on his route grow up to have children of their own. As he became more and more active in the local gospel scene, he realized this was what God had been calling him to do all along.

"Sometimes it takes people longer to find the purpose God has for their life," says Martin now. "As I look back over my life, I feel this was the purpose God always had for me."

And along the way, he did right by his mama.

"I wanted to please her so much, and I felt that doing something in the gospel field would have pleased her," he says. "Thank God she lived to see me be on the radio. She came out here to visit me, and I was on the air and she shouted all over the place. I used to tape programs and mail 'em to her."

The walls of Chester Baldwin's smallish office at Mount Sinai Baptist Church in Northeast Austin are full of diplomas, decrees, and press clippings celebrating the 35-year-old dynamo. Prominently displayed is a framed copy of the Billboard gospel album chart the week his CD Sing It on Sunday Morning debuted at No. 21. That was last April. The CD is still on the charts, and was recently nominated for a staggering six Stellar Awards, gospel's equivalent to the Grammys.

"Been on there for 43 weeks now," Mount Sinai's Minister of Music marvels. "It's mind-boggling."

More mind-boggling to Baldwin are the promotional commitments that go along with having a hit album. He says he has enough frequent-flyer miles for seven free trips, then remembers another one he's got coming on Southwest. He's reluctant to accept a weekend out-of-town date unless the city has a red-eye flight back to Texas so he can be back in church bright and early.

"My music director said, 'You know, I've never known an artist to be as hot as you are, and avoid people to keep from going to an engagement,'" he says. "My heart is to be back here on Sunday morning, sitting at the instrument, at Mount Sinai."

Most shocking to Baldwin is the way his album, a shout-to-the-rafters affair on the order of James Cleveland, has gone over with kids raised in a time when the differences between modern gospel and the latest Beat 104.3 jams are cursory at best.

"I'm approached all over the country by little kids who know every song on the album," he says. "I mean little kids."

Make Your Mama Proud

Baldwin was barely older himself when he felt the call. He says he was 11 or 12 when he realized music was for him, and wasn't about to let a little thing like puberty stand in his way.

"I had a music teacher who noticed I was going through the change," he says. "And my voice was just raspy, raspy, raspy, and she said, 'You need to stop singing.' And I couldn't. It was like asking me to stop breathing, neither of which I desire to do. That's when I knew music was gonna be it for me."

Baldwin, whose voice is still raspy, became Minister of Music at his hometown church in the East Texas community of Liberty before he could drive (legally, anyway). All these years later, he remains deeply rooted in old-time, call-and-response gospel music. Whether the source material is Babyface or the Staples Singers, the self-admitted traditionalist explains that all forms of gospel music are just the vessel -- it's the message that's the important thing.

"Our church does not expect a certain type of music," he explains. "They expect me to provide music they can be ministered to by, and that's what I'm concerned about."

Baldwin counts Mt. Sinai as an exception, but notes many churches have effectively split their congregations down the middle. Filing in at the crack of dawn are the old-timers who want to get church out of the way in time for the afternoon kickoff, grocery shopping, or to just get on with their day. Later in the morning come the young people who may have stayed out a bit too late Saturday night.

The music at these early/late services is often similarly split between traditional and contemporary. That Sing It on Sunday Morning has done so well with all ages not only gives Baldwin hope that traditional gospel music can continue to prosper and reach young ears, it provides him with evidence that his own efforts to bridge the current divide between old and new worshipers through music are paying off. His experience consulting with church choirs across the country has shown him it's better not to force such distinctions.

"I believe one of the mistakes directors of music make is trying to pigeonhole each choir into its own identity, and then let it sing solely those songs," he says. "When those young people get older, they're not used to ever having sang anything other than contemporary, so they don't have an appreciation for it. It's like when you grew up you didn't appreciate broccoli, asparagus, and green beans, but your mother kept putting it on the plate, and hopefully, by the time you get older, you realize the value."

Baldwin's early realization of his own musical gifts has obviously fueled his drive to reach kids while they're still young enough to harness their full potential -- and before, as he was, they're convinced pursuing the arts is somehow less worthy than something more technical. He started his Ministry That Matters summer program in 1998 and is already looking to expand. He brags about pushing the fire code at Reagan High School to its limits with last year's production Let the Children Sing, which he and his pupils put together in just under three weeks.

By 2002, he hopes to start up a full-fledged performing arts academy, featuring programs in music, theater, dance, and production. Interest in his camp is already overwhelming. Last year he doubled its capacity from 40 to 80 to accommodate as many kids as possible, and laments he still had to turn away 75.

"Some of those kids will never be able to compete in a high tech society," he says. "They will never be Dellionaires. They will never make it at AMD, at Samsung. But they may be singers. All of 'em have a heart for that area, and somebody's gotta provide the stage for it.

"I want them to feel good about, 'I may never be financially rich,'" Baldwin continues. "'But I can be personally, inner rich, because I've been able to fulfill that which is born in me.'"

Baldwin spends more time puzzling over how to make music as enticing as sports or computers to his students, to fill them with musical inspiration the same way he was, than the unexpected success of his CD. After all, to him, the reason for the latter is as simple as a certain time-tested axiom: 'If mama ain't happy, ain't nobody happy.' Accordingly, Sing It on Sunday Morning is prominently dedicated to his "MuDear" Gussie Baldwin Jones.

"It has enough upbeat-type drive to the music so that young people are saying, 'I can reproduce this and it sounds good,'" he explains. "Plus there's a connection to the past, because my mama would be pleased." end story

Chester Baldwin and Music Ministry Mass, along with the Jackson Southernaires, perform at Texas Folklife Resources' "A Joyful Noise" salute to Bill "the Mailman" Martin at the Paramount Theatre, Saturday, Feb. 17 at 8pm.

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