By John Cody
ONE of the most popular forms of black gospel music, Quartet style singing is also one of the most entertaining.
While lyric content is wholly focused on the gospel, delivery is equal part sermon and showbiz. This is where soul music came from, and to a lesser degree, blues, rap, and rhythm and blues all owe much to the form. Unfortunately, unlike performers in the other genres, those who stick with the tradition have little hope of earning anything more than a moderate income.
Singing in a style that originally consisted of precise, unaccompanied three and four-part harmony, performers traveled the ‘gospel highway’ — a circuit consisting almost entirely of black churches and halls. The music first gained popularity in the early part of the 20th century, entering its golden age in the 1950s. By then, sparse accompaniment was added — usually drums and guitar — and ‘quartet’ referred to the style, rather than the number of members.
In the pantheon of great soul singers, Sam Cooke is the undisputed king. Otis Redding and Rod Stewart both credited him as their main inspiration; and he is revered today, almost 40 years after his death.
Cooke experienced modest fame as a member of the Hiway QCs, but he never entered the recording studio until 1951, when he was drafted into the Soul Stirrers, an esteemed group with an already formidable reputation. As with most quartets, the life span is not limited to the mortality of its members. The Soul Stirrers were popular long before Cooke came on board, and continue today; they are currently recording with Vancouver blues singer Jim Byrnes.
Cooke was only 19 years old, but what made him great — a graceful, silky voice, and an effortless sense of phrasing — was already in place. As the title implies, Complete Recordings of Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers (Specialty, 2002), collects all of Cooke’s recordings made during his tenure with the Soul Stirrers. This essential triple disc set includes alternate takes and live performances; there’s not a bad track on the compilation.
In 1957, Cooke left the Soul Stirrers for a solo career in pop music; he was successful almost immediately, hitting number one with his debut single, ‘You Send Me.’ There are some who contend that his violent death in 1964 was the price he paid for abandoning gospel; others, such as Major Roberson of the Pilgrim Jubilees, emphatically claim that Cooke was never really a believer.
That’s just one of the many anecdotes chronicled in Alan Young’s The Pilgrim Jubilees (University Press of Mississippi, 2001). Young had access to all the members of the group, who have been a mainstay on the Gospel highway for more than 50 years. As he explains in the preface, “they might not have the dates correct . . . but the stories are fascinating.” Indeed.
The singers discuss the struggles and hardships inherent in traveling the circuit, and the brutal reality of low-paying gigs and the cost in personal relationships, primarily marriages.
Setbacks abounded throughout the group’s career. They lost out on a deal with Specialty records when they refused to change their name (in order to avoid confusion with the more popular Pilgrim Travelers). They balked at recording with a drummer, killing a potential deal with gospel giant Peacock Records.
A decade later they had signed on, only to learn that there were no royalties being paid. Attempting to leave, they discovered they had signed a lifetime contract. When the label head discovered they were talking with other companies, he pulled a gun and threatened to have them all killed. The group endured almost non-existent support until the sale of the label freed them to renegotiate. In spite of the numerous war stories, what comes across most is their abiding love of singing for the Lord.
The Five Blind Boys of Mississippi featured Archie Brownlee, a major influence on Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder. Five Blind Boys of Mississippi: The Millennium Collection (Universal / MCA / Duke / Peacock, 2002) is a fine introduction to the group. It includes their biggest hit, ‘Our Father (Which Art In Heaven)’ — which went top ten on the R&B charts in 1950. The disc spans 1950 to 1974, with a handful of tracks recorded after Brownlee’s death in 1960.
Names can be deceiving. Like the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi, former rivals The Five Blind Boys of Alabama were not necessarily blind, nor limited to five members. Over the past few years, they’ve achieved a level of popularity higher than at any time in their 76-year history.
Today, the majority of their dates are in mainstream venues; they are currently signed with Peter Gabriel’s Real World imprint. Their second effort for the label, Higher Ground (Real World, 2002) finds the group taking on classics from the likes of Curtis Mayfield, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Jimmy Cliff and Prince. Robert Randolph, of sacred steel fame, is a valuable addition.
Mighty Clouds of Joy — relatively new boys by quartet standards — have experienced more mainstream success than most on the gospel highway. They have had a half dozen charting R&B hits, and have opened for the likes of the Rolling Stones and Paul Simon; but they were legends in the church well before their secular success.
Mighty Clouds Of Joy: The Millennium Collection (Universal /MCA/ Duke/ Peacock,2002) features their first recordings, made between ’60-’65. From the beginning, they included a full rhythm section. In a reversal of mainstream music borrowing from the sacred, ‘Nobody Can Turn Me Around’ betrays an obvious debt to Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions.
Aaron Neville’s second gospel effort, Believe (Tellit/EMI Gospel, 2003), follows the same path as his previous effort Devotion (2000) Highlights include Cooke’s ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ and Bob Dylan’s ‘Gotta Serve Somebody.’ Believe is produced by Barry Beckett, who likewise oversaw Dylan’s original version of the latter song.
Northernblues Gospel Allstars, a loose configuration of players based out of Toronto, offer their second effort, Saved! (Northernblues Music 2002). Nominated for a Juno as best Contemporary Christian / Gospel Album of the Year, the disc is produced by Frazier Mohawk — who, as Barry Friedman, worked with the Buffalo Springfield, Paul Butterfield Blues Band and other ’60s-era stars.
Because they emphasize the bluesier elements of the music, gospel lovers might not be as taken with this as blues fans. Accompaniment is at times heavy-handed, and takes on familiar songs invariably pale next to the originals, or even covers by other artists. Curtis Mayfield’s ‘People Get Ready’ (covered by the Blind Boys of Alabama) offers little in the way of subtlety; and Sam Cooke’s greatest single performance, ‘A Change Is Gonna Come,’ (covered by Aaron Neville) is likewise lacking.
Tim Drummond, who played bass and co-wrote ‘Saved’ for Bob Dylan’s album of the same name, is in the band; but this version of the song lacks Dylan’s urgency. Hiram Joseph stands out as a vocalist on the disc’s strongest track, the standard ‘Down By the Riverside.’
© John Cody 2003