He was born on May 13, 1910 in Chattanooga, Tennessee, to John Thomas (Dirk) Derricks and his wife, Ora Mae Kinamore Derricks. He had a brother, Thomas Clinton Derricks, that was two years older.
In June, 1920, his family was living at 514 Curtis Street, East Chattanooga, Tennessee. His parents owned the house with a mortgage and his father, John T. Derreck, was 32 and his mother, Ola, was 30. His father was born in Alabama and his mother in Georgia. His father worked as a molder in the Tennessee Stove Works and his mother was a washwoman, working from the home. His older brother, Thomas, was 10 years old; Cleavant was 9; Gwendoline was 8 and Ruth was 5. The children were all in school.
He studied at the Agricultural and Industrial State College (now Tennessee State University).
In April, 1930, his family was living at 2906 Curtis Street, Chattanooga, Tennessee. His parents owned the house worth $2500 (in 2012 values about $169,000). His father was a molder for a stove foundry, and his mother worked as a servant or a private family. They had been married for 19 years. Clinton was 21, “Clevant” was 19; Gwendolyn was 18; Ruth was 16; and Van D., a son, was 9. All five children, except Cleavant were in school.
About 1931, he was helping his mother sweep out a theater in Chatanooga, he found a $5 and the inspiration to write “Just a Little Talk with Jesus.” That money went to pay for a music lesson at the Cadek Conservatory of Music in Knoxville, one of the first such schools to admit blacks. He later swapped his song for about 50 songbooks that he sold at churches and gospel meetings for about 10 cents each, making at the most another $5!
When 21, he directed a gospel choir of more than 100 voices in Washington, D.C., at the Vermont Avenue Baptist Church.
His songs were written during the depression and were a great help to many Christians through some of the rough times in America, and still do as many suffer during the current economic turmoil in the United States. The churches that learned his songs encouraged him to leave the little Alabama towns and go to Dallas, Texas, and there he impressed the owners of Stamps-Baxter, who purchased three of his songs, one being “We’ll Soon Be Done with Troubles and Trials.” That song became a huge favorite, and brought good profits to the company. Subsequent songs that Derrick wrote did the same!
During the 1930’s he travelled the “gospel road” from black shanty towns in Georgia to Chicago’s tenement slums sometimes with singers that later became famous.
He completed two years worth of a college education.
In 1934 (with his parents and brother), he was living at 2906 Curtis, Chattanooga, Tennessee. He was employed as a helper at the Tennessee Stove Works Company and 24 years old. His dad was a molder there and his brother was a school teacher.
In 1935, he was married to Cecile G. and they lived at 414 N. Hickory, Chattanooga, Tennessee. His employment as not listed.
In 1936, his song “Just a Little Talk with Jesus” was published by the Stamps-Baxter Music Company. He was paid the normal 60 cents or 10 song books pay for each song. He usually chose the song book option so he could have them for his church to use.
In April, 1940, he was 29 and living with his sister’s family at 414 N. Hickory, Chattanooga, Tennessee. His brother-in-law owned the house worth $800 (in 2012 values about $52,000). His wife, Cecile, was 31 years old. He was not employed but had worked 60 hours the previous week as a self-employed musician without pay, but reported he had another source of income. He had completed a year of college and his wife had completed high school.
In 1941, he was married to Lucile G. and working as a musician. He was living at the house at 414 N. Hickory, Chattanooga, Tennessee.
On July 26, 1942, he enlisted, and on Aug 10, 1942, he began service in the United States Army as a Private at Camp Forrest, Tennessee. He had been employed as a musician. He was married to Cecile G., was 6 foot tall, 133 pounds and 32 years old. His family lived at 414 N. Hickory, Chattanooga, Tennessee. He was released from duty on Oct 9, 1945.
For the special New Orleans Easter Sunrise service, Apr 1, 1945, held for the public, the members of the armed forces and their families, he was the director of the Army’s Second Regimental Chorus that performed, joined by two Army Bands.
Tired of travel after serving during World War II, he decided to settle down in Knoxville, give up music and become a minister.
He studied at American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville.
He built Ebenezer Baptist Church of Knoxville, Tennessee in the late 1940’s.
He pastored for over 10 years at the Pleasant Grove Baptist Church of Washington, D.C.
In the 1950’s the Derricks Singers group was formed and was made up of Rev. Derricks and his church members. They recorded a few 78 singles on the Tennessee Record label, but the record company closed soon afterwards.
He pastored a church in Dayton, Tennessee.
He pastored a church in Jackson, Tennessee.
A black church in Benoit, Wisconsin, that had been started in 1917 called themselves the Emmanuel Baptist Church because of the vision of it being a place where “God is with us.” In 1958 their church building burned to the ground. They called Rev. Cleavant Derricks to come be their pastor and enter the work of rebuilding the building. He was installed as pastor in four day services on Nov 13-17, 1958. He led an aggressive building campaign and got the current edifice built. He was there in 1959-1960 and finally moved out in 1963.
He was a pastor, church builder, choir director, poet, musician, and composer. He wrote more than 450 songs and several song books. Some were:
Several populist quartets used his songs as a way to insure they would have a hit song and a wide emotional interest. A comment (a bit rough) would say that several rich quartet members (showboat singers?) did so on the back of some of Derricks songs.
He had twin sons who are actors today, Cleavant Derricks and Clinton Derricks-Carroll.
In January of 1975, in need of money to pay medical bills, he left his apartment in Washington, D.C. and went to Nashville, visiting Canaan Records to ask if they would publish some songs. He said he had not written songs for many years, and was “gun shy” about telling them who he was. Once the company realized who he was, and verified it, they were interested in recording some demos with him. They found out he was still good at writing songs and they recorded two albums using him and several members of his family. The first album was Reverend Cleavant Derricks and Family Singing His Own Just a Little Talk With Jesus in 1975. The album had nine other songs Derricks had written. The next year, 1976, they released a second album, Satisfaction Guaranteed. He did the recording with a 105 degree fever that he thought was a cold. Instead it turned out to be colon cancer. He also began to suffer with memory loss due to his illness.
The producer for the albums found out that Rev. Derricks had not been compensated much for his well received and popular songs, and so contacted a licensing service and got them to pay royalties for the last six years to Derricks. The check Rev. Derricks received was $14,000 dollars! A few short months later, Rev. Derricks passed away.
He is described as an unassuming, quiet, meek, black man who was very likable and easy to be around. He seemed to be pleased enough that his music had found a wide acceptance as payment enough.
He died in Apr 14, 1977.
Greg Freeman, “Southern Exposure: The Legacy of Reverend Cleavant Derricks” (Walhalla, South Carolina: Southern Edition, 2008) http://www.southernedition.com/RevCleavantDerricks.html accessed May 10, 2013.
Gospel Music Association, Gospel Music Hall of Fame, “Cleavant Derricks” (Franklin, Tennessee: ongoing), http://www.gmahalloffame.org/ accessed May 10, 2013.
Morning Star newspaper (Rockford, Illinois) obituaries: Dec 10, 1959; Apr 12, 1960; Oct 14, 1960.
“Area Churches Join Installation Rites” Register-Republic newspaper (Rockford, Illinois) Nov 13, 1958, p. 18, col. 1.
“Lent Ends Today, Churches Prepare for Easter Rites” Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana) Mar 31, 1945, p. 4, col. 1-2.
“Writer of Famous Gospel Song Never Received Any Royalties” State Times Advocate (Baton Rouge, Louisiana), Jan 14, 1976, p. 12a, col. 4-6.
Emanuel Baptist Church “Our Profile” (Austin, Texas: faithHighway, ongoing) http://emmanuelfamily.org, accessed May 11, 2013.
Ancestry “Cleavant Derricks” (Provo, Utah: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., ongoing) www.ancestry.com various indexes and databases, accessed May 11, 2013.
David Murray, “Clevant Derricks” Southern Gospel History (Ellenboro, North Carolina, ongoing) http://www.sghistory.com accessed May 10, 2013.
Southern Gospel Music Association, “Lester Cleavant Derricks” Preserving the past to protect our future! (Sevierville, Tennessee: A.B. Kendall Productions, ongoing), http://www.sgma.org/ accessed May 10, 2013.
allmusic “Cleavant Derricks” (Santa Clara, California: Rovi Corporation, 2003) http://www.allmusic.com/, accessed May 11, 2013.