Making a joyful noise

Dready Manning

Dready Manning

An oft-quoted Bible verse from the book of Psalms instructs believers to “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord.” It’s a command a local, guitar-slinging pastor has taken to heart.

Bishop D.L. Manning is the founder of St. Mark Holiness Church, a small, unobtrusive building set back off of Sam Powell Dairy Road in Roanoke Rapids. In addition to his weekly preaching duties, Manning is also an accomplished musician, songwriter and recording artist whose skills have brought local renown and international acclaim thanks to several CDs and a slew of YouTube videos showcasing his raw, blues-influenced take on traditional gospel music.

The 74-year-old musician came by that sound the hard way. Born and raised in Gaston, the fledgling performer took up the guitar at age 7 and soon came under the tutelage of a local musician named Russel Moody. He also began listening to records by artists hailing from the Mississippi Delta, men who sang of hard times, good liquor and faithless women. “I was listening to all them old blues records,” he recalled during a recent interview, “people like Lightning Hopkins and John Lee Hooker.”

As he came of age, Manning began performing in local bars and juke joints, emulating the wide-open, devil-may-care lifestyle of his musical heroes. “I thought I was having a good time, drinking my moonshine and partying and carrying on,” he stated. “I was a sinner and that’s what sinners do. Midnight rambling and road running, house parties, staying up all night. I was just doing what I wanted to do. I didn’t have no intentions of changing sides.”

The endless party continued until 1962, when Manning fell ill with a series of hemorrhages that left him near death. Bleeding heavily from the nose and having gained little help from local doctors, Manning says he reluctantly accepted members of a nearby, sanctified church into his home, laying in bed as they talked and prayed over him. “They testified to me what God did for them and they said He could do the same for me. When they finished praying I was healed, the bleeding stopped right then.”

Six months after that life altering experience, he began preaching. His wife of 6 years, Marie, was quick to follow. “She got saved right behind me,” he said with a laugh.

Though his brush with death irrevocably altered Manning’s life, one thing that didn’t change was his love of music, specifically the earthy, bare-bones blues he’d grown up with. Said Manning: “I kept my style of music, it’s what the people love, but I started writing different lyrics.”

To augment his six-string prowess he enlisted the help of his wife and their 5 children, blending their talents into a tight knit musical unit that, reinforced by various grandchildren and son-in-laws, is still going strong more than four decades later.

In 1975, searching for a permanent home for his growing congregation, Manning pulled up stakes and moved to Roanoke Rapids, where he founded St. Mark Holiness Church and took up residence in the small home that sits beside it. Joined by his wife and Co-pastor Marie, or Mother Manning as she’s affectionately known, the new preacher in town quickly gained a reputation as a friend of the community and a man to turn to in times of crisis.

During a recent First Sunday Service at St. Mark Holiness, congregation members stood before their pastor and testified to the sorrows and heartaches, physical and spiritual, that Manning has seen them through in the decades since his conversion.

“I’ve got to thank God for you, because without you there would be no me,” said one member, wringing his hands and swaying back and forth with emotion, “You spoke to my soul and my soul is what kept me coming. I had a brain aneurysm and you don’t live from that. I’ll be honest, I was a crack head. I tried my best to go another way, but you showed me I had to do it the right way.”

Another member stood up and recounted her own dark night of the soul: “I was selling my bootleg whiskey. When you walked up in there it was ‘Let the good times roll.’ I went crazy. I went to the nuthouse…Bishop Manning and Mother Manning laid their hands on me and prayed for me.” As she spoke of her journey back to health, Manning, sitting on a raised platform several yards away, nodded his head and offered words of encouragement.

“Bless your soul.”

“Tell it, tell it.”

As each member stood and spoke, the band, which includes Manning’s son, Paul, on guitar and grandson, Marquis, on drums, added their own musical comments, punctuating their testimony with drum rolls, jagged guitar notes and keyboard flourishes.

Toward the end of the service the former moonshine bootlegger picked up his harmonica and joined the band for a rousing version of “Gospel Train” as church members left their shoes behind and danced throughout the aisles. Framed by a reproduction of “The Last Supper” hanging from the back wall of the church, the group played with the vengeance of gospel warriors, even as their roots in hard-core blues and early R&B shone through in every bent note and electric riff.

As the song drew to a close, Manning, dressed in a black suit with pink pinstripes and a rose colored shirt, stepped to the pulpit and addressed the congregation. Describing his life prior to his religious conversion, he stated,   “I was just a poor little sinner, I didn’t know nothing ‘bout no Holy Ghost. I didn’t have nobody to tell me about Jesus’ blood. Now I have his blood in my blood. His blood sanctified my blood.”

Following the service, Manning spoke about his love for the church and its members. “They’re wonderful. I don’t judge nobody or look down on nobody. When your soul is troubled your whole life is troubled. They make me feel great ‘cause it makes me know they appreciate what I do for them. It just feels my life with joy.”

In addition to his preaching duties, Manning and his family have recorded several CDs, most recently for the Music Maker Relief Foundation, an organization that helps pioneers of Southern music gain recognition and meet basic, day to day needs.

Though he’s had offers to play for audiences across the globe, Manning said he’s staying put for the time being. “They tried to get me to play in England and Germany and all those places,” he said, in a bemused voice. “Twenty years ago I would have been ready, but now my mind just isn’t into it.”

While he may not be ready for superstardom, the still-youthful pastor has no plans to retire anytime soon.
“The Lord gave me this way of playing and He told me to use it in his service, so that’s just what I’m doing,” he stated emphatically. “Right now I don’t see no end to it. We’ll just have to see what the Lord has in store.”

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