Miami Mass Choir – Live at the Adrienne Arsht Center

Miami Mass Choir
Title: Live at the Adrienne Arsht Center

Artist: Miami Mass Choir

Label: Self-released

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: December 9, 2016

 

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!

Reviewed by Eddie Bowman

Dee Dee Sharp – Songs of Faith

dee-dee-sharp
Title: Songs of Faith

Artist: Dee Dee Sharp

Label: Abkco

Formats: CD,  MP3

Release date : October 21, 2016

 

 

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.

Reviewed by Eddie Bowman

Washington Phillips and His Manzarene Dreams

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Title: Washington Phillips and His Manzarene Dreams

Artist: Washington Phillips

Label: Dust-to-Digital

Format: Hardcover book bound with CD

Release date: November 11, 2016

 

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.

Reviewed by Levon Williams

Blind Boys of Alabama – Two Classic Albums Reissued

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Title: Go Tell It On the Mountain (expanded ed.)

Artist: The Blind Boys of Alabama

Label: Omnivore Recordings

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: November 4, 2016

 

The Blind Boys of Alabama’s Go 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:

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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.

atom-bomb
Title: Atom Bomb (expanded ed.)

Artist: The Blind Boys of Alabama

Label: Omnivore Recordings

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: November 4, 2016

 

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.

Reviewed by Anna Polovick

Mahalia Jackson – Moving On Up a Little Higher

mahalia-jackson
Title: Moving On Up a Little Higher

Artist: Mahalia Jackson

Label: Shanachie/Spirit Feel

Formats: CD

Release date: September 30, 2016

 

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.[1] 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

[1] Jackson’s appearance at Newport the following year was released by Columbia as “Mahalia Jackson Live at Newport 1958.”

Staple Singers – Amen!/Why

staple singers_amen_why

Title:  Amen! / Why

Artist: Staple Singers

Label: Real Gone Music

Format: CD

Release date: May 6, 2016

 

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.

These two albums showcase the sound of the Staple Singers before they became ambassadors of the gospel soul era and fill in gaps on the recent 4-CD box set, Faith & Grace: A Family Journey 1953-1976.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

The Relatives – Goodbye World

the relatives_goodbye world

Title: Goodbye World

Artist: The Relatives

Label: Luv N’ Haight

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: April 29, 2016

 

 

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.

Reviewed by Matthew Alley

Lecrae – Church Clothes 3

CC3

Title: Church Clothes 3

Artist: Lecrae

Formats: CD, MP3

Label: Reach Records

Release date: January 15, 2016

 

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.

Reviewed by Anna Polovick

Various Artists – Killer B3: A Documentary about the Hammond Organ

killer b3

Title: Killer B3: A Documentary about the Hammond Organ

Artist: Various

Label: Crooked Soul Productions

Format: DVD

Release Date: April 2014

 

We just received a review copy of this fascinating 2013 film that has been making the festival rounds. The Kickstarter-funded Killer B3 explores the history of the instrument responsible for one of the signature sounds of the 20th century, an instrument that has animated church services, jazz clubs, and rock recording sessions since its introduction in 1935, the Hammond Organ.  The film’s punny title is a bit misleading: while the B3 is certainly the most popular model among the jazz musicians who play the bulk of the music featured in the film (which includes stellar performances by and interviews with Dr. Lonnie Smith, Tony Monaco, Joey DeFrancesco, and the legendary Jimmy Smith), the filmmakers take care to note that the B3 is just one model that conveys the signature Hammond Organ sound.

Killer B3 outlines the instrument’s story, from its design by clockmaker Laurens Hammond, who was looking to diversify his product line by selling an electric organ more economical than a pipe organ to cash-strapped churches, to the unique sounds that a variety of players have culled out of Hammond Organs. It focuses on the plethora of artists who adopted the instrument as the most essential tool in their toolbox, despite the organ’s 425 pound weight (and that’s not including the rotating Leslie speaker cabinet that most players deem necessary), which would seemingly be prohibitive to a regularly gigging musician.  While the filmmakers predominantly focus on high-profile jazz players who have brought this instrument to prominence, they also highlight the instrument’s important role in African American churches, and make important connections between the Hammond’s use in the church and the jazz club. (It is important to note that they don’t talk much about the rock musicians who adopted the organ’s signature sound, which may be the subject of a second installment, according to hints being dropped on the documentary’s Facebook page.) The filmmakers note the Hammond Organ’s widespread popularity, tracing the instruments’ history and key players around the country, from Chicago to Florida, New York, and Philadelphia.

Watch the extended trailer here:

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The film’s directors Murv Seymour and Joe Branford interview players, people responsible for maintaining models from the original Hammond line (the company ceased producing the original organs in the 70s, and reconstituted the line with digital models in 2003), as well as other experts and aficionados, about the Hammond’s impact on a variety of players. They craft a compelling narrative, albeit skewed to focus on the organ’s use in jazz. They also highlight the seeming accelerating loss of key Hammond players, highlighting the loss of several major figures passed away during the period in which they filmed this documentary. While certainly not an exhaustive treatment of the subject, Killer B3 is a great introduction to the instrument and some of its key players.

For those considering streaming the film or purchasing on iTunes, think twice! Instead, buy a physical copy of the documentary.  Not only does the DVD version include a featurette on how the directors made the film, but it also includes 36 minutes of additional performance footage, which are worth repeated viewings to see masters and hear of their craft at work. .

Reviewed by Matthew Alley

Bri – Keys To My Heart

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Title: Keys to My Heart

Artist: Bri

Label: Marquis Boone Enterprises/Tyscot

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: March 25, 2016

 

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.

Reviewed by Anna Polovick

Various Artists – God Don’t Never Change: The Songs of Blind Willie Johnson

god dont never change songs of blind willie johnson

Title: God Don’t Never Change: The Songs of Blind Willie Johnson

Artist: Various Artists

Label: Alligator Records

Format: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: February 26, 2016

 

 

If you are aware of the history of Chicago Blues than you have likely heard of Alligator Records.  If you are not a connoisseur of the history of Chicago’s blues labels, it is useful to know how this label came to be.

One of the most important early Chicago blues labels was Chess Records, which was  started by two Polish immigrant brothers, Leonard and Phil Chess, in 1950.  The Chess roster featured some of the most important blues acts of the day, including Ike Turner, Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, and Koko Taylor.  In 1969 the brothers sold the label to General Recorded Tape.

In 1971, a 23-year old blues fanatic named Bruce Iglauer started the independent label  Alligator Records, which quickly became a magnet for former members of the Chess stable.  The first artist that Iglauer signed and released on his new label was Hound Dog Taylor & The HouseRockers.  In 2011 Alligator Records celebrated its 40th anniversary, releasing The Alligator Records 40th Anniversary Collection.

Today the label still attracts some of the most innovative contemporary blues artists as well as maintaining a focus on select early blues pioneers, such as Blind Willie Johnson, who was born in 1902.  He was not born blind–one oft-cited story maintains that he lost his sight when his angry stepmother threw lye in his face. In spite of going completely blind, by age 7 Johnson started to teach himself how to play the guitar.   Willie had a strong passion for both blues and gospel music.  After spending some years singing on the streets of Martin, Texas; he moved to Dallas where he met his wife Angeline.  He began his recording career around 1927 and only recorded until 1935.  Johnson died in abject poverty.

On this release, Alligator Records has assembled a well-known host of musicians to interpret some Blind Willie Johnson’s songs.  Some of the outstanding artists featured on this record include Tom Waits, Lucinda Williams, Derek Trucks & Susan Tedeschi, Cowboy Junkies, The Blind Boys of Alabama, Sinead O’Connor, and Rickie Lee Jones.  In addition to its great roster of musicians, God Don’t Never Change features 18 pages of extensive liner notes, including beautiful photographs and a detailed essay on Johnson’s life by singer-songwriter Michael Corcoran.

Tom Waits’s rendering of the album’s first track “The Soul of a Man” will not disappoint fans of the gravelly-voiced musician, songwriter, and actor. Waits brings in his own deep understanding of blues and gospel music in his minimalist soulful rendition.  Lucinda Williams’s performance on the album’s second track, “It’s Nobody’s Fault But Mine” hearkens back to older blues styles, complete with compelling bottleneck slide guitar darting in and around the song’s vocal melody.  One of my personal favorite tracks is “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning,” performed by husband and wife Derek Trucks & Susan Tedeschi.  This cut features a down-home feel propelled by Truck’s masterful slide playing and fantastic call-and-response between Tedeschi and a group of backing vocalists. The duo’s impassioned performance keeps the very old song fresh. Cowboy Junkies’ performance of “Jesus is Coming Soon” gives the song’s apocalyptic lyrics an appropriately haunting treatment.  This group’s alt-country sensibility plays very well on this song.  “Trouble Will Soon Be Over” offers a moment of transcendence, transporting this reviewer to another place. Sinead O’Connor’s sweet and sensitive vocal treatment of this song gives the its aspirational lyrics an inspiring emotional thrust.

This 11 song album is definitely worth a listen.  While–due in large part to the diversity of the artists interpreting Johnson’s repertoire–there may be a few songs that might not at first blush be your cup of tea, if you listen with an open mind you’ll probably discover some real gems.

Reviewed by Patrick Scott Byrket

Sam Butler – Raise Your Hands!

sam butler_raise your hands

Title: Raise Your Hands!

Artist: Sam Butler

Label: Severn Records

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: October 16, 2015

 

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.

 

Reviewed by Douglas Dowling Peach

Swan Silvertones – Amen, Amen, Amen: The Essential Collection

Swan Silvertones Amen Amen Amen the Essential collection._SX355_

Title: Amen, Amen, Amen: The Essential Collection

Artist: Swan Silvertones

Label: S’more Entertainment/Rockbeat Records

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: June 23, 2015

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.

Listen on Spotify here.

Reviewed by Douglas Dowling Peach

 

The Godfather of Gospel


Title: The Godfather of Gospel

Artist: Rev. Timothy Wright

Label: Malaco Music Group

Catalog No.: SCD7131

Format: CD (two disc set)

Release date: May 2009

The Godfather of Gospel is an 18-track two disc collection of songs that pays tribute to New York native Rev. Timothy Wright, whose passing on April 24, 2009 resulted from injuries sustained in a car accident which also claimed his wife and grandson.  The collection celebrates Rev. Wright’s uniqueness as a songwriter/producer/artist throughout his recording career over multiple decades, as well as his evangelical mission to spread God’s word through song.

Several tracks on this project are notable hits from the past that will have the listener remembering when the Sunday morning worship service was filled with exuberant praise initiated by Rev. Wright’s psalmody. For instance, “Trouble Don’t Last Always” is a medium tempo groove that is funky enough to lift listeners from their seats and profound enough to conjure up praise that comes from knowing that joy may not arrive when one desires it, but it is always on time. “Who’s On The Lord’s Side” is an up-tempo track incorporating a lyrical spinoff of the Biblical Old Testament scripture in Exodus where Moses challenged the Israelites who strayed into a sinful state to choose whom they will serve (Exodus 32:26). Rev. Wright adapts this historical challenge to modern times, requiring the listener to search one’s self deeply and truthfully in order to realize his/her extent of commitment to the gospel—the Lord’s side.

“We’re Going To Make It,” featuring Myrna Summers, can still be heard on Sunday mornings as churchgoers seek hope in the midst of socio-economic, political and spiritual indecisiveness that permeates contemporary society. It is a ballad that frames the affirmations of Christians within the strength and power of Jesus Christ, thus prompting them to assert, “we’re gonna make it.” Although very repetitious, “We’re Going To Make It” maintains a steady momentum via its harmonic progression, which contributed to the broadening of gospel music parameters in the 1990s, while Rev. Wright’s and Summers’ lead vocals are articulate, well placed, round, extensive in range, controlled and highly interpretive. Simply put, they provide a clinic for aspiring listeners who wish to become effective singers in the gospel genre. In addition to the harmonic pallet and lead vocals, the choir background on this track, as with all of the songs on the album, exemplifies the best of traditional gospel ensemble singing encompassing triadic harmony, blended unison lines and enormous amplitude output during climactic sections.

While disc one of this collection includes more well-known songs from Rev. Wright’s illustrious career (the songs mentioned above are all on disc one), disc two also presents timeless jewels that are note-worthy such as “Been There Done That,” “I Know A Man,” and “Certainly Lord.” If you are seeking to experience a tribute compilation that is musically sound, this CD delivers. If you would like to hear a collection that actually includes the hits of an artist, this is a must have. And finally, if you want to realize how gospel music speaks to the social and spiritual needs of people around the world, The Godfather of Gospel is a quintessential example. I give it a thumbs-up for song choices, musicianship, interpretive value and, most importantly, the gospel message.

Reviewed by Tyron Cooper

Take Me to the Water

Title: Take Me to the Water: Immersion Baptism in Vintage Music and Photography 1890-1950

Format:  Book with CD

Catalog No.: DTD-13
ISBN: 978-0-9817342-1-7
Publisher: Dust-to-Digital
Release Date: May 26, 2009

Dust-to-Digital has done it again. The company that produced Goodbye Babylon, a wonderful historical CD set of early gospel recordings lovingly tucked into a wooden crate packed with genuine southern cotton, has followed up with another unique gospel offering.  Take Me to the Water: Immersion Baptism in Vintage Music and Photography 1890-1950 is half picture book, half liner notes in the form of a hardcover book with an accompanying CD affixed inside the back cover.

The bulk of the 96-page book features beautifully reproduced sepia-toned photographs of  “immersion baptism” from the collection of Jim Linderman; that is, out-of-doors full body immersion in lakes and rivers, often en masse. Included are some extremely rare, early images of African American baptisms such as the panorama stretching across the back and front covers labeled “Black Billy Sunday, Indianapolis, Aug. 3, 1919, Baptising at Fall Creek” (one of the few images with such a complete identification).  A brief essay by Luc Sante provides the context necessary to understand the images, including a general history of baptism, an overview of the featured denominations, and a description of the settings and emotionally charged states of the participants.

Take Me to the Water from Dust-to-Digital on Vimeo.

Now, on to the music. The 25 “Songs and Sermons” on the accompanying CD are “derived from extremely rare records” from the collections of Steven Lance Ledbetter (Dust-to-Digital’s owner/producer) and legendary record collector Joe Bussard, among others, and ” have been remastered to produce the best possible sound.”  Ledbetter also wrote the accompanying liner notes, included at the end of the book. The tracks, of course, all have a baptism/water theme, including various renditions of “Wade in the Water” (a few also appeared on Goodbye Babylon). Selections range from such African American heavyweights as the Rev. J. M. Gates (his singing sermon “Baptize Me” from 1926) to lesser known artists such as Moses Mason (“Go Wash in the Beautiful Stream’) and Rev. E. D. Campbell (“Take Me to the Water”).  White southern gospel artists include the Carter Family (“On My Way to Canaan’s Land”), the Carolina Tar Heels (“I’ll Be Washed”), and Ernest Stoneman’s Dixie Mountaineers (“Down to Jordan and Be Saved”).

Together, the photographs and music make a stunning package. As Sante states in his essay, “Whether you have ever actually experienced a baptism or not, whether you are a believer or not, these pictures and the music that accompanies them transmit all the emotional information: the excitement and the serenity, the fellowship and the warmth, the wind and the water.”

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

When the Church Becomes Your Party


Title: When the Church Becomes Your Party: Contemporary Gospel Music (African American Life)

Author: Deborah Smith Pollard

Publisher: Wayne State University Press

Format:  Book (240 p.)

ISBN: 0814332188

Date: 2008

If gospel means “good tidings and good news,” then gospel music should definitely engage us in spiritual celebration of the good news. Agreeing with this premise, Deborah Smith Pollard’s book on contemporary gospel music, When the Church Becomes Your Party, maintains that you should celebrate the church through the gospel music tradition as reflected in a phrase adapted from a popular secular refrain, “Ain’t no party like a Holy Ghost party. . .” (viii). Ethnographer Deborah Smith Pollard, also a professor of African American Studies, articulates varied dimensions of gospel music in a well-documented study using data reflecting her scholarly background and her experience as a gospel announcer for a popular Detroit radio station.

Here is an interview with “Dr. Deb” Pollard about her gospel radio show on WJLB:

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Consistent with its celebratory theme and nature, Pollard’s book, using a lively format, details the joyous contributions of gospel music through interviews with well-known gospel artists, musicians, and preachers, most of whom have longstanding ties to the gospel music scene in Detroit. Indeed, an array of talented gospel families who hail from Detroit have helped catapult it into the national gospel music spotlight: the list includes artists such as, the Rev. C.L. Franklin and daughter Aretha; the Clark Sisters; the Winans; Rance Allen and relatives; the Hawkins family, along with individual artists like the well-known Donnie McClurkin.

Pollard helps to foster an understanding and appreciation of praise and worship music by explaining its origins and challenging the prevailing claim that it has replaced the traditional hymns and the conventional devotional services of the church. Additionally, she examines other musical traditions within gospel, particularly gospel music stage plays, underappreciated dramatic celebrations rooted in African American folk culture. Pollard brings the culture surrounding gospel music into the twenty-first century by discussing the appropriateness of dressing up or down for gospel events by considering the changing dress codes for gospel musicians, audience members at gospel concerts, and churchgoing women. More importantly, she underscores the significant, but often overlooked contributions of women gospel announcers whose work provides an inspirational and empowering spiritual outlet for their listeners. Finally, the book restores the skillful sermonic deliveries of contemporary Holy Hip Hop artists to a respectful place within an oral tradition that harkens back to African griots.

When the Church Becomes Your Party, aimed at both scholars and laypersons, helps to unlock the many layers that comprise the phenomenon of gospel music and the industry responsible for producing it.

Reviewed by Lena Ampadu, Director, African and African American Studies Program, Towson University.

Live: Hope At the Hideout


Title: Live: Hope At The Hideout

Artist:  Mavis Staples

Label: Anti

Catalog No.: 86993

Release Date: November 2008

Mavis Staples got her start as one of the lead singers of the celebrated gospel/soul group The Staple Singers, originally founded and headed by her father, Roebuck “Pops” Staples.  After a string of singles and albums for Vee-Jay and Riverside in the late ’50s and early ’60s, the Staples, like many gospel artists of the time, found a secular outlet for their music in the burgeoning Southern soul sound.  They reached the height of their popularity after a move to the Memphis-based Stax label in 1968, becoming one of the primary musical voices of the American Civil Rights Movement with their positive and inspirational message songs.  At Stax, they worked with the likes of Booker T. & the MG’s and producer/songwriter Al Bell, the latter providing the Staples with their first number one single, “I’ll Take You There,” in 1972, considered by Rolling Stone magazine to be one of the top 500 songs of all time.

Mavis herself recorded as a leader for the first time in 1969.  She released solo albums sporadically until the early 1990s, including two for Prince’s Paisley Park/NPG label.  An almost decade-long hiatus followed — like many of the great soul singers of the 1960s, it took a while for Staples to be “rediscovered” — but since 2004 she has released three recordings in quick succession: Have A Little Faith (Alligator) from that year; 2007’s We’ll Never Turn Back (Anti-), a Ry Cooder production featuring an updated take on songs drawn mostly from the Civil Rights era; and 2008’s Live: Hope At The Hideout (also on Anti-), a rousing performance with her touring band recorded at a Monday night club show in Chicago.

One of the joys of Live: Hope At The Hideout is hearing Staples preach and growl in a bare bones setting, fronting a compact three-piece band augmented by a trio of backing singers.  At 70-years old, her voice is naturally rougher around the edges than it was during her Stax heyday (almost channeling Howlin’ Wolf near the end of  “On My Way”), but Staples’ brand of music is one that rewards honesty and emotional depth above surface beauty and impeccable technique.

Most of the songs recorded here are either traditional gospel numbers or recent arrangements from We’ll Never Turn Back.  After warming up the crowd with a brief version of Stephen Stills’ classic “For What It’s Worth,” Mavis and company dig into “Eyes On the Prize,” one of the songs from her 2007 CD.  While it’s impossible for anyone else to replicate the menacing grooves Cooder and drummer Jim Keltner cook up on the studio versions, Staples’ crew more than holds its own, stripping things down to their essentials while retaining the sweaty, funky atmosphere of Cooder’s studio arrangements.  Guitarist Rick Holmstrom displays a reverb-soaked, swamp-rock sound, and throughout the disc he accompanies Mavis with sensitivity and restraint, especially on the hushed duo performance of “Waiting For My Child.”  The rhythm section of Jeff Turmes on bass and Stephen Hodges on drums keeps the groove simmering, while backup singers Donny Gerrard, Chavonne Morris, and sister Yvonne Staples take star turns on Pops Staples’ 1965 lament, “Why Am I Treated So Bad,” and on the gospel chestnut “Wade In The Water.”

Following is a rendition of “Eyes On the Prize” from Staple’s website, accompanied by a video montage of Civil Right’s era imagery:

Not everything on the disc works perfectly.  “Down In Mississippi” pales in comparison to Pops’ despairing 1992 recording (from Peace To the Neighborhood, also with Cooder and Keltner), Mavis’ faster tempo striking a somewhat more defiant tone than the earlier version.  And the encore performance of “I’ll Take You There” is performed here as a one-off with just voice and Holmstrom’s guitar, losing the punchy horns and hip, quasi-reggae groove of the original from Be Altitude: Respect Yourself.  But these are minor quibbles, and probably unfair ones at that.  It’s impossible for an artist to top herself (or her father!) all the time, and Mavis Staples at 70 offers pleasures that, while distinct from those of her youth, are still eminently worth savoring.

Posted by Terry Simpkins

I Got Two Wings

Title: I Got Two Wings: Incidents and Anecdotes of the Two-Winged Preacher and Electric Guitar Evangelist Elder Utah Smith

Author: Lynn Abbott

Format: Book (softcover) with CD insert

Publisher: CaseQuarter

Date: 2009




Author and historian Lynn Abbott has stitched together an entertaining narrative about Elder Utah Smith, an all but forgotten Pentecostal preacher, showman, musician and proselytizer whose dynamic style often included comic repartée, and whose loud electric guitar was a feature of his services from the 1930s (when amplified guitars were first marketed) to his death in 1965.

Smith’s ecclesiastical career in the Church of God in Christ began in 1925. He developed his trademark song which converted the old spiritual “I Want Two Wings” into a more assertive “I Got Two Wings.”  And it was not a metaphor–old photos show him with large, imposing white wings attached to his shoulders next to a guitar strap.

Utah Smith’s career path took him from New England to New Orleans. He was preaching near New York City in 1941 when some white jazz fans and New York Tribune music critic (and composer) Virgil Thomson “discovered” him and arranged for him to perform as part of a Sunday afternoon concert series at the Museum of Modern Art. Though Thomson liked what he heard,  the book includes embarrassingly unsympathetic newspaper reviews. I won’t call them racist, but they do reveal how ill-prepared Manhattan culture brokers were for passionate Pentecostal worship and its uncompromisingly emotional music.

By 1944, Smith was in New Orleans, where he constructed a warehouse-sized Two Wing Temple in 1945.  His charismatic preaching, singing and playing dominated his well-publicized services, and there was a steady stream of visiting evangelists and gospel music stars, including Rosetta Tharpe, Brother Joe May, the Fairfield Four and Ernestine Washington. Smith, a star himself, traveled to revivals throughout the Southwest.

It’s a great story, and Lynn Abbott’s well-paced narrative is built on a solid foundation of research and interviews.  An attached CD includes several 1940s-50s performances of “I Got Two Wings” (notable, says Abbott, for their “spontaneous combustibility”) and more vintage recordings to illustrate other historical points.

Posted by Dick Spottswood (Host of The Dick Spottswood Show on WAMU)

Ultimate Hits Collection

Title: The Ultimate Hits Collection

Artist: Charley Pride
Label: Music City Records
Catalog No.: 05297
Release date:  January 20, 2009

There is no dearth of Charley Pride collections in existence.  Thus, the questions surrounding any new collection are: what is so special about this one?  And how does it measure up to the leading standard, in this case BMG Heritage’s 2003 Anthology.

The newly released Ultimate Hits Collection, a double-disc of 32 tracks of good quality reissues, but with limited notes, provides a good retrospective of Pride’s career without any major omissions, but the problems of this collection are deeper.

Music City Records, a small label (perhaps a personal project of Pride’s, though unconfirmed) is making a concentrated effort to sustain interest in the once great country music star, and this compilation includes material from his heyday, beginning in 1966, through his latest gospel effort in 2006.  During his reign as a hit maker (mid 1960s to early 1980s), Charley Pride was the only black mainstream country music star, and it’s not insignificant that after years of such isolation he has turned to gospel music in the 21st century, where blackness is the standard.  Yet this transition remains mostly ignored in this collection, including only two tracks from recent gospel works, “Jesus, It’s Me Again,” and “Amazing Grace.”

The problem with reissuing Charley Pride is twofold– there are no new perspectives presented here, and the disc fails to cast Pride in a light that makes him seem relevant.  Charley Pride was a major force to be sure. As a member of the Grand Ole Opry with 24 #1 Country hits, back to back winner of the CMA’s Entertainer of the Year (1971-1972), and Country Music Hall of Fame inductee, he doesn’t have to worry about his place in country music history.  He does, however, need to worry about his place in country music today.

Compared to other country music icons such as Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, Vince Gill, Loretta Lynn and Marty Stuart, Charley Pride (and this collection) have done very little to connect his pioneering work to contemporary audiences.  In an era where gospel music has become a major secular musical form, and at a time when Darius Rucker (of Hootie & the Blowfish) is providing the country charts their first black performer since Pride, the importance of examining Pride’s career would seem prime for deeper understanding. What we are given here are such platitudes as “As of 2008, Pride continues to tour regularly throughout the United States and Europe… he also enjoys playing golf, spending time with his family and working out with the Texas Rangers.”

Yet even if the packaging, liner notes, and general presentation fall short of something significant and new, a light shone on Charley Pride is always welcome.  This double-disc collection includes all the hits that made Pride a household name, and further proves that he deserved every accolade garnered in his career, reminding us of just how good he was.  The Ultimate Hits Collection reminds us of the huge appeal of hits like “Does My Ring Hurt Your Finger,” “Kiss an Angel Good Morning,” and “I Know One.”  His powerful baritone against back-up singers, steel guitars, and string arrangements, creates a nostalgic appreciation of the trajectory of the mainstream country sound.  Though often surrounded by different country sounds, Pride is never bested by production, a claim that cannot be said of all 1970s country stars.  Pride makes the song his, whether he’s nostalgic, in love, heartbroken, or singing praise, Pride has the ability of all great country performers to make you think these songs were written on the edge of a motel room bed, or on a barroom cocktail napkin.

Pride is poised for a crossover comeback along the lines of Johnny Cash’s late American recordings with Rick Rubin, or Loretta Lynn’s Van Lear Rose, produced by Jack White.  What would serve him best at this stage is to tap into the incredible creativity and force behind gospel music today, and highlight the long-standing connections between country music and gospel.  Yet to do this, he would first have to come in from the golf course, and really get to work.

Posted by Thomas Grant Richardson

The Gospel at Colonus

Title: The Gospel at Colonus
Composer: Bob Telson
Director: Lee Breuer
Publisher: New Video
Format: DVD, NTSC  (90 mins.)
Date: 2008, 1985

The 1985 Philadelphia performance of The Gospel at Colonus, which originally aired on the PBS series Great Performances, is now available for the first time on DVD and it is both entertaining and enlightening. The stage play is directed by Lee Breuer and based on an adaptation of Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus in the version by Robert Fitzgerald. It also incorporates passages from both Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex and Antigone in the versions by Dudley Fitts and Robert Fitzgerald, which are published as the Oedipus Cycle of Sophocles.  Morgan Freeman, Clarence Fountain, Jevetta Steele and Isabell Monk are among the talented cast that frames the Oedipus saga within the African American religious and performance traditions.

A quote by a Village Voice reviewer on the DVD cover describes the performance as “…Europe meets Africa; Classic meets Contemporary; Pagan meets Christian.” The first two attributes are evident within the work’s title. The final characteristic, “pagan meets Christian,” is manifested in various ways.  For instance, presenting the story of Oedipus by using a religious art form, gospel music, extrinsically merges the sacred and secular.  However, Bob Telson, Colonus’ music composer and arranger, uses traditional and contemporary (as of 1985) gospel music styles, thus creating an internal profane and religious fluidity that mixes gospel, blues, R&B, and soul.  This lack of demarcation has always characterized Black artistic expression. The call and response, demonstrative behavior, innuendos, vamps, switch leads, hand clapping, foot stomping, hollers and shouts of the soloists and choir are not only exemplary of elements within such expression, but they also reflect an aesthetic continuum between Africa and African American culture.

While the actors-Morgan Freeman, Carl Lumbly and Isabell Monk, among others- present a persuasive tragedy, the music of this performance is the real star.  Clarence Fountain’s raspy voice takes the audience on a journey that explores a range of textures and moods. J.J. Farley and the Original Soul Stirrers create a logical contrast to the Five Blind Boys, as the former group expands the parameters of the quartet tradition by incorporating a wider range of vocal qualities and styles. In addition, the J.D. Steele Singers demonstrate a blended sound that is reminiscent of timeless R&B/soul ballads of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. The choir, which represents the people of Colonus, is dressed in colorful and flashy attire while the quartet groups are clothed in matching suits denoting respective ensembles.

The DVD’s picture quality is very clear.  In addition, the video frames create a broad and varied view of the stage, focusing on the soloists, individual groups, choir and the instrumentalists.  Capturing the stage in this manner allows the audience (in this case the DVD viewer) to experience a sense of “being there” at the time and space of the performance.  Such framing was obviously assisted by Breuer’s stage setting, which is an integrated structure that positions actors, instrumentalists and singers on the stage simultaneously. As a result, all involved become a vital part of the drama.

For those interested in the exploration of an alternative staging of a classical tragedy, or those who seek to experience an artistic manifestation of the core Black aesthetic in the arts-or if you simply like great stage plays, this performance is a must see.  The Gospel At Colonus will make a significant contribution to your Christmas stocking!

Posted by Tyron Cooper

The Ultimate Weekend


Title: The Ultimate Weekend
Artist: Brent Jones & The T.P. Mobb
Label: Tyscot Records
Catalog No.: TYS 984163 2 (enhanced CD with lyrics & photos)
Release date: February 12, 2008

Tyscot Records serves up a progressive, in your face with “the real” urbanized, contemporary and traditional musical testimony with Brent Jones and The T.P. Mobb’s latest release, The Ultimate Weekend. As the image on the front cover suggests, this album (their third) will transmit the Gospel from the walls of the church to the street corners and broader outside world. Featuring 17-tracks (15 if you subtract tracks 9 and 17, which are comical theatrical transitions), the compact disc will attract the new school listener from the beginning.

The opening track, “The Ocean,” creates a reflective worship environment that pulls on one’s heartstrings, as Brent Jones contemplates the greatness of God as the creator and provider of the universe. The song takes the listener into a reverent place through a musical vehicle steeped in a secularized, musical styling reminiscent of the group Tony! Toni! Toné! “Spectacular Jesus” is a tribute to Jesus Christ that incorporates earthy, urban lyrics such as “You’re off the chain” and “You are the Man.” This track illustrates how one can serve God in a meaningful way, in his or her own style. “Stone Love” presents a lyrical illustration of God’s love for His creation-true and unconditional-while incorporating a mixture of musical elements derived from soul ballads and Sunday morning worship service.

For those who like their praise couched in old school grooves, Jones and the T.P Mobb have a store of goodies for you. For instance, “Give Him What He Wants” will definitely get your hands raised for the purpose of a call out to God. The groove of this track consists of a ’70s funk foundation that conjures up a “dance and praise” in the basement feel. “I Don’t Wanna Go To The Club” presents a yearning to dance, though not in a secular club. This track borrows from the 1984 dance groove “Egypt Egypt” by Egyptian Lover, and will definitely put you on the dance floor in order to shout with a clean conscious and broadened notion of praise.

While Brent Jones and the T.P. Mobb present an urban contemporary gospel sound, they do not neglect traditional worshippers. For instance, “Cry Holy” is a live recording, which again creates the feel of Sunday morning, reflecting the style of earlier contemporary gospel ensembles such as The Tommy’s. “Blessing With Your Name On It” is a churchy ballad that goes even deeper, stylistically, into the Sunday morning atmosphere. “Praise Break” further demonstrates Jones’ awareness of the traditional Sunday morning worship service and quintessential gospel music message-one’s trying social conditions can be resolved through perseverance and praise.

Put succinctly, The Ultimate Weekend is a must have for the eclectic music lover who seeks to experience various artistic expressions of worship.

Editor’s Note: The Ultimate Weekend is also available on a DVD (TYS-984163-9) which features additional songs not included on the CD.

Posted by Tyron Cooper

YouTube video of “Cry Holy,” courtesy Tyscot Records:

Manchester Free Trade Hall 1964

Title: Manchester Free Trade Hall 1964

Artist: Reverend Gary Davis

Label: Document

Catalog No.: DOCD 32-20-14

Date: 2007

In Reverend Gary Davis we had one of the best examples of a musician who carefully navigated the terrain between sacred and secular musics, causing intersections not often heard. In the newly released Manchester Free Trade Hall 1964 from Document Records, we hear Davis performing as part of the “Gospel and Blues Caravan” touring throughout Europe, on a night that captures an excellent showman in top form.

Though the image of a blind guitar player adheres more to blues mythology than gospel, Davis performs four gospel songs on his trademark Gibson Jumbo-200 with natural ease, as if they were intended for the acoustic guitar. One of his trademark songs, “If I Had My Way,” finds Davis shouting his praise while his tremendous finger picking runs up and down the fretboard, oscillating between stellar bass runs and high register licks responding to his vocal lines. “The Sun is Going Down” brings Davis’s long time friend Sonny Terry along on harmonica, and the two sound majestic together, every bit as tight as Terry’s work with Brownie McGhee. Equally impressive is Davis’s “Coon Hunt,” a harmonica instrumental based on Terry’s “Fox Chase,” which gives further evidence of Davis’s wide and varied musical ability.

To cap things off, Davis ends with Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag,” showcasing his ragtime finger picking chops. Davis complicates the standard repertoire of a bluesman, moving not only between sacred and secular songs, but also with a double dose of ragtime in “Maple Leaf Rag,” and the impressive instrumental “Cincinnati Flow Rag.” According to the liner notes penned by Bob Grooms, Davis also excelled at the piano and banjo, and based on the virtuosic display heard here, one longs to hear what he might have had to offer on those instruments.

The few drawbacks of the album have nothing to do with Davis, but with the remastering of the tracks, which are inexplicably inconsistent. Some sound intimate and clear while others sound like bootlegs made from the audience. The loud applause in between takes is disruptive in its length and volume. This is surprising from Document, which generally excels at remastering historical material. The liner notes are adequate but mostly a song-by-song explication as to where each fits within Davis’s larger performing repertoire, as well as some general history as to Davis’s activities in Europe in the 1960s. The photos are minimal and offer only two shots of Davis backstage, so one never gets a visual sense of Manchester Free Trade Hall. Nonetheless, none of this undermines the astounding performance given that May night in 1964, where it became quite obvious that American blues and gospel had become transnational musics.

Posted by Thomas Grant Richardson

John Work III: Recording Black Culture

Title: John Work, III: Recording Black Culture

Artists: Various

Label: Spring Fed Records

Catalog No.: SFR 104

Date: 2007

In 1993 Alan Lomax published his book The Land Where the Blues Began, to great popular and critical acclaim. The book told the story of his collecting adventures in the Mississippi Delta fifty years earlier, “discovering” and recording artists such as Son House, Muddy Waters, and David “Honeyboy” Edwards. In their co-edited book Lost Delta Found: Rediscovering the Fisk University-Library of Congress Coahoma County Study, 1941-1942, Robert Gordon and Bruce Nemerov detail the larger picture of the same collecting trips made by Lomax in the early 1940s by including the equally large contributions of Fisk University scholars (a collaboration which was almost completely obfuscated in The Land Where the Blues Began) and paying particular attention to the work of John Wesley Work, III. With the release of the CD John Work, III: Recording Black Culture, we now have the music to match the text of Lost Delta Found (through it’s not a companion piece), along with greater evidence of the variety of black musical culture in the early part of the twentieth century.

Recording Black Culture separates its14 tracks into six categories: Social Songs (fiddle and banjo tunes), The Quartets, Work Song, Congregational Singing, Blues, and Colored Sacred Harp (shape note congregational singing). On display here are both secular and sacred musics, though the liner notes indicate Work was mostly interested in secular “folk” musics. The wide range of music that is offered was almost entirely recorded before Work and his Fisk colleagues joined forces with Lomax and the Library of Congress for the trip to the delta. Work’s recordings were done in and around Nashville Tennessee, South Carolina, Alabama, and Mississippi. Many of the recordings have poor fidelity (even for historical recordings) and lend some insight as to why Fisk may have contacted the Library of Congress about a joint venture into the Delta: they wanted the more sophisticated equipment used by Lomax. In this regard Work was right, the tracks that surfaced later in Lomax’s collections are much higher in fidelity (e.g., The Land Where the Blues Began Rounder CD) and Work’s recordings are surely more interesting to a scholar than to most casual listeners.

Of the highest fidelity and given five tracks on the compilation are songs of The Quartets, including, with an egalitarian sprite, the Holloway High School Quartet, The Fairfield Four, The Heavenly Gate Quartet (a group of Work’s friends who sang together), and two unnamed groups. Here we have vocal harmony groups singing religious music in jubilee style with tight vocal parts and pulsating rhythms. The intimate sound of the quartets, specifically on the two tracks of the Heavenly Gate Quartet, provide great examples of vernacular presentations of popular stylings of the day, including “If I Had My Way.” Other tracks on the album, such as the congregational version of “Amazing Grace,” are harder to hear and are best left for academic scrutiny rather than pleasure listening. Many of these recordings are of particular interest because of their rarity; for example, the only known recording of blues street musician Joe Holmes singing “Ain’t Gonna Drink No Mo’,” as well as the ulta-rare recordings of fiddle and banjo players Ned Frazier and Frank Patterson that lead off the compilation.

The CD is packaged with comprehensive liner notes written by Bruce Nemerov and aided by archival photos of the people, places, equipment, and songbooks used during this era. Though the recording quality lacks the fidelity of other field collections of the time, and the repertoire is perhaps too wide ranging for some tastes, the packaging and release of this material (a joint effort between local, state, and federal arts agencies) offers further proof of what many musicians have known for years, that rural black music is not, and was never solely the blues.

Posted by Thomas Grant Richardson

Gospel at Christmastime

“Glory, Glory to the New Born King”: Gospel at Christmastime

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Today, nearly every popular gospel artist has a Christmas project in his or her catalog. The Mississippi Mass Choir, Luther Barnes, and Yolanda Adams are among those releasing Christmas albums this season. But when did the tradition of gospel artists recording Christmas carols begin? One is inclined to answer that Mahalia Jackson set the standard in 1950 with her Apollo recording of “Silent Night,” but the tradition goes back much further, more than two decades before the release of Mahalia’s disc. In truth, Christmas recordings by African American sacred artists predate gospel by several years.

The Elkins Mixed Quartette, also known as the Elkins-Payne Jubilee Singers, is the first known African American sacred group to record a Christmas carol. In 1926, the quartet, organized by William C. Elkins, sang “Silent Night, Holy Night” for Paramount Records. Two years later, the Lucy Smith Jubilee Singers of All Nations Pentecostal Church in Chicago released their only record, a Christmas-themed disc for Vocalion: “Pleading for Me” and “There Was No Room in the Hotel.” The lyrics of the latter no doubt resonated with African Americans living in Jim Crow America, as it described the Holy Family’s futile search for available lodging.[1]

More than a decade later, in 1941, the stalwart Heavenly Gospel Singers recorded the Yuletide spiritual “When Was Jesus Born” for Bluebird. The Middle Georgia Singers sang this same spiritual for the Fort Valley Music Festival in 1943. Captured on tape, the Middle Georgia Singers’ version can be heard for free on the Library of Congress American Memory website.

Although the Soul Stirrers, featuring the classic tenor voice of R.H. Harris, recorded “Silent Night” for Aladdin in 1948, it was the guitar-toting, Pentecostal-bred Sister Rosetta Tharpe who demonstrated the lucrative sales potential of Christmas records by gospel artists. In 1949, Tharpe, accompanied by her new background group, the Rosettes (formerly the Angelic Queens), recorded “White Christmas” and “Silent Night” for Decca. The two-sider was a smash hit, hitting #8 on Billboard‘s R&B Hit Singles chart and earning Tharpe and the Rosettes a coveted spot on CBS Television’s Supper Club with Perry Como on January 1, 1950.[2]

While Sister Tharpe’s record took the country by storm, it also took her gospel contemporaries and their record labels by surprise. Autumn 1950 witnessed a flood of Christmas singles by popular gospel singers and quartets. This is when Mahalia Jackson released her timeless arrangement of “Silent Night,” coupled with another Christmas chestnut, “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” on Apollo. These were the first of dozens of Christmas recordings Mahalia would make during her career. Not to be outdone, the Ward Singers released their version of “Silent Night” in 1950 (Savoy).

Also in 1950, Philadelphia’s Gotham Records released eight odes to the season by its top gospel sellers, namely Brother Rodney, the Davis Sisters, the Harmonizing Four, and the Angelic Gospel Singers. The Angelics’ “Glory, Glory to the New Born King” became an instant classic. Thereafter, no Christmas program in the African American community would be complete without a performance of “Glory, Glory to the New Born King.” A couple of years later, the Angelics released another Christmas single, “A Child is Born.” The song’s similarity to “Glory, Glory” in melody and arrangement was no coincidence: back then, record companies deliberately created sound-alike versions of hits, hoping that they could strike gold twice.

Eventually, Gotham had sufficient holiday product from its gospel lineup to produce a various artists LP, most likely the first gospel Christmas LP. The album, Gotham X-1, is impossibly rare. Constellation reissued it in the early 1960s as The Christmas Story (SS-106). The album is part of Constellation’s “The Scripture in Song Series,” a seven-album collection of gospel from Gotham’s vaults. Thankfully, the reissue is much easier to find.

Nineteen fifty-one witnessed new Christmas product from Savoy, including the Patterson Singers’ “Jesus, the Light of the World” and “Christmas Morn” by Charles Watkins. Watkins’ gentle crooning of “Christmas Morn” is not as well remembered today as it should be. Truth be told, had race relations been better back then, Watkins’ version would have climbed the pop charts, it’s just that good. Charles Watkins was that good. He later became a Bishop in the Pentecostal Assemblies of the World.

That same year, Sister Tharpe’s protégé Marie Knight delivered a double-sided Christmas single of her own for Decca (“Adeste Fideles”/”It Came Upon a Midnight Clear”). In 1953, the Pilgrim Travelers gave Bing Crosby’s “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” an uncharacteristically morose treatment. While Bing’s original articulated the wistful yearnings of World War II soldiers, the Travelers’ version suggested a darker and less optimistic mood surrounding the Korean Conflict. Marion Williams and the Stars of Faith heralded the coming of a new decade by releasing a beautiful Christmas LP on Savoy in 1959. Marion’s “O Holy Night” in particular enchanted many a music critic.

Christmas gospel-style reached its apex in 1962 when Vee Jay Records issued the original soundtrack album of Langston Hughes’ Black Nativity. The Christmas musical starring the Alex Bradford Singers, the aforementioned Stars of Faith, and Princess Stewart was a sensation: it toured Europe and continues to be presented the world over. Another full-length ode to Christmas released in 1962 came from a group that formerly recorded for Vee Jay. The Staple Singers’ marvelous The Twenty-Fifth Day of December was released on the group’s new label, Riverside, with Vee Jay-era accompanists Maceo Woods and Al Duncan on organ and drums, respectively. In Cincinnati, the Galatian Singers crafted a Yuletide LP of their own for King Records.

In 1963, Vee Jay released a various artists album called A Treasury of Golden Christmas Songs, featuring holiday fare by gospel artists under contract to the label, such as the Five Blind Boys of Alabama, Swan Silvertones, Caravans, and Charles Taylor. One lone track by the Gospel Clefs, the frenetic “Mary’s Boy Child,” has long confused collectors, since the Clefs were not Vee Jay recording artists. A review of Vee Jay internal documents, however, suggests that the company considered signing the Savoy artists at the time the Christmas LP was compiled, but the deal was never consummated.

Rev. Cleophus Robinson released Christmas Carols and Good Gospels for Peacock in 1967, an album that included a chilling version of “Sweet Little Jesus Boy.” In 1968, Checker Records released singles and an album of classic and new Christmas songs from its stable of artists, including the Soul Stirrers, Meditation Singers, and Salem Travelers, the latter two neatly folding anti-war sentiments into their holiday lyrics. Meanwhile, Brother Joe May, James Cleveland and the Angelic Choir, and countless other artists contributed singles and LPs to the gospel Christmas catalog throughout the 1960s.[3]

The 1970s and 1980s witnessed a stream of Christmas releases by artists such as Singing Sammy Lewis, the Gospel Keynotes, and various artists collections from Peacock, Malaco, and New Jersey-based Glori Records. Even Chicago’s venerable First Church of Deliverance choir contributed an EP of Christmas cheer. Among the Clark Sisters’ early LPs for the Sound of Gospel label was a Christmas album, New Dimensions of Christmas Carols, although it does not represent their finest work. In 1985, Edwin Hawkins released The Edwin Hawkins Family Christmas for Birthright, a project that featured Richard Smallwood’s “Follow the Star.” This breathtaking piece presaged the majestic beauty of Smallwood’s later compositions, such as “I Love the Lord” and “Total Praise.”

Sadly, the Hawkins album, like so many others mentioned in this essay, remains out of print and was never reissued. Still, each Christmas recording extended the tradition begun by the Elkins Mixed Quartette 81 years ago.

Posted by Bob Marovich (Copyright 2007 by Robert M. Marovich)


[1] Dixon, Robert M.W., Godrich, John, and Rye, Howard W. Blues and Gospel Records, 1890-1943. 1964, 1969, 1982, 4th ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997.[2] Wald, Gayle F. Shout, Sister, Shout! The Untold Story of Rock-And-Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Boston: Beacon Press, 2007.[3] Hayes, Cedric J. and Laughton, Robert. The Gospel Discography, 1943-1970. Vancouver: Eyeball Productions, 2007 (this was reviewed in the July 2007 issue of Black Grooves). Editor’s note: see also Bob Marovich’s contribution to the December 2006 issue of Black Grooves, titled The Twelve Classic Gospel Songs of Christmas.