Ernie Cox
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Ernie Cox

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"Dominique Denis"

When I first heard Ernie Cox in Ottawa, opening for bluesman Ray Bonneville, I felt I’d come across a Dr. John who had swapped his New Orleans voodo for sanctified ecstasy. In Cox, one finds the same kind of dialectic between fervour and reserve, the same affinity for a music which is wisely stripped of the cathartic excesses too often found when white musicians ape their black counterparts. In this gorgeous album, Cox has found in these songs the dual expression of his faith and his muse. - L'Express, Toronto


"The Reverend Sings The Blues"

Rev. Ernie Cox has an answer ready whenever he's asked why a white minister from the Glebe
chooses to sing a sulphurous mix of blues, R&B and gospel music.
"I say the Devil can't have all the good songs," he explains. "Most people are pretty good with it."
And so they should be.
Cox's One More Time, in stores on Feb. 15, is a 15-song collection that brings together the music Cox
loved as a kid growing up in a Merivale Road neighbourhood.
Highlights include Ray Charles' You Don't Know Me and a spirited cover of Charles Brown's I Cried
Last Night.
Among the five gospel numbers on the album is a stirring version of Mahalia Jackson's This Little Light
of Mine. The CD was recorded over three days at Montreal's celebrated Studio Victor, where Oscar Peterson cut albums in 1948.
"I call these hurting songs, cheating songs, lost love songs, slice of life songs," says Cox, 61.
"Down the years, people have asked me how is it a minister can sing the blues. When I sing about lost love, disappointment, cheating, grief and sorrows, I'm not saying that's prescriptive. I'm saying it's
descriptive of the way life is.
"That's the way I tried to preach, too, so you could connect with the people. If you're in the pulpit, or at
the piano, the whole idea is to communicate and try to reach people where they're at."
When Cox retired from his pastor's position after 17 years with the Fourth Avenue Baptist Church, he
decided to revive his musical career.
In the early 1970s, he was playing in celebrated homeboy Sneezy Waters' band.
Twenty years or so later, he worked with the Montreal Jubilation Choir, playing B-3 organ and piano at
their concerts.
In 2003, he recorded Walk In The Light, a gospel album on which he sang and played solo piano and
organ. Cox had been musical director at Parkdale United Church before moving to the Glebe church.
One More Time is Cox's first recording featuring a band, including a three-piece horn section and
backup singers.
In his early teenage years, Cox was listening to the Rolling Stones as well as blues masters Blind
Lemon Jefferson and Mississippi John Hurt. But he also absorbed the Mahalia Jackson albums his
mother received from a mail-order record club. "When I heard the Mahalia music with the Fall-Jones
Quartet I realized, 'Wow, I can do these kinds of rhythms and still do gospel music.' That was
something I took to early on."
Cox makes a distinction between the black gospel music he favours and what he calls "southern gospel" -- the country-flavoured music played at white churches. "Black gospel allows me to do spiritual music with forms of the blues and rhythm and blues. Black gospel kind of has its roots in blues, and rhythm and blues. I don't know which came first. I think church music probably influenced R&B."
Cox mostly played piano growing up. "The singing part was a later thing," he says. He gets
compliments on his voice but isn't sure he truly deserves any praise for his vocal chops.
"In the music business, sometimes they call your voice ragged, but right. Some people say, 'You know, you sound like Willie (Nelson).' I guess that's a compliment. If they said, 'You sound like Van Morrison,' that would be a compliment," he laughs.

On One More Time, Cox's piano is front and centre in the mix. That's how he prefers it.
"I had to fight for that a little bit. Whenever I've been recording, I've found I have to say to the engineer, 'Now this is not the kind of piano that is some sort of weak playing in the mix. This is a heavier, kind of fuller, sound.'
"You get a good gospel song with maybe four chords in it and somehow it just hits you. I find people really like to hear the piano. They like to hear a piano with a good solid left hand and that nice gospel
feel."
Most songs on One More Time were recorded in two takes, sometimes in one, Cox says. The horns were added later, as were the backup voices.
"It was done, as they say, all in the room. I was hearing from the musicians that they loved the sessions because they rarely get to play live like that. One of the players told me he had played on three CDs
and never met some of the musicians.
"Yeah, there are imperfections. I made piano mistakes but I didn't take them out. That's just the way it
is. I'm happy with the CD overall. I think there's something there for everyone."
Those lucky enough to have tickets to Cox's two sold-out shows Feb. 19 and 20 at the NAC's Fourth
Stage will hear the bluesy stuff plus a full dose of gospel songs to wind up the show.
"It doesn't matter whether you're a person of faith or no faith, whether you're an atheist or an agnostic
or anywhere in between," says Cox. "That gospel music just speaks to everybody because it has those
common themes of joy and hope and optimism."

Amen to that.

© Copyright (c) The Ottawa Citizen
- Bruce Ward - The Ottawa Citizen


Discography

One More Time (2010)
Walk in the Light (2003)

Photos

Bio

Ernie started out playing in bars and coffee houses—part of Sneezy Waters’ band in the early 1970s, and ready to start a career devoted to music. But his story doesn’t play out on the Ottawa scene, the young piano player struggling alongside every other musician in town, trying make a name for himself.
Instead, his talent grew in the same place so many gospel greats started out: the church. As music director at Ottawa’s Parkdale United, he came to learn how music can inspire—and while there, he found himself being called down a different path, one towards the ministry.
In the 1980s, he and his family settled outside of Ottawa, to take a church in the small town of Winchester, where his reputation as a great preacher and performer began to build.
After a few years, he returned to Parkdale as Minister of Music. By the time he accepted an offer to lead his own church in Ottawa—Fourth Avenue Baptist—his accessible preaching and musical reputation were widely known.
Under his leadership, Fourth Avenue grew into the open, accepting church it is today, with an inclusive message that kept music front and center. In those days you could wander in, right off Bank Street—maybe expecting an old-fashioned hymn sing or quiet service—and stumble onto a rousing, unforgettable gospel concert.
Ernie played one-off shows through the years: opening for Ray Bonneville at the NAC, playing organ (and performing) with the Montreal Jubilation Gospel Choir, at Irene’s Pub, and at the Tulip and Perth Summer Festivals.
Just a few years ago, Ernie retired from the ministry, deciding to make his music accessible to everyone—to perform beyond just Sunday morning and those occasional shows. And that’s why he’s recorded an album of blues and gospel numbers, resting comfortably alongside each other. It’s not much of a stretch, really—despite the hardship and heartache, these blues songs often strike a note of hope, just like the gospel numbers speak of a higher hope.
But for Ernie, gospel music isn’t really gospel unless it looks to a better, fuller, more meaningful life, to-day—and that’s the same inclusive, second-chance message he’s always preached. His title says it all: retired from the ministry, and releasing his first major album at age 61— there’s always one more time.