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T.L. Barrett


“Just like a ship, without a sail…” aptly describes Thomas Barrett in 1960. Booted out of Wendell Phillips High School and mourning his minister father’s passing, he tore out of Chicago for New York in his ’54 Buick Century. Boarding with family in Queens, he sharpened his finger work, manning the piano at Manhattan’s Village Gate before leaving New York to evangelize. In 1968, the prodigal son returned, his bible quite a bit more worn than when he left. Barrett was led to the helm of Mt. Zion Church; attendance soared under his leadership. He picked up his musical pursuit right where he’d left it, composing music and rearranging traditionals for his growing flock. Barrett and his Chicago congregation freely exchanged ideas with the potent Afro-centric movement concentrated just a few miles east in Hyde Park. Sun Ra sideman and African Heritage Ensemble leader Phil Cohran, Earth Wind & Fire forerunners Maurice White and Philip Bailey, and the troubled genius Donny Hathaway all spent time on Mt. Zion with Barrett and his congregants, learning and teaching. Politically, Barrett was in deep with Operation Breadbasket (soon to become Operation Push), with his Youth for Christ Choir a staple at their events. Through the Operation Breadbasket Orchestra, he connected with Gene Barge and Richard Evans, seasoned secular musicians in their own right who formed the backbone of Chess Records’ recording empire. Despite their lofty status, Barge and Evans believed in what Barrett’s kids were doing and brought their downtown sound, along with guitar luminary Phil Upchurch, to the low-rent Sound Market Studio in 1971 to cut the inspirational masterpiece Like A Ship (Without a Sail). Barrett would continue to preach and record, releasing Do Not Pass on the Gospel Roots label in 1976, as well as several albums' worth of sermons. His construction of the Life Center Church of God in Christ “Prayer Palace” at 55th and Indiana lead eventually to Honorary Reverend T.L. Barrett Jr. Boulevard, a two-and-a-half-block stretch of Chicago’s Garfield Boulevard named in homage to Barrett’s life of service.


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