Bay Area African American Women in Music: How Pittsburg Vocalist Leola Jiles Transitioned From Gospel to Pop

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During their debut at the Sweet Chariot – a nightclub in Manhattan, allegedly run by the Mafia, that presented African American gospel music to largely white audiences – the Bay Area gospel-singing group, the Apollos suddenly found themselves on the national news when Mahalia Jackson began picketing in front of the New York establishment.

 

Jackson, the gospel music queen, accused the club of “blaspheming the Holy Ghost.”

 

Group member Leola Jiles received a call from her husband back home in Pittsburg, California, who had seen the story on TV.

 

“He said, ‘Why are you on the six o’clock news and Halie [Jackson] is outside picketing?’” Jiles recalled last week at her home in Pittsburg.

 

Jiles had no problem singing music usually heard in church in a place where people drank alcohol and smoked cigarettes. She had performed slightly earlier at the world-famous hungry i in San Francisco when the Apollos were opening for headliner Barbra Streisand.

 

“It didn’t bother me at all because we were still doing gospel,” she explained.

 

Frank Sinatra, Johnny Mathis and actress Loretta Young were among the celebrities who attended the trio’s Sweet Chariot engagement.

 

The Apollos also caught the attention of hit-making songwriter-producers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who agreed to record them on the condition that they record secular songs and change their name to the Lovejoys, with Jiles as lead singer.

 

After recording one single each for Leiber and Stoller’s Tiger and Red Bird labels – including a secularized adaptation of Rev. James Cleveland’s “It’s Mighty Nice to Love the Lord” – the group changed its name to the Apollas and signed with Warner Bros. Records in Burbank.

 

They made eight singles for Warner Bros. between 1965 and ’57. None were hits, but the trio kept busy touring the country opening for such stars as Glen Campbell, Billy Eckstine and the Monkees.

 

The Apollas broke up in the early ‘70s. But in 2012, the three women – Jiles, San Franciscan Ella Jamerson and Southern Californian Billie Barnum – reunited in London to celebrate the UK release of a 25-song CD titled, “Absolutely Right! The Complete Tiger, Loma and Warner Bros.”

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