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10 Great Gospel Discs


Tom Mathew

The Ten Best Gospel Music CDs of All Time!
Before you take a look at my list of the top 10 gospel CDs of all time, I have a small confession to make. I don't like modern gospel music. There, I said it. For me, gospel music died around 1960. Up until then, the black church was one of the most influential forces in American popular music. It spilled out into all sorts of different genres, and in some cases served as a driving force behind the emergence of brand-new musical forms — like soul, funk, doo wop, and rock 'n' roll.

But by around 1960, most of the innovative performers that were coming out of the church — like James Brown, Sam Cooke, and Aretha Franklin — were opting for the money and fame of secular music. And as a result, gospel music, which was once such a rich source of musical ideas and innovation, became derivative of many of the same secular forms that once followed the gospel lead.

OK, there's my explanation. I realize there are a great many people out there that would vehemently disagree with me, but that's my story and I'm sticking to it. So, without further ado, this is my top ten list of what some might call "roots" religious music or something like that … but I call it the best gospel albums EVER!

10. Kings of the Gospel Highway: The Golden Age of Gospel Quartets — Various Artists (Shanachie 2000)
If you want to get a great overview of the finest black gospel vocal groups from the heyday of the genre, this is the one to get. With songs carefully chosen by writer and researcher Anthony Heilbut, this collection represents the dominant musical styles of close-harmony gospel singing during the 1940s and 1950s.

For that hard-driving, shouting gospel sound, there's the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi, the Sensational Nightingales, and the Spirit of Memphis. For silky smooth falsetto crooning, you get the Swan Silvertones with their lead singer Brother Claude Jeter. For intricate group vocal arrangements and dual lead interchanges, you get the Pilgrim Travelers. And for perhaps the finest of all the gospel quartet leads, there's the Soul Stirrers featuring the unparalleled vocal flights of lead tenor R.H. Harris, whose masterful style and technique would influence virtually every gospel singer to follow, including Sam Cooke.

Most of these songs come from relatively rare 78s, so there is surface noise on almost every track. But they've done a terrific job limiting the noise without sucking the life out of the music. My only minor gripe with this collection is the exclusion of the Dixie Hummingbirds; but with a running time of over 70 minutes, it seems like they simply ran out of room.

HIGHLIGHT(S): With a collection so varied (and spectacular!) as this one, it's difficult to pick a favorite moment. The Five Blind Boys' earth-shaking rendition of Will My Jesus Be Waiting? is the most ferocious quartet recording I've ever heard (Archie Brownlee is a monster!). And Claude Jeter?s falsetto opening of the Silvertones' All Aboard is delicate and absolutely beautiful. But this collection's finest moment may be R.H. Harris's swinging improvisation at the close of the Soul Stirrers' Does Jesus Care?. You'll have to hear it to believe it!

9. American Primitive Vol. 1: Raw Pre-War Gospel — Various Artists (Revenant 1998)
Guitarist John Fahey founded Revenant Records in the mid-1990s. His mission was to make available "the work of great, uncompromising artists, undiluted by commercial meddling." Revenant releases have included jazz experimentalist Cecil Taylor, rockabilly pioneer Charlie Feathers, and avant-garde rocker Captain Beefheart. American Primitive gathers extremely raw gospel recordings from 1926 through 1936. Audiophiles beware — these are rough recordings transferred to CD from old beat-up 78s. There is not a single track that I would say sounds "good." But each one offers a fascinating glimpse into a dim corner of American gospel music.

In the mid-1920s, record companies discovered there was a market for self-accompanied street musicians, both sacred and secular. In many cases, virtually nothing is known about the performers. They ventured into the studio a few times, were paid a flat sum for their services, and disappeared. (In some cases, established blues musicians like Charley Patton were encouraged to do sacred tunes, often under pseudonyms.) American Primitive gathers the best of these early street musicians. Most of the recordings feature one or two singers accompanied by a guitar, and maybe a tambourine or harmonica. They sing about the religious implications of current events, warnings against the evils of sin, and the promise of release in the afterlife. It's an important historical and musical document.

HIGHLIGHT: Honey in the Rock — Blind Mamie Forehand. Accompanied by her husband (or brother?) A.C. on guitar, Blind Mamie delivers one of the sweetest vocal performances in the history of gospel music on this plaintive tune. She keeps time with a bell, identified by some as finger cymbals and by others as a bell from a hotel front desk!

8. Glory! It's the … — Staple Singers (Recall 2000)
First, let me tell you about all the ways this collection is not good. The sound quality is incredibly uneven. The main problem seems to be more in the CD re-mastering than with the original VeeJay recordings. There are wild jumps in volume and noise level from one track to the next. Plus, the Staple Singers recorded 37 songs for VeeJay between 1955 and 1961, plus a handful of unreleased tracks. This 2-CD collection contains 32 songs, and both of the CDs come in at under 45 minutes. Their complete VeeJay output would have easily fit on this collection. But alas …

So, why does this collection still make the list? Here's why — these recordings represent the finest gospel music the Staple Singers ever produced, and for some reason, this part of their career has been almost entirely ignored during the CD era. While later Staple Singers albums on Stax/Volt and Riverside have long been available on CD, these tracks were almost completely forgotten until the release of this collection.

The VeeJay sides are amongst the Staple Singers earliest recordings. Although many of the elements of their distinctive brand of gospel music are already in place (like the vibrato-drenched guitar of Pops Staple and spine-chilling contralto of daughter Mavis), there is a harder, more organic bent to these tracks that sets them apart from everything else they ever recorded.

HIGHLIGHT: A 1961 live recording of Rev. Alex Bradford's Too Close. It begins as a plaintive blues with Pops singing solo, accompanied only by his guitar (he was a student of famous Delta bluesman Charley Patton, and it shows here). You can hear clearly the exhortations of the crowd. Pops delivers a brief mid-song sermon, and then it morphs seamlessly into the gospel dirge Anyhow, with Mavis taking over the lead and the rest of the Staple Singers providing stunning backup harmony vocals. Truly incredible! Unfortunately, Recall Records decided to fade out the song at the 5:00 mark, instead of providing us with the entire performance. Grrrrrrrrr …

7. Goodbye, Babylon — Various Artists (Dust-to-Digital 2003)
You have hit the gospel mother lode! This 6-CD compilation aims to document the regional and cultural varieties of American traditional gospel music from the beginning of the recording era until the 1950s. In spirit, Goodbye, Babylon, with its mix of scholarly essays and cryptic packaging, seems to be modeled loosely after Harry Smith's legendary Anthology of American Folk Music … though it's a bit less fun than Harry's playful Anthology.

There are 5 CDs of music, spanning virtually every conceivable genre of American folk gospel fare, and one CD of commercially recorded sermons from the 1920s and 1930s. The styles of music include string bands, street minstrels, congregational recordings, shape-note singing, early bluegrass, quartet singing, and a whole lot more. My only complaint about the song selection is with the gospel quartet recordings from the 40s and 50s — for some reason, they neglect to include the finest groups of the day. But for a collection of this size and scope, this is a relatively minor complaint.

Goodbye, Babylon comes in a handsome wooden box. A thick booklet offers individual notes on every song (with lyrics), as well as scholarly essays on various pertinent aspects of the music. The CD transfer is excellent, though the original 78RPM sources are sometimes extremely rough and ragged.

HIGHLIGHTS: Too many to name. But be sure to give the sermon CD a listen. With titles such as Death Might Be Your Santa Claus and That White Mule of Sin, these are definitely not your typical Sunday morning sermons!

6. The Best of Dorothy Love Coates and the Original Gospel Harmonettes (Fantasy 1991)
If you've never heard Dorothy Love Coates sing, you're missing out on one of the great voices the Planet Earth has ever known, plain and simple. Coates and the Harmonettes traveled from Birmingham, AL, to Los Angeles by automobile in 1951 to make these recordings in the studios of Specialty Records. It was a courageous journey for a group of young black women during the 1950s; for most of them, it was their first trip beyond the greater Birmingham area.

Coates' singing had more in common with the great male gospel shouters of the day than any female contemporaries. She could push her voice to its limits without sounding thin or strained. You can hear her influence on many of the secular soul singers of the 1960s. But despite great pressure to cross over to the lucrative world of secular soul music, Coates always stayed true to her gospel roots. She died in Birmingham in 2001.

(Three cheers to Fantasy Records for making the great Specialty gospel recordings of the 1950s available on CD. Other companies have acquired the rights to classic 1950s gospel recordings and then sat on them for no apparent reason.)

HIGHLIGHT: Everyday will be Sunday (By and By). Coates absolutely shreds her voice to pieces on this rollicking tune. And with lines like "I just want to live in the land of freedom," it's easy to hear this song as a civil rights song as well as a gospel tune.

5. Warriors on the Battlefield: A Cappella Trailblazers (1927-1942) — Various Artists (Rounder 1997)
Small-group, close-harmony singing blossomed after the Civil War when large groups of newly-freed blacks migrated to America's cities in search of work. Singing was a popular pastime on street corners, in the back rooms of barbershops, and in the churches. By the late 1920s, record companies discovered there was a market for sacred harmony singing, and released hundreds of commercial recordings by a wide range of groups. Warriors on the Battlefield collects many of the finest early jubilee-style quartets onto one packed CD.

With their polished, stately harmonies, these quartets were the precursors to the harder-edge gospel groups of the 1950s. The songs on this collection are well chosen, demonstrating a range of styles, from the eerie falsetto of William Thatch (Silver Leaf Quartette) to the rumbling bass of Jimmy Bryant (Heavenly Gospel Singers). It's a great introduction to this neglected genre of gospel singing.

There is significant surface noise from the original 78s on some of these tracks, but most of them sound pretty good. The CD transfer is fine, and there's an excellent essay about the history of jubilee singing.

HIGHLIGHT: Warriors on the Battlefield contains five tracks by the Golden Gate Quartet, and all of them are spectacular. This Norfolk, VA group was the first to add intricate rhythmic patterns to their a cappella arrangements. These guys can really swing!

4. Slide Guitar Gospel (1944-64) — Various Artists (Document 1993)
Document is a European record label that is dedicated to the comprehensive CD preservation of virtually all traditional American music. (15 volumes of Tampa Red's blues recordings, 9 volumes of Rev. J.M. Gates' sermon recordings — it's a little bit insane!) Here on Slide Guitar Gospel, they have collected the complete recorded works of two unique and obscure figures in gospel music: Rev. Utah Smith and Rev. Lonnie Farris.

Utah Smith made just six recordings during his lifetime (and three of them were of the same song!), but that was enough to leave his mark on gospel music. I have a theory that his August 1951 version of Two Wings features the most ferocious guitar of any song ever recorded up to that point in any genre of music. He's backed up by a frenzied group of female singers. But it's Smith's guitar pyrotechnics that truly steal the show — Jimi Hendrix, eat your heart out! (PS — despite the title of the CD, Utah Smith does NOT play with a slide. Go figure.)

Lonnie Farris released 16 songs under his own name between 1962 and 1964. His recordings are incredibly eclectic and draw from all sorts of musical influences. Within this body of work, you'll find booting saxophone solos, syncopated washboard percussion, and soulful vocalists. The one element holding all of these recordings together is Farris' accomplished Hawaiian guitar. He plays with an ease and freedom that is sometimes smooth as silk and sometimes bold and fiery. He is definitely a unique performer in the annals of gospel music.

Be warned that the sound quality of the Utah Smith recordings is quite poor. These are rare 78s that were recorded under less-than-ideal circumstances. The Lonnie Farris tracks are far from state-of-the-art, and there is some surface noise, but they generally sound pretty good.

HIGHLIGHTS: For the Utah Smith recordings, the August 1953 version of Two Wings is astonishing, and to my ears, his finest moment on record. If I had to pick a favorite from the Lonnie Farris tunes, I would probably choose A Night at the House of Prayer. The recording begins with the announcement, "Ladies and Gentlemen, it's now the Reverend Lonnie Farris." And from there, Farris unleashes a blistering Hawaiian guitar improvisation based on the tune to When the Saints Go Marching In. Hoots and hollers are audible in the background throughout the recording.

3. Journey to the Sky — The Dixie Hummingbirds (P-Vine 2001)
The Dixie Hummingbirds have been recording steadily since the 1920s (with frequent lineup changes, of course), but their discography is a mess. Much of their recorded history has never been available on CD, and the collections that do exist tend to highlight lesser periods in their career. Fortunately, the good people of Japan care about gospel music. The Japanese P-Vine label has issued a slew of incredible gospel collections over the last few years, and their Dixie Hummingbirds Journey to the Sky compilation is one of their best!

Journey to the Sky collects Dixie Hummingbird recordings from 1946-1950, the period just before they were to hit it big on the Peacock label. These songs mark their transformation from an older jubilee style to harder-edge gospel singing. It also presents the emergence of one of the great lead singers in the history of quartet music — Ira Tucker. He joined the Hummingbirds when he was just 13 years old, and by the late '40s, was a walking jukebox of gospel singing styles.

The source material for this collection comes from some rare 78RPM records, but the sound, by and large, is quite good, especially in comparison to other gospel music collections from the era. Only a handful of selections contain distracting surface noise. And the transfer to CD is excellent.

HIGHLIGHT: Ezekiel Saw the Wheel (1947) features amazing vocal interplay between Tucker and bass singer William Bobo. This original Hummingbirds arrangement of Ezekiel Saw the Wheel was later "borrowed" by many popular gospel quartets of the 1950s and beyond.

2. Get Right with God: Hot Gospel — Various Artists (Heritage 1988)
This is a bizarre gospel music CD. Issued by Heritage back in 1988, this collection is made up of artists who trolled the fringes of the gospel music world. The particulars of groups like the National Independent Gospel Singers, the Southern Revivalists of New Orleans, and the Echoes of Zion have long been lost in time. But thankfully, these sometimes ragged and always inspired recordings survive.

It's difficult to talk about this collection as a whole. Most of the recordings were originally issued between the mid-'40s and mid-'50s, though two tracks come from the early 1970s. The collection is mostly made up of harmony vocal groups, but there are also gospel blues performers (both male and female), sermon songs, and small congregation sing-alongs.

Perhaps the strangest tune of all is Otis Jackson's Tell Me Why You Like Roosevelt (pts. 1 & 2), a jubilee-style tongue-twister that mixes the glorification of God with the glorification of FDR, including World War II-era current events and calls for social justice and racial equality.

Some of these songs feature impeccable playing and singing, while other tracks are rougher around the edges. But this is a terrific collection from top to bottom (there's not a single stinker on here), and it does a great service by highlighting these marginal performers. The CD transfer of these impossibly rare 78s is not the best, but it's a miracle that these tunes actually made it to CD in the first place!

HIGHLIGHT: God's Chariot (pts. 1 & 2) — Gospel Travelers. This hard-driving quartet recording contains a common gospel music theme — God's wrath embodied in earthly disaster, in this case a tornado tearing up the American southland. The quartet vocals are backed by a single acoustic guitar as well as canned sound effects of roaring wind and peels of thunder, which build in intensity as the song progresses. The devout, of course, are spared — a prayerful blind man has his house destroyed, but is left "safe and sound." Most others are not so lucky. By the end of the song, the hospitals are so crammed with the injured and dying that a call goes out across the land for doctors that might be able to help.

1. Complete Recordings of Sam Cooke with the Soul Stirrers (Fantasy 2002)
If you have only heard Sam Cooke's soul and R&B records, you're in for a real treat with this exhaustive collection of his gospel work with the Soul Stirrers. This 3-CD set includes everything he ever recorded with the Soul Stirrers on Specialty Records during the 1950s, presented in chronological order, including alternate versions, live tracks, and some incomplete takes. It's an astounding body of work, and a must-have for lovers of gospel and soul music alike.

Sam Cooke joined the Soul Stirrers at the tender age of 19, replacing long-time lead R.H. Harris. With his smooth, velvety voice, uncanny musical timing, and matinee idol good looks, Cooke ruled the gospel music world in the early- to mid-1950s. By 1956, he was releasing secular tunes under pseudonyms like "Dale Cook." And when he abandoned gospel music altogether a few years later, he left a void behind him that in some ways has never been filled.

But this collection is a celebration of some of the finest religious close-harmony singing ever recorded. The sound quality is excellent. The packaging is handsome and informative. This is Sam Cook at his absolute best!

HIGHLIGHT: It's impossible to pick a single track as being the best. There is a fascinating incomplete take of a song called Pray, that features an early example of over-dubbing, including Cooke's multi-tracked vocals. Cool stuff!

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