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Clifton Dyson Jr. believes in the power of the hand of God. Half-brother of ’60s R&B singer Ronnie Dyson, this singing D.C. native is witnessing that power in the late success of his own music career.

At 51, Clifton Dyson has seen his gospel album, Songs of Inspiration, become a No. 1 hit in England. Released in the States last November, Songs of Inspiration sold more than 3,000 copies here in its first week. In addition to Dyson’s local success and airplay on WHUR, WPGC, and Heaven 1580, a Philadelphia company has just picked up the project for nationwide distribution. Songs of Inspiration features local artists Marc Staggers, Joanne Clark-Booker, and Freda Davis, who all have upcoming projects from Dyson’s new record label, Put God First Records.

Dyson believes that the strides he’s making in his career are a natural extension of his dedication to his creator: “That’s why we named the record company Put God First. Because we feel as though if you put God first, everything will fall into place.” Dyson’s recent piety notwithstanding, it took several soul-stirring swats from the back of God’s powerful hand to bring him around.

Dyson was raised singing gospel but turned to R&B, or “secular music,” in his early 20s. He had a local hit, and with the recognition came drug use and eventual addiction. In 1971, just before he was to seize the opportunity to tour with Richard Pryor, Dyson went to prison in Lorton for distributing and selling cocaine. Dyson spent two years in jail, and his music career fizzled. Even 20 years later, Dyson’s God had not finished with him. In 1994, “I was cleaning off my front steps, and I slipped down 15 flights of steps. And I laid in the snow until the lady across the street found me and they took me to the hospital.” He was paralyzed from the waist down.

Dyson did a lot of praying and promising after his injury. He promised his God that if he were ever to walk again, he would use his musical talents only for praise. He made the same promise to his mother, who sold her house and gave the money to Dyson for his next project. After regaining some mobility, Dyson released Mesmerized, another worldly album featuring only two gospel songs, thereby breaking his promise to God and a mother who had just died from cancer. Up in heaven, the gloves came off.

“I got ill. I had a…well, I don’t know what it was….They called it a rare form of poison in my system, and they thought I was going to pass,” Dyson says. “I just knew right then that evidently what I was doing wasn’t the right thing, because we had just put out Mesmerized.” Dyson soon recovered from his mysterious illness—but not until he’d had time to think about his overdue promises.

“It hit me real hard, like a brick, because I saw that I could be of some help to somebody else and not just all the time trying to help myself,” he admits. His head still ringing from God’s glory, he used the rest of the money his mother had given him to start Put God First, which is dedicated to recording local gospel artists. Dyson is also donating half of the profits from Songs of Inspiration to the Community Youth Connection, a D.C. nonprofit organization that is currently raising money to take inner-city kids to Disney World.—Neil Drumming