Gospel: Soul Sources

ON STAGE at the Apollo, Harlem: standing at one microphone, an immaculately dressed man dramatically insists his love. At the second mike, four men bend towards each other, sing a phrase in harmony, step back and spin into an intricate flowing movement as the lead singer takes a line by himself, but comes swooping back in time to echo his last phrase.

Behind them, poised, seemingly somehow to control what they do without any obvious signs or instructions, stands the guitarist; near him, the organist and drummer.

The scene doesn't change much from week to week. The names and faces are different, and the number of singers in the groups ranges from three to eight. But the pattern is formalised now, and the audience expects a similar routine from every group.

PATTERN

Some of them have chosen to emphasise particular stylised movements, moving together in an evidently predetermined pattern: James Brown's Famous Flames seem always to know what each other is doing despite the variety of their movements; Shep and the Limelites have long shirt cuffs showing beyond their jacket sleeves, which they tug in unison, letting their cuff-links catch the spotlight (understanding the hypnotic effect of flashing light long before anybody thought of using a strobe light).

Other groups improvise more clearly (or spend a lot more time rehearsing a choreography so complicated that it seems to be spontaneous); the Temptations have few rivals in the way they break into individual patterns and yet come back together on time to hit their harmonies right.

But no matter what the movements, the groups' sounds share the same inspiration of Southern church music. Usually, the influence is indirect; the songs have been adjusted to a context of love for woman instead of God, and the sophisticated harmonies reflect arrangements worked out in recording studios. But sometimes, the group retains connections with religion, calls itself a "gospel group" and sings solely religious songs.

TOURING

They are just as much professional singers as the popular music groups, touring the States throughout the year, and often have little or no relationship with a particular church; off stage they dress well, live well, as any other entertainer does; on it, they use the same techniques to create excitement that popular singers like Jackie Wilson and James Brown use, the same falsetto shrieks, the same hysterical collapses.

The effect of a good gospel group is the most exciting experience contemporary music can offer; working fantastically hard to get the audience involved, they run down the aisles, grasp waving hands, leap back on the stage, dance, march, all the time declaring their absolute devotion to God. It's enough to make a man religious.

Among the best visual acts are the Gospelaires and James Cleveland. The Gospelaires are eight men, younger than some of the most famous groups like the Five Blind Boys and the Dixie Hummingbirds, each one of them apparently good enough to be a successful solo singer if he chose. On stage, they really work.

James Cleveland is more conservative, concentrating the audience's attention on what he's saying by standing still and just singing; his act also features two or three young singers, who look to be about 14 or 15 years old, whose voices are far more pure and beautiful than any popular singer at present making records. Presumably most of them are never heard of once their voices break; Cleveland just picks up another singer he's heard about, singing in some local church choir.

Gospel music suffers much more than soul music does when it gets recorded, because with no visual distraction the listener is painfully aware of the unimaginative musical accompaniment most of the singers have. Even worse, for the non-religious listener, is the depressing, repetitive self-satisfaction of people who've got the message and want you to know.

BEAUTY

There are, however, some records which manage to get through to the non-believing listener, through their sheer beauty or by having more careful arrangements. The Edwin Hawkins Singers craftily took both precautions, and created a mood in 'Oh Happy Day' that Phil Spector would have been proud to have produced.

But, as the group's singer Dorothy Morrison said, that was pop gospel, and not really representative of contemporary gospel styles. Much more typical is the selection on a recent Island LP The Unfolding of the Book of Life (LP-993).

British record companies are not generally renowned for the quality of their compilations, so that this one is particularly remarkable for the care which has been taken in putting it together. James Hamilton did it, listening with an ear which was probably more sensitive to sounds which might interest a soul collector than to messages of particularly impressive religious theory. The result is a fascinating collection of tracks which almost all relate in some way to a well-known singer, style or song.

In the exceptionally helpful sleeve notes, James gives the important warning against too hastily-drawn conclusions that well-known soul songs were lifted from the gospel songs on this LP; quite often, the gospel song was recorded later, and sometimes both were recorded in the same year, in which case who knows which came first?

All the tracks are taken from the Houston company, Peacock/Songbird. But this is one of the most important gospel companies so that the range is as wide as any compilation could be, from raucous preaching (something like James Brown at his roughest) to lyrical solos as Sam Cooke would have done them, and smooth harmonies by groups sounding like the Impressions.

The changing moods of the many singers give the album a much more varied character than any which feature a particular group or singer; hopefully, Island will get round to releasingVolume 2, whose titles are listed on this sleeve, but which has not yet reached the shops (or even, I suspect, the pressing plant).

TEDIOUS

Various other gospel records have been issued over the years, some by Vocalion from the same Peacock/Songbird sources that this Island album used. Some are tedious, but the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi should interest anybody who wonders where the harsh style of Wilson Pickett came from. The only other Southern gospel company of comparable size to Peacock is Nashboro, in Nashville (whose rhythm and blues label, Excello, is better known here).

President bravely put out six LP's by the label's six major gospel stars a year or so ago; after listening to James Hamilton's compilation, I discovered that a track on President's Harold Boggs LP has the line. "I've been a Christian too long to stop now," which isn't too far from the title of Otis Redding's best ballad.

But a more consistently interesting LP was The Soul of the Consolers, which is at various times reminiscent of the Righteous Brothers and the Staple Singers (another "pop gospel" group, currently recording for Stax). The best track, 'Someone Must Answer' was also a President single.

The kind of education which these LP's provide will enable better appreciation of soul singers, showing some to be more original than is generally appreciated in this country, and others to be more derivative than we knew. Sam Cooke can only seem increasingly important, and indirect evidence of his work was recently made available in this country for the first time in Soul City's LP, Double-Barrelled Soul, featuring the Simms Twins and the Valentinos who recorded for Cooke's Star label in 1961-2.

Untouched by the twist beat and screeching girl groups which ruined most records at that time, these tracks are lively and varied, including two R & B top ten hits, 'Lookin' For a Love' by the Valentinos and 'Soothe Me' by the Simms Twins, and also a song the Coasters would have been proud to do, 'I Gopher You', done here by the Simms Twins.

Incidentally, for those to whom the names of gospel groups mean something, the following are represented on The Unfolding of the Book of Life: The Mighty Clouds of Joy, The O'Neal Twins, The Gospelaires, Inez Andrews and the Andrewettes, The Gospel Commanders, The Jackson South-ernaires, The Sunset Travellers, The Williams Brothers and Sisters Lee Ida Brown, The Biblical Gospel Singers, The Kansas City Melodyaires, The Pilgrim Jubilee Singers, The Gospel Challengers, The Bethlehem Baptist Church Choir, The Mighty Redeemers and The Seven Souls.

© Charlie Gillett, 1969

Rock’s Backpages Rock’s Backpages

Article Courtesy of Rock’s Backpages, the Online Library of Music Journalism. For schools interested in subscribing to Rock's Backpages, please click here.

To browse all of the material provided by Rock's Backpages, browse our Rock’s Backpages partner page.