Marie Knight – The Gospel Truth Live

Marie Knight
Title: The Gospel Truth Live

Artist: Marie Knight

Label: M.C. Records

Formats: CD, Digital

Release date: March 23, 2018

 

 

Those with at least a passing interest in gospel music are likely familiar with electric guitar- wielding evangelist Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who quite unintentionally became known as “the godmother of rock & roll.” In fact, she will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this month in recognition of her wide ranging influence on rock music. Fewer, however, may be acquainted with the career of Marie Knight, aside from her brief partnership with Tharpe in the late 1940s which produced the hit songs “Up Above My Head” and “Didn’t It Rain.” Of course Knight’s career encompassed far more than her work with Tharpe. As a child she sang for COGIC congregations throughout the Northeast, went on to record with The Sunset Four, and enjoyed a successful solo career performing and recording gospel as well as R&B music.

Knight stopped singing professionally in 1980, but was lured back into the studio two decades later by Mark Carpentieri of M.C. Records, who asked her to record “Didn’t It Rain” for the Rosetta Tharpe tribute album, Shout, Sister, Shout (a companion to the book by Gayle Wald). She went on to record an album of Rev. Gary Davis songs for Carpentieri, who became her manager, and began touring once again. Regrettably, Knight’s newfound success was cut short in 2009 after suffering a stroke, and she died shortly thereafter.

The Gospel Truth Live is Carpentieri’s posthumous tribute to Knight. The album features gems culled from her performance at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts’ 2007 Gospel Fest, held at the Church Street Center in North Adams, MA. Knight was 87 at the time, one of the last living artists from the “Golden Age” of gospel.

After a lengthy standing ovation, Knight comes on stage and opens with Rev. Gary Davis’s 1935 classic “I Belong to the Band” with the audience enthusiastically clapping along. As the concert continues, Knight segues between the Rev. Davis classics she had recently recorded—“12 Gates to the City,” a rousing “I’ll Fly Away” that gets the audience fired up, and “I Am Light of This World”—and Rosetta Tharpe repertoire including “Beams of Heaven,” “Didn’t It Rain,” and “Up Above My Head.” Granted the latter, accompanied by pianist Dave Keyes, aren’t as lively as the original renditions recorded over 60 years earlier, but Knight still has a fine, powerful contralto voice, capable of leaping registers.

In between songs Knight offers a bit of storytelling and some powerful testifying, offering words of wisdom based on her lived experiences. It’s these short sermons and her engagement with the audience that makes The Gospel Truth Live so unique—that and the fact that it’s Knight’s last recorded performance. The gospel doesn’t live in songs alone, and the context provided by this live performance is most welcome indeed.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

Marian Anderson – Let Freedom Ring!

marian-anderson
Title: Let Freedom Ring!

Artist: Marian Anderson

Label: JSP

Format: CD

Release date: November 4, 2016

 

Though illustrious contralto Marian Anderson broke many barriers over the course of her career, her 1939 concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. stands as a signal moment in the history of civil rights. Most know this story but it certainly bears repeating for a younger generation.

After concertizing around the world in the 1930s and becoming the toast of Europe, Anderson’s agent, Sol Hurok, brought her back to America in 1935 for a historic homecoming at Town Hall in New York. His hope that her international stardom would shield her from racial discrimination in her homeland was unfortunately not realized. As was the case with all African Americans, concert artists included, Anderson was subjected to many indignities—not the least of which were segregated concert halls and denial of access to hotels and restaurants while touring. Though she initially avoided taking a political stance, this role was thrust upon her in 1939 when the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to rent Constitution Hall for Anderson’s proposed Easter Sunday concert. After being turned down by additional venues in the nation’s capital, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt took up the cause (she had brought Anderson to the White House three years earlier), along with many other politicians and celebrities. To make a long story short, the Easter concert went forward on April 9, 1939, but was moved to the Lincoln Memorial on the Mall. Over 75,000 were in attendance, and the concert was broadcast live over NBC.

Let Freedom Ring! is advertised by JSP Records as the first state-of-the-art audio restoration of the NBC broadcast to be reissued on CD. In the accompanying notes by restoration engineer John H. Haley, he describes using noise removal to downplay the “noisy outdoor audience” in order to give justice to Anderson’s sumptuous voice. She was 42-years-old at the time, and the concert captures her in her prime. After the opening announcements, the concert begins with “America (My Country, ‘Tis of Thee)” as documented on this newsreel restored by UCLA:

Also included on this CD is a concert recorded over 20 years later at the Falkoner Centret in Copenhagen. Never before released, the October 27, 1961 performance includes Anderson’s typical mix of Brahms and Schubert lieder with a number of standard spirituals. Of particular interest are two lieder by Finish composer Yrjö Henrik Kilpinen, who died two years prior to this concert, as well as songs by Sibelius and an aria from Saint-Saens’ Samson et Dalila. As Haley notes, Anderson was 64 at the time of this concert and nearing the end of her career. Her performance is still captivating, even though a bit tenuous at times (Haley admits to making some pitch corrections).

If you wish to learn more about Anderson’s historic 1939 performance, the booklet includes the riveting story as excerpted from Harlow Robinson’s The Last Impresario: The Life, Times and Legacy of Sol Hurok (New York: Viking Penguin, 1994). Marion Anderson’s personal papers are housed at the University of Pennsylvania.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss