CD of the Month


NarroWay PN-1605/1606/1607 (Three CDs: 78:24; 76:53; 75:44)

CD One: CAMP MEETIN’ CHOIR: I’m Gonna Walk Right In And Make Myself At Home/ Search My Heart/ CHARMING BELLS: Jesus Hits Like The Atom Bomb/ Hallelujah; CHRISTIAN LEADERS QUARTET: If You Love God, Serve Him; ELITE JEWELS: Ride On, King Jesus; EVER-READY SINGERS: I’m A Pilgrim And A Stranger/ Two Wings; EVANGELIST SINGERS: The World Is In A Bad Condition; FAIRFIELD FOUR: Jesus In Heaven; FAMOUS BLUE JAY SINGERS: Jesus Met The Woman At The Well/ Jesus Gave Me Water; FAMOUS JUBILEE SINGERS: Sweet Little Jesus Boy; FANTASTIC SILVERAIRES: Steal Away; FLYING CLOUDS OF DETROIT: I, John Saw A Mighty Number/ When Jesus Comes; GEORGIA PEACH: I Don’t Know Why/ Give Me Strength, Lord And I’ll Carry On; GOLDEN EAGLES: Anytime Anywhere; GOLDEN GOSPELS: Old Timey Way/ New Home; GOSPELAIRES: I’ll Be Satisfied; BRO. GREEN’S SOUTHERN SONS: I’ll Make It Somehow; HARMONEERS: Before This Time Another Year; HARP TONES: I Made It; HEAVENLY GOSPEL SINGERS: Standing On The Highway/ My Life Is On His Hands; HEAVENLY KINGS: I’m So Glad I Found The Lord/ Every Living Thing

CD Two: JUBILEERS: Daniel Was A Witness For The Lord/ Jesus Gonna Make Up Your Dyin’ Bed; KEYS OF HEAVEN: Movin’ In/ Something Within Me; KNIGHTS OF GLORY: I Don’t Mind; L & N GOSPEL SINGERS: Lord, You Been So Good To Me; LOVING FIVE GOSPEL SINGERS: Baptism Of Christ/ McNEIL CHOIR: Soon I Will Be Done; MASTERS OF HARMONY: In The Garden/ My Lord What A Morning; MELODY SINGERS OF CHICAGO: Look How The World Has Made A Change; LUVENIA NASH SINGERS: Great Getting’ Up Morning; NATIONAL CLOUDS OF JOY: Does Jesus Care/ Don’t Cry; NEW SALEM HARMONIZERS: Nothin’ Else Can Help; NATIONAL INDEPENDENT SINGERS OF ATLANTA, GA.: I Got Good Religion; NIGHTINGALES: One Of These Days; ORIGINAL KINGS OF HARMONY: I Got A Mother Done Gone; PILGRIM TRAVELERS: I Love The Lord/ Just A Little Talk With Jesus; PROGRESSIVE FOUR: I Ain’t Ready To Die; RELIABLE JUBILEE SINGERS: Jesus, Lover Of My Soul; REVELATORS: Free At Last; RISING STAR GOSPEL SINGERS: Thou [sic] Servant’s Prayer/ I Want Wings/ What A Time; SEVEN STAR JUNIORS: Don’t Know What I’d Do/ What A Time

CD Three: SILVER LEAF QUARTET OF FLORIDA: I Love The Name Jesus; SILVERTONE JUBILEE SINGERS: Tell Me Where Shall I Be; SKYLARKS: Stand By Me/ Something About My Lord Mighty Sweet;SMITH JUBILEE SINGERS: Journey To The Sky/ Steal Away; (FIVE*) SOUL STIRRERS: Freedom After ’While*/ Golden Bells/ One Day/ He Knows How Much We Can Bear/ Some Day; SOUTHERN SONS: I’m Living Humble/ Pray; SOUTHERN ECHOES: Sweeping Through The City; SPIRITUAL BLIND BOYS: Heal The Sick; SPIRITUAL HARMONIZERS: The Lord Is Still In Business; SUNLIGHT JUBILEE SINGERS: Yes, God Is Real; SUNNY SOUTH SINGERS: Lordy, Lord; SUNSET JUBILEE SINGERS: John On The Island/ Trouble Not The Woman; SUNSHINE QUARTETTE: You Better Run; TRAVELING FOUR: Too Late/ Wake Up; VOLUNTEERS: Traveling Shoes; BRO. HENRY LEE WILLIAMS: Bless The Lord; WINGMEN QUARTET: Searching For A City; WINGS OVER JORDAN CHOIR: You Got To Stand Your Test In Judgement

When ‘Put The Whole Armour On’ (NarroWay PN1603/1604) appeared, Anthony Heilbut told me (as note writer) that he was perplexed to find nothing included featuring – among others – Marion Williams, Ruth Davis, and Queen C. Anderson. I pointed out that distance, curiosity and completism have often led European collectors and labels to focus – though not, of course, exclusively – on the obscure and the unreissued. This collection is another example of that tendency: ‘no Jackson Harmoneers, no Spirit of Memphis, no Dixie Hummingbirds, no Swan Silvertones?’ some might ask. However, as with ‘Put The Whole Armour On’, presentation of the big stars is not the mission statement – although there are, of course, still plenty of famous names included. Such was the strength of a cappella gospel song in its heyday – and we’ll return to the matter of when that was – that it’s perfectly possible, as NarroWay have done, to compile a collection which both appeals to the diehard collector and conveys a comprehensive overview.

As readers will have noticed, the tracks are presented in alphabetical order, which has the advantage of automatically achieving contrasts of style and content. (The Rising Star Gospel Singers get three consecutive titles, and the Soul Stirrers no fewer than five, but it would be asinine to complain about either of those selections.) Matters kick off with the Camp Meeting Choir, and the inclusion of choirs as well as quartets (some, as ever, with more than four members) was a good thought. Choir performances by their nature tend to be carefully arranged (but then so do most quartet ones), which does not preclude a certain freedom: On the opening title we hear, in effect, a male quartet lead with a loose choral backup, and precise but lively syncopated handclapping. Their other track, slower, with a minor-key female lead, and beginning with a lined-out spoken prayer, makes for considerable contrast.

Some of the other choirs are less compelling, ‘decorous precision’ is Ray Templeton’s characterization of the McNeil Choir in his excellent accompanying essay: ‘dull’ would be my take. Per Notini seems to have more time for the Wings Over Jordan Choir and its acolytes than I do: the WOJ could sometimes be exciting, but its founder’s aim was to improve race relations by appealing to white radio and concert audiences. A laudable aim, but often – as on the concluding track – the excitement seems to have been sandpapered off, and varnish applied. A similar comment applies to the Wingmen, a male quartet drawn from the WOJ line-up. That said, the Luvenia Nash Singers do excellent work on ‘Great Gettin’ Up Morning’, a song tailormade for choirs (Hall Johnson’s ensemble did a fabulous version pre-war). This is as good a place as any to mention Brother Henry Lee Williams, supported by a humming congregation and a female responder: her distance from the microphone makes the track sound like a Library of Congress field recording, but somehow adds to its charm.

It’s time to come to the quartets. After the Wingmen – but much more successfully – the most polished and restrained outfit are the Famous Jubilee Singers, a 1948 incarnation of the Fisk Jubilee Singers on Bullet. Ray Templeton’s notes conclude by saying that the material is from ‘a time when a capella was fresh and new,’ but of course unaccompanied sacred singing was far from new by the time the Five Soul Stirrers made the earliest recording here, in July 1939 (not 1940; see the ‘Pittsburgh Courier’ of 2nd August 1939.) Let’s say rather, albeit less concisely, ‘a time when it was artistically and commercially dominant, and a natural choice for creative artists.’

It’s obviously impossible, much though I wish it otherwise. to consider every track in detail, but there are many that need singling out. The Elite Jewels, from Cleveland, were a graceful but driving female sextet, here using the switch leading pioneered by the Soul Stirrers: the Jewels’ second lead is clearly a disciple – and an inspired one – of the Stirrers’ Rebert Harris. The other quartets featuring women showcase them as leaders with male backing: not unnaturally, the Georgia Peach gets top billing on her two titles, but in reality she and a male singer are joint leads. The Keys of Heaven feature two terrific women, switch-leading in front of a male quartet: their version of Lucie E. Campbell’s ‘Something Within’ is one of the finest.

Speaking of ‘finest’, the lead (by Elmer Stallworth or John Evans) on the Flying Clouds of Detroit’s ‘When Jesus Comes’ may be the greatest that I have ever heard – to the point where one gets annoyed when Porterfield Lewis’s bass solo, itself objectively wonderful, takes over. Other magnificences include the titles by the Ever-Ready Singers; Sam McCrary and Wilmer ‘Little Axe’ Broadnax switch-leading, and taking note of emerging hard lead styles, on ‘Jesus In Heaven’; the Soul Stirrers, of course, and especially Rebert Harris’s falsetto display piece, ‘One Day’; the Skylarks, before Robert Crenshaw joined them, with bass singer extraordinaire Dickie Freeman co-leading on ‘Something About My Lord’; and the Famous Blue Jays, with two takes on the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman, featuring the great Charlie Bridges.

Lest I seem to be lavishing indiscrimate praise here, I should note that Richard Huey’s lead on the first Jubileers title is monotonous and perfunctory; he’s much better on the other. The Seven Star Juniors are also a Jekyll-and-Hyde operation: their version of the first part of Otis Jackson’s World War II epic, ‘What A Time’, is taken much too fast for a song with a story to tell.

The influence of the Alabama sound, and of Alabama quartet trainers like Bridges and Jimmy Ricks, is well-illustrated through the course of the discs; it reaches California, via New Orleans, on the only unaccompanied recording by Brother Green’s Southern Sons. Another enduring influence, both for their sound and their success, were the Golden Gate Quartet; I wrote ‘Gates-y’ a number of times in my notes, and this is never more true than for the Volunteers. Their song is a near-clone of the GGQ recording, and it might have been easier, as Ray observes, to work out their own arrangement. The Sunset Jubilees do Bible narratives like the Gates, but with added oomph: ‘Trouble Not The Woman’ is unusual for attacking preachers who criticize women before getting to its Biblical inspiration, the woman who anointed Jesus’s feet. The Gospel Vocalaires and the Sunshine Quartet (with ex-Soul Stirrer A.L. Johnson) take their songs from the Dixie Hummingbirds and the Norfolk Jubilee Quartet respectively.

By the mid-fifties, most groups had incorporated instruments, which could carry some of the harmony and add drive, but there were still determined hold-outs, who sometimes noted at the beginning of a song that ‘they don’t sing like that no more’ or ‘this is an old time song.’ The Golden Gospels kept it going until 1987, but no quartet were more determinedly a cappella than the Masters of Harmony, whose lead singer, Thomas Kelly, led and managed them until 2016, when he was 103 years old. From 1959 to 1969, the style is represented by just seven quartets and nine songs. The lead on the second of the Heavenly Kings’ 1959 titles is influenced by Sam Cooke; the different (I’m pretty sure) leader on ‘I’m So Glad I Found The Lord’ seems to be encoding the injustices that were provoking the Civil Rights struggle. In 1962 the New Salem Harmonizers, from a tiny town in Texas, had been going for sixteen years (the ‘San Antonio Register’ of 5th May 1959 reported that they’d celebrated their thirteenth anniversary on 26th April.)

All this enumeration of dates brings us to a drawback in the presentation: no dates, apart from a few mentioned incidentally in the notes, are given for any of the songs. I am told that this was an oversight which will be rectified on-line. Pending that, Ray Templeton kindly furnished a list of dates to assist with the writing of this review, from which it can be concluded that 1946 was a hell of a year for a cappella recordings, and the late 1940s a ditto half-decade. Ray’s list, with a couple of amendments, for which I take responsibilty, is appended to this review as a service to readers.

At this point, I would normally point out that ‘capella’ means ‘nanny goat’, and ‘cappella’ means ‘chapel.’ It turns out, however, that the OED’s first citation in English, from 1785 and the musicologist Charles Burney, has only the one ‘p’. Spell it any way you like, folks, but be sure to acquire this remarkable collection of remarkable music. Or putting it another way (and having laboriously herded a goat into my conclusion): ‘Buy this collection. No butts.’ If there is justice in the afterlife, if there is an afterlife, the Rising Star Gospel Singers are surely right to claim, on their version of ‘What A Time’, that ‘leader, tenor, bass and baritone, all gonna gather around God’s throne.’

Chris Smith

ALABAMA MIKE: Hip You To My Blues

Big Tone Records 246 (48:00)

Black Cadillac/ I’m Selfish/ California Blues/ Frustrate My Life/ 20% Alcohol/ Diabetic Man/ Cut That Out/ How You Want Your Rollin Done?/ V-8 Ford Blues/ Hip You To My Blues/ Stop Accusing That Woman/ I’m In Love With A Woman/ Hello Central/ Keep My Grave Clean/ I Feel So Good

It was a surprise to learn about a new release by Alabama Mike (real name Michael A. Benjamin) on Big Jon Atkinson’s new label. Alabama Mike’s earlier recordings, such as those with The Andy T Band in 2017’s ‘Double Strike,’ often displayed a gospel-rooted vocal style in the manner of Little Johnnie Taylor. 

This new release finds him in a down-home blues vein with a dose of Lightnin’ Hopkins flavour along with some tracks that evoke early ’50s Chicago style. This recording reflects Alabama Mike’s long-burning desire to ‘do a record in the classic style of early electric blues pioneers….’ 

The backing musicians on this set of retro blues include Kim Wilson on harmonica, Big Jon Atkinson and Danny Michel on guitar, Troy Sandow and Kedar Roy on bass, Joe Lempkowski on harmonica, June Core and Malachi Johnson on drums, Robert Welsh on keyboards, on retro-sounding performances.

Alabama Mike certain invests his vocals with intensity and soul. The Lightnin’ Hopkins influence can best be heard on the opening ‘Black Cadillac’ (with Atkinson on guitar) as well as the revival of Hopkins’ ‘Hello Central’ with Danny Michel on guitar, Kim Wilson on harmonica and Marty Dodson on drums lending the performance a swamp blues flavour. Danny Michel also channels Hopkins guitar on the swampy ‘California Blues,’ with choice Joe Lempkowski harmonica accompaniment.

A reworking of John Lee ‘Sonny Boy’ Williamson’s ‘Cut That Out’ sounds like a down-home version of Junior Wells 1950’s recording. Kim Wilson is on harmonica, Atkinson on guitar and Dodson on drums. Welsh provides the greasy organ on ‘Diabetic Man’ with Wilson on the harp. On ‘How You Want Your Rollin Done,’ Atkinson plays some excellent T-Bone Walker-styled guitar. On Big Bill Broonzy’s ‘I Feel So Good,’ Alabama Mike delivers a strong vocal in the manner of Muddy Waters with J.B. Hutto styled slide guitar in the backing. ‘Keep My Grave Clean’ is an ingenious band reworking of what was Blind Lemon Jefferson’s most famous recording, while the cover of J.B. Hutto’s ‘Too Much Alcohol’ sticks close to the arrangement of Hutto’s Delmark recording.

A moody rendition of Willie Love’s ‘V-8 Ford’ with Atkinson and Welsh closes a release of notable down-home blues performances. There are a couple of times the backing may be a tad skeletal, but Alabama Mike’s singing and the idiomatic support result in a most entertaining blues album.

Ron Weinstock

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