The Caravans – The Best of The Caravans

The Best of The Caravans

The CaravansThe Best of The Caravans Savoy DBL 7012 (1977)

In many ways, Albertina Walker‘s Caravans (a group originally founded by Robert Anderson) were the gospel equivalent of Art Blakey‘s Jazz Messengers in the jazz world.  Both worked like a “grad school”, finding and training a huge number of musicians who would go on to notable solo careers.  The number of star vocalists that came through the ranks of the Caravans is quite astounding.  There was “Tina” Walker of course, but also Cassieta George, Inez Andrews, Bessie Griffin, James Herdon, and the big stars Shirley Caesar and James Cleveland.  There were few gospel groups that managed to cultivate such rosters of great singers for such a long period of time.  The Caravans also heralded the stylistic trends that dominated the sound of contemporary gospel in years to come, with bright solos and slightly muddy backing harmonies.  Their style also lent itself to a kind of Vegas-style showmanship too.  The group was definitely a little weaker than some of their contemporaries in terms of arrangements.  This twenty-three song set is exclusively material recorded for the Savoy label in the late 1950s and the bulk of the 1960s (though the liner notes are skimpy as to recording and release information), and there isn’t a tremendous amount of variety.  At a superficial level, though, this is satisfying stuff.

The Swan Silvertones – If You Believe

If You Believe

The Swan SilvertonesIf You Believe HOB HBX 2135 (1971)

If You Believe (or If You Believe Your God Is Dead, Try Mine, as the sticker on the LP itself says) was sort of a transitional album for The Swan Silvertones.  They seem to have made some overt attempts to keep their sound up to date, without completely abandoning the style they settled into starting in the late 1960s.  Side two is stronger than side one.  It’s somewhat easy to tell why.  Longtime band member and manager John Myles was a good, strike that, great arranger.  He only arranged three songs on this album, though — the title track plus the first two songs on side two.  While this album isn’t his finest hour by any means, he’s still effective.  Most of side one was arranged by Louis Johnson, with some assistance from James Lewis.  Johnson was not very adept at using arrangements to match the material to individual singers’ strengths.  He also tended to put himself way out in front and minimize the backing vocals, at times to the point where the backing harmonies seem like an afterthought.  Because he dominates side one, it doesn’t really move like it could.  New (or new-ish) members James Chapman and James Lewis wrote the last two songs on the album and sing lead vocals on them.  It is a nice change of pace to hear their contributions, which, along with the greater presence of John Myles, make side two the more interesting and enjoyable half of the album.  The instrumental backing is purely functional throughout, not the subtle counterpoint it was previously or the saving grace it would be later on.  This isn’t a bad Swan Silvertones album, but it’s also far from their best.

As an aside, the titles of the last two songs seem to be erroneously reversed on the original album jacket (“Live Together” is heard last on the recording itself), continuing the sloppy packaging in which HOB Records seemed to excel.

The Swan Silvertones – Only Believe

Only Believe

The Swan SilvertonesOnly Believe HOB HOB282 (1968)

The original album jacket clearly identifies Only Believe as a studio album, but the feel is loose and in the spirit of a live performance complete with audience applause and shouts.  Lots of space is given over to what seem like improvised passages.  Rev. Claude Jeter‘s “replacement” Carl Davis is featured on a few songs, with Louis Johnson leading the group in a decidedly rock/soul direction throughout.  Paul Owens also gets a lot of room here, singing some great leads on “Tell God” and “Oh Lord, I Thank You”.  This is a pretty enjoyable outing, with the more open-ended arrangements proving to be an effective change of pace from the group’s intricate early 1960s sound.  The Swan Silvertones really perfected this style on Great Camp Meeting.

As a side note, the opener “I Only Believe” is presented in two parts with a break in between, though the album jacket doesn’t really note that fact (though CD reissues tend to present each part as a separate track).  Also, the song is listed as 5:29 in length but is in actuality a minute shorter.

Spirit of Memphis – Happy in the Service of the Lord (1949-1954)

Happy in the Service of the Lord (1949-1954)

Spirit of MemphisHappy in the Service of the Lord (1949-1954) Acrobat ADDCD 3007 (2005)

Top notch gospel.  The Spirit of Memphis had some of the best vocalists around during the 1949-1954 period represented on Happy In the Service of the Lord.  Stylistically, they weren’t innovators exactly, but followed the lead of The Soul Stirrers.  That is hardly a limitation.  Pretty much every track here is a winner.  Anyone interested in golden age black gospel will find a lot to like.  This is one of the best compilations of its type available.

Bob Dylan – Slow Train Coming

Slow Train Coming

Bob DylanSlow Train Coming Columbia FC 36120 (1979)

I’ve developed a theory that Dyan’s “christian” phase that began with Slow Train Coming was less about him converting to a particularly dogmatic strain of pentecostal christianity and more about him implicitly moving into the same camp as French academic charlatan Michel Foucault (maybe the “new philosophers” like André Glucksmann could be thrown into the conversation here too).  The reasons some people are skeptical of this part of Dylan’s career are the same reasons some people are skeptical of Foucault’s neoliberal historicist/”identity politics” theories, which are complete bullshit and evidenced a questionable kind of pandering and opportunism (not to mention a huge over-reliance on revenge fantasies).  But, anyway, this album was recorded in Muscle Shoals, and it has a smooth disco R&B/soul sound, like a mellower, less emotional counterpart to Bowie‘s Young Americans or even a more intellectual counterpart to the lily-white blues rock of Eric Clapton.  It’s a little too easy listening for its own good, but it still manages to be decent with a few good new songs.  The album benefits tremendously by having Dylan actually trying throughout, and having active involvement of producers other than Dylan.

Prince – The Rainbow Children

The Rainbow Children

PrinceThe Rainbow Children NPG 70004-2 (2001)

Kind of a forgotten Prince disc, unfairly, because The Rainbow Children is really one of the best from his later years.  With the exception of some weird concluding outtro tracks sequenced strangely on the CD and perhaps the novelty song “Wedding Feast,” this is an album that is solid all the way through.  The musicianship is top shelf, without succumbing to pandering or self-indulgent showiness.  To the extent this was the launch of a more mature sound for Prince, it succeeds completely.  Although it is fair to call this contemporary R&B/soul, much of this follows a kind of light soul jazz/jazz-funk approach (reference, for example, Dave DouglasLive at the Jazz Standard from a few years later).  It also leans toward gospel-style vocals, which is a big bonus.  Of course, there is more than just that here.  “1+1+1 Is 3” is very much a throwback to Prince’s iconic style of the mid-1980s, done quite convincingly.  It highlights just how versatile his guitar playing is across the album.  When people speak, generally, about what a talented performer Prince was, the evidence is right here.  This album is kind of like being at the best possible intimate, private concert you cold imagine from Prince around the turn of the Millennium.  It was around this time too that Prince appeared on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” on May 3, 2001 and played a couple songs, including “The Work, Part 1” from this album and a great version of his classic “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker” (originally on Sign “O” the Times) with many jazzy keyboard flourishes.  The album as a whole is close to the sound of that televised performance.  He came back in December of 2002 to perform “The Everlasting Now” on the show too.  Now, some people don’t seem to like the album, often because of the religious content.  But, really, that is only on a few songs (“The Everlasting Now” etc.) and unless you focus on lyrics to the exclusion of almost everything else, the few religious messages are general enough that they don’t hold this back much.  Songs like “Family Name” — one of the funkiest on the album — are political/social commentary anyway.  The real reason this isn’t better known is that it wasn’t heavily marketed and was independently distributed.  It did set up material for the tour that produced One Nite Alone…Live!  Nonetheless, this might be the single most overlooked Prince album. 

Mavis Staples – Have a Little Faith

Have a Little Faith

Mavis StaplesHave a Little Faith Alligator ALCD 4899 (2004)

Mavis Staples had something of a late career resurgence with a number of well-received recordings.  Have a Little Faith came just before that resurgence.  While she sings well (of course!), the album as a whole is dull.  The songs frequently employ slick formula and cliches as if they are impressive, without any self-awareness or irony.  There is simply too much to take away from Mavis’ voice.  Pass on this and proceed to what came next, the warm and endearing We’ll Never Turn Back.

Dixie Hummingbirds – Journey to the Sky: The Legendary Recordings 1946-1950

Journey to the Sky: The Legendary Recordings 1946-1950

Dixie HummingbirdsJourney to the Sky: The Legendary Recordings 1946-1950 P-Vine PCD-5818 (2001)

Legendary vocal quartet music, featuring dynamic lead singer Ira Tucker and bass vocalist William Bobo.  This may be the very best vocal group music of the late 1940s, at a point when the “jubilee” style of gospel singing was being left behind in favor of the new, more daring “hard gospel” style.  Too many classic cuts here to go through them all individually, but hearing just “Move On Up a Little Higher” (either version), “In the Storm Too Long”, or “Search Me Lord” alone would be enough to make the whole set worthwhile even though there isn’t a bad cut to be found.  You don’t need to have any interest in the religious content of this music to enjoy it.  This particular set lacks recording and release information (at least in english), but the sound is great for recordings this old.  There are a few other Dixie Hummingbird collections out there on CD as well, like Complete Recorded Works 1939-1947 in Chronological Order covering a generally earlier period, and Thank You for One More Day: The 70th Anniversary of The Dixie Hummingbirds and The Best of both focusing a bit more on later periods.  But this is probably the place to start.

Johnny Cash – Sings Precious Memories

Sings Precious Memories

Johnny CashSings Precious Memories Columbia C 33087 (1975)

Johnny Cash released no less than five albums in 1975.  Among them was Sings Precious Memories, a gospel album.  It is perhaps the worst of the year’s batch of offerings.  It features a lot of wailing falsetto backing vocals likely to induce cringes, and tired, florid orchestral arrangements.  The whole thing conjures up the kind of pastel-colored southern mega-church setting satirized nicely years later in the film Fletch Lives.  An enormously superior demo version of “Farther Along” appeared posthumously on Personal File, which provides an excellent case study of how terribly the music is produced here.  Cash, for his part, seems to be coasting on the fact that this music has religious content, without undertaking the necessary effort to make this compelling to the listener in musical terms.  Pass.

Paul Robeson – Spirituals


Paul RobesonSpirituals Columbia Masterworks Set M-610 (1946)

Possibly Robeson’s best album.  There are few singers with a voice as capable of commanding of attention as Paul Robeson’s.  His deep, resonant bass-baritone is so iconic that the man’s portrait should probably appear in dictionaries next to the word “dignity”.

The recording of “John Henry” included here is one of Robeson’s very finest.  The Legend of John Henry is an old neo-Luddite folk tale, based on a real historical person (or amalgam of many real persons) working to build a railroad line, probably as convict labor after the Civil War, about a poignantly suicidal triumph of labor over the technology that owners of capital wield to destroy the means of workers’ support and dignity.  John Henry defeats a spike-driving machine in a one-on-one competition, only to die of exertion.  Lawrence Brown‘s somber piano provides deftly understated accompaniment.  Brown plays in response to what Robeson sings, in the black tradition of call-and-response.  The way Robeson sings is amazing.  He uses controlled vibrato, just as any trained opera or bel canto pop singer would.  His enunciation is impeccable.  Every word is booming yet unmistakable.  But he sings the song with non-standard diction.  This places him halfway between vernacular music (true folk “spirituals”) and the ordained and accepted music of society’s ruling classes (“hymns” in the religious context).  Spirituals came after Robeson’s political radicalization, and it is easy to look back at it and see how his approach to performance injects the vernacular into dominant forms as a kind of bottom-up revolutionary act, as performed by a black man in Jim Crow America who sings so well and with such unmistakable facility for bel canto pop music that he cannot be dismissed as an untalented ruffian making a bunch of mere noise.

Michael Denning‘s book Noise Uprising chronicled the revolution from below made possible from 1925-30 by the advent of electrical recording technology — before the Great Depression collapsed the global market for such records.  Paul Robeson represents a different sort of revolutionary stance, though not necessarily an entirely different one.  Robeson took advantage of electrical microphone technology to capture his voice in ways never before possible (his record label recorded him with the very latest technology).  He also balanced the expectations of the powerful with the interests of the downtrodden.  And he did so very, very well.  His use of vernacular elements was more limited though, focused on more precise, subtle mobilizations in his vocals.  Take “Balm in Gilead,” which slurs the words “there is” to sound a bit like “dere is” in a line otherwise enunciated with stately exactitude.  These effects let you know which side Robeson is really on.  He can sing in accordance with all the rules the powerful insist upon, but he carefully deviates from them, to inform the audience that he is choosing to do so, for purposes that are manifestly not dictated by the powerful.

On “Nobody Knows de Trouble I’ve Seen” Robeson sings the last line “glo_ry, Hallelu__jah” with an abrupt shift in his intonation of the last syllable of the word “Hallelujah” to express a kind of release and hopeful promise that stands in contrast to the somber weariness of the rest of the song.

Lawrence Brown sings accompaniment too.  On “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho” he adds responses to Robeson’s leads.  Brown’s higher pitched voice, and quicker, less noticeable vibrato are counterpoints to Robeson’s booming voice.  The tempo is much faster than most of the songs on the album too.  It is followed by another duet song, “By an’ By.”  Brown’s lines are phrased in a heavier vernacular, though one that comes across as slightly studied and academic — in other words, staged and inauthentic.  This places Robeson is a kind of hero role, making his voice sound more commanding and impressive.

The albums wraps up with three tour de force solo vocals: “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” “John Henry” and “Water Boy.”  The last two songs are part of Robeson’s standard repertory.  He performed those songs in most concerts and recorded them multiple times.  “Water Boy” uses melisma to the maximum.  Robeson’s use of vibrato is also a thing to behold.  He carefully controls the vibrato over long, sustained notes to match the rhythm of his vocal phrasing.  Much like “John Henry,” “Water Boy” is a kind of hero tale, framed as (presumably) an adult boasting to a “water boy” of his strength and capabilities as a worker.  It is at once a celebration of labor and a vehicle perfectly suited for a black man in the Jim Crow era to demonstrate prowess as a singer.

If all this makes Robeson seem too much of an activist, when all he was doing was singing, then it is worth considering what happened to him in the following decades.  His passport was illegally denied and he was blacklisted.  His son also alleges that the CIA surreptitiously conducted “mind depatterning” on him as part of Project MK-Ultra (probably with LSD).  The powerful knew that Robeson and his music were indeed a threat to white supremacy and other forms of oppression.  It is a bit difficult to walk away from hearing a Robeson recording like Spirituals without some degree of respect, if not awe.