About twenty years ago, old black gospel music started being where I went when I wanted to lose the last bits of my mind each night. Where’s the notch up in intensity after Al Green? I found it in the SS groups- Soul Stirrers, Swan Silvertones and Staple Singers. It was there in that little package of evangelical dynamite Shirley Caesar of the Caravans. If music is the language of the soul, gospel spoke to me with a friggin’ megaphone. Where I used to end the night with “Whipping Post,” that Allman Brothers guitarathon became the opening act for the sacred steel of the Campbell Brothers and their protege Robert Randolph.
Before she went down to Muscle Shoals in ’67 to make her deal with the pop music devil, Aretha Franklin was considered a fairly good gospel singer, but she was no Mahalia Jackson or Bessie Griffin or Willie Mae Ford Smith. For every great church singer who went on to the pop charts, there are hundreds, thousands maybe, who refused to sing for encores instead of salvation, choosing to keep their deal with the Lord.
Which years constitute gospel’s golden age? They’re generally considered to be the ’40s and ’50s, though I think the glory years started in the late ’20s, when reformed juke joint piano player Thomas A. Dorsey followed the lead of Arizona Dranes to give gospel it’s bounce and became the Irving Berlin of spirituals. And I think you have to take it as far as the early ’70s, when three of gospel’s all-time greats- Mahalia Jackson, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Clara Ward – all died within a year of each other and the Staple Singers defected (you don’t cross over from gospel) to pop.Here are 10 essential gospel albums on independent labels I assembled for eMusic in the early aughts. If you see them in CD bins, you’ll want to snatch them up.
- Golden Gate Quartet– Vol. 2 1938- 1939 (Document)
Elvis Presley’s favorite gospel group, this band of forceful voices from the Tidewater community of Virginia (also home to Silver Leaf Quartet and the Harmonizing Four) is the link between the Fisk Jubilee Singers – who tried to assimilate, but always killed with the old “Negro spirituals” – and the Motown-inventing Soul Stirrers. Though their definitive version of “Swing Down, Chariot” is not included here, there are 23 tracks that find the Gaters- the Mills Brothers of gospel – at the top of their game. Their vocal arrangements are impeccable.
- Mahalia Jackson– “Queen of Gospel” (Fabulous Orchard)
Mahalia. The Voice. The most powerful black woman in America during the ’50s and ’60s is well-represented on this collection that will both satiate and create a longing for more. Although raised a Baptist, Jackson credited seepage from the storefront Pentecostal churches of her New Orleans youth with lighting her vocal fire.
- Various Artists – “Kings of the Gospel Highway” (Shanachie)
This collection focuses on six of the greatest male singers in gospel history- Julius Cheeks, Archie Brownlee, R.H. Harris, Silas Steele, Kylo Turner and Claude Jeter. Harris’ Soul Stirrers get things started with “Walk Around,” their single from 1939 that provided the model for much quartet singing that would follow, but the set ends even more spectacularly with tracks from Brownlee’s Five Blind Boys of Mississippi and Cheeks’ Sensational Nightingales. The two greatest voices to ever wreck a church, Brownlee and Cheeks make Little Richard sound like Chubby Checker. Just listening to Brownlee on “Will My Jesus Be Waiting” and Cheeks on “Somewhere To Lay My Head” will make your throat sore.
- Sister Rosetta Tharpe – “Vol. 3 1946- 1947 (Document)
She played guitar like Blind Lemon Jefferson, sang with a ferocity that was almost sinful and defiantly explored big band jazz. This Pentecostal performer from Arkansas shook hands with the devil and brought that bastard to his knees with the sheer force of her gift from above. Sample the first minute of “Jesus Is Here To Stay,” with that superhuman guitar playing, and you’ll be hooked. Then it’s on to her swinging duets with Marie Knight, a mix of play and purpose. Of all the gospel greats who deserve to be more famous, you’d have to put this powerhouse at the top of the list.
- Soul Stirrers – “Shine On Me” (Specialty/ Fantasy)
If you can afford only one gospel quartet CD… you need to find a better job. This one, featuring Rebert Harris’ elastic falsetto on the title track, packs the best version of “Jesus Hits Like the Atom Bomb,” as well as the blueprint for Sam Cooke on “Christ Is All.” Far and away the most spine-tingling track is “By and By,” with the incredble tag team vocals of Harris and Paul Foster coaxing each other to a region of euphoria that sounds a lot like heaven. A decade and a half before these late 1940s recordings, Harris almost singlehandedly invented soul when he added a second lead singer and introduced such vocal techniques as drawing a single syllable over several notes and delayed-time phrasing. But this is the finest recording he left behind when he yielded to Cooke in 1950.
- Various Artists – “Gospel Women, Vol. 2” (Shanachie)
There’s more vocal athleticism on this gathering of Mahalias, Bessies, Marions and Ernestines than there are mushroom soup recipes in Minnesota. Compiled by Anthony Heilbut, whose “The Gospel Sound” book is “The Fountainhead” for gospel buffs (listening to Delois Barrett Campbell doth make the similes sprout), this CD is as notable for the great unknowns as for the icons. Imogene Green sounds anything but “Tired” on the tune of that name, Bessie Folk displays angelic control on “Only a Look” and “Get Right With God” by Ruth Davis outrocks them all.
- Various Artists – “15 Down Home Gospel Classics” (Arhoolie)
Choosing this set, which ranges from the scorching and soothing sacred steel of Aubrey Ghent and the Campbell Brothers to the gritty storefront soul of Rev. Louis Overstreet and Fred McDowell, frees up two or three slots on this list of 12. Standout tracks include Sonny Treadway’s serpentine steel work on “Jesus Will Fix It For You” and Black Ace’s gentle croon on “Farther Along.” If you want to hear more Overstreet- and you will after he torches “Workin’ On a Building” – you’ll do well to find “Rev. Louis Overstreet With His Sons And The Congregation Of St. Luke’s Powerhouse Church Of God In Christ.”
- Swan Silvertones– “Amen, Amen, Amen- the Essential Collection” (Archives Alive)
Nobody could go from ethereal to raging as quick as Claude Jeter, who joins Rebert Harris and Ira Tucker of the Dixie Hummingbirds in the holy trinity of original quartet leaders of the 1930s. Where the Soul Stirrers went on to usher a parade of lead singers through their ranks during the next seven decades, the Swans, based in Pittsburgh during their ’50s & ’60s heyday, were led by Jeter, who quit the group to become a minister in the late ’60s. Interesting tidbit: Jeter’s improvised line “I’ll be a bridge over deep water if you trust my name,” on “Oh Mary Don’t You Weep” inspired Swan fan Paul Simon’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” This is a fantastic 2015 reissue from Michael Ochs.
- Sallie Martin Singers/ Cora Martin– “Throw Out the Lifeline” (Specialty/ Fantasy)
The country migrates to the city in Sallie Martin’s curt vocal sassiness on “My God Is a Battle Axe,” while adopted daughter Cora provides a balance of sophistication and joins with organist Dave Weston and guest singer Brother Joe May for otherworldly hums and swoops of commentary. There’s a hint of downhome blues in the voice of Sallie Martin, known more for her music publishing acumen than her singing, but morning never sounds so much like Sunday when this CD plays. The arrangements are over-the-top and oddly unbridled, but this is what black folk heard in church in the early ’50s.
- Dorothy Love Coates and the Gospel Harmonettes – “Get On Board” (Specialty/ Fantasy)
Other female gospel singers, but not many, could out-belt this Alabama mama. Others could out-finesse the woman who walked side by side with Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Birmingham, and was similarly jailed. But no singer was more committed to her lyrics than Coates. When she sang “If you dig one ditch you better dig two/ The trap you set just might be for you” to deep South racists, you just knew she’d fight to the death. The first time I was every struck, I mean really moved, by the words of a gospel song, it was when Coates sang “99 and a half won’t do.” It was a call for full commitment to Jesus, but what I heard was that if you want to change your life for the better, you have to give it 100%. Gospel music hooked me with the fervor of the music, but after awhile, the words started to take hold.