Barrett was born in Jamaica, New York on Long Island in 1944. His father was a gospel performer with the Southern Wonders. At nine, the youngster's family moved to Chicago, Illinois, but Barrett struggled in the public school system. His father died when he was 16 and Barrett went to live with an uncle in Queens, New York. He took a job at Flushing Hospital extracting glands and brains from cadavers. A year later, he was arrested for failing to pay child support to his child's 37-year-old mother. He worked at all kinds of jobs, including as a shoeshine boy and playing jazz and stride piano at parties and venues including the Waldorf Astoria and the Village Gate, as well as with various church choirs.
After receiving his GED from the state of New York, Barrett felt called to the ministry. He enrolled in and graduated with honors from Bethel Bible College and passed the New York State Board of Regents ministerial exam.
Barrett married his wife Cleopatra and returned to Chicago in 1967 (they have seven children). He became the pastor of Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Chicago in 1968. After a theological disagreement with the elders during mid-'70s, he left to form his own ministry, the Life Center Church of God in Christ, in the same neighborhood. He purchased airtime on local radio stations to spread the word about his ministry.
In 1971, Barrett, recording as Pastor T.L. Barrett the Youth for Christ Choir, self-released the album Like a Ship (Without a Sail). His 40-member vocal ensemble was composed of adolescents between the ages of 12 and 19 who attended his Tuesday night choir meetings. The album included instrumental participation from Phil Upchurch, Gene Barge, Charles Pittman, and Richard Evans, among others. It has been re-released and sampled several times.
By 1973, he had a second career as a regular on-air personality on WBMX-FM, and released his second album, I Found the Answer as a one-off for Stax's gospel imprint, Gospel Truth Records. During the early '70s, Barrett's congregation included a fair number of nationally recognized musicians, including Earth Wind Fire's Maurice White and Philip Bailey, Donny Hathaway, and Phil Cohran. Barrett and his choir signed to Gospel Roots and released Do Not Pass Me By in 1976. His long-player sermon, Roots, appeared in 1977. In 1979, the second volume of Do Not Pass Me By was released by Gospel Truth. In 1980 Barrett left WBMX for WJPC, where he hosts the weekly program A Word to the World. He also issued his second long-playing sermon, If I Should Wake Before I Die, backed by disco and funk instrumentalists for Nashville's Randy's Spiritual Record Co. In 1982, the a cappella sermon It Tastes So Good appeared on the same label. He followed with Dry Bones in the Valley in 1984.
In June of 1989, Barrett was convicted of running an illegal pyramid scheme and ordered by the Cook County Circuit Court to turn his church, the Life Center Church for Universal Awareness, over to its congregants. He made a restitution agreement to pay back more than one-million dollars by 1998, and he did. That same year, Chicago congressman Bobby Rush passed a House resolution that honored Barrett's work as "an outstanding motivational speaker and teacher."
In 2010, Light in the Attic offered a deluxe reissue of Like a Ship (Without a Sail) to massive critical acclaim. In 2016, fellow Chicagoan Kanye West sampled Barrett's "Father I Stretch My Hands" (from 1976's Do Not Pass Me By) in the song "Father Stretch My Hands, Pt. 1" and "Pt. 2" on The Life of Pablo. Later that year, Barrett's music was used in an Under Armour commercial directed by Harmony Korine, as well as in the soundtrack to the film Barry. In 2017, DJ Khaled sampled "Nobody Knows" from Like a Ship (Without a Sail) for his single "Nobody" feat. Alicia Keys and Nicki Minaj. In 2019, "Nobody Knows" was used in AT&T's "Roll Up Your Sleeves" commercial. Singer/songwriter Richard Ashcroft covered and released "Like a Ship (Without a Sail)" as a streaming single, and in 2020, Barrett's own recording of it was featured in the Netflix documentary Crip Camp, produced by Barack and Michelle Obama. The song was also sampled by electronic music duo the Knocks in "All About You," featuring Foster the People. In June of 2021, the song was used during the closing credits of the ninth episode of the HBO series Hacks.
In September of 2021, Chicago's Numero Group released a comprehensive six-disc retrospective box set titled I Shall Wear a Crown; it included all four '70s LPs by Pastor T.L. Barrett the Youth for Christ Choir -- Like a Ship (Without a Sail), I Found the Answer, and both volumes of Do Not Pass Me By -- plus more than a dozen singles and sermons written, recorded, performed, and preached between the 1960s and the '80s.
Pastor Barrett continues to preach and lead a choir at The Life Center, as well as host a weekly program; some of the original musicians who played with him during the '70s continue to perform in his Sunday ensembles. ~ Thom Jurek, Rovi
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