The Word in the Music
Michael Stone looks at some gospel history.

African-American gospel singing has a long recording history. Victor was the first, in 1902, giving the world the Dinwiddie Colored Quartet. Commercial success led OKeh, founded in 1915, to introduce its first "race" series in 1920, followed by Columbia in 1922. OKeh led in exploring African American blues and gospel music, with field trips to Atlanta in 1923 and 1924. Columbia followed with expeditions to Atlanta in 1925, New Orleans in 1926, and Memphis and Dallas in 1927. Columbia-OKeh ownership was consolidated at the depth of the Depression in 1934, and the label became a leader anew in gospel's postwar resurgence.

There Will Be No Sweeter Sound (Columbia/Legacy) features lesser-known postwar groups, and indicates the varied and dynamic nature of the era's gospel ferment. The MelloTones were a Brooklyn jubilee quartet; stride piano, guitar, hand percussion and a whooping doo-wop vocal attack mark their style. Bill Landford and the Landfordaires started in 1945; schooled with the Golden Gate Quartet, Landford's tenor falsetto, blues-weary vibrato and spare guitar were his own group's trademarks. The guitar-backed Sunset Jubilee Singers, among New York's premier 1940s quartets, evolved into a wailing, bass-led, roof-raising hard-gospel group. The Jackson Gospel Singers, a top New Orleans female quartet, generated a soul-rending wall of sound to equal the best male efforts. Brother Rodney, who favored a shimmering, echo-chamber piano and organ backing, could well have informed Elvis Presley's vocal style. The all-male Pearly Gates Spiritual Singers laid some mightily swaying tracks for OKeh in 1953. Sister Myrtle Fields, accompanied by the Austin McCoy Trio, brings to mind Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Janis Joplin. Sanders Cooper and the Sons of Glory close with three stirring, soul-afflicted numbers that put the seventh seal on the good book of R&B.

For the Library of Congress, John Avery Lomax and son Alan had first prospected in the Virginia Eastern Shore in the 1930s and 1940s, moved by laudatory antebellum descriptions of its rapturous African-American music. Alan Lomax returned in 1960 to log Velvet Voices (Rounder), which includes the work of four remarkable gospel groups. The Bright Light Quartet were menhaden fishermen whose repertoire combined sea chanteys and pulsing, guitar-backed gospel material. Lead singer Shedrick Cain reveals a startling falsetto; their uptempo "Christian Automobile" is sublime. The Silver Leaf Quartet, a hard-touring Norfolk jubilee-style group formed in 1919, recorded for OKeh from 1928 to 1931. When Lomax arrived, they were singing locally on an occasional basis, but their work shows how a closely worked fragment of sacred text can articulate, in each communal improvisation, the fully expressive power of a divine musical universe. Norfolk's Peerless Four (actually eight young men) proffer four commanding tracks in the driving, R&B-tinged gospel quartet sound popular in the early 1960s, backed by electric guitar, piano, drums, tambourine, hand-clapping and a drop-in neighborhood chorus. Hearken to their "Trouble in My Way" and "I'm a Soldier in the Army of the Lord" rock poseurs might learn something here.

Compare the tightly rehearsed Belleville A Cappella Choir (who also render a many layered "John the Revelator" on Velvet Voices). A jubilee-style folk choir in the tradition of the seminal Fisk Jubilee Singers, they exhibit the continuity of celebratory aesthetic conceptions among African-descent peoples. Theirs is an inventive exercise of overlapping call-and-response patterns with a fierce sense of rhythmic values. The off-beat phrasing of melodic accents and a mellifluous "shang-a-lang" and "diddy-whomp" vocal punctuation project a deliberate physicality that animates the participatory nature of performer-audience interaction to the point of dissolving the distinction altogether. Among the many impressive voices on Honor the Lamb (Rounder), Rhoda Parish, the choir's astonishing soprano soloist, presages Jessye Norman. (Remarkably, Lomax took the Choir to perform in the 1982 program, "Folk Music in the Roosevelt White House," alas with no indication of the Reagan reaction.)

Enlisting writer, gospel scholar, singer, producer and deejay Opal Louis Nations to mine the archives of Hob Records, Music Club has produced a pair of compilations focusing on 1950s and 1960s gospel. Kings of Gospel (Music Club) is a roundhouse of standards in the postwar, post-jubilee singing style of dense harmonies, swing leads, and all the vocal declensions and dramatics that white audiences might associate with soul and R&B. Included are Philadelphia's long-lived Dixie Hummingbirds (just hear "Get Away Jordan"), Richmond's Harmonizing Four, South Carolina's Five Singing Stars (formed in 1953 and still singing today), Chicago's Clefs of Calvary (with former Blind Boys soloist Roscoe Robinson), LA's R&B-tinged Mighty Clouds of Joy, the Flying Clouds, the Cross Jordan Singers (check out their church-quaking "Wagon Wheels"), and the Brooklyn All-Stars (whose selections invoke a sanctified Sam Cooke).

Queens of Gospel (Music Club) includes three tracks by each of five standouts. Dorothy Love-Coates and The Gospel Harmonettes (of Bessemer, Alabama) take "The Gospel Train" on a cross-country tour-de-force, invoking luminaries from all ends of the gospel nation. Chicago's Caravans, an offshoot of the seminal Robert Anderson Singers, was fronted by Albertina Walker; the group also gave Shirley Caesar her gospel jump-start. Detroit's Meditation Singers were the springboard for jazz vocalist Della Reese and soul stirrer Laura Lee Rundless (crank up the group's rocking James Cleveland arrangement, "One More River to Cross"). The Clara Ward Specials, another Philadelphia gospel institution, gave the matchless Marion Williams her start. She and other disaffected Wardites would go on to found the Stars of Faith, also heard here.

Shanachie recruited gospel authority Anthony Heilbut to compile a retrospective on the extraordinary Marion Williams (1927-1994), a MacArthur "genius grant" winner and the first gospel recipient of a Kennedy Center Lifetime Achievement Honor. Anderson's divinely inspired, nearly four-octave contralto style has informed the singing of myriad lesser lights. These 24 steadfast, earth-moving tracks, recorded between 1973 and 1991, swing a sweeping compass across the blues, soul, R&B, folk, jazz and beyond. As Mother Marion remarked to Heilbut back in the Age of Aquarius, "They used to talk about us like dogs, call us crazy and Holy Rollers, and now those white children are carrying on worse than we ever did." Name your genre this is a consummate memorial to one of the century's immutable vocal virtuosos.

A prime destination for northbound African Americans, Chicago (with its many iconoclast Protestant congregations) has long been the nation's gospel refuge. All God's Sons and Daughters (another Heilbut production) offers 25 tracks from the heavenly host of planet gospel, from the 1940s to the 1990s. As leader of the Gospel Caravan, Robert Anderson brought forth such young performers as Albertina Walker and James Cleveland (Aretha Franklin's mentor). Anderson also trained Sam Cooke, Lou Rawls and Johnnie Taylor. Here he does Mahalia Jackson's "Move On Up a Little Higher" (he sang it at Jackson's 1972 funeral) and a consecrated 1949 take of "Do You Know Him." J. Robert Bradley sounds eerily like Paul Robeson on a 1950s "Motherless Child" (in measure of his stature, he also sang at Queen Mahalia's sendoff). Gladys Beamon Gregory's shot-to-the-heart duet with Lucy Smith Collier is stellar, while Irma Gwynn's classical training makes for a decided formal dignity (e.g., "Stand By Me"). Pianist, arranger and singer Roberta Martin shepherded many of Chicago's gospel best, including Deloris Barrett Campbell, Bessie Folk, Norsalus McKissick, Eugene Smith and the arresting but little-recorded Myrtle Scott (often touted as the city's greatest gospel singer). All, including Martin, sing out on this release, a cardinal preface to the Chicago gospel testament.

In a nation still in the thralldom of its own peculiar brand of apartheid, the crass capitalist impulse has never ceased to squeeze the economic potential of African-American expressive culture, but its infectious, beatific soul defies corruption, preferring higher ground. Words cannot pronounce what the gospel shout and moan declare with prayerful grace. These diverse releases illustrate that African-American gospel influences on sacred and secular song constitute an enduring, transcendent legacy, sweet news in the most terrible of times. Michael Stone


See also: Lomax Collection, Sacred Harp


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