It was 1975, and the Hawkins Family had come down to L.A. from Oakland for the Watts Summer Festival. Sixteen-year-old Andrew Gouché, two years deep into a lifelong bass obsession, was in for a surprise. “I went to see them, and they were playing ‘Going to a Place,’ a funky, uptempo song. That was the first time I ever saw someone play chords in gospel,” Gouché remembers. “But I didn’t ask how he did it. I was like, why? Why did you do that? Why did your brain know that would be the killingest thing on earth, ever?” He laughs. “That’s the way Joel Smith’s playing was. Every time I saw him play, he was always better than the last time. Every time.”
That hot August day was the beginning of a friendship and deep mutual respect between two of gospel’s greatest musicians. Both born in 1959 — Gouché in May, Smith in December — Andrew and Joel would play together on several Edwin Hawkins Music & Arts Seminar Mass Choir sessions in the ’80s, crossing paths many times on the way to helping establish gospel bass as a dominant force in American pop music. They influenced each other, too: Gouché cites Joel as the reason he began to tune his bass down a whole-step; when Joel tuned his 4-string to Eb, Gouché one-upped him by going to D. And when Joel was ready for a new instrument in the early 2000s, Gouché introduced him to Mike Tobias and brought him into the MTD family. At MTD4LYFE NAMM events, both giants played with Gouché’s band, old friends trading licks and laying down monstrous grooves that spoke of parallel but different styles and careers.
Raised at the left hand of the mighty Rev. James Cleveland, Andrew Gouché has a recorded resumé that extends back to 1980. Right from the start, he made his mark in both the gospel and secular worlds, working with the Mighty Clouds Of Joy, Andraé Crouch, and the Winans, as well as Cheryl Lynn, Julio Iglesias, the Jazz Crusaders, and Michael Jackson. Gouché’s abundant chops and distinctively bright grooves have netted him high-profile bass, production, and musical-director gigs with everyone from Joe Cocker, Destiny’s Child, and Whitney Houston to Patti Labelle, Chaka Khan, Snoop Dogg, Gladys Knight, Mary Mary, and Prince. His melodic aesthetic has impacted at least two generations of gospel musicians, who in turn have changed the sound of modern electric low end.
Joel Smith was born into Northern California’s Hawkins family, whose pop- and R&B-friendly style made them pioneers of the urban contemporary gospel sound as far back as 1969, when Joel’s uncle Edwin Hawkins had a monster crossover hit with “Oh Happy Day.” Edwin’s brother Walter Hawkins established the Love Center Church in Oakland in the mid ’70s, and from the time he was 13 years old, Joel was the one-man rhythm section of choice for his uncles: He played drums and/or bass on numerous Edwin discs; on every one of the Love Center’s six immensely popular Love Alivealbums, recorded between 1975 and 1998; and with the Hawkins Family, which included Edwin, Walter, their younger brother Daniel, as well as Joel’s aunts Tramaine Hawkins and Lynette Hawkins-Stephens. Joel also graced a handful of secular recordings, including discs by Shanice, Tony! Toni! Toné!, Regina Belle, Al Jarreau, Sheila E., Stephanie Mills, Ellen Honert, Sista Monica Parker, Rhiannon, and Melvin Seals. But his tasteful approach, rock-solid time, and laid-back personality were legend in the gospel world, where he delivered electrifying performances on bass or drums (and in the studio, frequently both) with everyone from T.D. Jakes, Kim Burrell, Richard Smallwood, and Rev. James Moore to Daryl Coley, Kurt Carr, Lawrence Matthews, and Beverly Crawford.
Joel was diagnosed with multiple myeloma in 2015, but he continued performing all the way through his uncle Edwin’s annual Christmas show in December 2017. By the time Edwin Hawkins died in January 2018, Joel had already been hospitalized. He passed away on September 8, 2018, and his memorial service at Oakland’s Love Center Ministries was a powerful, emotional send-off by many of gospel’s greatest heavyweights, including Gouché, who organized a Joel Smith tribute at L.A.’s Greater Emmanuel Temple Church four months later.
More than 40 years after first hearing Joel, Gouché is still one of his friend’s staunchest fans. “Nowadays in gospel, there are a lot of guys who can really play, but there are very few — in fact, I can’t think of one — that when you hear them play, you know it’s them,” he says. “Joel had his own style. The way he fingered, the way he played, his right-hand moves … nobody was doing that. When you hear him on a record, you know it’s him. And a lot of these cats, they don’t understand: The dudes they grew up listening to grew up listening to Joel Smith!”
How would you describe what was so special about Joel’s playing?
He was the king of being super solid, with impeccable time. He was super funky and super in-the-pocket. Joel would do drum parts and then go in the studio to put the bass on, and when he did the drums, he knew exactly what he was going to play on bass. Every one of those sessions, it sounded like the drummer and the bass player recorded together.
He knew how to make the whole band sound great.
Yes! A lot of times, you can be watching a band, and you’ll hear the bass player do stuff that’ll take your attention away from what everybody else is doing. Joel never did that. What he did was always totally relevant to everything else that was going on. It was never, “I’m about to do the sweet lick I’ve been working on for six weeks.”
Joel wasn’t really a solo guy, either.
When we did the tribute in L.A., a couple of guys wanted to play solos, but we decided that since Joel didn’t solo, there wouldn’t be any solos. One of the things I loved about the tribute we did is that it was in the spirit of Joel Smith. We wanted to play these songs the way Joel played them. That’s how you pay homage to somebody — not trying to put your funky spin on it. Joel was an innovator, and that’s what we paid homage to.
It was fascinating to hear his bass tone change over the years, from Fender Jazz Basses and F Basses all the way to the MTDs he was using at the end.
I was instrumental in him joining the MTD family. I told Mike [Tobias], “You know how people talk about me and my influence on them? Well, that’s how I feel about Joel Smith’s influence on me. I wouldn’t be the bass player I am if it wasn’t for Joel.” Mike just said, “Tell him to call me — I’ll build him a bass.” He got a blonde 6, and Mike built him a 5, too. Joel was the kind of dude that anything he put in his hand was going to sound incredible. I don’t care what bass he played, when I heard him play, I knew it was him. Always. And I can hear a lot of Anthony Jackson — it was as if Anthony was a gospel dude.
He loved him some Anthony Jackson.
He got a lot of his style from Anthony. I think that was his favorite dude.
How did Joel inspire you as a bass player?
He gave me another way to think. He increased my vision of the bass and the possibilities of the things I could do, the directions I could go in, and he did things that nobody else had ever done in gospel.
You got to play with Joel and the rest of the Hawkins Family, too.
Playing with the Hawkins Family literally changed my life as a musician. When I talk about it in clinics, about my experience being exposed to them, I liken it to the scene in that movie Pleasantvillewhere everybody was in black & white but as their awareness increases, they start seeing the world in color. That’s what it was like for me when I started playing with the Hawkins Family.
What was it like to play bass alongside Joel on drums?
He didn’t stand for any B.S. I remember a few times when I played with him, he was like, “Nah, man — don’t do that, do this.” He was one of the very few people who could give me suggestions and I’d comply. If Joel said it, it was law. Period.
Joel is a legend in the gospel community. Did he have the swagger to match his reputation?
People revered Joel, but he was so humble. I don’t know that he ever grasped the magnitude of who he was. He was just so laid back, and he never got caught up in the hype. He was just a cat who did his thing and paved the road for contemporary gospel music. So many things people play today are a direct derivative of what Joel Smith created. That’s why when we heard that he passed, there was no formal invitation [to the tribute], but everybody came. It was one of those things — you just knew you had to be there.
How was the event at Greater Emmanuel Temple?
A couple other things were going on that night, so I was worried that it wasn’t going to be well attended, but 900 people were there. The church was packed. The love was incredible! All the high-profile cats came out to pay homage to Joel. We raised $4,000 and gave it to his mom, Feddie Hawkins.
It must have taken lots of planning.
You would’ve thought we had weeks of production and that the thing was scripted, but we had half a rehearsal the night before. I was sitting there laughing because it was going so well. I was thinking, there’s no way this thing is going this good, man! It was literally seamless. [Co-organizer] Jeff “Lo” Davis lives on one coast and I live on the other, so we discussed it, talked to the people who said they wanted to be involved, and everybody showed up.
What about rehearsals?
Everybody knew the music. All we had to do was get up there and play those songs like Joel Smith played them. Doing it like that, you didn’t really need a rehearsal. The morning of the show, none of the background singers had practiced the leads, so I got on the phone at 7 a.m. and called a couple people. They came through, and it was incredible.
When was the last time you saw Joel play?
In Raleigh, North Carolina, for the 2018 International Musicians Summit. They were honoring Joel, and he and some of his crew — including guitarist Jonathan DuBose and keyboardist Kevin Bond — played a couple songs. I’ve heard those songs a million times, but never did they sound the way they sounded when Joel played them. I posted a video of them playing “Don’t Wait Till the Battle Is Over” on Instagram. It’s crazy because he was playing my bass, and I just never imagined that that would be the last time I saw him play.
There’s great footage of you visiting him in the hospital.
He was doing chemo last February when I came up to Oakland for Edwin Hawkins’ memorial [in early 2018], so all the musicians drove over to San Francisco to surprise Joel in the hospital. It was the greatest thing, just this wonderful fellowship, and for him to see the outpouring of love. . . . You know that saying, “Give me my flowers while I can smell them?” It was great for us to go there and just show Joel love. It was a blessing for us. We spent a couple hours there, and it was so great.
Even in those videos, his spirit was amazing.
I didn’t think that would be the last time I saw him, because Joel was so strong. He was the healthiest dude I ever knew. In the ’80s, when we were all eating fried chicken and ribs after the gig, Joel would be eating carrots and celery, and he would do 500 pushups and 500 sit-ups every night before he went to bed. That’s the kind of shape that dude was in. I remember laughing when we went to go see him at the hospital, because he looked strong, and I was thinking, “Joel still looks like he could kick all our asses right now.”
Thankfully, he left behind so much great music.
Joel Smith created a whole style. The Hawkins Family style and sound was Joel on bass and drums. Walter and Edwin wrote the words and the melodies, but the grooves and the sound was Joel Smith, all day. His legacy is going to live forever.