Gospel Music Guide

A guide to gaining an introduction to gospel music (read: afro-american gospel music).  When you get down to it, gospel is the rosetta stone of american music, and there are few styles of american music that haven’t either influenced gospel or taken influence from it.  Hopefully the religious content of the music doesn’t keep people away.  You can be indifferent or even openly hostile to religion and still enjoy this powerful music.

 

Various Artists Collections
Broad overview sets:
Gospel: The Ultimate Collection
Gospel – The Ultimate Collection (2007)

All things considered, this may be the best historical overview of gospel music I’ve seen yet, rivalled or surpassed only by the Jubilation! series mentioned below.  There is definitely a good amount of material from the “golden age of gospel” in the 1950s here, which is something lots of other gospel box sets inexplicably omit.  At four discs, there is a ton of great stuff from a lot of different periods and styles.  This set does stop in the middle of the 1950s though, so you don’t get much if anything anything from the 1960s onward.  But you might want to decide if you like gospel enough first before delving into the 1960s and 70s stuff.  And for an introduction it’s probably best to avoid contemporary gospel anyway.

Jubilation! Volume One: Black Gospel
Jubilation! Great Gospel Performances – Volume 1: Black Gospel (1992)

Jubilation! Volumes 1 & 2 make up probably the best two-disc introduction to gospel available, and together are probably my number one recommendation for someone just beginning to listen to gospel.  Vols. 1 & 2 represent just about all of the major gospel talents, and the song selection is outstanding.  Truly a superb set.  The only caveat I would add is that the focus here is more on modern gospel, and little space is reserved for early 20th Century gospel, but that is actually a good approach for an introductory set like this.

Jubilation! Volume 2: More Black Gospel
Jubilation! Great Gospel Performances – Volume 2: More Black Gospel (1992)

Another great collection of material, similar to Vol. 1.  You will really want to investigate both Vols. 1 & 2, though you could easily start with either one.  There is a Vol. 3, but it focuses on country gospel, which is not the focus of this guide.

The History of Black Gospel Music: Volume 1
The History of Black Gospel Music: Volume 1 (2008)

The first of a seven-album series, apparently available only as a digital download (in the USA at least).  It features some great stuff from a variety of eras.  There is a bit more non-quartet, folk/blues material here than many gospel collections.

Gospel Music
Gospel Music (2006)

A great collection.  All awesome stuff.  Maybe the very best single-disc introduction out there.  The only complaint about this set, and it may be a significant one, is the lack of credits for personnel, recording dates, etc.  So you aren’t told which of the two studio versions of Dorothy Love Coates’ “Strange Man” is included here, for instance.

Nuggets of The Golden Age of Gospel 1945-1958
Nuggets of the Golden Age of Gospel 1945-1958 (2009)

Bob Marovich review: http://www.theblackgospelb…golden-age.html

Fire in My Bones: Raw + Rare + Otherworldly African-American Gospel (1944-2007)
Fire in My Bones: Raw + Rare + Otherworldly African-American Gospel (1944-2007) (2009)

Like Get Right With God (see below), Fire in My Bones focuses on great but lesser-known recordings.  In a way it’s a kind of alternate history of modern age gospel, documenting especially its vital and continuing tradition of do-it-yourself recordings.  This also covers quite a large time frame (more than six decades).  With some of the basics under your belt, this is a fun and exciting extension to delve deeper into the genre.  The obscurity of the recordings means there is little overlap with other gospel compilations.  A follow-up collection was released as This May Be My Last Time Singing: Raw African-American Gospel on 45RPM, 1957-1982, but definitely start with Fire in My Bones.

Goodbye Babylon
Goodbye, Babylon (2003)

This well-regarded, handsomely packaged collection covers an immense amount of gospel up to about WWII, as well as a select few retro-sounding post-WWII cuts.  That said, this set stops short of covering the modernization of gospel during and beyond its so-called “golden age”.  So despite its massive size, this is just the tip of the iceberg, covering only the early roots of recorded gospel music.  It covers country gospel in addition to afro-american gospel.  If you look into this, the Jubilation! discs mentioned above make for excellent follow-ups, focusing on more modern gospel.

Testify! The Gospel Box
Testify!: The Gospel Box (1999)

One of the few gospel collections I’ve seen that actually takes a crack at summarizing many different periods, including the difficult task of putting together a disc of contemporary gospel (at least through the 1980s I believe).  I haven’t heard this to judge well myself.  But this set cuts a wide swath through many different decades of gospel music.

The Essential Gospel Sampler
The Essential Gospel Sampler (1994)

Good selection of some of the most popular names in gospel.

Ultimate Gospel Supermix

My own “virtual” compilation.

More period-specific, stylistically-specific, or label-specific sets:
American Primitive Vol. I
American Primitive Vol. 1: Raw Pre-War Gospel (1926-36) (1997)

Awesome selection of early pre-WWII gospel.  Lots of this stuff straddles the line between blues and gospel.  Probably a less intimidating option than the Goodbye Babylon set, which seemed to borrow heavily from these selections because of the substantial overlap.  Pair this set with the Gospel Music one above and you’ll get a fairly good overview of both old and modern gospel.

A Warrior On the Battlefield: A Cappella Trailblazers, 1920's-1940's
A Warrior On the Battlefield: A Cappella Trailblazers, 1920’s-1940’s (1997)

A set that focuses on jubilee gospel groups.

Kings of the Gospel Highway: The Golden Age of Gospel Quartets
Kings of the Gospel Highway: The Golden Age of Gospel Quartets (2000)

A collection of songs from some of the great gospel “quartets” (they often actually had more than four members) from primarily the later part of the 1940s but also some from the 1950s and one Soul Stirrers track from 1939.   This actually picks up where the A Warrior On the Battlefield set leaves off, stylistically and chronologically.  The liner notes are also quite good in explaining various aspects of the music and the personalities behind it.

The Gospel Sound
The Gospel Sound (1994)

1927-66 sampler of material from Columbia Records (or at least acquired by them prior to this release).

Golden Age Gospel Quartets, Vol. 1 (1947-1954)
Golden Age Gospel Quartets, Vol. 1 (1947-1954) (1997)

Specialty was the premier label for hard gospel quartets in the 1950s.  I could quibble about some of the song selections here, but there is no doubt you get some great music and an introduction to most of the key groups on the Specialty label.  Continued with Golden Age Gospel Quartets, Vol. 2 (1954-1963).

Get Right With God: Hot Gospel
Get Right With God: Hot Gospel (1988)

Awesome collection of mostly obscure stuff from the golden age.  It’s all high-energy and really fun.  The way this is assembled definitely reminds me of Harry Smith (who created the Anthology of American Folk Music), and what a collection of gospel from this period would probably sound like if he ever got around to putting one together.

Golden Age of Gospel
Golden Age of Gospel (2001)

The premier gospel label of the 1950s was Specialty.  But Vee-Jay took over that role around 1959 and held the crown until the label went bankrupt in 1966, when HOB and then Savoy took over that role.  Of course there were other notable labels like Nashboro and Peacock operating throughout these periods too.  But for late 50s/early 60s stuff, you can’t go wrong with Vee-Jay.  The label represented another step in the ongoing pattern of changes in gospel styles.  The “hard” gospel of Specialty was giving way to smoother, more intricate arrangements with more pronounced instrumental accompaniment.

I mention this particular compilation because it is only one disc, but it may be somewhat hard to find and it seems at least some tracks included here are live ones instead of the original studio recordings.  A more extensive collection of Vee-Jay gospel is the four disc series that begins with The Best of Vee-Jay Gospel, Volume One.

Voices of the Civil Rights Movement: Black American Freedom Songs 1960-1966
Voices of the Civil Rights Movement: Black American Freedom Songs 1960-1966 (1997)

Gospel music played a big role in the 1950s/60s civil rights or freedom movement in the United States.  Here’s an interesting look at that role.

The Best of Nashboro Gospel
Best of Nashboro Gospel (1995)

Nashboro, and associated labels like Creed, put out a lot of good gospel over a relatively long period of time.  It was fairly common for big names in gospel to switch record labels through the years.  The demise of Vee-Jay records in 1966 sent many top stars to labels like Nashboro and HOB.

This Is Gospel Vol. 28: HOB Legends
This is Gospel Vol. 28: HOB Legends (2006)
Gospel's Finest
Gospel’s Finest (1992)

If you ask me, most contemporary gospel from the 1980s onward is not worthwhile.  But don’t let my views cloud your judgment.  Here’s a set of 1980s gospel.  Decide for yourself.  If you want more recent gospel, you can look into the “WOW Gospel” series that begins with Wow Gospel 1998 (though you want the “Gospel” series not “Hits”, “Worship”, etc.).

Individual Artist Selections
People totally unfamiliar with gospel music may want to listen to a various artists collection first, but here are some single-artist selections that I find to be particularly worth checking out:
The Golden Gate Quartet Collection

The Golden Gate Quartet

The Golden Gate Quartet Collection (2005)

The Golden Gate Quartet represents a different era than lots of other music on this list.  They had jazz-inflected rhythms that stretched gospel beyond earlier forms, but compared to more modern acts the tempos were slower and there were not really any lead solos.  But this is still great music.  There are certainly plenty of different Golden Gate Quartet compilations available.  This two-disc one seems to capture a lot of their best recordings, though in some ways it’s still incomplete.

He's My Rock: Their Early Sides

The Soul Stirrers

He’s My Rock: Their Early Sides (2003)

The early Soul Stirrers with R.H. Harris were the single most influential gospel group.  Ever.  More than any other group, they blazed a trail away from the jubilee style that had dominated gospel for many decades–a style epitomized by The Golden Gate Quartet–and toward hard gospel of the 1950s.  R.H. Harris made lead soloists the stars of gospel “quartets”, which had been expanded past just four members.  This collection features a tremendous amount of really great music.

Journey to the Sky: The Legendary Recordings 1946-1950

The Dixie Hummingbirds

Journey to the Sky: The Legendary Recordings 1946-1950 (2001)

The best gospel of the 1940s is right here.  Lead singer Ira Tucker was just unbelievably good.  He was sort of gospel’s first “rock star” in my book.  Maybe he was just the first rock star period, running down the aisles, jumping off stages…

Love Lifted Me/My Rock

Swan Silvertones

Love Lifted Me / My Rock (1991)

Though maybe I have a sentimental attachment, I would say The Swan Silvertones were the single greatest gospel group ever.  They had it all.  This set of hard gospel from the 1950s is absolutely essential.

Oh Lord, STand By Me / MArching Up to Zion

The Blind Boys of Alabama

Oh Lord, Stand By Me / Marching Up to Zion (1991)

Another great set of hard gospel from the 1950s.

Gospels, Spirituals & Hymns

Mahalia Jackson

Gospels, Spirituals & Hymns (1991)

Probably the single most famous gospel singer ever.  A voice so powerful few could ever come close.  This collection makes a good introduction even though it does not cover recordings from the early part of her career (for that, look to How I Got Over: The Apollo Sessions 1946-1954).

Books
The Gospel Sound: Good News and Bad Times by Anthony Heilbut
How Sweet the Sound: The Golden Age of Gospel by Horace C. Boyer
Encyclopedia of American Gospel Music by W.K. McNeil (ed.)
Blues and Gospel Records: 1890-1943 by Robert M.W. Dixon, John Godrich, and Howard W. Rye
Gospel Records: 1943-1969 by Cedric W. Hayes and Robert Laughton
Web Links
Just Moving On Blog
The Black Gospel Blog
Holy Ghost Blog
Sinner’s Crossroads Radio Show
Black Gospel Collector’s Forum