Over the decades, black gospel music has had a profound influence on popular music, a fact that remains as relevant today as in the 1950s. But the reverse is also true. Jesus Rocked the Jukebox, a new compilation from Craft (Concord’s reissue label), explores the blurring of boundaries between genres by focusing on the seminal period from 1951-1965. During this era many gospel artists began crossing over into secular music, unleashing their improvisational gospel-inflected vocals in a manner that demanded the creation of a new genre: soul. At the same time, other gospel singers who remained firmly rooted in the church didn’t hesitate to liven up their music with harmonic and rhythmic elements drawn from jazz, blues, R&B, and early rock ‘n’ roll. This reciprocal relationship between black sacred and secular music is illustrated throughout Jesus Rocked the Jukebox, primarily through the recordings of well-known gospel quartets. Gospel historian Robert Marovich explores this synergy in greater detail in the accompanying booklet.
One of the first things a listener will notice is the sequencing of the tracks. Compilers Fred Jasper and Mason Williams dispensed with the more typical chronological order in favor of overall effect. Thus the opening track actually begins at the end of the era. After all, how could you not begin this set with “People Don’t Sing Like They Used To Sing.” Cut in 1965 by The Original Blind Boys, the song might be considered traditional in today’s terms, but the rocking piano and guitar accompaniment clearly signal a departure from earlier gospel quartet styles.
Over the course of the 40-track compilation there are many similar examples, some drawn from the likes of the Staple Singers and Soul Stirrers, while others were plucked from lesser known recordings. For example, the Silver Quintette from Gary, Indiana is featured on the rocking 1956 Vee-Jay track “Father Don’t Leave” featuring Joe Henderson on bass, while a 1963 version of “Heavenly Father” by Brooklyn’s Patterson Singers is styled after a ‘60s girl-group ballad. The Highway QC’s “God Has Promised,” featuring Johnny Taylor on lead, mimics the urban harmony groups of the era. Several tracks are devoted to the famous Swan Silvertones, including “How I Got Over” from 1954 featuring Claude Jeter—one of the great gospel tenors whose falsetto clearly influenced many later soul and pop singers.
As Marovich states in the liner notes, “Every perspiration-drenched performance by a soul singer, every shouting improvisation from a rock-and-roll vocalist, every melismatic run delivered by contestants on a TV singing competition, evokes the exuberance of black preachers, church singers and church musicians in the throes of the spirit.” Jesus Rocked the Jukebox unearths the gospel roots of American popular music, exposing countless gems in all of their splendor to be explored and appreciated by modern audiences.
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.
This is proving to be a great year for fans of the Staple Singers. In March, Legacy re-issued their 1965 album, Freedom Highway Complete: Recorded Live at Chicago’s New Nazareth Church (reviewed here), to commemorate the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday” and the subsequent Selma to Montgomery march—a pivotal moment in the Civil Rights Movement. Now, just in time for the holidays, we’re blessed with Concord’s limited edition 4-CD box set, Faith & Grace: A Family Journey 1953-1976, the first comprehensive overview of the group’s career. Drawing from over two decades of material in the vaults, the set includes both live and studio recordings. Also included are some tempting never-before-released rarities, of which the pièce de résistance is the bonus 7-inch vinyl disc featuring the earliest known recordings of the group (“Faith and Grace” ; “These Are They”) from a 1953 limited edition self-released 78-rpm disc on the Royal label.
Family patriarch Roebuck “Pops” Staples, a guitarist and singer noted for his high tenor voice and falsetto, formed the Staples Singers in 1949 with his son, Pervis (tenor), and two of his young daughters, Cleotha (alto) and Mavis (contralto and bass)—who usually sang lead with her father. Another daughter, Yvonne, would later join the quartet, alternating with Pervis and Cleotha. Originally from Mississippi, Pops was exposed to both secular music, primarily the Delta blues, as well as sacred, performing in church choirs and with the vocal group Golden Trumpets. When the family moved to Chicago in the 1930s, bringing their country styles with them, they were initially ridiculed in the big city (as were most rural southerners during the Great Migration). However, it would be this unique fusion of country blues, folk spirituals and gospel quartet influences that propelled the family to stardom—especially in the late 1950s and 1960s with the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement and subsequent flowering of soul music.
Disc one, sequenced chronologically, covers the early years from 1953-1960. Opening with two songs recorded on September 7, 1953, the group lays into Pops Staple’s original “It Rained Children” (United 165) and a traditional song “I Just Can’t Keep It to Myself” (Gospel/Savoy LP 3001), both accompanied on piano by Evelyn Gay of the popular Gay Sisters, who only sat in at the insistence of the studio head. All of the remaining songs were accompanied by Pops on guitar and were recorded at Chicago’s Universal Studios for release on the African American owned Vee-Jay label, where Ewart Abner was responsible for signing the group. Also included is the previously unreleased song—“I’ve Got a New Home” from 1955. This disc brings out the raw gospel “straight from the church” side of the Staple Singers and, with the exception of their first major hit “Uncloudy Day,” many of these songs are likely not well-known to the average listener. The disc also highlights the remarkable talents of the precocious Mavis, who was only 14 when the initial tracks were recorded.
Disc two continues with Vee-Jay recordings from 1960-1961, beginning with “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” and including traditional songs such as “Swing Low” and “Stand By Me.” A previously unreleased full version of the medley “Too Close/I’m On My Way Home/I’m Coming Home/He’s Alright” from a live performance recorded in Clarksdale, Mississippi in 1960 is a highlight of this disc. When the group moved over to the New York based Riverside label in 1962, they released the album Hammer and Nails (Riverside 3501). Under the direction of Orrin Keepnews, the seven songs included here from Hammer and Nails showcase a much more pop-oriented sound, purposefully targeted to a broader audience well beyond the Black church. The remaining tracks are drawn from several Riverside albums: “There Was a Star” and “Use What You Got” (with Maceo Woods on organ) from the Christmas album The 25th Day of December(Riverside 3513); “Let That Liar Alone” and the popular folk songs “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and “This Land Is Your Land” from the album This Land, with Phil Upchurch and Johnny Pate on bass (Riverside 3524); “I Know I’ve Been Changed” from the album Great Day (Milestone M 470280, though this citation does not appear in the notes) ; and “I Can’t Help From Cryin’ Sometime” from the album This Little Light (Riverside 3527).
Disc 3 represents the greatest transitional period, including material from 1964-1969 recorded for several labels: three tracks from Riverside (all from This Little Light), then moving on to “Wish I Had Answered” from the Live at Newport album on Vanguard; two tracks recorded for the D-Town label’s devotional series including “Tell Him What You Want” and I’ll Fly Away”; 11 tracks from the Epic label which includes their socially conscious song “Freedom Highway;” and three of their first songs on the Stax label including “Long Walk to D.C.,” “Slow Train” and “Got to Be Some Changes.”
Disc 4 is comprised almost entirely of the Staple Singers’ Stax output, where they were molded into soul music superstars. Included is their great message song about reparations, “When Will We Be Paid,” and “The Ghetto” from the albums Soul Folk in Action and We’ll Get Over, plus their biggest hit of all time, “Respect Yourself,” and four other songs from the album Be Altitude: Respect Yourself. Also included are two songs from the album Be What You Are, “Back Road Into Town” from City in the Sky, and “Let’s Do It Again,” released on Curtis Mayfield’s Curtom label. The set closes with a version of the song “The Weight,” recorded in 1976 with The Band (featuring Levon Helm) for the famous Martin Scorsese documentary The Last Waltz, plus a bonus demo track of “Respect Yourself.”
The handsome packaging includes a forward by Mavis Staples along with informative liner notes by James Miller, gospel historian Opal Louis Nations, and compilation producer Joe McEwen, accompanied by many full color photographs. It should be noted that a few typos and omissions have crept into the text, and the CD sleeves are too tight and must be loosened to allow safe removal of the discs. But overall this is a fabulous tribute to the Staple Singers, covering the full range of their output from the “country gospel sounds of the Mississippi Delta” to the peak of their career as soul royalty, “God’s greatest hitmakers,” and icons of the Civil Rights Movement. Don’t wait too long to purchase a copy—this set may be sold out by the end of the year.
In his book, Soulsville, U.S.A. – The Story of Stax Record (1997), popular music historian Rob Bowman documents the story of Memphis-based Stax Records. Bowman describes the story of Stax as “about as improbable and unforeseeable as any tale could possibly be.” Originally founded as Satellite Records in 1957 by white country fiddler Jim Stewart, Stax from its conception was racially integrated in all facets of its operations. Stax was also instrumental in establishing Southern soul and the south Memphis sound. The signature sound and style are attributed to its house band, which consisted of Booker T. & the MGs, Isaac Hayes, and the horn section from the Mar-Keys. Additionally, the Stax sound was also derived from the physical characteristics of its recording studio. Essentially a converted movie theatre, the studio had a slanted floor with sound proofing affixed to the interior walls and sound equipment installed on the stage.
Soulsville Sings Hitsville:Stax Sings Songs of Motown Records in essence brings the “city” cousin home to the south, and reintroduces him to long lost country roots. Containing 15 tracks, this compilation provides the Southern soul singer’s interpretation of northern soul songs from the Motown catalog.
“Reach Out (I’ll Be There)” was first recorded by The Four Tops in (1966) and by Diana Ross in (1971). The Mar-Keys’ instrumental version gives this classic Motown tune a rockin’ edge by implementing a couple of rock riffs along with other guitar effects, and places the solo line with the tenor saxophone. Although the song has been altered from its original form, you are still able to recognize the distinguishable Motown flavor which is illustrated through the accents of the tambourine.
Originally recorded by Stevie Wonder in 1970, “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” has been revived and given a new walk, so to speak, by The Soul Children. With its heavy blues and gospel influences, you find it hard to resist the urge to snap your fingers as you leave the church revival to pay your dues at the local juke joint.
Other notable tracks include: “You’ve Got to Earn It” by the Staple Singers; “Stop! In the Name of Love” by Margie Joseph; “I Don’t Know Why I Love You” by David Porter; “Can I Get a Witness” by Calvin Scott; and “Chained” by Mavis Staples.