Absolutely The Best Gospel, Vol. 1

 

            It would be hard to overstate the impact of gospel on popular music.  It goes way beyond the great R&B stars who got their start “singing in church,” though so many performers on this recording, from Little Richard to Aretha Franklin to The Staple Singers started singing gospel and moved their vocal chords to more secular purposes.

 

            If you doubt the impact of this music on rock, for example, Pop Staples blues guitar work in a gospel setting with the Staple Singers will give you pause.  Does it sound familiar?  One of the most prominent American rockers of the 60s, John Fogerty was heavily inspired by Pops: “I used to listen to the religious hour on Sunday evenings.  They had a gospel show that ran for two or three hours.  I would certainly remember Pops Staple’s guitar and the Staple Singers.  That’s really why I would tune in, to hear that harmony sound and his guitar style… Pops, and the gospel sound in general, is a big influence on me.” 

 

The Staples sought to inspire – often performing gospel without God.  Notice how “Respect Yourself” preaches the message without the messenger. When Aretha Franklin sings gospel, she more often than not sings songs of praise.  One of the most successful secular soul singers ever, Franklin’s first love was always the church.

 

Similarly, Little Richard got his start in church, yet became one of the wildest performers of the Rock era.  In later years, he came back to the church and recorded gospel again.

 

Many fans of gospel don’t take kindly to singers going secular.  When Sam Cooke left the Soul Stirrers, there was an uproar in the community.  Not so when he left the Highway Q.C.s for the Soul Stirrers.  Another training ground for secular stars, former members of the Highway Q.C.s also include Lou Rawls and Johnny Taylor.

 

Many artists choose to work solely in gospel.  Among gospel fans, the Five Blind Boys of Alabama are legends.  Their shows are foot-stomping affairs that have audiences testifying in the aisles.  Still performing after 50 years together, they stay contemporary by the company they keep. For example, they spend much of the fall of 1999 touring with Tom Petty.

 

Similarly, people with even a passing interest in gospel know the Swan Silvertones.  Since the late 1930s, this group of fine vocalists has performed gospel of nearly every style, originating the jazz influenced harmonies that would inform Take 6 several generations later.  They also inspired rock musicians ranging from Paul Simon (“Bridge Over Troubled Water” was a direct outgrowth of a Swan Silvertones record) to Al Kooper. 

 

At the same time the Swan Silvertones were enjoying their greatest success, the most popular touring gospel group in America was the Caravans.  This female gospel group introduced the world to gospel superstars like Inez Andrews and Shirley Caesar.

 

            Representing an older style, the Harmonizing Four continued to sing traditional Jubilee gospel even after most groups had moved into harder veins.  The groups members included Lonnie Smith, father of jazz great Lonnie Liston Smith. 

 

            Many of these groups continue to work today, most together for over three decades.  Fittingly, many of these artists recorded for labels better known for their blues and soul artists, like Chess, Vee Jay and King. If you’ve never heard gospel, prepare for a revelation.  Even if you know it well, prepare to be moved: This is Absolutely The Best of Gospel!