Gospel and R&B singer James Phelps has died at the age of 78 after what is believed to be complications arising from diabetes.
Elder Lee M. Harris, who helped with an autobiography of Phelps’ life released a statement to the press saying that the singer died Tuesday at a Los Angeles hospital, after complications with his diabetes.
Phelps was born in Shreveport, LA but late on in his teens he moved to Chicago where he joined the gospel circuit and performed with various gospel groups including the Gospel Songbirds, Holy Wonders (were he met Lou Rawls) and the Soul Stirrers (where he was introduced to Sam Cooke
Phelps was a founder member of the Clefs of Calvary with whom he wrote the hit single “Love is a Five-Letter Word” in 1965, released through Chess Records.
In an interview with The Basement magazine (issue 26) he talked about his experiences with segregation of blacks and whites in what he called “salt and pepper gigs.”
“I experienced a lot of what we called ‘salt and pepper’ gigs, especially when I left the Soul Stirrers and went into rock & roll… Otis Redding, James Brown and all. We used to work together and we had ‘salt and pepper’ gigs where we would play and, in some instances, the blacks couldn’t come in. The whites would come in; we would sing to them first and then we would have an intermission and the blacks would come in. In some other cases, we would sing and the blacks would be in the balcony and the whites would be on the first floor dancing.”
“Although I never felt my life was in any danger [from racism], I did feel real bad when the racial thing was so obvious. For example, I was in Jackson, Mississippi, after ‘O Love Is A Five Letter Word’ and I stayed at a hotel where blacks were only usually allowed to come through the back door and work. For some reason I’d been let to sit in the dining room to eat and the black workers were looking through the window and waving at me. And I felt bad because they could not come in and participate.”
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