As one of the most prolific and popular religious composers of the 20th century, the Reverend W. Herbert Brewster gave the gospel world several of its first million-selling records and, alongside contemporary Lucie E. Campbell, made Memphis a city second in prominence only to Chicago during gospel's golden era. Brewstere's songs also commented on and informed African-American struggle and progress in the years leading up to the Civil Rights Movement. A true church polymath, Brewster was pastor, composer, playwright, vocal group founder and coach, poet, radio show host, and more. Brewster's songs propolled the careers of the most famous singer and group in black gospel at the time - Mahalia Jackson and the Clara Ward Singers respectively - and he is remembered as a pioneer in the development of the black gospel music pageant.
By his own account either in 1897 or 1899 near the West Tennessee town of Somerville, William Herbert Brewster grew up the son of Reconstruction-era sharecroppers. His father, whose own parents had been born into slavery, taught shape-note singing, and Brewster vividly recalled later in life both the spirituals his grandmother sang and the lined out hymns he heard at prayer meetings.
He started writing lyrics at the age of 10 when he didn’t agree with a song’s particular viewpoint, recalling the time he altered the line of a spiritual, “I believe I’ll die in the army of the Lord,” to “I’m gonna win this battle in the army of the Lord” (presaging, curiously enough, the theme of racial betterment that would define his mature song craft).
He attended Howe Institute in Memphis before graduating from Nashville's Roger Williams University in 1922. He returned to Memphis shortly after with the intent of helming a new African-American seminary sponsored by the National Baptist Convention (for which he later chaired the NBC education board), but when Bluff City politicians quashed the idea, Brewster instead assumed pastorship of East Trigg Avenue Baptist Church, where he remained until his death (and where frequent visitor Elvis Presley got much of his love for black gospel). At East Trigg, he founded the Brewster Theological Clinic, a religious training center that had at one point several branches nationally.
He formed several vocal ensembles, including the Brewster Ensemble, the Brewsteraires, and, most notably, the Brewster Singers, which featured alto singer Queen C. Anderson (1913-1959). Given the name of a Biblical Ethiopian queen by Brewster, "Queen Candace" Anderson debuted many of his songs. It was at the invitation of Lucie Campbell, in fact, that Queen C. Anderson found herself singing “Move On Up a Little Higher” in a Chicago program attended by Mahalia Jackson.
Brewster created many of his songs as vehicles for his religious pageants. "Move on Up a Little Higher," for example, came from his 1941 religious drama, From Auction Block to Glory, which was a milestone in black sacred song as the first nationally staged black religious play to feature gospel songs specially written for that production (black pageants up to that time typically used preexisting music such as spirituals).
Brewster also emceed several radio programs that showcased his various ensembles and helped create a regional demand for his songs. In the morning he could be heard hosting the "Gospel Treasure Hour" on WDIA, while at night he moved over to WHBQ for the immensely popular "Camp Meeting of the Air." That latter program aired from 1949 into the mid-1960s and was broadcast live from East Trigg 11 p.m. to midnight on Sundays. While Brewster’s morning services at East Trigg had an open-door racial policy, the evening radio show was the real groundbreaker, according to Dr. Samuel L. Turner, who succeeded Brewster as East Trigg pastor and theological clinic president.
Brewster wrote more than 200 songs, beginning with the 1939 publication of “I’m Leaning and Depending on the Lord.” Brewster’s songs were so beloved, dozens of performers recorded more than fifty of his compositions between 1945 and 1960, i.e., the Golden Age of Gospel Music. Combining the fortitude of older black sacred music traditions with the fervor and rhythmic appeal of newer gospel songs, Brewster’s music was, in the words of gospel singing great Willa Ward, “as good as it gets.” Living in Memphis, the Baptist-ordained Brewster not only came under the spell of W.C. Handy but was exposed to the charismatic, emotive expressions of Pentecostalism, especially as heard in the Bluff City-centered Church of God in Christ. As a result, Brewster’s songs were, in the words of gospel music scholar and record producer Anthony Heilbut, “a seamless blend of Baptist and Methodist decorum and Sanctified ecstasy.”
Brewster found initial success in 1946, when the Soul Stirrers led by R.H. Harris recorded “Lord, I’ve Tried,” a song others from the Swan Silvertones to the Blind Boys of Alabama subsequently covered. Brewster then gave gospel music what is widely recognized as its first two million-sellers: Mahalia Jackson’s 1947 breakout hit, “Move On Up a Little Higher” (on Apollo) followed in 1949 by the Ward Singers’ Savoy release, “Surely God Is Able.”
Called the “biggest shout number of all time,” by Heilbut, “Surely God Is Able” came to Brewster (under the title, “Our God Is Able”) after hearing a particularly persuasive “wang doodling preacher,” as he fondly called country ministers. The song in effect launched the commercial success of Clara Ward and her group, whose lead vocalist for the song, Marion Williams, vividly recalled the moment: “We came to Chicago and nothing seemed to move the people. Then I sang ‘Surely,’ and I guess the Lord must have touched me. I started running, hollering ‘Surely.’ One lady threw her pocketbook at me and fell out, and a moment later, there were ten others. After that you couldn’t get a seat at our programs.”
Further mining the Brewster catalog, Jackson recorded “Just Over the Hill,” “I’m Getting Nearer My Home,” and “These Are They,” while the Ward Singers recorded “Let Us All Go Back to the Old Landmark,” “God’s Amazing Love,” “Weeping May Endure for a Night,” “Packing Up,” and “How Far Am I from Canaan” (also a hit for Sam Cooke during his tenure with the Soul Stirrers). Even the Ward Singers’ signature hit, “How I Got Over,” has disputed provenance involving Brewster’s compositional hand (though in fairness, a traditional spiritual preceded both claims). Brewster’s association with the Ward Singers was so fruitful that in the 1950s its affiliated company, Ward’s House of Music, became his chief publisher.
Brewster, who called his songs “sermons set to music,” wrote in a number of forms and styles including gospel blues, the gospel waltz, the gospel ballad, the shout, and the jubilee. His two most innovative contributions to gospel composition, however, were 1) a two-part gospel form labeled “recitative and aria” that opens in slow, lined-out-like fashion followed by a more rhythmic, up-tempo section (as in “How Far Am I from Canaan?”); and 2) the “vamp,” found in many of his better-known songs such as “Move On Up a Little Higher” and “Surely God Is Able,” in which a repetitive, or riff-driven, idea gives the singers opportunity to improvise and build intensity.
Messaging was integral in Brewster’s songs, which addressed at once spiritual and social/political victory, and his imprint can be heard in a later generation of soul songwriters such as Curtis Mayfield, whose Impressions hit, “Keep On Pushing” directly channels “Move On Up a Little Higher.” In fact, one can argue that Brewster, through the immense popularity of his songs, was among the more important figures to plant the rhetorical seeds of the Civil Rights Movement prior to the 1950s.
As Brewster himself later observed: “I wrote these songs for these common people who could not understand political language, common people who didn’t know anything about economics … I was trying to inspire black people to move up higher, don’t be satisfied with the mediocre. That was 1946, before the freedom fights started, before Martin Luther King days, I had to lead a lot of protest meetings. In order to get my message over, there were things that were almost dangerous to say, but you could sing it.”Brewster received an honorary doctorate from historically black institution Bennett College, in Greensboro, North Carolina, and in 1982 the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. held a symposium on his life and music. More recently, Memphis named an elementary school in his honor. He died in 1987, shortly after his wife of more than 50 years, Julia Brewster, passed away, and is buried in New Park Cemetery.