Marcel Smith fell in love with gospel music at an early age.
“I would go to these gospel concerts that these local gospel groups had — and I’d be surprised,” says the Stockton-based singer-guitarist who grew up in Sacramento. “I’ve always liked choirs, but when you looked at groups — gospel quartets — that was what really attracted me.
“At my church, we probably had an organ and a piano player—and, if we were lucky, we had a bass player. By the same token, when gospel groups came along, they had bass and drums and these sounded great. He had suits and he had these hairstyles and he would spin on the microphone. He had that ostentatiousness that caught me.”
Yet for Smith, gospel music was not limited to concerts—or even to church on Sundays. This was also happening regularly at his grandparents’ house, in a more informal way. To Smith’s delight, it was revealed that his grandparents were actually friends of several members of the gospel music community in Sacramento.
The 57-year-old musician remembers, “My grandparents used to use fish fry and all the singers and what-nots in the fish fry on Friday nights.” “They’ll just be in the backyard and they’ll just adjust.
“I just loved it.”
They proved to be foundational experiences that – decades later – continue to inform everything about the music Smith created. Many different musical tastes can be heard on Smith’s debut album, “Everybody Needs Love”, but there is a common thread that holds it together.
“Everything I put on this album goes back to gospel,” says Smith.
Still, it’s not quite accurate to describe “Everybody Needs Love” as a straight-up gospel album. It is, at least on the surface, an inspirational R&B/soul record as much as anything else. Dig a little deeper, however, and one finds that cover selections like Sam Cooke’s “Keep Moving On” and Bobby Womack’s “Harry Hippies” are also rooted in gospel—as the original singers/writers got their start in the genre as well. Is.
The album also includes bits of blues, a style that Smith learned from the same grandmother who helped host Those Fish Fry, along with other gospel singers.
“My grandmother, in fact, had another side to her,” he remembers. “She played the blues. She used to play the guitar. So, she started teaching me.”
Smith will perform “Everybody Needs Love” when he attends an April First No Foolin’ Artist Review organized by the Bay Area’s Little Village Foundation non-profit record label at Freight & Salvage in Berkeley on April 1. Local blues talents Tia Carroll and Aki Kumar are among other label artists slated to take the stage that night. Show time is 8 p.m. and tickets are $10-$20, thefreight.org,
Smith’s musical journey really began at age 11 when he began attending Pleasant Hill Missionary Baptist Church in Sacramento and joined the youth choir.
“When you join the church, either you become an usher or you become a member of the choir,” reflects Smith.
He would hone his talent over the next few years to such an extent that he would catch the ear of longtime gospel singer Willie Washington, who invited him to join his new quartet – the WD Gospel Singers.
It brought the then 16-year-old Smith into a whole new realm of performance, as the WD Gospel Singers would share the stage with so many great gospel touring acts—from Joy’s Mighty Clouds and Alabama’s Blind Boys to Soul Stirrs and Dixie Hummingbirds—over the years.
“I’m still a part of (WD Singers),” says Smith, who has also worked with Soul Prophets and several other musical organizations. “I’ve been a part of that group for 40 years.”
But now he’s also a full-fledged solo artist, having an impressive debut album.
Smith has been itching to take the stage with his fellow Little Village artists in the frat – especially after a long hiatus in live music due to the pandemic.
Of the last few years, he says, “I couldn’t tour the way I wanted to. “I can’t go where I wanted to.”
It has been a tough period for Smith, who lost his father in September 2019 and then his mother two years later. He has also lost many friends in recent years. He credits his faith for getting through tough times.
“I had to remember that what my father and mother instilled in me was my faith,” he says. “I had to hold onto that.”
For more information on Marcel Smith, or to order “Everybody Needs Love,” visit littlevillagefoundation.com,