Michael Ray Fitzgerald
BROTHER PONDER KEEPS IT REAL
This subdivision on Sibbald Avenue looks and feels like any working-class Jacksonville, Florida, suburb: cinderblock tract homes with chain-link fences, nice lawns, people gathered in their yards for Saturday-afternoon barbecues. The only unusual sight is the burglar bars on nearly every window and door.
Further up Sibbald, at the corner of Gilchrist, sits a stately, brick building, the Greater Grant Memorial African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church. There are steel security grates attached to the entrance of the church. A tour bus sits in the parking lot with its engine running, curtains drawn.
In the church’s lobby, a road manager arranges a table arrayed with CDs, tapes and photographs waiting to be autographed. In the sanctuary, sunlight streaming through the skylights illuminates the red carpet and matching upholstery with a golden aura. A full house has assembled here in its finest regalia: women in bright outfits and big hats, men in dark suits with bold, bright ties. A few people wander about with video cameras rolling, flashes pointing, teeth flashing.
Brother Walter Ponder sits patiently in the front pew, hands folded, waiting for his cue. He is a huge man, 6 feet, 7 inches, broad-shouldered, sporting a dark-green suit. His dyed-black hair is slicked straight back. He smiles and extends his hand—it’s the size of a catcher’s mitt. For a preacher, he seems remarkably subdued. Returning to the dressing room, his head nearly grazes the door frame.
Ponder has produced and appeared in his own local cable-access show for more than two decades. He recently retired from his administrative job with the city after 22 years—now he can devote himself full time to his TV show, his singing and his prison ministry. He is here this afternoon to warm up the crowd for the Dixie Hummingbirds—and possibly sell a few CDs of his own.
The pastor of the church, a small man in a navy-blue banker’s suit and goggle-like glasses, comes out and asks the congregation to rise for the singing of “What a Fellowship.” The piano player strikes up an intro; everyone joins hands with the person on either side and sings.
A woman in a shiny, gold dress and a big wig—sort of a sepia Tammy Faye Bakker—takes the stage and begins preaching feverishly, eyes squinched, as if in a trance. Her words aren’t clear; they have transcended meaning. Her rhythm is infectious—jazz musicians might call what she is doing scat singing.
When she’s finished, the pastor returns and exhorts the crowd to “get into it and have a good time.” He introduces Ponder, “the Thunderbolt of the South.” Ponder makes his way to the stage with the help of a black cane, to great applause. Beside him sits an Ampex bass rig and two Fender guitar amplifiers. But no band.
“Hello, I’m Brother Walter Ponder,” he banters. “I’m T-T-T: tall, tan and terrific!” Ponder tells the amused folks exactly how tall, “but don’t ask me how much I weigh,” he says. “That’s nunyo bidniz.” They laugh. “I hope you’ll be seeing a slimmer Walter Ponder soon,” he adds, patting his belly. “Can’t keep going up—too expensive buying new clothes all the time.” The crowd loves it.
Ponder pauses, then asks how many remember the Gospel Caravans? A whoop goes up. Mahalia? Another whoop. Ponder leads the gathering through a series of rhetorical questions—a traditional call-and-response.
Track music from a tape begins. It sounds like a Stax record from the 1960s—but as any musicologist can tell you, it’s the other way around. Ponder pulls back about a foot from the mic and holds up an index finger the size of E.T.’s, signifying an auspicious moment. A huge, powerful sound emanates from his head. People gasp.
At 60, Ponder is still an amazing talent, a treasure. He alternately soothes, croons, and shouts, using a dozen different tones and characterizations. Once in a while, for effect, he lets out a high, guttural gurgle; it galvanizes the crowd’s attention. In a matter of a few minutes, Ponder leads the audience through a journey of emotions. He’s got ‘em in the palm of his humongous hand.
Suddenly, he stops, and the mood comes crashing back to earth. “Wait a minute.” He doesn’t know where he is in the song. He complains that the sound man “started the tape in the wrong place.” He makes a smarmy joke, then asks to go to the next song. His own “Ready to Serve the Lord,” from his recent CD, gets the crowd wound all the way up.
Sepia Tammy traverses the stage behind him, shimmying and shaking a tambourine. “Come on,” Ponder urges, beckoning. People jump up and sing, clapping, swaying, sweating. Even without a band, Ponder’s going to be a tough act to follow.
After a third song, a ballad Ponder performs a cappella, he introduces the headliners: “Ladies and gentlemen, from Greenville, South Carolina, by way of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, it is my pleasure to introduce—Grammy award winners—The Dixie Hummingbirds.” Six dignified-looking men, wearing long, black frocks, a few of them in their 50s or 60s, file in. The balding one with the salt-and-pepper beard looks like a college professor.
This configuration is not the original Hummingbirds. The lead singer starts by apologizing. “You’re seeing a lot of new faces here because of sickness.” He also apologizes for
being an hour late. No matter. In a few minutes, no one will care about either issue—even if the personnel are different, the music is true to form. The four singers replicate the original Hummingbirds’ sound and style exactly. They use the standard two-guitars-bass-drums backing, except the drummer is a machine. In spite of their personnel problems and last-minute adjustments, they’re polished and professional. The crowd is ecstatic.
As the group whips into its signature hit, Paul Simon’s “Loves Me Like a Rock,” Ponder leans his long arm over the pew, looks back over his shoulder and grins.
Besides being a
regular contributor to Canopic Jar,
Michael Ray Fitzgerald has written for national
publications Utne, The Humanist and Left Curve. He was a
correspondent for the Jacksonville Business Journal and a
contributing writer for Jacksonville's FolioWeekly. He's now a
graduate student and teaching assistant at the University of Florida College
of Journalism and Communications.