The Tangled History of the Joubert Singers’ “Stand On The Word”

The convoluted story behind the discovery and remixes of the classic gospel record

In 1982, Phyliss McKoy Joubert was working as the Minister of Music at the First Baptist Church in Crown Heights, New York, when she gathered a group of musicians to record the gospel album Somebody Prayed For This. “Stand On The Word,” the album’s opener and the first song Joubert had ever written, was performed by a group of sweet-voiced children that she christened the Celestial Choir, and it stood out as a tinny yet remarkably addictive assertion of God’s omnipotence.

Somebody Prayed For This was funded privately by the church without an official distributor, in order to better avoid cash distracting from Christ. But a song so heavenly was bound to transcend the church. A man named Larry Levan, whose grandmother was apparently a parish member, happened to attend the recording session for “Stand on the Word,” and fell in love with it. Levan, one of the most in-demand remixers in 1980s New York and a resident DJ at the Paradise Garage, then took “Stand On The Word” into the studio. There he caught the Holy Ghost and created a remix of the song that would become both one of his signature tracks and an incredibly durable reminder of gospel’s relevance to disco.

For the last 30 years, that’s been the scripture of “Stand On The Word.” But there is a different story, one in which Larry Levan’s presence was super-imposed after the fact, until his name became embedded in the layers of accumulated dust obscuring the record’s real groove.

Here’s the truth: DJ Tony Humphries heard “Stand On The Word” while working at Birdel’s Records in Bed-Stuy and began playing it out at Zanzibar in New Jersey, where Larry Levan would also DJ. In 1985, Joubert and George Rodriguez of the Garden State Record Pool approached Eddie O’Loughlin, the owner of Next Plateau Records, and the pair, along with Humphries, mixed new versions of “Stand On The Word” under the name the Joubert Singers. No Larry Levan remix was ever mentioned – not in the production credits, not in the publishing and not even by Levan’s friends or fellow DJs. That is, until 2003, when a release on a strange white label featuring an “Unreleased Mix” of “Stand on the Word” screamed his presence in all-caps font (“LARRY 02”). It wasn’t credited to Levan specifically, though, and it sounded eerily similar to the 1982 LP version recorded by the Celestial Choir.

There is no Larry Levan remix of “Stand On The Word.” It is a completely fictitious entity. Yet the circuitous history of this song, from its initial discovery through modern presentation, deserves to come out of the shadows of incorrect vinyl pressings, Discogs commentary and mislabeled Youtube uploads. This isn’t for the sake of discrediting a titan like Levan, but rather to clarify the misinformation dogging a song that, no exaggeration, has made millions of people dance throughout the last 30 years of its ecstatic, piano-driven existence.

The Celestial Choir - Stand On The Word (1982 LP Version)

When Tony Humphries was employed at Birdel’s in the early ’80s, the joint specialized in gospel and oldies records. Humphries, then a rising fill-in DJ at Zanzibar, fortuitously discovered Somebody Prayed For This and bought two copies of the album. He brought them to the club and played them back-to-back to extend “Stand On The Word,” sometimes mixing it with “Just Us” by Two Tons of Fun. Fittingly, “Stand on the Word” eventually became one of the club’s signature closers. “7:30, 8:00 in the morning, you would have an encore or closing song,” says Humphries, calling from his home in New Jersey. “It’s like church, you know what I mean? Especially on Sunday mornings.”

Larry Levan was close with Larry Patterson and other DJs who came through and played Zanzibar, such as Tee Scott, François Kevorkian and David Morales, so he likely heard it at the club at some point. “There’s no way in the world they’re not going to know about it,” says Humphries. Yet Humphries concedes that even if he broke “Stand On The Word” at Zanzibar, there are other avenues through which Levan could have heard the song.

Celestial Choir / Next Plateau

Others have tried to figure it out definitively, and these stories don’t always add up. Take the tale of Walter Gibbons, whose Jus Born studio headquarters were around the corner from the Crown Heights church and who allegedly began playing out the record upon its release. Dance music scholar Tim Lawrence has also written that Gibbons purchased a few original copies of the Celestial Choir LP, and, according to Colin Gate, “Stand On The Word” was one of Gibbons’ biggest records at the time. Given that Gibbons was a DJ’s DJ, Levan could have heard it directly at one of his DJ sets. But Levan could have also nabbed “Stand On The Word” from either Charlie Grappone or Yvonne Turner, who worked at his regular haunts Vinylmania and Downstairs Records, respectively.

Joubert herself has a different memory of how Levan and Gibbons discovered the record. Joubert had been told that Larry Levan’s grandmother was a member of one of the adult choirs appearing on Somebody Prayed For This, and that Levan himself was present during the actual recording. It was only later she recognized Gibbons’ role, telling Tim Lawrence in 2008 that “Walter [Gibbons] was a member and lived down the block while I was Minister of Music at the Church.” In the same interview, Joubert asserted that Gibbons’ role with the record has been vastly overstated: “He did not write nor arrange nor compose, in any way, ‘Stand On the Word,’” she said. “Without my knowledge or consent, he purchased one of the original records from the church and began his own illegal path of doing whatever he chose to do.”

Eddie O’Loughlin of Next Plateau Records first heard the Celestial Choir’s “Stand On The Word” via George Rodriguez of the Garden State Record Pool. “It had a very memorable chorus,” O’Loughlin says. “I liked the church aspect. It was unique in the dance world, I felt.” O’Loughlin contacted Joubert, and got her to sign an artist inducement letter giving Next Plateau the rights to re-record and re-release the song.

O’Loughlin then approached Humphries, asking him to do a remix of the Joubert Singers. But it wasn’t until Humphries stepped into the studio that he realized where he’d heard the song before. “What do you mean, Joubert?” Humphries remembers asking O’Loughlin. “This is the Celestial Choir, man! I was happy as helI. I get a chance to make it longer, because it was a bitch for me to play – I had to try to extend it.” There’s an “Original Version” of “Stand On The Word” on this record, too, but it’s only the original version from that session – the sped-up piano, additional guitar and synth embellishments distinguish it from the 1982 Celestial Choir version.

However, “Stand On The Word” ended up being a barely-registered blip on Next Plateau’s release schedule over the coming months, when they scored several hits including Salt-N-Pepa’s Hot, Cool & Vicious. O’Loughlin recalls that the record “did okay, but not that much” in terms of sales. He heard about the misinformation regarding Levan’s involvement on the record in the form of ongoing licensing requests and a voracious market for records blessed with Levan’s imprimatur.

It’s unknown if the mysterious 2003 white label imprint reading “LARRY 02” was a malicious fake or a forgivable misprint. (The Discogs page for that release features a disclaimer: “There is not, in any way that can be proved, any clear evidence that all/any of the versions/mixers were actually made by Larry itself”). And while it only implies Levan’s participation in the record, subtly presenting the original Celestial Choir version as Levan’s own work was impactful nonetheless.

It’s easier to sell a Larry Levan remix than it is to sell the original of anything.

Joakim Bouaziz

Once the cat was out of the bag – or, more appropriately, the record slipped out of its sleeve – there was no chance to contain the misinformation. The cycle of confusion continued. Later that year, the French label Tigersushi released the group K.I.M.’s Miyage mix CD, which featured a song labelled as “Stand On The Word (Larry Levan Remix).” The next year, the same track appeared on a compilation released by Tigersushi sub-label Kill The DJ, as well as on Pet Shop Boys’ Back To Mine mix CD in 2005. It wasn’t just a passing fad, either. In 2008, Tirk Recordings released the compilation album Unabombers Present Electric Chair RIP, with the “Levan Remix” appearing on both the mix CD and 12” vinyl sampler, as well as an “A Clapella Mix” that features re-recorded vocal parts (the young soloist on the original Celestial Choir version, Jamila Sockwell-Gieseler, is actually now an opera singer in Brooklyn).

Who were all these labels licensing the fictitious remix from? O’Loughlin himself isn’t sure. “I don’t know who owns it any longer,” he says. “I know we don’t sell it.” As far as we know, the original masters from the session with Humphries and Rodriguez went up in smoke in 1989, the year the Next Plateau warehouse on 8th Avenue and 46th Street burned down.

Pascal Rioux, of the French label Favorite Recordings, re-discovered “Stand On The Word” via the 2011 French film Polisse, when the group Keedz did a steroidal cover for a disco scene (a few years earlier, the duo Justice had made their own homage with “D.A.N.C.E.”). “I had the idea at that moment,” Rioux says. “Everyone loves that track, but nobody knows who is behind that and it is impossible to find it…nobody had the idea to repress it.” The masters were gone, though, so he ripped a mint copy of the original LP and utilized the “A Clapella Mix” via Tirk Recordings as source material for the additional remixes. In 2012, he released two versions of “Stand On The Word” via Favorite, one of which was credited as a Larry Levan remix. When I asked Rioux why he pressed the record crediting the original Celestial Choir version to Levan, he said: “People knew that track from that bootleg, most of them,” referring to the LARRY 02 white label. “For the marketing side, I decide to mention as it was on that bootleg. Just to not bring confusion to people who were looking for that version, you know what I mean?”

Is this selling point one that Tigersushi was also aware of while manufacturing and selling a record that included the supposed remix? “It’s easier to sell a Larry Levan remix than it is to sell the original of anything,” Joakim Bouaziz of K.I.M says, not without a bit of resignation. “And, it sounds like Larry Levan – it would totally be possible.”

Larry 02 / Favorite Recs

Levan’s contemporaries and close friends don’t hear that similarity in the track – or at least not identifiably enough to inspire reasonable doubt. Tim Lawrence, author of Love Saves The Day and one of the definitive authorities on Larry Levan’s career, is extremely direct. “There’s no way that Larry mixed this,” Lawrence wrote over email. “I’ve been researching this period in intense micro-detail for the last seven years, with Levan the key figure, and it would have come to light if he’d carried out a remix. It’s clearly just a bit of honest misinformation or a slightly underhand marketing ploy to say he did a remix. Again, if you listen to the record you’ll hear that there’s nothing about it that resembles a remix or indeed the remixes that Larry was carrying out in this period.”

Lawrence does say that Levan, who was brought up on gospel and was in a gospel choir as a boy, would play gospel at the Paradise Garage. But it wasn’t a constant. “He’d only play it towards the very end of the night, often when there were only a few people on the floor,” Lawrence says. “It’s possible he played ‘Stand On The Word’ during those outro hours, but nobody has confirmed this and it clearly wasn’t a big record for him.” Danny Krivit and David DePino, the latter of whom would have significant firsthand knowledge of Levan’s selections as his protégé at the Garage, have said that they don’t remember Levan playing it at the club. It’s also telling that of the eight official compilations released of Levan’s “Paradise Garage Classics,” not a single one includes “Stand On The Word.”

I believe that someone believed that Larry Levan did a mix, and it just spread. In other words, credibility was automatic.

Tony Humphries

Tony Humphries seems torn between mild frustration and genuine confusion over the song’s second life under Levan’s name, even if he is quick to dispel any idea that Levan is getting the credit he deserves. “It’s not like I want credit or I have a beef or something,” says Humphries. “I believe that someone believed that Larry Levan did a mix, and it just spread. In other words, credibility was automatic. And it was just taken for granted that he did this, and I think whoever was trying to make money just continued the whole thing….Put Frankie Knuckles’ name on something and it’s going to sell whether he did it or not. There’s no animosity, there’s no jealousy, there’s nothing negative about this. It’s like, well, if he did this, where is this? Where is this mix that Larry Levan did?”

First-hand memories of Levan are invariably affected by myth – “Were you there when he played ‘Music Is The Answer’ for an hour straight?” – as well as martyrdom (he died at the age of 38, buckling under complications of a heroin addiction so cataclysmic it drove him to sell his records in search of money to feed his fix). Levan’s beatification and canonization were assured whether or not he ever remixed “Stand On The Word,” let alone played it. Yet having Levan’s name attached altered the course of history for this humble single.

The confusion surrounding “Stand On The Word” is a testament both to Levan’s enduring commercial appeal and the capacity for misinformation made possible by the internet. Now, the Larry Levan remix is not just apocrypha but outright pseudepigrapha – a work that is falsely-attributed as opposed to one with simply opaque authorship. But for many believers, historical accuracy and definitive proof are irrelevant to the emotional or spiritual truths contained in the song itself, much like that of the stories in the Bible.

“Stand On The Word” remains a worship song regardless of whose fingerprints are smudged on a remix. The chorus rising in one voice, splitting into call-and-response, and its exhilarating piano lines can’t be seen as anything but gospel music. And in gospel music, it’s the authorship of the community that has been valued traditionally far more than a singular creator. A song’s success is dependent on how well it inspires the flock and stirs them to give thanks. As for “Stand On The Word,” maybe it’s better to just assume the message and medium were both sourced from something beyond an earthly conception of songwriter, engineer or even a remixer. It doesn’t matter who received the revelation first – only that it was eventually transmitted. And if so, that’s all there is to it: That’s how the good lord works.

By Aaron Gonsher on May 20, 2016

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