CD of the Month

PUT THE WHOLE ARMOUR ON: Female Black Gospel – The 1940s-1950s

Narro Way PN 1603/1604 (Two CDs: 73:37; (75:02)

CD One: ANGELIC GOSPEL SINGERS: Follow In His Footsteps/ Jesus Is The Light Of The World; JO ANN BLACKMAN: I’ve Been In The Storm; BOOKER GOSPEL SINGERS: Get Away Sinner; SISTER EMILY BRAM: I Have A Friend Above All Others/ Little Wooden Church On The Hill; CYNTHIA COLEMAN AND COLEMANAIRES: When The Pearly Gates Unfold; SISTER ETHEL DAVENPORT: God’s Gonna Dry My Briny Tears/ When God Dips His Pen In My Heart; SISTER ELIZABETH EUSTICE: He Knows My Heart; MARY FRAZIER: Until We Meet/ When The Roll Is Called; GEORGIA PEACH: Daniel Prayed In The Lion’s Den/ My Good Lord’s Been Here; GOLDROCH GOSPEL SINGERS: Jesus I’ll Never Forget; MAE GOOCH & GOSPEL STARS: Jesus Gave Me Water/ He Lives; SISTER ANN C. GRAHAM: Put The Whole Armour On/ You Better Do Right; BESSIE GRIFFIN: Story Of Job/ I’ve Got A Home Eternal; LAURA B. HINTON: If I Have My Ticket, Lord; JACKSON GOSPEL SINGERS: Can’t Go Wrong/ What Manner Of Man Is This; JUANITA JACKSON: Lord Jesus; MAHALIA JACKSON: I’m Going To Tell God/ Just Over The Hill Part 1

CD Two: MARI JONES/J. MOORE’S 3 BLAZERS: Did You Stop To Pray This Morning; MARIE KNIGHT: I Heard My Mother Pray/ A Traveler’s Tune; LOCKHART SINGERS: Own Me As A Child; MADAME ERNESTINE MARTIN: Move Up A Little Higher/ God’s Amazing Grace; SALLIE MARTIN & HER SINGERS OF JOY: Just A Few Days Of Labor/ A Little Wooden Church; ROBERTA MARTIN SINGERS: Let It Be/ Jesus Will Hear You Pray; ORIGINAL GOSPEL HARMONETTES: In The Upper Room/ Jesus Is A Rock In A Weary Land; F.A. PARKS & SMITH SINGERS: After While; SIS DOROTHEA ROBINSON & SOUTHERN BELLS: I’ll Never Turn Back; ROSETTES/BARBARA JOHNSON: Walk Out In Jesus’ Name; SISTER ROSA SHAW: Who Will Be Saved/ Keep The Light Burning; SILVERLETTE GOSPEL SINGERS: I Want To Join The Band; SIMMONS-AKERS TRIO: Didn’t It Rain; WILLIE MAE FORD SMITH: Call Him By His Name; SISTER ROSETTA THARPE: What’s The News/ Go Ahead; CLARA WARD SINGERS: Jesus Remembers; FAMOUS WARD SINGERS: I’m Going Home; ERNESTINE WASHINGTON: God’s Amazing Grace/ Yes, There Is One

As Chris Smith observes in his comprehensive booklet notes, it wasn’t until after Rosetta Tharpe’s breakthrough popularity in the late 1930s, followed by Mahalia Jackson’s huge impact on Apollo Records from the early 1940s onwards, that female gospel really took off on record. This coincided with the rise of the independent record labels, as the plethora of indies was matched by the plethora of great women singers and groups. This generously-stuffed anthology presents an outstanding selection of the kinds of work that emerged during that time, featuring the great and the good alongside lesser-known (and virtually unknown) names, who earn their place by the sheer force and quality of their performances.

From Mahalia Jackson’s first Apollo session comes ‘I’m Going To Tell God’, accompanied only by Mildred Falls’ piano, proving that with a voice like that and vocal technique to spare, you really don’t need any more. Nevertheless, an organ was added to most future releases, for example on the equally fine ‘Over The Hill’. Generally, there’s plenty of organs around here, but there are other interesting formats to delight us. Rosetta Tharpe is represented by the solo acoustic, and quite brilliant ‘What’s The News’ from 1944, and from a decade later ‘Go Ahead’ with the Sam Price Trio, where she leaves the accompaniment to the men. There’s also contrast in Marie Knight’s two tracks, and if I prefer ‘A Traveler’s Tune’, again with Price’s trio, that’s probably because of Grady Martin’s cracking guitar solo. 

Talking of jazzy guitarists, Mari Jones (better known for her r&b vocals) is accompanied by Johnny Moore’s 3 Blazers, although they’re on their politest behaviour with their quiet backing to her beautifully sung (if almost over-sweet) homily. And still talking guitars, there’s a lovely restrained solo complementing Sister Anne C. Graham on the title track, on a (no doubt very rare) release on the Chicago label. Its flipside, ‘You Better Do Right’ is even more remarkable for the vibes – not an instrument we associate so much with gospel music – but Graham remains the focus of attention. Representing a  very different approach, there’s the great Georgia Peach leading an unknown male quartet on ‘Daniel’ and ‘Been Here’, unaccompanied except for hand-clapping. I love the Peach’s recordings with quartets and these are as good as any.

The groups in this anthology include some obscure names like the Goldrock Singers and the Booker Gospel Singers, neither of which I remember hearing before (my loss), but also big names like the Angelic Gospel Singers and the Gospel Harmonettes. The former is represented by ‘Follow In His Footsteps’ from their first session, for Gotham in 1949/50, and a second from a little later. On both, we can revel in Margaret Anderson’s robust piano driving along those four great voices. 

The Harmonettes are the only group here with their name attached to three tracks, and it’s especially good to have two from their Victor sessions, before their more celebrated time with Specialty, starting in 1951. ‘Rock In A Weary Land’ is especially impressive, taken at a breathtakingly fast pace and never missing a step. Dorothy Love Coates wasn’t present on the RCA sides, but became the group’s named leader on Specialty, and on the third side here, from Andex, you can hear why. Her voice may be rough at the edges, but it’s full of authority, and her lyrics clever and pointed. For rough edges, you could hardly beat the Jackson Gospel Singers, nor for excitement either –  ‘Can’t Do Wrong’ from their Okeh session (in their later, accompanied, days) is a terrific performance, yet another highlight among so many here. I could go on name-checking artists, but the point is simply that whether big name or small, major label or tiny independent, there is nothing here that disappoints.

There’s nothing like enough of this kind of music easily available on CD, far less with thoughtful, knowledgeable selection, stylish presentation and a booklet packed with fresh research, complemented by some rare photos. As well as so much thrilling music, there is so much history here that has taken too long to be written.

Ray Templeton

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