Asked about how his connection with the guitar began, Chester Lewis of Rocky Mount, North Carolina, reflected rather matter-of-factly: “I can’t teach nobody nothing, and I can’t tell you how I got it.” Lewis is certain, though, that his first guitar came as payment for mowing lawns, and his second arrived via the Sears catalog, a gift from his father. By the time most kids were moving into the driver’s seat, Lewis was strumming with the Jordanaires of Rocky Mount. His twenties were spent in service of Charles O. Johnson’s Goldleaf label and as a hired gun for numerous churches in Nash County. And while he felt a connection to the Lord, it wasn’t until his 35th calendar year that Lewis joined his first church.
In 1980, drummer Daryll Trebathan brought Lewis to Ebenezer Baptist Church at 652 Raleigh Road in Rocky Mount, first as a fellow Baptist and than as a bandmate. Joining them on bass was Harold Arnold, a busy performer who routinely commuted from the club to the church for the trio’s weekly engagement. The group had only been together a few months when Reverend Thomas L. Walker traveled from Atlanta to Rocky Mount to record portions of a service for his Eternal Gold LTD label. The company’s distributor, Atlanta International, boasted “The Very Best In Gospel Music,” and it was within the walls of Ebenezer Baptist Church that Walker hoped to capture talent at that lofty level. The live-to-2-track session yielded a funkier-than-average interpretation of “Wade In The Water” for the A-side. But on the flip, Lewis’s atmospheric rendition of “Precious Lord” made for raw embodiment of a time-bending devotion—the “Star Spangled Banner” at Woodstock—a haunting milestone in the canon of sacred steel, albeit played on a conventional six-string. By the 1980s, as gospel was adopting many of the same glossy, digitally enhanced traits of its secular contemporaries in R&B. Lewis’s “Precious Lord” argues counter to all that, grasping back to an earlier, more primal vein of religious music. Lewis was not involved in the release or distribution of his solo debut on Eternal Gold. “They said, ‘We're going to put you on a record,’ and I said ‘Alright, sounds good to me,’” he reported. “People didn't tell me a lot of things back then.” When Lewis relatives in the Washington, D.C., area heard “Precious Lord” broadcast by a local gospel station, they knew exactly who was delivering the impassioned instrumental sermon from afar. “I never said I was all that good,” Lewis recalled of his unmistakable performance, “but I was different.”