Steve Mann is a commercial photographer and the co-owner of West Asheville’s Double Crown, the atmospheric pocket bar where he shelters his other passion: live gospel. In the 1980s, the Asheville native worked at a local African-American radio station, WKDB. He attended gospel shows all over the South, catching the tail end of what he calls “the gospel program glory days” and developing a friendly rapport with legendary performers. By now, he’s known most of the musicians for 20 years or more — and he’s also created a compelling portfolio of photos celebrating gospel performers.
But Mann’s relationship with photography goes back even further.
“We had to write a 20-page paper in sixth grade,” Mann recalls. “I know that’s a big paper for a sixth grader, but the teacher did give us two weeks to pick a topic.” Mann’s classmate told him she was writing about photography. Then the deadline for selecting a topic arrived, and he hadn’t picked anything. “At the last minute she switched her topic to gymnastics,” says Mann, “so I just told the teacher I picked photography. It’s interesting. That girl ended up becoming a professional gymnast.”
And Mann became a professional photographer, earning his BFA in photography and art history from the University of Arizona. He shoots portraits and crafts and is well known for his documentary-style series of the Mardi Gras Indians of New Orleans. When Mann returned to his hometown and reconnected with his favorite gospel groups, they became the next focus of his lens; the night the Double Crown opened, one of them — the Legendary Singing Stars — was the headlining act. The venue has hosted 30 gospel shows within the past three years.
Mann follows the Quartet genre, a form found everywhere from the deep South to Chicago, New York, and Detroit. “But that doesn’t mean four people,” he explains. “It means four-part harmony. And quartet gospel is full electric. Usually drums, bass, guitar, and keyboard. One lead singer, and call and response — or backup singers. It’s the roots of rock and roll.”
It’s about family roots, too. “There are multiple generations in one group or gospel family,” says Mann. “Little kids up to grandfathers. I brought the Highway Q.C.’s here. Spencer Taylor, the lead singer, is 90 and has been with them since 1956.”Geraldine Ray of Weaverville had seen them perform back then, when she was a teenager. “She always regretted not getting to meet [Taylor],” notes Mann. “She finally met him decades later, when I brought him here. I took a picture of them together.”
The Highway Q.C.’s aren’t the only touring quartet with nonagenerian members, however. It’s a stamina that’s built in early.
“Quartets sing so hard, it’s tough on them. Not just because of their age. It’s hard for them even if they’re in their 20s, because they sing with such intensity,” says Mann. “Singers say to me, ‘I wouldn’t give a nickel for religion I couldn’t feel,’ and ‘If you don’t feel it, it’s not doing you any good.’”
Groups play a combination of traditional songs and songs they write. Spencer Taylor wrote original songs in the 1950s that are now part of the traditional canon. And sometimes singers take an R&B song and convert it to gospel.
“You take the word ‘Baby’ and change it to ‘Jesus’ and it’s gospel,” says the photographer. “The gospel groups say they’re just converting soul back to where it came from. Sam Cooke, Lou Rawls, and Johnny Taylor were all in the Highway Q.C.’s. Then Cooke left that group and went to the Soul Stirrers.” Putting faith in longevity, Mann is bringing the Highway Q.C.’s to the Double Crown in November.
Steve Mann, Black Box Photography, West Asheville, 2004 Riverside Drive, Unit W. For more information, call 828-236-0777 or see blackboxphoto.info. Mann hosts live gospel shows at the Double Crown (375 Haywood Road) the last Thursday of most months. Visit thedoublecrown.com for schedule information.