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New Sound Gospel Records & Tapes keeping the spirit alive

For 36 years Lee Johnsoperated New Sound Gospel Records   Tapes 5958 W. Lake St. Austin. About 10 years

For 36 years Lee Johnson operated New Sound Gospel Records & Tapes at 5958 W. Lake St. in Austin. About 10 years ago Johnson moved his operation to a former beauty supply warehouse at 10723 S. Halsted. | Dave Hoekstra~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: April 14, 2014 4:46PM

Every street of the city is marked with a line.

People cross into darkness or follow the light.

Lee Johnson understands this. For 36 years he owned New Sound Gospel Records & Tapes at 5958 W. Lake St. inAustin neighborhood. About 10 years ago Johnson moved his operation to a former beauty supply warehouse at 10723 S. Halsted. The Auburn Gresham location is much larger than the Austin storefront, and hallelujah!— there’s free parking adjacent to the store.

“Whether young or old, people are searching,” Johnson says during a conversation on a makeshift pulpit in his store. “Gospel music gives you hope. If more positive music was played, people would think different. In the summer my wife are driving around the city with the windows down and I say, ‘Do you hear what is coming from this car? This is vulgar.’ Not just the men, but the women, too.

Johnson is an upbeat man with a spiritual lift in his step.

New Sound Gospel Records & Tapes is the oldest gospel music store in Chicago with more than 23,000 CDs, records, cassette tapes ($4), ‘45s and DVDs. Johnson laughs when it is pointed out it is also the only gospel record and tapes store in Chicago. When New Sound Gospel was on theWest Side, it was the largest black gospel store in America with 60,000 records, cassettes and CDs.

Looking for a tambourine for Christmas?

Johnson is your man.

“I sell a lot of tambourines to choirs,” he says. “The little baby ones go for $10, the medium size for double jingles go for $25. I’ve been downsizing. I’m semi-retiring. I’m only open three days a week. I’ll be 67 in another month. I ran my course.”

Johnson and his wife Lillian are active in their Freedom Temple Church of God and Christ in Englewood. Johnson introduces vintage material to the church’s senior choir. Their daughter Eleanor, 23, is studying science in Paris. He looked around his magical store and reflected, “I’ve tried to train people to keep this after I left, but it seems their motivation was not there. This place is a legacy.”

On my visit, I picked up a James Cleveland ‘45 on Savoy for a buck and a ‘45 of Pops Staples singing “Jesus Christ Superstar” on I AM Records. Johnson has 15 historic sermons from Rev. C.L. Franklin (Aretha’s late father) re-released on the Malaco label. Johnson said Chicago pastors stop at his store to buy the hymnal-styled sermons, where you hear how Dr. Martin Luther King shared Franklin’s sense of dramatic musical diction. I love gospel organ music and Johnson steered me to Moses Tyson from St. Louis.

New Sound Gospel also has recordings from the Rev. Al Green, Otis Clay and even the Christian rock group Petra. Johnson does not believe an artist can live in a gospel and secular world at the same time. “It is better to have not started [with God] than to start and go back,” he says.

You cannot cross that line.

Johnson is a patient man whose smile touches your soul.

“I’ve had choirs from Australia and Sweden in the last two years,” Johnson says. “They purchase older music that is [not readily] available. In the late ’90s young people were my biggest buyers. They would buy the contemporary [gospel] hip-hop like Mary Mary. Now they download a lot of it. I don’t know if the young ones who are not in the church are downloading or not. No, I don’t see as many young people as I used to. The older music keeps the store going; Mahalia Jackson and James Cleveland. And quartet groups are popular.”

A higher power has made this dive alive.

Besides the music, Lillian sells colorful church hats and Johnson has Church of God and Christ nylon jogging suits on sale for $40. The pulpit, complete with a vintage Kimball piano, is used for in-store performances.

Johnson was born in Chicago and raised in Jackson, Ms. At age 10 he returned to Chicago with his family. His father Lazarus was manager of Foreman Motors on West Madison Street. His mother Mardest was a homemaker who played a lot of Brother Joe May on the family turntable in the living room. Johnson is proud to be in Chicago, the gospel capitol of America.

“James Cleveland, Shirley Caeser, they all started here,” Johnson says. “Then James Cleveland went to California. Shirley went to North Carolina. The only ones who stayed here were Albertina Walker and Inez Andrews [and New Orleans-born Mahalia Jackson].”

New Sound Gospel & Records hasn’t gone anywhere.

It is solid as a rock in the light of the longest night of the year.

New Sound Gospel Records & Tapes is open 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Thursday and Friday; 10:30 a.m. -6 p.m. Saturday. (773) 785-8001;

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