Funeral Arrangements for gospel legend Willie Joe Ligon, founder and lead singer of The Mighty Clouds of Joy have been set for this week. An All-Star Gospel Musical Celebration honoring his life and music will be held Tuesday, December 27, at 6 p.m., at the Antioch Missionary Baptist Church in Beaumont, Texas.
Homegoing services will be held Wednesday, December 28, at 11 a.m., at Antioch where the Rev., Dr. John R. Adolph is senior pastor. The Rev. Jesse Jackson, Sr., will serve as the eulogist and Bishop Neal Roberson will officiate.
Joe Ligon (born Willie Joe Ligon) helped bring gospel music up to modern standards. Under Ligon's leadership, the Mighty Clouds of Joy changed the standard gospel lineup from a vocal quartet backed by a sole electric guitar to a full-fledged, R&B-influenced group complete with bass, drums, and keyboards. The resulting sound turned the Mighty Clouds of Joy into the most commercially successful gospel group. Their song "Time" reached the top of the R&B charts in 1974, while their tune "Ride the Mighty High" became a major disco hit. Nominated for numerous Grammy Awards, the group received Grammys for several albums, including Live & Direct in 1978, Changing Times in 1979, and Power in 1993.
Although they increasingly veered toward a heavy, dance-inspiring sound, Ligon and the Mighty Clouds of Joy returned to their earliest roots with the album Live in Charleston, recorded during a concert at the Abundance Tabernacle A.M.E. Zion Church in Charleston, South Carolina, on June 7, 1996. During a subsequent interview, Ligon explained "We wanted to go back to our roots in the '60s, singing songs we were known for before the contemporary music came in."
A native of Troy, Alabama, Ligon was blessed with natural singing talent. Although shyness prevented him from singing in public, he sang constantly. Invited to join a vocal group formed by his cousins, he was persuaded by his mother to accept the invitation. Traveling to California to visit an uncle, at the age of 14 Ligon remained in the city for a year. At his uncle's insistence, he agreed to enroll in the local high school. His ability to sing soon attracted the attention of other students, including Johnny Martin, Richard Wallace, and Elmo Franklin. Forming a vocal quartet, the four teenagers were taken under the wing of a neighbor who tutored them in the art of four-part harmonizing. The group's first break came when they caught the ear of a local gospel disc jockey, who agreed to produce several demo tapes. When the Peacock Records label heard these tapes, the group was quickly signed to a recording contract. Their first single, "Steal Away to Jesus," was recorded in 1960. The following year, the group recorded their debut album, Family Circle. Ligon's fiery preaching, inspired by the radio broadcasts of Reverend C.L. Franklin, soon became a trademark of the Mighty Clouds of Joy's records.
The Mighty Clouds of Joy went through many personnel changes in their decades-long career, with Ligon and Wallace ultimately the two remaining original members. As the years advanced, Ligon took a more supportive singing role, with lead vocals performed by ex-Gospel Keynotes vocalist Paul Beasley. Joe Ligon died in December 2016 at the age of 80.
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