I’ve been collecting gospel records since 1977. It started at a bargain bin in a Woolworth in Ft. Lauderdale’s only black neighborhood where I spotted a peculiar looking LP in the 39 cent bin.
The cover photo showed a heavy set, middle age black woman wearing a turban and a huge feathered boa playing an arch top electric guitar. It was Sister Rosetta Tharpe (bottom clip) and I’d never heard of her but for 39 cents it was worth it just for the photo. When I brought the record home and played it imagine my surprise when the sound of Sam Price’s boogie piano backed by a slapping string bass and drums came rolling out of my speakers. This was followed by a guitar solo that could have come off of an obscure Sun rockabilly 45, then a woman’s voice began belting out “Strange Things Happening Everyday“. A call and response rocker that except for the religious bent of the lyrics could have easily fit in with the rockabilly and R&B 45’s I was just then discovering. Record collecting of course is part archeology, and I’d struck a new layer in the excavation of rock’n’roll’s past. I’ve been mining that vein ever since, especially since the rise in prices, record conventions and Ebay have taken most of the fun out of record collecting. Gospel discs though are still relatively cheap, and you can still find ’em if you know where to look.
In his groundbreaking book The Gospel Sound (Good News and Bad Times, revised and updated Limelight Editions, 1985, still the only decent book on the subject) author Anthony Heilbut divides the Gospel sound into to three major groups, the solo singers, usually female best exemplified by the big voiced contraltos like Mahalia Jackson and Marion Williams, choirs such as New York’s famed Abyssinian Baptist Choir, the Edwin Hawkins Singers (who scored maybe the only real gospel pop hit with “Oh Happy Day), etc. and the quartets (which usually have five members but all gospel singing groups are called quartets) like the Golden Gate Quartet, Dixie Hummingbirds (middle clip), 5 Blind Boys Of Alabama (top clip), Pilgrim Travlers, the Soul Stirrers (where Sam Cooke first came to national attention, heard here in a church rattling live rendition of “Nearer To Thee” from the Shrine Auditorium Concert in ’53), the Swan Silvertones, et. al.
There are performers who don’t fit into the above categories like the Staple Singers, female groups like the Ward Singers, and my favorite, the guitar Evangelists.
One thing they all have in common is they developed in the Holiness In God Church Of Christ also known as the Sanctified Church where music is extremely important and folks “fall out” (lose control of their brains) and often speak in tongues. The white branch of the HIGCOC are often called Holy Rollers for this reason. Elvis is just one white rocker with such a background.
Hardcore gospel fans usually prefer the big voiced female singers whose art is
comparable to opera singing in the level of physical difficulty although unlike oper, gospel singing usually involves a great degree of improvisation. Anyone who has heard Clara Ward sing “When I Get Over” understands that Aretha Franklin (just voted by the ever irrelevant Rolling Stone magazine the all time greatest pop singer) has not an original cell in her large body. Every nuance, every vocal trick and aside that makes Aretha a star was copped from Clara Ward (who also influenced Little Richard in a very different way, check out the Ward Singers’ “Packin’ Up” to hear where Richard’s “wooo” came from).
Record companies started recording gospel music almost as soon as they started recording and singing preachers and guitar Evangelists as well as jubilee style groups were among the first “race” records issued.
Columbia had a winner on their hands with Blind Willie Johnson, whom they recorded from 1927-30, a street singer and great slide guitar player who would come to the attention of white folks when Sam Charters devoted a chapter to him in his groundbreaking 1959 book The Country Blues (revised edition De Capo, 1975).
I first heard him on the Folkways compilation LP that was issued as a companion to the book. It was said a cop arrested him for trying to incite a riot by singing “If I Had My Way, I’d Tear This Building Down” on a Dallas street. Ry Cooder practically made a career out of rehashing Johnson’s ethereal “Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground“, one of the true masterpieces of slide guitar playing. Johnson’s music is easy to find, Sony has a two cd set of his complete works and Yazoo has a nice collection which last time I looked could be found here. Johnson’s collection of voices, from a the gruff, throat full of broken glass heard on “If I Had…” to a fluttering falsetto, show an instrument every bit as sensitive as his heralded guitarmanship.
Another favorite from the scratchy old 78 collection is under the nome du disc Black Billy Sunday (real name: Dr. J. Gordon McPherson) whose 1931 session for Paramount produced this masterpiece–“This Ole World’s In A Hellava Fix“. It’s the kind of record that is always timely.
It was said that this was Hank Williams’ favorite, the Guitar Evangelist (aka Rev. Edward W. Clayborn) 1927 Vocallion recording of “Death Is A Dream“. Good enough for Hank, good enough for the Hound.
I have no idea who the 2 Gospel Keys were but they made two of the greatest records I’ve ever heard. “I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore” and “You Got To Move” (which the Stones’ covered using Mississippi Fred McDowell’s version as their template) capture the sound of the Holiness church in all it’s earthly glory. It’s enough to get you saved, or at least shaved. They recorded for New York’s Apollo label in 1948, then went back to church and never recorded again.
Rev. Anderson Johnson was from Miami, Florida and issued his own discs on his Glory label. He was a rockin’ electric guitarist and had a declaiming style of singing
that added a touch of humor to his rockin’ electric sermons. My favorite is this one,
“God Don’t Like It”(especially the apology at the end) and also his version of “Let That Liar Pass On By” which bears no small resemblance to Ray Charles’ hit “Leave My Woman Alone“.
Rev. Utah Smith was from New Orleans where he ran the Two Wings Temple branch of the Holiness Church. He recorded these two songs twice each, and each version was issued on two different labels. Maybe he was also into numerology?
It matters not, but “Two Wings” and ” Take A Trip (Gospel Ship)” are two of the greatest post-war guitar Evangelist recordings, both recorded in ’53 these versions were on the Kay-Ron label.
One of the most prized 78’s I own is this one on the Chart label out of Miami, Elder Beck’s utterly crazed “Rock’n’Roll Sermon“. Whilst in the process of warning of the sins of rock’n’roll, Rev. Beck just can’t help hisself and the whole thing mutates into a version of “Rock Around The Clock” that would make Bill Haley’s spit curl stand up straight. It’s rare as hell but can be found on the great R&B compilation Blowin’ Through Yokahama (Atomic Passion), one of my all time favorite LP’s (Norton Records has it in their mail order catalogue).
Although they didn’t record for the “race” market, Rev. Louis Overstreet, his guitar, his four sons, and the Congregation of St. Luke’s Powerhouse Church Of God In Christ (pictured above, his sons bearing no small resemblance to Alvin & the Chipmunks, and where’s that Stratocaster today?) were captured by Arhoolie’s Chris Strachwitz in 1962 at their Phoenix, Arizona church, and as heard here on “Yeah Lord”
rafter shakin’ was their business.
Rev. Charlie Jackson, from New Orleans was influenced by the aforementioned Rev. Utah Smith and recorded a whole bunch of 45’s for the Booker label in the 1970’s, the best of which are “Morning Train” (here’s the Sensational Nightingales original for comparison’s sake) and “Wrapped Up and Tangled Up“. All his sides were re-issued on LP on Crypt and CD on Casequarter, the LP sounding much better to my ears.
The only white singer who can compare to any of the folks I’ve been talking about here is Brother Claude Ely who recorded for King in the 50’s. His rendition of “Ain’t No Grave Gonna Hold My Body Down“, “You Gotta Move” (said to be the inspiration for Elvis’ version) and “Holy Holy Holy” make him a credit to his race.
Another disc I should mention, issued on Savoy’s Gospel imprint in ’58 is the Selah Singers’ “The Wicked Race” which gets snaps for mentioning Sputnik. A bit scratchy but it’s never been re-issued.
I end today’s blogism (blogatin’? blogation? blogeration?) with two version of one of my favorite tunes, it’s called “This Is A Mean World”, again, some lyrics never go out of style, the first is done quartet style by the Trumpeteers on King and the second singing preacher fashion by Rev. C. L. Johnson for Savoy. And then I’m off into the sunset with one last tune from the Swan Silvertones on Specialty– I’m A Rollin‘. Get right with God, motherfuckers.