How a Polish-American Became an Expert in Black Gospel Music

Bob Marovich, gospel music historian, author, and radio host, wears a variety of hats—from writing one of the most popular blogs on black gospel music to authoring a best-selling book, A City Called Heaven (University of Illinois Press, 2015) to serving as the development director for the nonprofit Women Entrepreneurs Grow Global™. His true passion is American music history. I interviewed Bob (disclosure: he is my better half) about how a third-generation Polish-American became a black gospel music historian. Here’s what I discovered.

Tell us about yourself and what inspired you to focus on gospel music.

I am a gospel music historian and author of A City Called Heaven, the definitive history of Chicago’s role in the birth of the modern African American gospel music movement. I also wrote the companion book to the eight-CD set The Gospel According to Malaco, released in February. I’m the founder of the Journal of Gospel Music and host of Gospel Memories, an award-winning gospel music program on WLUW-FM Chicago. I’ve been on the air for more than 18 years.

Ever since I was in grade school, I liked black music. My friends were buying Beatles records and I was buying Booker T. & the MGs records. I grew up in a predominantly Polish-American community and was called “n— lover” more than once for my distinctive taste in music. But I kept on grooving to black artists. Then, when I was 21, I caught a radio broadcast of a worship service, complete with gospel music, from an African American church on Chicago’s South Side. That was it! I realized that gospel was the origin of the music I loved as a kid.

Did you have a plan or was it strictly a go with your gut feeling to see where it takes you?

It was both. At first, the Journal of Gospel Music and the Gospel Memories radio show were activities I could shoehorn into my schedule while still working as a full-time fundraising consultant for nonprofit organizations.

But after more than 20 years in nonprofit management, I found myself in a leadership position with an organization that proved untenable. Despite the fact that we had raised nearly $1 million in six months, I could tell that the board did not think I was the right fit for their vision. My gut told me to resign before I got fired. My resignation turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because it gave me the freedom to determine what I really ought to be doing. I was a talented writer but the responsibilities of a nonprofit executive left no time to write. Thanks to encouragement from a couple of colleagues, and particularly the late Marilyn Moats Kennedy, I set up my own part-time grant writing business in 2007 so I could write what, eight years later, was published as A City Called Heaven.

Have you sacrificed anything to pursue your calling?

I have sacrificed a great many things—a steady income, the potential to earn annual bonuses, and promotion opportunities in the nonprofit world. I also sacrificed part of my financial security because I had to empty a 401(k) and my savings account to cover book expenses that authors are typically responsible for, such as copyediting, obtaining publication rights for images and illustrations, transcription services, research travel, and indexing. My part-time income as a grant writer was insufficient to meet those costs to get A City Called Heaven ready for the publisher.

How do you generate revenue as you build your business and following?

Grant writing for nonprofits was, and still is, a fine way for a writer to make a living while writing books, articles, and liner notes. Writing assignments are short-term projects and unpredictable. Grant writing ensures a steady stream of income so you don’t become a starving artist.

What have you underestimated or overestimated in terms of how things are going?

I overestimated the impact my book would have on my life. It has brought me many opportunities that I would not have had otherwise, like speaking engagements, being in a full-length film documentary, and interviewed on BBC radio. But I initially thought that once the book was published and made the rounds of academia, I would be offered a teaching job at a university, a position at a museum or archives, or a newspaper or magazine column. I figured it happened for others, so why not for me? I thought I would be able to justify my life change and expenditures by securing a “dream job,” if you will. That didn’t happen. It was a naïve expectation. Life is not a vending machine, where you insert a book and out pops a new job. It doesn’t work that way. I know that now.

Television host Conan O’Brien once said that if you work very hard and are kind to people, great things can happen. I believe that. The “great things” may not be what you thought they’d be, but they will be great nonetheless. So I keep striving to find my “great things.” I’ve also learned not to be envious of others. What is for them, is for them. What is for me, is for me.

If there was one thing you could wish for and have it come true, what would it be?

To win a Grammy Award for one of my liner notes projects. Ever since I was in knee pants, I wanted to win a Grammy. Back then, I thought I would grow up to be a rock star—now, I’ll be delighted to get a technical Grammy!

How did you overcome or how are you overcoming the barriers to a white man writing, researching and discussing all things related to a predominantly black focus and audience?

It’s interesting, because many great books on gospel music have been written by Caucasian authors. I guess where I’m different is that through the Journal of Gospel Music, I have immersed myself in the African American gospel music industry. Joining the Chicago Area Gospel Announcers Guild (now called the Alliance) in 2003 enabled me to develop friendships in the industry and build a level of trust that I wasn’t an interloper—coming into the church or the gospel music community for what I could get out of it. Through my actions, I showed that I was willing to give back more than I got.

Now every so often, I’ll hear someone say that gospel music or African American church history are not appropriate topics for coverage by a white man, but I look at it differently. I bring a different perspective to the topic than someone who has spent their whole life in the church. I come at the topic with the passion of the newly-saved. And I have to say that, after 15 years of chronicling gospel music of yesterday and today, 99.9 percent of the people in the industry appreciate what I am doing. That 0.1 percent would probably not like me no matter what color I am.

As a gospel historian, when people read your work, what do you want them to always walk away with?

I want those who read my work to see gospel music as an American art form as worthy of appreciation and study as other American musical forms, such as jazz, blues, rock, classical, and the Great American Songbook.

To date and on the business front, what has been your most major achievement?

I don’t know if this counts as an achievement, but I felt like I’d arrived the first time I stood on the stage at the Chicago Public Library Foundation gala. There I was, in the company of dozens of famous authors and celebrities like Sara Paretsky, Rick Bayless, Scott Turow, and Stephen Sondheim. At one point during the event, I looked around and couldn’t believe I was actually standing on the same platform with these cultural icons.

What are you currently working on and how can readers help you?

At the moment, I am balancing several projects, including a history of one of the most successful gospel albums of the 1960s, as well as an article on the Voices of East Harlem choir, another coffee table book for Malaco Music Group, and an article on the polka king Wally Jagiello. At this point in my career, I need an agent to promote my work, so if any readers have a recommendation of a book agent, I would be eternally grateful.

If there is one word to describe you, what would it be and why?

Determined. I’m not the smartest, the most gifted, or the fastest in any of my pursuits, but what I lack in talent I make up for in determination. That means doggedness in getting things done as well as being a persistent learner. As a writer, I am always learning something new. Every project I take on makes me a better writer. One can never stop learning to be a better writer.

What advice would you give someone who also wants to turn their passion into a business?

Understand that there will be good days and bad days. There will be days of abundance and days of sacrifice. There will be times when you will question your decision to turn your passion into a business. You will want to give up, go back to what you were doing. But don’t give up. There’s no going back. Success favors the persistent, the focused, and the disciplined. Too many people make their breakthrough just as they are about to give up. As the gospel song goes, “God didn’t bring you this far to leave you.”

Oh, and what’s your fav ice cream flavor?

New York Cherry, though it is difficult to find in Chicago!