Bob Marovich’s Gospel Picks
The old saying is that everyone wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die to get there.
So with the Mayan calendar suggesting that 2012 is the end of the world as we know it, there is a temptation to see irony in Shirley Caesar’s Grammy-nominated A City Called Heaven, because it handles subjects such as death and the Rapture with, well, rapturous enthusiasm.
But this is gospel music—traditional gospel music—where there is joy, unspeakable joy, in the hereafter. Or, as Pastor Caesar sings on the tambourine-shaking “Celebration,” when the Lord comes back, what a time it will be. Similarly, on “Get Light for the Flight,” Caesar admonishes listeners to get their soul right because “the sign of the times are everywhere.”
Mama Shirley Caesar, ‘You’re Next In Line For a Miracle,’ 1997
A City Called Heaven finds Pastor Caesar in fine fettle, growling and shouting like the evangelist she is and has been since her Caravan days. She’s stayed relevant; her duet with J Moss on “Nobody” is not only thematically current (abusive marriages, illness, the economy), but the urban R&B beat is pure J Moss.
Still, the finest moments on the CD are when Caesar goes old-school, such as on the church-wrecking “Been So Good” and the gospel waltz “Can’t Even Walk (Without Him Holding My Hand).” The latter song, with its country feel and church mother philosophy, is the kind of performance that suggests Caesar could well become the next reigning Queen of Gospel.
The string-laden, piano-led title track, not the old standard but a new song by Aaron and Bryan Sledge, is a splendid conclusion to a splendid CD. Long live Shirley Caesar!
Four of Five Stars. Picks: “Cornerstone,” “Been So Good,” “Can’t Even Walk (Without Him Holding My Hand).”
A transitional moment…
WINDY CITY GOSPEL ON SOUTH COTTAGE GROVE: 1947-1959
Macomba Music Group (2010)
When one thinks of Chess Records, what springs to mind are artists such as Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry and Etta James. Little Walter. The film Cadillac Records.
But like most post-war independent labels, Chess/Checker carried a gospel catalog. Although its catalog really grew during the 1960s, after signing such top stars as the Soul Stirrers, Violinaires, the Salem Travelers, and the Meditation Singers, Leonard and Phil Chess’ involvement with gospel went all the way back to the beginning. All the way back to Aristocrat Records, the label they purchased that predated the company’s eponymously titled imprints.
The two-CD Windy City Gospel on South Cottage Grove, with liner notes by Opal Nations, devotes its attention to these early Aristocrat/Chess/Checker offerings, released during the heady days of the genre’s Golden Era. While some of the recordings, such as Elder Utah Smith’s iconic “Two Wings” and the Famous Blue Jays’ “I’m Bound for Canaan Land,” have been reissued before, many of the 52 selections are available on CD for the first time. This includes the Silver Stars’ chilling a cappella “12 Years Old” and the impossibly rare Dixieland Singers sides.
Elder Utah Smith, ‘Two Wings,’ featuring Smith’s jazzy, distortion-laden lead guitar, from Windy City Gospel on Cottage Grove
Among the set’s most interesting discoveries are four tracks by the Evangelist Singers of Alabama. Although they never achieved the popularity of the Dixieaires and Golden Gate Quartet, this group performs with the same rhythmic intensity and almost as much polish. COGIC Elder Charles Beck’s crooning lead on “When” sounds like a cross between Billy Eckstine and Ivory Joe Hunter. His “Wine Head Willie Put that Bottle Down” is a novelty sketch that takes Dusty Fletcher’s “Open the Door Richard” as its inspiration, pitting minister against wayward sinner.
Most of the selections on Windy City Gospel are male-based groups, quartets, singers, and one preacher (Mt. Pleasant’s Rev. H.R. Jelks; Chess’ voluminous library of Rev. C.L. Franklin materials were left out deliberately). The solitary female voice on the set is heard on “Precious Memories” by the Ellis and Dixon Spiritual and Vocal Group. She sings accompanied by a slow-shuffling brassy Dixieland band that kindles images of a New Orleans marching band leading the funeral procession to the burial ground, a mourning saxophone solo piercing the proceedings like lightning in a rainstorm.
The South Cottage Grove appellation, used throughout the liner notes as a nom de plume, refers to the location of Phil and Leonard Chess’ Macomba Lounge at 39th and South Cottage Grove, as well as their record company headquarters ten blocks south, before they moved to the legendary 2120 South Michigan Avenue space.
Windy City Gospel is a window to an important time in gospel music when independents captured the sound as it transitioned from sweet jubilee to the more emotionally intense Pentecostal and Holiness style that dominated the 1950s and 1960s.
Four of Five Stars
‘For everyone who has an ear to hear…’
Bishop Samuel R. Johnson, Sr. Presents The Sounds of Living Water
NSeason Records/Royalton Records (release date: February 15, 2011)
It’s been thirty years of toiling in the musical vineyard, from writing and singing R&B (with the Determinations) to moving into the gospel music industry, but Bishop Samuel R. Johnson, Sr. is about to realize his life-long dream.
This month, the pastor and founder of Living Water World Ministries in Dayton, Ohio will release a full-length CD, Kingdom Keepers, featuring the church’s house group, The Sounds of Living Water.
Kingdom Keepers opens with the single, “The Power of God,” which features Bishop Johnson scatting in a husky, smoky preacher’s voice while the group bounces behind him. The praise song “Trust in Him” is an old-fashioned church-wrecker, led ably by Zandra Arnold. The group's contemporary groove continues with “Through the Storm,” an evocative song about seeing the Lord in the midst of the storms of life.
The Sounds of Living Water, Traversing the Deep
Then, without warning, Kingdom Keepers makes a 180-degree turn and gives the listener whiplash with “Are You Gon’ Praise,” an urban R&B rocker with hip hop flair to make J Moss grin. It’s done well and is so decidedly different from the preceding tracks that you will think you are hearing another group entirely. In the midst of the beats, we are introduced to the project’s brightest light, female vocalist Toyana Holloway. More about her in a moment.
Shifting gears yet again to reach “the young, old, saved and unsaved,” Kingdom Keepers ladles out a sax-led Latin beat on “Pray,” then moves into a full-bodied praise song with Funkadelic-style performance attributes and the world’s shortest title: “I.” “Something in the Air,” about the rising of the spirit, changes the funk beat to an ‘80s Gap Band groove.
The Sounds of Living Water settle back into the contemporary gospel milieu towards the end of the CD with “I Wanna Be Loved,” a solo, and a well-deserved one, for Toyana Holloway. Holloway renders this love song to Jesus with a sacred sensuality that never crosses the line but gets so close as to make every man wish she was singing it to him. “I Wanna Be Loved” is not only the finest track on the CD, but one of the best gospel songs I’ve heard this new year. It’s a five-star performance that proves Holloway deserves a solo project.
Bishop Johnson and The Sounds of Living Water fare best when they work within the contemporary gospel groove, but to say that Kingdom Keepers has something for everyone—“for everyone who has an ear to hear” says Johnson—is an understatement.
Four of Five Stars. Picks: “I Wanna Be Loved,” “The Power of God,” “Trust in Him.”
P.S. Here’s a Black History Month trivia question: what does Bishop Samuel Johnson have in common with the late Miss Roberta Martin? They both enjoy riding horses.
‘True character and distinctiveness’
THE GREATEST GIFT
Make Music Group (2010)
During the opening track of her debut solo CD, The Greatest Gift, Eumika Body-Griffin shouts, “We come to blow the roof off this house tonight!”
Yet the most interesting selections on the CD are when Body-Griffin, the Gospel Choice winner of Best New Artist for 2008, is not trying to blow the roof off the house. When the biting guitar and thumping bass die down, the woofers stop pounding and the power P&W songs are over, the singer waxes traditional with Kevin “Griff” Griffin’s B3 in strong support, as on the medley “I Am God”/”Call Me By My Purpose.” It is on selections such as this one where the CD shows true character and distinctiveness.
In fact, from her “Worship Medley” through the conclusion, we hear Body-Griffin bask in her element, embellishing lines, shouting, squeezing ounces of emotion out of the notes until they cry of their own accord. She injects plenty of gospel energy on “Never Let Go,” a tribute to God’s goodness in her life (as in “I’ll never let go His hand”). “It’s Okay” is a song of encouragement to those who have the strength to succeed and simply need a pep talk.
Not that Body-Griffin is solely capable of traditional; it’s simply her sweet spot. True to her COGIC music heritage, she tries a little of everything, including getting jazzy on the title track and giving the vocal line what for on “Wanna Say Thank Ya,” a high-energy R&B-inspired song that closes the CD. She also brings in the Veni Vidi Canti Choir from Sweden to support her on “I Need You.”
The live portions of The Greatest Gift were recorded at One Accord Community COGIC in Decatur, Georgia, where Body-Griffin serves as worship leader. She delivers a fine debut solo performance and finishes strong.
Four of Five Stars. Picks: “I Am God”/”Call Me By My Purpose,” “Wanna Say Thank Ya.”
Bob Marovich is a gospel music historian, radio announcer, and author. In its seventh season, Bob's "Gospel Memories" program of vintage black gospel music and artist interviews airs live first Sundays from 3:00 to 7:30 a.m. on Chicago's WLUW 88.7 FM, and streams live at http://www.wluw.org/. Snippets of recent broadcasts can be heard at http://www.gospelmemories.com/. Bob is also editor of The Black Gospel Blog: http://blackgospel.blogspot.com.