PSU professor co-produces film about black gospel quartets

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Music lover Jerry Zolten was walking home late one night when his favorite R&B radio station started playing his gospel show. Although he stumbled upon the music by chance, there was “just something about the airwaves” he clung to.

Nearly six decades later, the State College resident and Penn State professor co-produced the feature-length documentary, “How They Got Over,” which navigates the history of the black gospel quartet’s music and its influence on the rock and roll.

The State Theater will host a screening of the documentary at 7 p.m. on February 18 during the Black History Celebration next month. Following the film, there will be a Q&A hosted by Penn State Professor Emeritus Charles Dumas, featuring Zolten and the film’s director, Robert Clem.

“This documentary celebrates some truly unsung pioneers who, through religious expression, inadvertently laid the groundwork for an approach to music that would become rock and roll, R&B and more,” Zolten said.

The film highlights the role that gospel music played in helping black musicians endure the prejudices of mid-20th century America, such as lack of job opportunities and upward economic mobility.

“Making music was a way to chart your own course with dignity and honor and with the potential for remarkable reward,” Zolten said.

Zolten, 76, grew up in McKeesport, a town he described as having a diverse music scene rich in rock-and-roll, R&B, soul and gospel.

“There’s something about this music that’s absolutely powerful and takes you somewhere emotionally that other music doesn’t,” Zolten said.

Early in his life, Zolten became captivated by American roots music, as evidenced by his extensive collection of rare vinyl records from the 20s and 30s. As he grew older, his passions continued to grow.

After earning an English degree from Penn State and pursuing his own career as a musician, Zolten returned to college in the late ’70s to earn a master’s and doctorate. in verbal communication. A few years later, he accepted a position at Penn State as a professor of communications, arts, and science.

At the same time, he begins to work with the gospel group The four Fairfields and helped bring them back to the fore after decades of retirement. He later became involved with The Dixie Hummingbirds and formed a bond with the band’s lead singer, Ira Tucker.

While writing a book about The Dixie Hummingbirds and their success, Zolten caught the eye of Clem, an Alabama-based filmmaker. Clem reached out to Zolten about his desire to produce a documentary about gospel quartets in his home state of Alabama, but he needed someone with the knowledge base to help him make it happen. Browse.

With years of experience educating, writing and producing in the gospel world, Clem knew Zolten was the perfect guy for the job.

“Jerry’s involvement in the film was invaluable because he’s the expert,” Clem said. “He’s the guy who really knows the subject better than anyone.”

In 2018, after about a decade of working on the film, it was ready for festival exhibition and screened at film festivals around the world. Then, in 2021, it was released in select theaters and recognized by top-tier outlets, including the New York Times.

The documentary includes interviews with a plethora of prominent musicians, including Tucker of the Dixie Hummingbirds, Dennis Edwards of the Temptations and Isaac Freeman of the Fairfield Four.

The film transports audiences back in time with a wealth of archival footage of gospel performances, including Sister Rosetta Tharpe, The Blind Boys of Alabama and The Sensational Nightingales.

When Judy Cheeks, daughter of The Sensational Nightingales’ Julius “Junes” Cheeks, first saw the documentary featuring her late father, she burst into tears.

“I was honored by how they remembered my dad and it was great to hear his colleagues and friends speak so highly of him and recognize his contributions to music,” Cheeks said.

Cheeks said the film gives credit where it’s due by recognizing champions of gospel music who have inspired famous musicians in a variety of genres.

“These people have contributed more to the music industry than anyone else,” Cheeks said. “It’s important to highlight that and educate people about the roots and origins of the music they enjoy today.

Like Cheeks, Zolten said he hopes people watching the film will see the influence gospel quartets have had on music today – and understand why he fell in love with the genre so many years ago. of years.

“These singers were doing it for pure religious expression, but in the process they developed an art form still used in popular music,” Zolten said. “I hope people come out of this movie feeling those kinds of emotions and appreciating the genius of those artists of that day.”

To purchase tickets or learn more about the screening of “How They Got Over” at State College, visit State Theater website.

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The State Theater will host a screening of the documentary “How They Got Over,” co-produced by Penn State professor Jerry Zolten, on February 18. Photo provided

This story was originally published January 31, 2022 06:00.

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