Dr. F. James Clark Presents NextGeneration Choir – Sure. Focused. Centered.

Sure Focused Centered
Title: Sure. Focused. Centered.

Artist: Dr. F. James Clark Presents NextGeneration Choir

Label: City Of Peace

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: June 23, 2017

 

Sure. Focused. Centered is the debut album of the St. Louis Shalom Church City of Peace’s young adult ensemble NextGeneration Choir. It is a contemporary answer to the church’s first project, Simply Amazing (2015), which featured powerful, gospel songs performed by their mass choir.

The album opens with the bold and dynamic anthem “Psalm 23” which features unpredictable rhythmic and dynamic shifts with soprano, alto, and tenor (SAT) voices interweaving as they sing the scriptural passage. The debut single “You Are” is a fun and memorable up-tempo song that describes attributes of God. While the chorus is a simple repeated phrase, “You are,” it does not lack energy or momentum due to surprising and powerful vocal interjections by the sopranos (who are quite a force on this album).

Another noteworthy piece is the traditional gospel styled “Blessing Me,” featuring the St. Louis based vocalist Meaghan Williams-McNeal. Alongside the choir and soloist’s robust performance, ragtime tinged piano plus funky horns, a healthy backbeat established by the rhythm section, and an energizing tambourine set the stage for a rocking musical worship session. Similarly, NextGeneration and acclaimed soloist Chrystal Rucker channel Sunday morning worship with the piece “I Have a Testimony,” which features a wonderful call and response interplay between the soloist and choir.

Overall, this album offers a sampling of contemporary (and even traditional) gospel stylings that is sure to encourage listeners to be Sure, Focused, and Centered in their faith.

Reviewed by Raynetta Wiggins

Anita Wilson – Sunday Song

Sunday Song Anita Wilson
Title: Sunday Song

Artist: Anita Wilson

Label: EONE

Format: CD, MP3

Release Date: July 14, 2017

 

 

Anita Wilson has been a rising star in gospel music since her 2013 debut album, Worship Soul.   Wilson has established herself as an artist who is adept at blending traditional gospel with old school R&B and soul sounds to create new and fresh music for contemporary listeners. Her latest project Sunday Song continues in this vein, featuring newly composed selections as well as several covers. Donald Lawrence’s ensemble The Company, Wilson’s former group, provides the background vocals on the album. While many of these tunes will be great for Sunday church worship, Wilson emphasizes that this album is meant to foster spiritual engagement beyond religious walls. She states, “God is everywhere we are, we can always have a Sunday song in our hearts.”*

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One of the opening songs of the album is the single, “I’ve Seen Him Work.” This inspirational selection channels the sounds of R&B dance tunes (e.g. Luther Vandross**) and gospel choir songs of the 1980s. Rhythmic piano and bass establish a groove, which is joined by punctuating horns and drums showcasing a jaunty back beat, making this a fun and danceable track. The lyrics encourage listeners to maintain faith in God because “He’s in control” and He is “working it out.”

Wilson continues to draw on musical influences from yesteryear with the selection “Don’t Have to Travel Far.” This beautiful ballad is a worship-filled love song to God. It opens with strings, drums, and soft, repeated piano chords under girding the tender melody performed on an electric guitar. Purposefully, the accompaniment is reminiscent of 1970s R&B ballads like the Stylistic’s “You Make Me Feel Brand New.” Wilson celebrates her relationship with God with The Company supporting her sweetly: “Don’t have to travel far/ to be right where you are./You are constantly in my heart./ There’s no place I’d rather be/ than in your company,/ you mean more than life to me.”

Sunday Song’s traditional gospel and gospel covers are also especially noteworthy. “The New Church Medley” is string of both old and newly composed up-tempo call and response congregational songs which all ramp up to the popular church tune, “Great Things/I’ll Say Yes to My Lord.” For this heavy hitting number, Wilson is joined by singer Tommie White and vocal powerhouse Yolanda Adams who passionately improvise during the vamp. In a different light, Wilson has also transformed some gospel favorites like Richard Smallwood’s anthem “Total Praise.” She eschews a conventional, stately performance featuring dark, bold vocal production (with heavy vibrato) and string orchestration for a paired down contemporary praise and worship style. Wilson reworks the melody and softens the accompaniment transforming the chorus of “Total Praise” into a contemplative yet earnest meditation on faith.

Sunday Song is a wonderful summer treat for gospel lovers everywhere. It’s a wonderful blend of older secular styles, traditional gospel music, with timeless lyrics that are sure to inspire listeners to sing, dance, and have faith.

*Quote taken from an on-air interview with Detroit, MI radio personality Randi Myles.

**Wilson suggested the music of Luther Vandross influenced the creation of this song in an on-air interview with radio personality Erica Campbell.

Reviewed by Raynetta Wiggins

The Como Mamas – Move Upstairs

The Como Mamas
Title: Move Upstairs

Artist: The Como Mamas

Label: Daptone

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: May 19, 2017

 

 

In a little corner of Mississippi, the Como Mamas have performed traditional gospel since their youth growing up in the Jim Crow South. On their second album, Move Upstairs, they continue to share music from their rich heritage with a sweet power and joy that’s sure to inspire any listener.

While their first project, Get an Understanding, was a cappella, Move Upstairs features gospel favorites accompanied by understated instrumentation that’s stylistically reminiscent of the soul and gospel music popularized in the mid-twentieth century. Stand out selections include the title track “Move Upstairs” led by Della Daniels. Two of the members first recorded an a cappella version of this song on the Daptone compilation Como Now (2008). However, the new rendition features a groove undergirded by a walking bass that shapes this piece into an exciting declaration of faith. With a rich and smoky voice, Daniels sets the tone for the song, conveying intensity and excitement about her pending trip to heaven.

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Fans of the trio will also certainly appreciate their version of the song “Glory, Glory Hallelujah.” With only a bass drum and tambourine for accompaniment, the raw power of the group’s voices alone conveys their prayerful emotion.  Lastly, the track “Count Your Blessings” is a noteworthy remake of Luther Barnes’ up-tempo contemporary gospel choir piece, “What the Lord Has Done,” into a laidback song of encouragement. With a rousing call and response interplay, the Como Mamas intimately convey their message.  Moreover, the accompanying music video (above) imbues the group’s singing with bit of lightheartedness and reminds listeners to smile, dance, and practice gratefulness in every circumstance.

Reviewed by Raynetta Wiggins

The McIntosh County Shouters: Spirituals & Shout Songs from the Georgia Coast

McIntosh Country Shouters
Title: The McIntosh County Shouters: Spirituals & Shout Songs from the Georgia Coast

Artist: The McIntosh County Shouters

Label: Smithsonian Folkways

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: January 20, 2017

 

This album is the second collection of The McIntosh County Shouters recorded and produced by Smithsonian Folkways. The first, The McIntosh County Shouters: Slave Shout Songs from the Coast of Georgia was released in 1983. The Shouters belong to a third generation of people freed from slavery and their featured songs on this album are performed exclusively for the traditional ring shout. In 1993, the group received the National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship, which is considered to be the greatest honor for the traditional arts in the United States.

As part of the educational mission of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, each album on the record label includes comprehensive liner notes that are ideal for further research. The liner notes on this album include photographs, detailed biographies of the artists, interviews with current members, and historical and cultural contextualization of the traditional ring shout. Bolden, aka “Briar Patch,” on the coastal mainland of Georgia is the home of The McIntosh County Shouters. The Mount Calvary Baptist Church is the spiritual space of the Gullah/Geechee people, known as “the stopping place of the shout.”

It is satisfying to hold such a project in your hands, with 17 tracks and a 40-page booklet accompanying the physical CD. Each song incorporates the essential elements of the ring shout: the rhythmic hand-clapping, a stick beating the floor, the soul-filled spirituals, and the fusion of call-and–response singing. All that is missing on this album, as described in the liner notes, is the visual element—the ability to watch the shouters shuffling in a counterclockwise circle. To amend this problem, Smithsonian Folkways created an accompanying short documentary film that shows the Shouters singing and dancing together. Brenton Jordan, the youngest Shouter today, looks forward to the future of the tradition and believes the strength of the shout community will continue to thrive.

Reviewed by Jennie Williams

Thornetta Davis – Honest Woman

Thornetta Davis
Title: Honest Woman

Artist: Thornetta Davis

Label: Self-released

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: September 23, 2016

 

Crowned the “Queen of Detroit Blues” in 2015, Thornetta Davis is a blues singer and songwriter with a big voice and a passion for all things blues, rock, and soul. Though she’s worked with labels like Sub Pop in the past, her latest release Honest Woman is a self-released project full of passion.

Honest Woman starts rather untraditionally, with Felicia Davis singing her sister’s praises like a spoken word poem over back porch Delta blues: “When my sister sings the blues, she moves her hips swaying to the beat / Snapping her fingers and stomping her feet.” She compares her sister to Bessie Smith and Sippie Wallace, two of the most famous black blues singers from the 1920s. This celebration of black women in music and the blues reverberates throughout the entire album, as Thornetta Davis draws inspiration from artists such as Denise LaSalle, Etta James, Sarah Vaughn, and Big Mama Thornton.

The theme of honoring women is echoed on the second track, “I Gotta Sang the Blues,” which is a powerful duet with harmonica virtuoso Kim Wilson of the Fabulous Thunderbids. The songs talks about singing the blues not to get rich or famous, but rather to persevere when “living the blues gets too rough.” At the end of the song, Davis evokes the names of more famous blues women, singing on the outro,

I ain’t gon’ stop singin’ the blues
Big Mama Thorton sang the blues
Koko Taylor sang the blues
Etta James sang the blues.

On “Sister Friends Indeed,” Davis celebrates the female friendships in her own life. The bluesy Americana track is an ode to sisterhood, discussing how all the women who have supported her throughout life are her sisters, whether they share blood or not:

The rest of Honest Woman doesn’t celebrate blues women as explicitly, but it cements Davis as a part of that history. Her smooth voices oscillates between a number of styles. She sings contemporary upbeat rock blues on songs like “That Don’t Appease Me” and “I Need A Whole Lotta Lovin to Satisfy Me,” followed by effortless soul on the heartbreak ballad “(Am I Just A) Shadow,” and sexy R&B vocals on “Can We Do It Again.”

Davis’ mixture of black music genres stands out particularly on “Set Me Free,” a modern funk and blues spiritual featuring the Larry McCray Band. Though it may be easy to view the raunchy aspects of blues as the opposite of gospel, Davis’ plea for the Lord to come down and set her free pairs perfectly with the blues singer’s themes of struggles and the pain of working.

The final song on the album, “Feels Like Religion,” is another gospel song which celebrates Davis finding happiness and confidence in herself. The song even has a call and response section as Davis sings, “I wanna dance! (dance) Shout! (shout) Show you what it’s all about!” The steady beat of the drum set completely shifts after this call and response as the music transforms into foot-stomping, hand-clapping gospel that completely takes the listener to church. This celebratory, thankful song encapsulates what Honest Woman is all about—an album full of joy and gratitude for the black blues women who influenced Davis’ music, her sisters, her God, and herself, the “Queen of Detroit Blues.”

Reviewed by Anna Polovick

Southern Avenue – Southern Avenue

Southern Avenue
Title: Southern Avenue

Artist: Southern Avenue

Label: Stax

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: February 24, 2017

 

There’s something about Memphis-based band Southern Avenue that feels undeniably raw and authentic. Their intermingling of soul, blues, and gospel music has been talked about in Memphis for years and is now available for everyone to hear on their debut self-titled album. The band’s impassioned vocals, emotional songwriting, and guitars that rollick between easygoing blues and hard rock provide a lively glimpse into the Southern aesthetics and musical traditions of Memphis.

The first seeds of Southern Avenue were sown when guitarist and Israel-native Ori Naftaly competed in the 2013 International Blues Challenge in Memphis. After briefly touring with his own band, he met singer Tierinii Jackson, who grew up in Memphis singing gospel music in church. The two hit it off, and after gathering other members including Jackson’s sister as their drummer, formed the band Southern Avenue. In less than a year, they were signed to Stax. As a Memphis native, Jackson takes this responsibility seriously, determined to honor and build on the history of the legendary label and the renowned music that the name Stax evokes.

The first track and single on Southern Avenue is the hopeful “Don’t Give Up.” Starting off with acoustic guitar, hand claps, and gentle vocals, Jackson leads a call and response, singing “When it hurts real bad” while a chorus responds “Don’t give up.” Soon, drumset and electric guitar come in, building the energy and urgency. Jackson changes her call throughout the song, also singing “When you feel there’s no hope” and “Don’t give up,” building her melisma through a crescendo until the song culminates with a rocking electric guitar solo and then fades out over organ chords:

The rest of the album is a mix of R&B songs—such as the romantic, pleading “Love Me Right” and sexy “Wildflower”—and the upbeat blues rock of “No Time to Lose” and “Rumble.” The group’s gospel influences can also be heard in the harmonies of “It’s Gonna Be Alright,” a much softer, soothing song that emphasizes the soulful qualities of Jackson’s vocals. “80 Miles from Memphis” draws on both blues and country music traditions, as Jackson sings about being away from home and “crying her blues away.” Naftaly’s guitar is a highlight of this song, showing his immense passion and skills for playing the blues.

Southern Avenue’s mix of cultures and genres reflects and honors the diversity of cultures and music in Memphis. Even the group’s name pays homage to the musical history of the city, as Southern Avenue is a Memphis street that runs from the eastern city limits all the way to the original home of Stax Records in Soulsville. Southern Avenue is an impressive debut, which showcases the impeccable songwriting and musical talent of its member and transforms Southern traditions into a modern sound.

Reviewed by Anna Polovick

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

washington-phillips
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

go-tell-it-on-the-mountain
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:

YouTube Preview Image

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

bri

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