Canadian opera singer Measha Brueggergosman is known for the versatility of both her voice and her career. As a classically trained soprano, she performs both operatic roles as well as those of a concert artist. Her latest project, Songs of Freedom, is a collection of spirituals that corresponds with Brueggergosman’s discovery of her family’s history in Canada. The album is much more than just a collection of spirituals, however—it is also part of a larger documentary project including a film, a 4-part TV series, mobile app and interactive website with narratives from both Brueggergosman and the owner of Chalet Studio, in which some of the spirituals were recorded. The documentary explores how she came to know these spirituals, and to learn about herself and her family history in the process.
The website for the Songs of Freedom project provides a number of complementary elements to the album. In addition to performance videos showing Brueggergosman and her collaborators, there are also essays written by Brueggergosman, the musicians with whom she worked, and scholars of African American music. These essays help to frame the project and provide a foundation on the importance of spirituals to the black musical tradition. Also featured on this website is a 360 degree performance video of Brueggergosman recording “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” one of the spirituals featured on the album. The 360 scope of the video provides an intimate portrait of how she explored these spirituals and eventually made them her own.
Musically, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” is definitely one of the highlights of the album, along with other slow tempo spirituals such as “I Surrender All.” These two especially allow Brueggergosman’s voice time to fill in spaces, rather than to be rushed. In this exploration of spirituals, she joins the company of other black operatic singers such as Jessye Norman and Kathleen Battle. Within the documentary series and the accompanying album, Measha Brueggergosman is doing important work to uncover her family’s history and also elevate the status of spirituals as repertoire.
Ok, real talk—I like gospel music. After all, gospel music is the ‘mothership’ of all black music: Mahalia Jackson, Sister Clara Ward, Shirley Caesar, and of course Aretha Franklin, who brought the church with her to Muscle Shoals, Alabama. The Staple Singers kept their gospel roots when they crossed over, as did the great Sam Cooke. The Hawkins Singers “Oh Happy Day” was broken on college radio. The New Jersey Mass Choir was brought to our attention when Foreigner had them sing backup on “I Wanna Know What Love Is.” And in the ‘90s, Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis struck gold with the Sounds of Blackness when the single “Testify,” from the group’s national debut album The Evolution of Gospel, crossed over into dance and soul.
So, after listening to the Miami Mass Choir, where do they fit in? First off, when one thinks of Miami, gospel music is not the first thing that comes to one’s mind. Rev. Milton Bingham, the head of Savoy Records’ gospel division and founder of the Georgia Mass Choir, helped form the Miami Mass Choir in 1996 with Pastor Marc Cooper, the choir’s director and lead singer. Their 1997 debut album, Its Praying Time, produced the hit song “It Is For Me,” and was followed three years later with Just For You.
On their new album, Live at the Adrienne Arsht Center, the Miami Mass Choir takes you to the mountain. The praise and worship song “Lord of Everything,” featuring Danette Inyang, is uplifting to the almighty high. They praise the King and thank him for all he’s done. That theme continues throughout the album. On “I Will Rejoice,” featuring Mark Cooper and Joy Cooper, the choir lets their hair down. Featuring a very funky bass, Marc Cooper talks via sermon, telling the audience to ‘praise him’ and the brass section pays attention. Other guests include Betty Wright, Beverly Crawford, Zacardi Cortez, JaLisa Faye and Avery Jones.
Perhaps the one eyebrow raising track is “Good News,” featuring Tony Lebron and Paula Coleman. Latin gospel. Yes Latin Gospel! After all, it is Miami. Cuban music has a huge influence, and the choir is multicultural. The opening sounds as if Carlos Santana was in the band, while the choir responds throughout, ‘I Got Good News.’
The Miami Mass Choir isn’t necessarily looking to get into the top 40 with this album, though the radio single “Lord of Everything” is climbing the charts. Live at the Adrienne Arsht Center is traditional enough to keep the old timers, while incorporating new sounds to draw newcomers. Raise your hand and close your eyes!
Label: Gaither Music Group (Gaither Gospel Series)
Format: DVD/CD set
Release date: November 18, 2016
“In 1994, some of the greatest gospel artists of all time gathered together to sing songs of hope, healing, and of heaven.” That’s how Bill Gaithers, of Indiana’s Gaither Music Group, introduces the Gospel Pioneer Reunion DVD and CD set. This remarkable footage features legendary artists such as Richard Smallwood, Jennifer Holliday, the late Albertina Walker (the so-called “Late Queen of Gospel Music”), the Barrett Sisters, Billy Preston, and Joe Ligon of the Mighty Clouds of Joy, whose recent passing was mourned worldwide. For unknown reasons, the footage was never released, but frequent requests from gospel fans over the years finally yielded results! Though the music is moving enough on its own, anyone who knows gospel music knows the importance of physicality to the performance, which can be seen in the preview of the DVD below:
Any fan of gospel music will love this DVD and CD set, which includes favorites such as “Oh Happy Day,” “I Shall Wear A Crown,” and “Can’t Nobody Do Me Like Jesus.” All the audio and video post-production was done at Gaither Studios in Alexandria, Indiana–the same site where the Gospel Pioneer Reunion originally occurred. Though the DVD is certainly reflective of the quality of most video equipment used in the 90s, it is still great to see the actual performances of these amazing gospel artists. The audio is high quality, which makes the CD extremely enjoyable even as a standalone piece.
Though recorded almost 25 years ago, Gospel Pioneer Reunion stands the test of time. The 100 minutes of joyful, zealous praise and worship preserves and celebrates some of the most influential and talented gospel music singers of the last couple decades. Highly recommended purchase for all libraries!
Well thank you. After more than fifty years, fans of Dee Dee Sharp can once again hear her long out-of-print album, Songs of Faith. Perhaps now fans, and others as well, will finally come to realize that Dee Dee Sharp accomplished more in her career than (1), her 1962 hit “Mashed Potato Time,” and (2), being married to Kenny Gamble. Strange but true, “Mashed Potato Time” was knocked out of place by Little Eva’s “The Loco Motion,” a song Gerry Goffin & Carole King wrote and offered to Sharp, who turned it down. Instead, Dee Dee Sharp went to New York in 1962 to record Songs of Faith, which immediately followed the release of her debut album, It’s Mashed Potato Time.
In Songs of Faith, Sharp—who sang in Philadelphia’s Third Eternal Baptist Church where her grandfather was pastor—shows a vocal range that “Mashed Potato Time” could never give justice to. The opening track, an arrangement of Thomas Dorsey’s “Peace in the Valley,” sounds more like a tune suited for the Lawrence Welk show and the Lennon Sisters with its lush orchestral backing. “No more sadness, no more troubles,” sings Sharp. With the recent affairs after the election and all its chaos, healing words indeed. “He’s Got the Whole World In His Hands” may also sound hokey and out of date to a young audience, but remember, this was first released in 1962. On “Its No Secret (What God Can Do),” Sharp sounds like one of her contemporaries during this time—Barbara Lewis of “Baby I’m Yours” fame. “Up Hill” no doubt is the winner, with organ filled hand clapping. When you listen, one can picture a congregation standing in the pews, clapping, while the choir director leads the choir. “Keep a singing” is right.
After listening to all twelve tracks, I have to wonder why this original wasn’t album pushed more by the label. Bad marketing. After releasing “Mashed Potato Time,” Sharp introduced a dance that went with the single, creating a major hit which brought her to mainstream attention. If Cameo/Parkway had released this inspirational album before “Mashed Potato Time,” perhaps it might have been more successful. Or Sharp’s star might have shined brighter if Cameo had released a true gospel album, instead of a collection of pop-oriented inspirational songs recorded in the studio. Because of this, Songs of Faith can’t go toe to toe with the likes of Clara Ward or Mahalia Jackson, even though Sharp was a great gospel singer and is backed here by Philly gospel artists Willa Ward, Vivian Jackson, and Mary Wiley. Still, it’s great to hear another side of Dee Dee Sharp. Liner notes are provide by George Washington University professor Gayle Wald, author of the Sister Rosetta Tharpe biography, Shout, Sister, Shout.
Reissue label Dust-to-Digital made a big splash with their inaugural release Goodbye, Babylon in 2003. The wonderfully packaged multidisc box set explored many long forgotten and unreleased songs by gospel artists and sermons from preachers recorded in the early 20th century.
One of the standouts from that collection was the work of one Washington Phillips (1880-1954). On his two tracks included on Goodbye, Babylon, Phillips’ singing is backed by a mysterious instrument of his own creation called a Manzarene. Those two tracks sparked a renewed interest in Phillips, leading to a search for more recordings. Washington Phillips and His Manzarene Dreams is a newly remastered and expanded edition of Phillips’ worked pulled from original 78-rpm discs recorded between 1927-1929.
As with many high quality box set releases, an excellent complement to the music itself is the pristine 76 page hardcover book/liner notes included with this collection (the CD is slipped inside the front cover). The book traces the legend of Washington Phillips from birth to death, debunking oft retold misinformation that may have been circulated in prior collections of his work. Tapping people that knew the man himself, as well as his own meticulous research, writer Michael Corcoran explores the history of Phillips dating back to his grandfather, born into slavery in 1801, and up to Phillips’ death in 1954. Along the way Corcoran details stories about Phillips’ home life, career, the creation of the aforementioned manzarene and even a cousin with the same name whose life journey ended much differently than Phillips’ own. The book also includes photos and reproductions that help bring Phillips’ story to life, contextualizing his musical contributions. His work has since been covered by artists such as Arizona Dranes, Mavis Staples and Phish. This deep dive into Phillips’ gospel blues has unearthed gems that are sure to make more converts of artists and fans alike.
Founded in 1959 in L.A. by Sylvester C. “Duke” Henderson, Proverb Records, and its affiliated Gospel Corner label, were a natural outgrowth of Henderson’s entrepreneurial activities. Over the course of his career he worked as a deejay and concert promoter, songwriter and publisher, owned a record store on South Central Avenue, served as gospel director for Kent Records, and was an ordained minister. He was also a successful R&B singer and recording artist, but around 1955 had a religious conversion. Like Little Richard, Henderson decided to forsake the secular, turning to the gospel music on which he was raised. Henceforth he was known as “Brother” Henderson. Though his life was cut short at the age of 48, he managed to build an impressive record catalog.
Best of Proverb & Gospel Corner Records was compiled by noted Swedish gospel reissue producer and historian Per Notini in an “attempt to pay a long overdue tribute to Brother Henderson’s legacy.” Across the 52 tracks, one finds a mix of famous and lesser known artists. During the decade spanning 1959-1969, L.A. had become “the capital” of Black gospel music, and Henderson recorded visiting gospel luminaries as well as local artists. His eclectic catalog included soloists, gospel quartets, choirs, sermons, lining hymns, and even sacred steel guitar.
The set opens with the Mighty Clouds of Joy performing “Jesus Is Real,” made significant by the fact that Henderson shares the songwriting credit with Joe Ligon, and he was also responsible for releasing the group’s debut album, Let’s Have Church, a few years prior. The Chambers Brothers are also featured here in their only gospel side, “Just a Little More Faith.” Rarities include a live recording of Rev. W.E. Jasper of Little Rock, Arkansas lining out the hymn “Father I Stretch My Hands To Thee,” the Thomas Housley & Family of Oakland’s rocking performance of “God Is a Wonder,” and Madame Nellie Robinson’s soulful anti-war song “Viet Nam.” Other groups represented on the compilation include the Pilgrim Travelers, Singing Corinthians, Vocal-Aires, Los Angeles Angels, Hampton-Aires, Prince Dixon, and many more.
Henderson himself is well represented in this collection. His single, “Eleven-Twenty Two Nineteen Sixty Three,” credited to Brother Henderson Religious D.J. of Los Angeles Co., is based on his own poem written as a reaction to the murder of John F. Kennedy. There are also sides from various groups he founded, including Brother Henderson’s Spiritual Lambs, and the youthful Watts Community Choir led by Dee Jae Rogers (aka ‘70s soul singer D.J. Rogers).
Best of Proverb & Gospel Corner Records is a fantastic compilation that perfectly encapsulates the wide range of gospel music popular in the 1960s, from traditional gospel to rock and soul based songs with psychedelic guitar riffs—while also documenting little known gospel groups. Even better, it serves as a fitting tribute to Brother Henderson, who life’s work is finally available once again for all to enjoy.
The Blind Boys of Alabama’sGo Tell It on the Mountain is a mix of traditional Christmas songs and hymns that earned the group their third Grammy Award in 2003. Just in time for this holiday season, Omnivore Recordings released an expanded edition of the album that includes a new essay by writer Davin Seay (co-author of memoirs by Al Green and Snoop Dogg) and two bonus tracks: live versions of “Go Tell It On the Mountain” and “Amazing Grace,” which can be seen below:
The album features a multitude of musical stars including Mavis Staples, Michael Franti, and even George Clinton on an arrangement of “Away in A Manger.” Energy-filled tracks such as “Last Month of the Year” are balanced with tranquil tracks such as their a capella version of “Joy to the World” featuring NOLA R&B singer Aaron Neville. With this star-studded cast and a ton of holiday cheer, Go Tell It On the Mountain is sure to brighten your December.
Omnivore has also released an expanded edition of The Blind Boys’ 2005 album Atom Bomb, featuring gospel standards such as “Faith and Grace” along with more contemporary songs like their cover of Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky.” The expanded edition features instrumental versions of seven songs plus a new essay from Seay.
Any Blind Boys of Alabama fan will enjoy the new insights and commentary offered in Seay’s essays and the additional versions of their classic hits.
Billed as the “ultimate collection,” this new compilation from Shanachie is indeed a must have for all gospel music enthusiasts. Featuring 22 previously unleased songs recorded between 1946-1957, Moving On Up a Little Higher was produced by well-known gospel historian Anthony Heilbut, who was also responsible for last year’s Marion Williams compilation, Packin’ Up.
A tireless researcher, Heilbut scoured archives across the country to locate the gems included on this disc. Nine of the selections were recorded in 1957 during Mahalia’s first appearance at Newport Jazz Festival, where she was accompanied by both Mildred Falls on piano and Dickie Mitchell on organ. Heilbut notes that Mahalia followed her chief rival, Marion Williams (Clara Ward Singers), who also performed at the festival, perhaps inspiring Mahalia to greater heights. Whether or not there’s any truth to this assumption, the inclusion of other gospel singers at the festival likely helped Mahalia channel the Holy Spirit in this very secular setting. Though she had already recorded some of these songs, her renditions at Newport are often much more intense than her studio recordings for Apollo, and later Columbia.
The disc opens with Mahalia explaining to the Newport audience, “You know, I’m really a church singer – I may have this rock ‘n’ roll, but I’ve got to feel this thing – I got to get it to be a part of me, you know? Hallelujah!” Then she tears into “Keep Your Hand on the Plow,” rocking and shouting to the heavens. This is followed by a swinging version of “Jesus Met the Woman at the Well” and the Mahalia standard “Troubles of the World,” a slow burner starting on a low moan that sends chills up the spine. Next is Roberta Martin’s arrangement of “Didn’t It Rain,” which Jackson “builds to a shouting explosion.” This leads into Thomas A. Dorsey’s “I’m Gonna Live the Life I Sing About In My Song,” and the obvious crowd favorite, “In the Upper Room,” which Jackson recorded for Apollo in 1952. Here she only includes the chorus, but still manages to brings down the house.
The Newport set closes with several more crowd favorites: a shouting rendition of “When the Saints Go Marching In,” the Rev. W. Herbert Brewster’s “Move On Up a Little Higher,” and “His Eye Is On the Sparrow” which includes some impromptu testifying.
The next batch of recordings were sourced from The William Russell Jazz Collection housed at The Historic New Orleans Collection. This fabulous treasure trove of rare material includes two tracks recorded in 1951 during a folk music concert at Chicago’s Wendell Phillips High School. Mahalia sang six songs at this concert, but only two are included here: Alex Bradford’s “Savior More Than Life To Me” (never commercially recorded by Jackson), and “I’m Glad Salvation Is Free.” The latter was one of her biggest hits, and on this performance she ad libs verses not included on her 1950 Apollo recording.
Four months later, Jackson was the featured guest at a symposium held in 1951 at the Music Inn in Lennox, MA. Two more tracks come from this performance: “He’s Pleading in Glory For Me” composed by her good friend Robert Anderson, and “Have a Little Talk With Jesus”—a gospel standard by the noted Baptist preacher/composer Cleavant Derricks, Sr.
Now, for the crème de la crème. In 1955, William Russell also recorded rehearsals in Mahalia’s Chicago home, and I understand these have only recently been digitized and made available to scholars. A haunting, a cappella performance of “Dark Was the Night and Cold the Ground”—the same song first recorded by Blind Willie Johnson in 1927—is included on track 2 (the disc is not sequenced chronologically). Jackson similarly lines out “Before This Time Another Year” and “When The Roll Will Be Called In Heaven,” as well as “Father I Stretch My Hand to Thee,” which is preceded by her memories of Mount Moriah Baptist Church in her hometown of New Orleans. Even more enticing, there’s Mahalia accompanied by the great Thomas A. Dorsey on “Peace! It’s Wonderful” which segues rather abruptly into “Coming Back Home to Live With Jesus.” Though brief, this remarkable track captures a rare pairing of the “Father” and the “Queen” of gospel music.
The last gem from the William Russell Collection dates from a 1956 CBS Sunday morning television broadcast, featuring Mahalia on “There’s Been a Great Change In Me,” described as an old shout song rearranged by Doris Akers with Jackson singing in a higher range than usual.
The final tracks of the disc are also extremely significant, since they document Mahalia performing gospel music in sacred settings. “Beams of Heaven” was restored from a one-of-a-kind lacquer disc aircheck of a 1946 Bronx, New York church radio broadcast. Even better, the compilation closes with Jackson singing Rev. W. Herbert Brewster’s “Getting Happy In Chicago,” sourced from a 1948 aircheck of a live broadcast from Chicago’s Greater Harvest Missionary Baptist Church. In 1945 the church’s founder, Rev. Louis Boddie, began to broadcast Sunday services over radio station WAAF, which aired coast to coast. Thankfully, a number of these broadcasts from 1948 were recorded on wire reels by Melville Herskovits and later deposited and preserved at the Indiana University Archives of Traditional Music.
Heilbut, who also wrote the liner notes, begins his essay with 8 compelling reasons why Moving On Up a Little Higher should be considered the definitive Mahalia compilation. Needless to say, we can find 22 reasons why any gospel enthusiast will want this CD, since each track is a treasure.
Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss
 Jackson’s appearance at Newport the following year was released by Columbia as “Mahalia Jackson Live at Newport 1958.”
Music and place often go hand-in-hand. Take the Mississippi Delta, for example. The region’s association with the blues has made the city of Clarksdale a site of pilgrimage: one can visit the Delta Blues Museum, explore the Mississippi Blues Trail, and visit the famous Juke Joint Festival.
Recording engineer Michael Reilly asks us to consider a less-explored musical tradition of Mississippi’s Delta—a capella gospel music. To make his case, Reilly has recorded three albums of sacred African American music in Como, Mississippi— just thirty miles from Clarksdale—for Daptone Records. His third release, Panola County Spirit, features the gifted Walker Family Singers. Known throughout Como for their musical talent, the group is spread over two generations: parents Raymond and Joella; daughters Alberta, Patricia, and Delouse; and sons Bobby and Robert—all of whom appear on the album.
Just like their music, faith has been a practice shared among the Walker Family. They identify themselves as “vessels for God” and understand music as a tool to deepen their relationship with Jesus. The Walker’s commitment to the Lord is strong—Raymond Walker even turned down offers to tour with legendary musicians Fred McDowell and Sam Cooke, as he committed himself to making music for the Lord, rather than commercial gain. Through seventeen tracks of spirituals, hymns, and quartet-style singing, Panola County Spirit features the Walker Family in both individual and group settings. In harmony, the Walker Family Singers shine on “Jesus Gave Me Water”—a classic gospel quartet performance. The song’s abridged rendition leaves the listener with feet tapping and a thirst for more.
The individual performances from the Walker Family hold just as much power as their ensemble offerings. On “Make Me Real,” daughter Patricia Walker begs with a disciple’s conviction for Jesus to “teach [her] heart what’s right.” Joella Walker’s lament on “Had My Chance” is a chilling reflection upon missed opportunities to praise the Lord during a life that is coming to an end. While the majority of Panola County Spirit is a capella, “Oh Lord Hear My Voice” and “Leave That Liar Alone” feature clapping and body percussion. Their heightened energy, as compared to other tracks on the album, leaves one to wonder about the power of these songs when performed in Como’s local churches.
The strong recording quality on the album is worth noting, especially since the songs were recorded in Raymond and Joella’s living room. On the other hand, Michael Reilly’s liner notes, at times, raise eyebrows. He calls the process of recording the Walker Family Singers “fishing these old dark songs” (are these “old” songs not being sung today?), and places his own interpretation of the album’s music in front of the Walker Family’s sacred associations.
Production questions aside, Panola County Spirit proves two things: that the Mississippi Delta is rich in music beyond the blues, and that the Walker Family Singers are some of the region’s best voices to praise His holy name.
On this new two-for-one reissue, Real Gone Music makes available for the first time on CD the first two Staple Singers studio albums on Columbia’s Epic label, released just after the group left Orrin Keepnews’ Riverside label (which subsequently folded in 1964). Amen! was recorded in Chicago in October 1964 and was released in 1965, while Why, released the following year, was recorded primarily in Nashville. Though these two albums marked an attempt to greatly expand the audience for the Staple Singers by utilizing the significant muscle of Columbia’s marketing department, they did not resort pop-oriented songs but chose to emphasized the sacred over the secular. Both albums display the group’s church music roots, featuring Pops Staple’s updated arrangements of traditional religious songs and spirituals such as “Mary Don’t You Weep” and “If I Could Hear My Mother Pray.”
Noteable tracks on Amen! include Pops Staples’ “More Than a Hammer and Nail” (originally released in 1962 on Riverside), featuring the soulful voice of Mavis, and his “Do Something for Yourself” which presages their later hit “Respect Yourself.” Also included are two songs, “As an Eagle Stirreth Her Nest” and “My Jesus Is All,” by Rev. W. H. Brewster—the legendary Memphis-based gospel hitmaker. The album concludes with the title track “Amen” by Jester Hairston, popularized the previous year by the Staples’ fellow Chicagoans, The Impressions. Again, the Staples’ take a more traditional approach, retaining the marching beat of the snare drum and frequent key changes, but slowing the tempo significantly and, of course, dispensing with the somewhat over-the-top horn section.
The follow-up album opens with the title track, Why? (Am I Treated So Bad), a commentary on segregation and the Little Rock Nine which became a standard during the Civil Rights Movement (the Staple Singers later reissued the song using a rhythm section). Other highlights include Pops’ arrangements of the traditional songs “(I’ve Been ‘Buked) I’ve Been Scorned” and “I’m Gonna Tell God (About My Troubles),” the uptempo “King of Kings,” the Pervis composed and sung “Step Aside,” and the closing song “Move Along Train” featuring Mavis in the lead with Cleotha singing back-up.
The Relatives are a gospel funk band that formed in the late sixties, pulling together the rock and funk sounds pioneered by Sly and the Family Stone with the traditional gospel which the group’s leader, Reverend Gean West, had by that time built a career singing. The band never achieved the success it aimed for, with performances becoming fewer and farther between during the 1970s before the group eventually stopped gigging in 1980. The liner notes for Goodbye World, the newest release from the reconstituted version of The Relatives, frame the group’s predicament this way: “Unfortunately, Gean’s innovation had too much gospel for the kids and too much wah-wah guitar and fuzzy organ for the older folks, and The Relatives never took off.” While it is certainly a shame that the group didn’t achieve the requisite success upon its formation, the band reunited in 2013, releasing a full-length album that year and playing hometown gigs in Dallas as well as some limited touring. Perhaps listeners have finally caught up with the band—if anything will convince new fans to join the fold, it will be Goodbye World.
Unfortunately this album will be West’s final effort with the group, as he fell into a coma, woke from it to provide a few final contributions, and eventually passed away in the hospital while the album was in production. Goodbye World’s recording and production is an interesting story, one which is recounted in emotional detail in the release’s liner notes— interested listeners should read the CD booklet, because the album’s story is remarkable. Goodbye World is, however, also notable as a musical document of a niche-oriented band that has cultivated a signature style, one that appears to have solidified in 2016.
Goodbye World’s musical underpinnings draw heavily from ’60s and ’70s funk rock, with wah-wah pedals and in-the-pocket grooves underpinning most of the album. The Relatives’ guitarist, Gypsy, is largely responsible for this, alternately channeling Eddie Hazel and Isaac Hayes. The persistent Hammond B3 sounds, supplied by keyboardists Ian Varley and Mike Flanigin, link hard-driving funk to the group’s gospel message, including Gene West’s introspective sermon/personal testimony on the album’s first track, “Rational Culture/Testimony.” “You Gotta Do Right” is a Jimi Hendrix-meets-Sly Stone funk rock romp, “No Man is an Island” sounds like Frankie Valli with wah-wah guitars behind him, and “He Never Sleeps” is straight out of the acapella gospel quartet tradition. Lyrically, the band emphasizes themes of unity and spirituality, while also touching on current events, such as police overreach, in “This World is Moving too Fast.”
While Goodbye World will likely not sound as revolutionary to contemporary listeners as The Relatives may have upon the band’s initial formation, the band has clearly developed a well-honed sound. Goodbye World is funky and spiritual; it deserves repeated listens, at least once for the sounds and at least once for the message.
Omnivore Recordings is releasing expanded versions of two definitive albums by the Blind Boys of Alabama, Spirit of the Century and Higher Ground. Each album includes previously unreleased recordings drawn from live performances.
Spirit of the Century, originally released in 2001, won a Grammy for Best Traditional Soul Gospel Album. This is all the more impressive since the Blind Boys of Alabama were already 60 years into their career at that point. More recently, a version of the album’s song “Way Down in the Hole” gained national attention when it was used as the theme song for the first season of HBO’s The Wire. The expanded reissue includes seven previously unissued tracks recorded live at The Bottom Line in New York City in 2001.
Released a year later, Higher Ground featured musical backing from Robert Randolph & the Family Band, as well as multiple guest appearances from Ben Harper. The album rearranged traditional hymns as well as classic songs by Curtis Mayfield, Funkadelic, and Aretha Franklin, and won the group their second consecutive Grammy. The expanded edition includes another seven previously unreleased tracks that were recorded live on KCRW radio’s Morning Becomes Eclectic show in 2002.
Both reissues include new essays by author Davin Seay, which help bring a fresh perspective to these classic albums and bonus tracks.
Lecrae has never been one to shy away from controversy, from criticizing rappers who glorify violence on his Grammy-winning Gravity to his personal story about abortion on his last album Anomaly. His latest project, Church Clothes 3 (often abbreviated CC3) is no different. He dropped the ten-track album without warning on January 15, and it fully embraces racial politics in a new way for Lecrae while retaining his characteristic Christian messages.
The first two Church Clothes mixtapes were produced by Don Cannon (50 Cent, Ludacris), and CC3 was produced by S1 (Kanye West, Jay-Z). All three have excellent production with beats that sound typical of what one hears from mainstream hip hop. CC3 reached the number one slot on Billboard’s Rap/Hip-Hop Album charts within a week of being released, showcasing Lecrae’s tendency to cross genre boundaries despite being known as a gospel rapper.
Central to the album and its political messages is the short film that was released simultaneously, featuring the songs “It Is What It Is,” “Gangland,” “Déjà Vu,” and “Misconceptions 3.” The video follows a young gang member who gets shot:
The opening track, “Freedom,” frames the concept through two lenses: freedom as spiritual salvation and freedom from racial injustice. The hook, sung by Dallas vocalist N’dambi, is smooth soul and claims freedom as a mindset. The song samples a gospel chorus in the background, which is chopped up in the verses, creating holy syncopation. There are clear influences of Kendrick Lamar’s acclaimed To Pimp A Butterfly throughout the entitle album and video, but this song includes a direct reference to the Lamar’s “King Kunta.”
“Gangland,” featuring Propaganda, is the most overtly political song on CC3. Referencing the New Jim Crow and the government’s role in allowing drugs to permeate African American communities, the track includes spoken narration in between verses that criticize the criminal justice system and explain the origins of gangs in the United States. Maybe most controversial to Lecrae’s white, Christian fan base may be the lyrics in Propaganda’s verse: “When American churches scuff they Toms on our brother’s dead bodies / As they march to stop gay marriage / We had issues with Planned Parenthood too / We just cared about black lives outside the womb just as much as in.”
The song “Can’t Do You,” featuring the rapper E-40, brushes off haters, encouraging the listener to “do you.” It’s backed by a standard hand-clapping beat and a R&B chorus sung by Drew Allen. Another standout track is “Misconceptions 3,” featuring John Givez, JGivens & Jackie Hill Perry. As the title indicates, it is the third in a series of tracks about misconceptions that appear on the first two Church Clothes albums. The beat is fast and hard, and indiscriminate chanting in the background helps moves the song forward. Lecrae lets these rappers shine on the track, with fast flows and witty lyrics such as “They shocked to see us like Donald Trump up in a taqueria.”
Lecrae, who marched with #BlackLivesMatter protestors in Atlanta last year, recently said on CNN that he wants to “educate and help” people who don’t see the reality of racism in the United States. Church Clothes 3 certainly makes a bold step in that direction, as Lecrae explains the complexities of racism, unashamedly continuing to change the way people view the world.
Briana Babineaux, known simply as Bri, started singing at age five in the Lafayette, Louisiana church where her stepfather was a pastor. Now 21 years old and studying criminal justice, she never considered a career as a singer until one of her friends posted a video of her singing “Make Me Over” by Tonex on YouTube, which became a viral sensation.
Rising up through social media, Bri has become a full-fledged gospel star, releasing her debut album Keys to My Heart through Marquis Boone Enterprises and Tyscot Records. Her first gospel single, “I’ll Be the One,” came out last June and reached the top spot on Billboard’s Gospel Digital Songs chart. This heartfelt song includes a call and response chorus in which Bri offers her life to God:
Many gospel artists have encouraged and supported Bri on her debut album. Recording artist Bryan Andrew Wilson composed the warm, stripped-down ballad “Grace” especially for Bri, and Christian artist Reece wrote “Love You Forever.” The latter is evocative of ‘90s R&B girl groups, especially in the outro that features snapping, with Bri riffing both in melodies and speech as the song fades out.
Trying her hand as a singer-songwriter, Bri wrote her first compositions for the album—“Jacob’s Song” and its reprise “I’m Desperate.” They are both dynamic, with reverently quiet moments that build until the music swells and Bri belts outs skillfully embellished runs and high notes in the choruses.
In Keys to My Heart, Bri puts her soul into every song she sings, proving that she’s not just a social media star, but a rising gospel star with a lot to say.
Growing up in Washington, D.C as the middle child of seven kids, Lynda Randle learned many traditional hymns from her family. During a difficult period when she was caring for her sick mother, Randle decided to record many of these hymns in honor of her parents. Ageless Hymns: Songs of Joy is the final installment in this series of three albums “dedicated to timeless, classic songs of faith.” The series is distributed through Gaither Music, a Christian music group powerhouse created and run by native Hoosiers Bill and Gloria Gaither in Alexandria, Indiana. Randle is one of the only African American artists to appear regularly at Gaither Homecomings, and has released many contemporary Christian albums and DVDs as part of the Gaither Gospel Series.
All the songs on Ageless Hymns: Songs of Joy are meant to “uplift, renew, and encourage the soul.” They include traditional hymns such as “Real, Real,” “The Windows of Heaven,” and “This Joy I Have.” The album also features originals, such as “He Touched Me” written by Bill Gaither, and “In You I Find My Joy,” written by Randle, who has composed and arranged hundreds of songs over the course of her career.
Randle’s dedication to her faith is present throughout the whole album, and her passionate, soulful voice amplifies and gives life to these traditional hymns.
White rock musicians drawing inspiration from black gospel music is a common story. Less common are black gospel musicians recording sacred songs written by white rock musicians.
Producer Brian Brinkerhoff thought of the latter when he contacted guitarist and singer Sam Butler about doing an album together. Butler—known for his work with the Blind Boys of Alabama and Clarence Fountain—liked the proposal. The two hired a talented trio of musicians—pedal steel guitarist Roosevelt Collier, drummer Marco Giovino, and bassist Viktor Krauss—and selected songs by U2, Eric Clapton, and Van Morrison, to name a few, to record. Over three days—which Brinkerhoff called a “musical worship service”—Raise Your Hands! was born.
Musically, the album moves between blues-rock grooves and songs of reflective contemplation. Tom Waits’ “Gospel Train” is a swampy invocation to join the Lord’s ride and evade the Devil’s foolishness. “Heaven’s Wall” has a similar heaviness, laid over an extended vamp. On the other hand, “Sanctuary” is a reverb-soaked ballad, with an earthy, Americana sound. Between these two poles, Butler’s dynamic voice, passionate interpretation, and praise for the Lord are the album’s common threads.
While Butler is the centerpiece of Raise Your Hands!, pedal steel guitarist Roosevelt Collier is the star. Collier was raised in the House of God Congregation—known for producing many talented pedal steel musicians. Collier’s solos on “Magnificent” and “Lead Me Father” are bold, soaring statements, while his sensitive accompaniment on the album’s slower songs is ever-tasteful. Drummer Marco Giovino, too, shines on Curtis Mayfield’s “Wherever You Leadth” and Victor Krauss is consistent throughout the release.
Raise Your Hands! is an album that blurs musical lines. Sacred and secular, rock and gospel, bandleader and band member are productively eschewed, in service of the Lord and His gift of good music.
This is proving to be a great year for fans of the Staple Singers. In March, Legacy re-issued their 1965 album, Freedom Highway Complete: Recorded Live at Chicago’s New Nazareth Church (reviewed here), to commemorate the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday” and the subsequent Selma to Montgomery march—a pivotal moment in the Civil Rights Movement. Now, just in time for the holidays, we’re blessed with Concord’s limited edition 4-CD box set, Faith & Grace: A Family Journey 1953-1976, the first comprehensive overview of the group’s career. Drawing from over two decades of material in the vaults, the set includes both live and studio recordings. Also included are some tempting never-before-released rarities, of which the pièce de résistance is the bonus 7-inch vinyl disc featuring the earliest known recordings of the group (“Faith and Grace” ; “These Are They”) from a 1953 limited edition self-released 78-rpm disc on the Royal label.
Family patriarch Roebuck “Pops” Staples, a guitarist and singer noted for his high tenor voice and falsetto, formed the Staples Singers in 1949 with his son, Pervis (tenor), and two of his young daughters, Cleotha (alto) and Mavis (contralto and bass)—who usually sang lead with her father. Another daughter, Yvonne, would later join the quartet, alternating with Pervis and Cleotha. Originally from Mississippi, Pops was exposed to both secular music, primarily the Delta blues, as well as sacred, performing in church choirs and with the vocal group Golden Trumpets. When the family moved to Chicago in the 1930s, bringing their country styles with them, they were initially ridiculed in the big city (as were most rural southerners during the Great Migration). However, it would be this unique fusion of country blues, folk spirituals and gospel quartet influences that propelled the family to stardom—especially in the late 1950s and 1960s with the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement and subsequent flowering of soul music.
Disc one, sequenced chronologically, covers the early years from 1953-1960. Opening with two songs recorded on September 7, 1953, the group lays into Pops Staple’s original “It Rained Children” (United 165) and a traditional song “I Just Can’t Keep It to Myself” (Gospel/Savoy LP 3001), both accompanied on piano by Evelyn Gay of the popular Gay Sisters, who only sat in at the insistence of the studio head. All of the remaining songs were accompanied by Pops on guitar and were recorded at Chicago’s Universal Studios for release on the African American owned Vee-Jay label, where Ewart Abner was responsible for signing the group. Also included is the previously unreleased song—“I’ve Got a New Home” from 1955. This disc brings out the raw gospel “straight from the church” side of the Staple Singers and, with the exception of their first major hit “Uncloudy Day,” many of these songs are likely not well-known to the average listener. The disc also highlights the remarkable talents of the precocious Mavis, who was only 14 when the initial tracks were recorded.
Disc two continues with Vee-Jay recordings from 1960-1961, beginning with “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” and including traditional songs such as “Swing Low” and “Stand By Me.” A previously unreleased full version of the medley “Too Close/I’m On My Way Home/I’m Coming Home/He’s Alright” from a live performance recorded in Clarksdale, Mississippi in 1960 is a highlight of this disc. When the group moved over to the New York based Riverside label in 1962, they released the album Hammer and Nails (Riverside 3501). Under the direction of Orrin Keepnews, the seven songs included here from Hammer and Nails showcase a much more pop-oriented sound, purposefully targeted to a broader audience well beyond the Black church. The remaining tracks are drawn from several Riverside albums: “There Was a Star” and “Use What You Got” (with Maceo Woods on organ) from the Christmas album The 25th Day of December(Riverside 3513); “Let That Liar Alone” and the popular folk songs “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and “This Land Is Your Land” from the album This Land, with Phil Upchurch and Johnny Pate on bass (Riverside 3524); “I Know I’ve Been Changed” from the album Great Day (Milestone M 470280, though this citation does not appear in the notes) ; and “I Can’t Help From Cryin’ Sometime” from the album This Little Light (Riverside 3527).
Disc 3 represents the greatest transitional period, including material from 1964-1969 recorded for several labels: three tracks from Riverside (all from This Little Light), then moving on to “Wish I Had Answered” from the Live at Newport album on Vanguard; two tracks recorded for the D-Town label’s devotional series including “Tell Him What You Want” and I’ll Fly Away”; 11 tracks from the Epic label which includes their socially conscious song “Freedom Highway;” and three of their first songs on the Stax label including “Long Walk to D.C.,” “Slow Train” and “Got to Be Some Changes.”
Disc 4 is comprised almost entirely of the Staple Singers’ Stax output, where they were molded into soul music superstars. Included is their great message song about reparations, “When Will We Be Paid,” and “The Ghetto” from the albums Soul Folk in Action and We’ll Get Over, plus their biggest hit of all time, “Respect Yourself,” and four other songs from the album Be Altitude: Respect Yourself. Also included are two songs from the album Be What You Are, “Back Road Into Town” from City in the Sky, and “Let’s Do It Again,” released on Curtis Mayfield’s Curtom label. The set closes with a version of the song “The Weight,” recorded in 1976 with The Band (featuring Levon Helm) for the famous Martin Scorsese documentary The Last Waltz, plus a bonus demo track of “Respect Yourself.”
The handsome packaging includes a forward by Mavis Staples along with informative liner notes by James Miller, gospel historian Opal Louis Nations, and compilation producer Joe McEwen, accompanied by many full color photographs. It should be noted that a few typos and omissions have crept into the text, and the CD sleeves are too tight and must be loosened to allow safe removal of the discs. But overall this is a fabulous tribute to the Staple Singers, covering the full range of their output from the “country gospel sounds of the Mississippi Delta” to the peak of their career as soul royalty, “God’s greatest hitmakers,” and icons of the Civil Rights Movement. Don’t wait too long to purchase a copy—this set may be sold out by the end of the year.
For some, the Lord is experienced through songs that make them shout; for others, quiet introspection leads them to Grace. Musician, vocalist, and songwriter Anthony Brown understands this about his audience. On his sophomore release, Everyday Jesus, Brown—along with the angelic voices of his choir, group therAPy, and his outstanding band—provides a pallet of musical offerings with a single intention: to bring listeners closer to the Lord.
The first-half of Everyday Jesus is full of high-energy praise. “I Am (Miracle)”—a gospel classic in the making—features a danceable chorus reminiscent of EDM and a strong message to non-believers: if you want to know the miracle of Jesus, just look at me. “What He’s Done (I’m the One)” is an up-tempo nod to down-home church. The second half of Everyday Jesus features a more-subtle musical approach. “Without You” opens with the hymn “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” beautifully interpreted by singer Shirley Dailey, and “The Same” features a memorable pentatonic melody accompanied by nuanced rhythmic accompaniment. Taken together, Everyday Jesus is a highly-inclusive release.
One of the results of this inclusivity is commercial success. The album has already reached #1 on Billboard’s gospel music charts and the album’s single, “Worth,” holds steady at #2 on Billboard’s Gospel airplay and Gospel digital songs charts at the time of this writing. Brown’s success also has to do with the way that he understands his relationship with the Lord. For Brown, a relationship with Jesus is not one of separation, but is a quotidian relationship—hence, the album’s title is Everyday Jesus. For his listeners, the album serves as a therapeutic musical testimony of how near God can be as we move through our everyday lives.
Everyday Jesus is a strong performance and full of anointing. This release is destined to bring Anthony Brown’s talent as a singer, songwriter, and bandleader to the heights—and perhaps even the canon—of contemporary gospel music.
On Light in the Dark, Danetra Moore gets right to the point. The first song, “If God Be for You,” begins with the lyric:
Stepping out the background,
finally get a chance to tell my story
Indeed, after years of working as a back-up singer for Kirk Franklin, Vicki Winans, and Angie Stone, and a third place finish on Season Five of BET’s Sunday Best, Moore earned a record deal with the Tyscot label in 2013. Light in the Dark—her first album as a solo gospel artist—shows that Moore’s prior experience has served her well.
Moore is impressive in her vocal performance and arranging on this release. On “Love of My Life,” Moore’s voice melismatically delivers in ranges high and low, while the reverb-drenched background vocals provide a solid accompaniment to her lead. “He Changed Me” is a funky duet between Moore and label-mate Rance Allen, showing that Moore is comfortable in gospel that is both contemporary and traditional. It should not surprise that Moore grew up in a family of musicians who call the church home.
Perhaps the only thing stronger than Moore’s voice on Light in the Dark is her faith. The album’s single, “Only God Can,” sings of the power of the Lord, in matters both spiritual and worldly. “All I Can Do is Pray”—released as a single following Moore’s success on Sunday Best and included on Light in the Dark—suggests that praying and patience are the only remedies to the problems of the world. These songs suggest a central message in Moore’s debut: Jesus Christ is, and has been, the source of her accomplishments.
Yet, an expression of her faith is not the sole intention of Light in the Dark. The album’s glossy production shows that Moore is centered on a successful commercial career. The majority of the tracks were produced by Pierre “The Maven” Medor—a Grammy-nominated artist working in Atlanta whose résumé includes work with Jagged Edge, Usher, and Mary J. Blige. The album reflects Medor’s experience in contemporary R&B, yet is subtle enough that we never forget: Moore is the leader on Light in the Dark.
The singer’s first album is not about breaking musical rules. Rather, Danetra Moore’s Light in the Dark is a solid statement by an up-and-coming gospel artist who puts the Lord first, but never loses sight of her personal ambitions.
Distinguished gospel scholar and producer Anthony Heilbut has been responsible for many historical compilations, and this time around he’s managed to unearth 13 previously unreleased tracks recorded by Marion Williams (1927-1994)—one of the greatest gospel singers of all time. Packin’ Up: The Best of Marion Williams combines these unissued gems with 13 additional tracks. The selections were recorded over a 35-year period, beginning with Williams leading the Famous Ward Singers in definitive performances of “Sweet Low, Sweet Chariot” and “Packin’ Up” at the 1957 Newport Jazz Festival (previously unreleased versions), and concluding with a haunting 1993 recording of the socially conscious “I’m a Stranger,” about “homeless, hungry people out on the street.”
The album opens with another previously unreleased 1993 track, “Press on Like the Bible Said,” a gospel blues shouter featuring Herbert Pickard on organ, Eddie Brown on piano, and Jonathan Dubose on guitar. Other highlights include the gospel blues rendition of “Nobody Knows, Nobody Cares,” her signature version of “Didn’t It Rain,” and her hair-raising performance of “When Death Shall Determine My Stay Here” (backed by James Perry on organ), where “she was clearly struck to the depth of her sanctified soul” (Heilbut).
Those unfamiliar with Marion Williams will likely be astonished not only by her vocal prowess, four octave range, and powerful delivery—but also by the wide range of her sound, from traditional gospel to songs that incorporate blues, jazz, folk and rock ‘n’ roll. This compilation would be ideal for classroom use, illustrating the links between gospel and secular music genres, as well as Williams’ influence on artists ranging from Little Richard and James Brown to Nina Simone, Aretha Franklin, and the Beatles. Packin’ Up is accompanied by a booklet with extensive liner notes by Heilbut and illustrated with archival images from his personal collection.
Amen, Amen, Amen: The Essential Collection is an inspired re-issue by the Swan Silvertones—once referred to by guitarist Al Kooper as the “Beatles of gospel”—whose voices and arrangements raise this collection to heavenly heights. The recordings on this collection were first issued on Specialty and Vee-Jay Records between 1950 and 1963, and now reissued on S’more Entertainment/Rock Beat Records.
Leading the Swan Silvertones during this period was Claude Jeter, an anointed tenor born in Montgomery, Alabama in 1914. While the group’s line-up changed in 1956 and 1959, Claude Jeter’s leadership remained steadfast during the thirteen years highlighted on Amen, Amen, Amen. Thus, these recordings become a spotlight of Jeter’s artistic contribution to the Swan Silvertones and allow listeners to hear the evolution of his voice, as well as his ensemble.
“The Day Will Surely Come,” the “A side” of the group’s first single on Specialty in 1952, demonstrates Jeter’s smooth lead tenor and songwriting abilities. Jeter’s genius—his sweet vocal falsetto—is heard in the brilliant rendition of “I’m Coming Home,” recorded just a year later. Jeter’s soaring falsetto—as well as the musical excellence of the Swan Silvertones—is perhaps best exemplified through “Mary Don’t You Weep,” released by Vee-Jay in 1959 and selected for induction into the Library of Congress National Recording Registry in 2014. Throughout these recordings, the accompanying singers and instrumentalists in the Swan Silvertones provide a foundation, both swinging and solid, for the lead voices of Jeter, Soloman Womack, Rev. Robert Crenshaw, and Paul Owens, to praise the Lord.
Despite the quality of these recordings, the packaging of Amen, Amen, Amen: The Essential Collection leaves the reader wanting more. A glaring omission is the presence of captions on the included photographs, leaving readers puzzled as to the date of the images and individuals pictured. This is especially puzzling as the album’s producer, Michael Ochs, is a noted photographic archivist specializing in music photography. Strengthening this collection are Mark Humphrey’s liner notes, which provide a focused overview of the Swan Silvertones during the time of these recordings.
Claude Jeter is cited as an influence by a number of iconic American musicians such as Al Green and Paul Simon—the latter of whom credits Jeter with inspiring the Simon and Garfunkel classic, “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” Amen, Amen, Amen: The Essential Collection serves a timely reminder that Claude Jeter’s falsetto, as well as the musicians in the Swan Silvertones, cannot be overlooked in histories of sacred, and secular, American popular music.
The Indianapolis, Indiana based group Judah Band is bringing funky grooves and an edgy style to gospel music lovers throughout the U.S. Founded by lead vocalist and songwriter G. Randy Weston, the group is comprised of five men and three women, several with ties to Indiana University’s IU Soul Revue including vocalist Chauneesha “Neesha” Lester and keyboardist and producer, Terrance “T Denn” Dennie. In March of this year they released their debut album TROG: The Return of Glory, a high charged collection of songs meant to inspire listeners to praise and trust God. While rooted in gospel and praise and worship music, this project is heavily influenced by the hard hitting electric guitar and drums licks of rock as well as the colorful electronic manipulated vocals prominent in contemporary pop music. This CD + DVD edition features songs from their live recording session at The Caring Place Church in Indianapolis. Using a decidedly futuristic, “secret agent” influenced style, the Judah Band outlines their mission as “restoring the reputation of God” by encouraging believers to broaden their view of the divinity of God and to worship Him in their own unique ways.
The album opens with a declaration of their purpose and segues into the explosive track, “Get Up!” which features an exciting call and response led by Weston. While lyrically simple, the track features musical complexity with unpredictable rhythmic changes and unexpected, even disjointed harmonies. The songs on the first half of this project such as “Praise Your Name,” “Hallelujah,” and “God Can,” follow a general congregational praise and worship format with simple melodies, repeated text, call and response, and frequent modulations heightening the worship experience.
Interestingly, several of the tracks on the second half of the album feature a fun stylistic flair that is upbeat and danceable. The song “Up N’ Praise Him,” is heavily influenced by the swing era jazz piece “Sing Sing Sing (With a Swing),” by Louis Prima. In the live recording, singers with expandable fans in hand dance in ways reminiscent of African American church “shouting” (holy dancing) of the mid-20th century. The music video for this song also pays homage to this time period with dress and choreography drawn directly from the swing era:
Judah Band continues this walk down musical memory lane with “Free to Be Me,” which borrows from the 1950s dance craze popularized by Johnny Otis’s “Willie and the Hand Jive.” True to form, the singers perform the popular choreography and teach it to their energetic crowd during the musical interjections.
TROG also features two rather introspective pieces: “Just Hold On” and “Sing With Me.” The former is aimed at encouraging listeners to persevere in the midst of great despair. The latter is a prayerful daydream about making music so captivating and powerful that God would be compelled to sing along with His worshipers. With a descending melody, the vamp sweetly beckons, “Lord, please sing with me.”
A rather enthusiastic project, TROG is an impressive debut for this local group. Their infectious energy and playful style is likely to appeal to the young and the young at heart. Moreover, their willingness to fuse older musical standards with fresh energy and sounds make them a group to listen for in years to come.
Jason Nelson has been described on iTunes as a “worship leader, producer, multi-instrumentalist, and soulful contemporary singer/songwriter.” A factor that is pivotal in the making of his recent album, Jesus Revealed, is the conspicuous and fiery desire to project his gospel music as a passionate worship of God. This spiritual keenness was already apparent in July 2014 when he released the single, “I Am” (track 5), a cool worship song that “personifies God speaking to his people of His perfect ability and power through Jason’s voice” (New Release Today)––a theme that seems to run through the entire album in variety of ways.
However, what is intriguing about Jesus Revealed is its heterogeneity of styles. Listening to “Right In This Place” one gets an impression––given its very hot and upbeat tempo––of being transported to the arena of techno, until the chorus enters with a homophony that seems to betray immediately the religious trajectory of the track. On the other hand, the preceding track “So In Love” has a gentle swing with string accompaniment that is characteristic of bluegrass. “I See the Lord” features the worship-inviting voice of Tasha Page-Lockhart, a well-known Christian R&B and urban contemporary gospel artist and musician who is famous for winning the Sunday Best gospel singing competition for consecutive six seasons. The ensuing track (10), “The Lamb,” has every mien of worship, accompanied as it were by only a piano.
Other tracks include the “Opening – God Is Great” (1), “Pour Out Your Spirit” (2), “Can’t Stop Calling” (3), “Way Maker” (4), “Jesus Revealed” (6), “Never Ending Worship” (7), “I Can Run” (8), “There Is Something About That Name” (11), “I’m In Love With You (Intro)” ( 12), “I’m In Love With You” (13), “Shout Praise” (14), “In This Place” (15).
According to Jason Nelson’s website, “he pastors the Greater Bethlehem Temple Church, a thriving ministry in Randallstown, Maryland; however he is one of the most recognized voices in gospel music and is considered to possess a rare gift in the Body of Christ as he releases the power of the presence of God.” This summary is testimony of the high powered spiritual experience that one can expect to have while listening to Jesus Revealed.
The Truth! And it was Pontius Pilate who once asked the very important question to Jesus: What is the truth? Probably for Casey J. Hobbs, fondly known as Casey J, truth is to be located in the life and lived reality of gospel worship music production. Her recent album The Truth was therefore primarily produced in a live worship session on January 30, 2015, at Fresh Start Church in Duluth, Georgia. Not in the studio! For her, gospel worship must really be live and hence lived.
Casey started out as a teacher but was laid off, something that proved to be a grace inasmuch as she suddenly rose to become one of “the Top Ten of three different Billboard Magazine sales or airplay charts with her powerful debut radio single ‘Fill Me Up,’” as her biography puts it. The single constitutes the 9th and 12th track in the present album. Indeed it was a sign of greater things to come.
Listening to the first track of the album, “Let it Be Known,” one is immediately impressed by the confidence exuded and by her new approach to gospel performance. Indeed, it is all about a modern communal gospel-based worship. This is confirmed in the title track, “The Truth,” that bursts forth with an upbeat rhythm and full melodic accompaniment, while the message “You are my truth” is aggressively stated. On the song “I’m Yours,” she brings out what Bob Marovich refers to as “the ebullience of Casey’s vocal delivery, which oozes with optimism and kinetic energy,” a factor contributing in making the album a break out hit. In the brisk and breezy “Better,” the listener is treated to Casey’s energy and optimism. The same mien is seen in “Have Your Way,” a duet which Casey performs with Jason Nelson, which demonstrates her penchant for solid, almost orchestral-sized pop accompaniment. Other noteworthy tracks include “Oh You Bring,” “Your Heart,” “Never Run Dry,” and “Journal.”
Casey brings to gospel performance an attitude of total dedication. For her, “people and worship are my heart.” In saying this she desires “the environment of [her] performances to be about the worship and not so much about [herself as a person] or [her] artistic persona.” Her gospel “isn’t a traditional church sound – [but] worship in its purest form.”
The Supreme Jubilees constituted by the four Sanders brothers (Philip, Tim, Leonard, and Melvin) and two Kingsby brothers (Joe and David) first came to the limelight in the 1970s when they started to perform around California’s Central Valley church circuit. The gospel ensemble released their only album, It’ll All Be Over, in 1980 on its own S&K (Sanders & Kingsby) label.
As Jessica Hundley writes in the liner notes of this Light in the Attic reissue of the album, “its lyrics [are] drawn from the Old Testament, its sound from the church by way of the disco.” Indeed, the nine tracks have a disco soul feel, with “decent… uptempo tunes… that have a tactile magic about them.” The upbeat nature is immediately felt as one listens to the gentle unfolding of the first track, “It’ll All Be Over.” Further, the liner notes declare ambitiously: “If God had a disco, the DJ would be playing California gospel-soul group The Supreme Jubilees.” The listener is then warned rather oxymoronically: “prepare to dance and contemplate death all at the same time.” This monition is literally verified as one listens to the second track “Do You Believe”:
Other songs include “Thank You Lord” (track 3), “I Am on the Lord’s Side” (track 4), “You Don’t Know” (Track 5), “Standing in the Need of Prayer” (track 6), “Got a Right” (track 7), “We’ll Understand” (track 8), and “Stop Today” (Track 9). While laden with varied if complementary religious and deeply spiritual messages, these tracks are commonly marked by that so-called four-on-the-floor rhythmic pattern that is characteristic of disco music, consisting – more or less – in a uniform accentuation of all the units of beat in a simple common time signature. A veritable disco sacro, however paradoxical it may sound!
It’ll All Be Over is de facto apocalyptic both in reference and emphasis. But its apocalyptic posture has nothing to do with being gloomy; instead we have a musical picture suggesting – as Andy Beta observes (and as succinctly depicted in the album front picture) – that “the afterlife is as beauteous as the Pacific Ocean come sunset yet as warm as a baptismal dip in the Caribbean” (Pitchfork, February 13, 2015).
Publisher: University of Illinois Press (Music in American Life series)
Formats: Hardcover, Paperback, eBook
Release date: March 3, 2015
Gospel music has had immeasurable impact on the African American church and on the sound and performance of American popular music. As we look forward to gospel’s new frontiers—international gospel choirs and conferences, nationally televised competitions, and proliferation on radio and digital media—it is also prudent to look back and remember, reflect, and record the history of this important cultural expression. In his monumental text, A City Called Heaven: Chicago and the Birth of Gospel Music, gospel music historian and radio personality Robert Marovich explores one of the most important and contested discussions on gospel music—its origins. Using extensive interviews, archival research including materials at Archives of African American Music and Culture (AAAMC), articles from the Chicago Defender, and numerous secondary sources, he outlines why Chicago, Illinois is THE uncontested birthplace of gospel music. Moreover, he highlights the major artists and musicians, churches, choirs, quartets, publishers, radio and television broadcasts, and record labels that were instrumental in the development and dissemination of this art form.
A City Called Heaven is divided into two sections: “Roots” which spans from the 1920s to the late 1930s, and “Branches” which examines gospel’s evolution from the 1940s to 1970. In a candid, yet straightforward tone, Marovich crafts a narrative about this Christian community of musicians who would transform their ordinary circumstances into an extraordinary expression of faith. The substance of the text rests on five main arguments: 1) Gospel music was a means for African American migrants to establish their place within Chicago’s African American church and social communities because it allowed them to combine their southern worship styles with urban musics and sensibilities; 2) Gospel music transcended denominational boundaries while also being influenced by unique denominational styles; 3) The gospel music industry was birthed from the entrepreneurial ingenuity of often fiscally oppressed African American migrants; 4) Gospel music would be periodically altered by younger artists; and 5) There were six historic “tipping points” or events that helped establish gospel music including Thomas A. Dorsey’s founding of the first modern gospel chorus at Ebenezer Baptist church and the founding of (Sallie) Martin & (Kenneth) Morris Music Studio, the largest African American owned gospel publishing enterprise.
Perhaps the greatest strength of this work is the sheer breadth of information that is presented. Great care is given to move beyond simple biographical sketches of more well-known innovators like Dorsey, Mahalia Jackson, Theodore Frye, Roberta Martin and Sallie Martin to ground the story in the sights, sounds, language and community of Black Chicago. Marovich gives ample space to the distinctive worship styles and contributions of clergy and churches that performed and transformed gospel music like Pilgrim Baptist Church, First Church of Deliverance, Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church, and the Cosmopolitan Church of Prayer. Likewise, the stories of many of lesser known artists like Magnolia N. Lewis Butts (whose work helped the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Chorus become a mobilizing force for gospel music industry) are celebrated. Marovich’s extensive background in traditional gospel recordings is particularly suited to this text as he offers specific evidence (and educational speculation) for the musical innovations and influence of gospel artists like Mahalia Jackson, Sam Cooke, and the Highway QCs.
Marovich passionately supports his main arguments as he illustrates how Chicago became the first gospel center and an integral part of a national network of gospel communities. Because of the large number of singers, groups, and recordings that are mentioned, certain discussions are rather encyclopedic. Undoubtedly, a lack of available resources and space limitations necessitated that some histories be abbreviated in the text. Nevertheless, A City Called Heaven is a valuable resource that points to the many voices that were important to the success of gospel music. With his text, Marovich extends an invitation to readers and gospel music lovers to celebrate the beautiful and spirit-filled contributions of those who paved the gospel highway from Chicago to heaven and back.
Bob Marovich has partnered with the AAAMC to digitize and preserve the audiotapes of interviews conducted for this book. The original tapes and transcripts will become a permanent part of the Robert Marovich Collection available at the AAAMC.
A soloist! A celebrated gospel choir conductor! A radio personality! A worship pastor! All these epithets aptly refer to a Chicago-born gospel music star, Lonnie Hunter—an accomplished Stellar Award winning recording artist, who just recently released his fifth album #Getitdone.
Hunter’s new album is a mélange of styles ranging “from full-fledged Gospel choral pieces to smooth R&B Christian jams to more contemporary soul-accentuated pop offerings.”
Nevertheless, each of the tracks is a unique and accomplished piece in itself. The opening track “He’s Worthy” is an upbeat praise song, outstanding for its “roof-piercing” soprano refraining of the title. This fiery intro is followed by the gentle-sounding “Forever I Will,” whose cool and meditative prelude accentuates its worship mien. “Devotion” is mellifluous in its choral harmony and deeply moving in its swing-like fast waltz rhythm, and the dance music returns with “He’s Been Good.” But caveat! It is a dance based on meditative reminiscence of what God has done:
The basic alternation of gentle and upbeat rhythmic structure is followed in the remaining seven tracks. Thus in tracks 5, 6, 8 and 10 respectively—“Yes,” “Here In Your Presence,” “You’re My God,” and “My Tribute”—one finds a gentle and meditative musical mood that is characteristic of worship music, while the upbeat tracks 7, 9 and 11—“What He’s Done,” “#Getitdone” and “In Your Face (The Wedding Song)”—are more fitting for lively praise sessions.
But why “Get it done;” what has gotten to be done? Timothy Yap underscores that #Getitdone “is an album of songs with messages that point both vertically and horizontally. Not only does Hunter push us not to procrastinate in the giving of our worship to God, but this album also brims with lots of wizened practical nuggets of how to live lives as God’s kingdom builders.” The religious trajectory of the album is certainly fait accompli!
The phrase Saved and Sanctified is one well known in Pentecostal and Holiness Movement circles. An online source defines salvation as being “brought into an intimate, fellowship and relationship with the Lord [Jesus] through the new birth” while sanctification “is an ongoing process in the believer’s life that is accomplished by the Holy Spirit within, separating the believer from sin.” Numero adopts Saved and Sanctified as the title of a compilation of traditional gospel tunes released as singles in the 1960s they describe as “the rawest, DIY gospel ever resurrected.”
The setting for the Songs of the Jade Label is Chicago, where Gene Autry Cash came with his Old Dominion musical squad in a bid to procure a lasting recording of “their fiery, unadorned sounds.” Cash soon had a huge following as his recording firm attracted simple devout folks, “those God-fearing artists,” who wanted to have their gospel singles “cut… indelibly to plastics.” The present album is therefore not a selection of songs released by professional and huge money-making gospel music stars but features even “family bands with wailing kids” as well as “barely amateur groups sourced from local parishes, infused with reverberations of country and western and deep soul.”
Released in LP and digital formats, the compilation includes 13 tracks and 11 different musical ensembles:
“Didn’t It Rain” – Rev. Solomon King and the Glory Bound Singers
“Got to Make a Hundred” – Harmony Four
“I Want To Be More Like Him” – The Gospel Song Birds
“Soul Couldn’t Be Contented” – The Inspirational Souls
“Saved and Sanctified” – Brother Hayes and the Farmer Singers
“My Shoes” – Flying Eagle Gospel Singers
“Why is the Blood Running Warm?” – The Mighty Messiahs
“Never Alone” – The Gospel Clouds
“I Love the Lord” – The Mountavie Gospel Singers
“Satisfied Mind” – Reverend Jennings
“God Won’t Let You Down” – Southern Faith Singers
“Family Prayer” – Flying Eagle Gospel Singers
“Wake Up Country” – Sons of Christ
Saved and Sanctified is a collection of songs performed by artists whose sole purpose was to declare the gospel message as it is and feels, without exaggerated concern for musical finesse or pointless perfectionism geared to marketability. As stated in the press release, “glinting authenticity shines from every track like a diamond in the unpolished rough—each group completely convinced that salvation comes through song.” What could be more wonderful!
The McCrary Sisters (Ann, Deborah, Regina and Alfreda) are the daughters of the late Rev. Samuel McCrary, one of the founding members of The Fairfield Four, the famed and fabulous quartet dedicated exclusively to the performance of traditional gospel. Their talent is grounded in the musical grooming they received in their family. Mike Tash, writing about the four sisters, indicates that for them, “music is a birthright, a lifelong love affair, a sometimes career, an indescribable joy, and occasionally, a cross to bear.” While their musical virtuosity initially led them individually to work with different artists, they eventually came together as the “McCrary Sisters” in 2011, each bringing “a unique energy and virtuosity to the group [as well as] varied experiences within the worlds of pop, rock, R&B and gospel music,” as Amy Sciarretto indicates.
Their new album, Let’s Go, which blends traditional and contemporary gospel music, was produced by Nashville-based singer/songwriter and musician Buddy Miller, who is featured prominently on guitar, along with other Nashville session musicians. Andy Argyrakis notes: “while there are contemporary aspects within this set of rootsy gospel romps… these four daughters of Fairfield Four tenor Rev. Samuel McCrary also cling tightly to tradition, especially when it comes to lyrics that edify and uplift.” Regina narrates the story in an interview with Chuck Dauphin: “When Buddy Miller agreed to produce the CD for the McCrary Sisters, we were overwhelmed with joy. Buddy is family to us. The first thing that Buddy did was give us 50 songs and asked us to pick 20, then from those, we narrowed it down to the 10 on the CD.”
Let’s Go eventually grew to include 16 solid gospel tracks with varying mood and aesthetics. Opening with the brief, a capella intro “Let’s Go,” the McCrary’s move on to the energetic drum, organ and guitar accompanied track “That’s Enough.” Shifting to a contemplative mood on the third track, “By the Mark,” one gets a feel of traditional gospel accompanied by a sole guitar. The fourth track, an energetic arrangement of the spiritual “I John,” is also sparsely accompanied by guitar and percussion—including drum and tambourine—while the following track, “Dr. Watts,” has every feature of a lined out hymn.
“Fire” is a veritably fiery track with its hot drum rhythm and theme of Holy Spirit’s fire. Next is a wonderful arrangement of Rev. James Cleveland’s “Use Me Lord” with a triple meter, something that Horace Boyer would describe as a gospel waltz. “Don’t Let Nobody Turn You ‘Round,” a famous Civil Rights song originally released by and featuring the Fairfield Four, was probably included as an important way of underscoring the connection between the quartet and the McCrary Sisters, given that their father was instrumental to the revival of the Fairfield Four after a 30 years hiatus. “I Am Free” can best be described as a celebration of the freedom of the Christian in dance, what with its upbeat melodic and percussive rhythm!
In the tenth track, “Hold On,” the listener is treated to a very brief quasi-esoteric a capella interlude with the important admonition to patience since “everything will be alright.” The uncanny air thus unleashed is carried over to “Driving Your Mama Crazy,” which ends with a bright and brisk movement and the plea “Help me, Lord, help me!” The meditative mood returns with “I’d Rather Have Jesus” which opens with a solo voice. A sense of mystery ensues in the musical narration of the miraculous sourcing of water in the desert by Moses in “He Split the Rock,” appropriately accompanied by relentlessly pounding rhythms and rock guitars. This is followed by the short a capella track “Old Shoes,” a rather asymmetrical interpolation in the flow of gospel message and sound based on a traditional song popularized by the Fairfield Four. The penultimate track, “Hold the Wind,” begins with a rather cathedral-like organ intro before the McCrarys enter in a sustained 4-part harmony, while an unidentified male soloist takes over the lead. The album wraps up with an a capella arrangement of the traditional song “Walk In the Light,” which summarizes the entire spiritual message of the album.
The McCrarys are obviously are proud of their roots and heritage. During an interview with Chuck Dauphin, Regina stated: “The greatest blessing is that we get to sing about who and what we believe in—our God. And we get to give honor to our father, the late Rev. Samuel H. McCrary, who was the glue that kept the Fairfield Four together until he passed away.” And Alfreda added, “It is an honor to be able to sing the music that we were raised on—the old landmark music—with my sisters. This music is giving honor and thanks to some that made the way for us.”
The Fairfield Four, a vocal quartet that has existed for almost a century, presently includes Levert Allison (tenor), Larrice Byrd, Sr. (baritone), Bobbye Sherrell (tenor) and Joe Thompson (bass). The quartet has been dedicated to performing traditional gospel music in the traditional “a cappella” manner since its founding in 1921. Jerry Zolten, who penned the liner notes, characterizes the a cappella singing style of the Fairfield Four as “intertwined voices rhythmically pulsating in harmony, anchored by a deep bass, lead vocal over the top” and “rooted in that hazy past before the era of recorded sound.” This history is recounted in the PledgeMusic video promo for the album:
The traditional bent of the Fairfield Four is easily understandable when one recalls that the ensemble originated within Nashville’s Fairfield Baptist Church. Their prominence was heightened by the role played by their songs. For example, Zolten explicitly indicates that their “voices were heard on the soundtrack that inspired and propelled the Civil Rights Movement,” including the song “Don’t Let Nobody Turn You Around” (track 9). The Fairfield Four therefore see themselves as bearers and custodians of a tradition. Larrice Byrd, Sr. comments, “We all grew up listening to this style of music and we understand it. We want to keep the tradition alive forever.”
The Fairfield Four’s new album, Still Rockin’ My Soul, is their first release in almost 20 years. Concerning the musical selections, Zolten affirms that “the songs collected here are all part and parcel of the traditional Fairfield Four canon.” The opening track, “Rock My Soul,” is accompanied only by hand clapping and foot tapping, while on the spiritual “Children Go Where I Send Thee” country music singer Lee Ann Womack joins Joe Thompson on lead vocals. In “I Love the Lord (He Heard My Cry)” and the reprise which closes the album, one hears the organ accompanying a melodic chanting characteristic of the African American devotional line-out hymn. Additional tracks include “Come on in this House,” “Baptism of Jesus,” “Jesus Gave Me Water” (by Lucie E. Campbell), “My Rock,” “I Got Jesus and That’s Enough” (by Dorothy Love Coates), “Don’t Let Nobody Turn You Around,” and “Highway to Heaven” (by Thomas A. Dorsey).
In sum, if one accepts the fact – and this, with good reason – that the human voice is the best of musical instruments, then the Fairfield Four exemplifies this in a most convincing way on Still Rockin’ My Soul. Gospel music historian Bil Carpenter has mentioned the instrument-like timbre of the Fairfield Four quartet, noting that “when the Fairfield Four sang, they utilized the full extent of their voices, moving easily from deep, rolling basslines to the staccato upper peaks of the tenor range, all executed with precise, intricate harmonies and ever-shifting leads.” Call it instrumental vocality, or vocal instrumentality, if you like!