Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Rockin' Souls

mid-week gospel

UPDATED March 11, 2013  (for further details, see postscript)

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»For the pious, there is magic in the moments of these melodies. Here is spiritual singing at its soul-stirring free-est. Beneath the trouble and toil, there is joy ... There is exaltation ... This is the devout Della. ...
For music lovers there is excitement of improvisation, phrasing, perfor- mance.
Historically, gospel-singing and the gospel and spiritual songs have a beginning and an end in the popular music of today. Before the "blues" and New Orleans and "jazz," there were the work songs and the spirituals of the South.«
That's what we find on the back cover of the Jubilee LP # JGS-1083, released in autumn 1958. It is an album of gospel, but quite obviously the above-quoted is meant to stress the impact of gospel on all kinds of secular music: Jazz and blues are explicitly named. So gospel is »for the pious« and »for music lovers« in general as well. Of course, this is fine with me, and it makes for a good starting point of re-telling the history of The Meditation Singers. The Jubilee LP referred to is called Amen! ... Della Reese presents her Meditation Singers with Ernestine Rundless«.

The history of the Meditation Singers begins at some point in the late '40s or early '50s. There are several contradictory accounts of how this group came to be formed, and it is difficult to get a clear picture. In any case, they hailed from Detroit, and all the original members were from there. We often read that Della Reese (born Del[l]oreese Patricia Early in 1931 and taking on her artist name after having married a certain Bon Taliaferro, splitting her Christian name ...) founded the Meditation Singers in 1950 while studying psychology at Wayne State University.

From EBONY, March 1960, p. 48.
At least this is the version favored by Della Reese. On the other hand, she said in an article in the SEPIA-Magazine, in the June 1962 issue, that the group was actually brought into being by her sister Marie (Waters) (see Jessie Carney Smith [ed.]: Notable Black American Women, Book II, Detroit 1996, p. 546). Which would leave the claim to who created the Medi- tation Singers in the family. However, others say - and their claim has much evidence to it - that the Singers were formed in April 1950 at the New Liberty Missionary Baptist Church in Detroit by the organist Emory Radford and the local pastor E. Alan [often: Allan] Rundless, former member of the Soul Stirrers. (Emory Radford also plays organ on the Jubilee LP # 1083.) The pastor's wife, E[a]rnestine, was in it from the beginning and from the 1950s was the driving force behind the Singers; she also sang commonly lead (soprano). The name of the group, »The Meditation Singers«, was taken from the group »Voices of Meditation Choir« already existing at the New Liberty Baptist Church, and the group had a weekly Sunday radio broadcast called »The Moments of Meditation«. The Rundless couple considered the Meditation Singers more or less as »their« group, and this is justified in that Della soon left the group in order to make a solo career while Ernestine Rundless held the group together and led them through the '60 into the '70s.

Della Reese was originally part of the gospel circuit in the Midwest, performed in Detroit churches (among these the New Liberty Church) and toured with Mahalia Jackson (1944/5-1949). As early as 1953 she appeared for the first time in a »secular« setting, first in Detroit and then in other places as well. In 1954 she got a contract from Jubilee Records before moving to RCA in 1959. From then onwards, she made a pop career.
She recorded much MOR-pop and jazzy standards in the following years, but more often than not was part of the Easy-Listening scene, honking out Cha-Cha-Cha songs and other stuff à la mode which did but little justice to her beautiful voice. She even recorded for RCA, in 1961, a LP entitled »The Classic Della Reese«, singing melodies »in a classical mode« adapted from the works of Tchaikovsky, Debussy, Chopin etc.: »The gal with the very special delivery swings out with top pop favorites based on tunes from the classicists (!)« (BILLBOARD, January 6, 1962). Her first great # 1 hit from 1959, »Don't You Know«, had already been based on a tune from Puccini's »La Bohème«, namely »Musetta's Waltz« ...

In the year 1958, when the Jubilee LP »Amen!« was released, Della Reese was not any longer a member of the Meditation Singers. She had quit the group several years ago, was for some time part of other gospel outfits and eventually went solo in the pop field. This turned out a pretty successful move; she soon had hits on the charts, and Jubilee Records sent her in May 1958 on a »record-breaking tour of England« what made her »the favorite on two continents«! In summer 1959 she appeared on national TV and had an engagement at the Desert Inn in Las Vegas. In the second half of the '50s she shared the stage with the Meditation Singers only on a few occasions, and her only known recording with the group produced the 1958 LP »Amen!«. In 1962, the group accompanied Della Reese during her concerts in the Copacabana and in Las Vegas.

The Jubilee-session is the only known recording of religious music of Della Reese and the Meditation Singers in the time after 1953 - at least the only recording releseased at the time, because we have a demo tape from January 1954, made for Art Rupe of Specialty, which has Earnestine Rundless, Marie Waters, Carrie Williams and Della Reese singing (this tape was first issued in 1992 on CD). However, at a recording session in Detroit on April 25, 1954, put together on the initiative of Rupe, Della was not present. This fits the conventional reconstruction of events, viz. that Della had left the group in late '53 or early '54, after which the (adopted) daughter of E[a]rne- stine, Laura Lee Rundless (formerly Laura Newton), took her place. However, Della also afterwards joined the Meditation Singers once and again and performed with the group at the New Liberty Baptist Church. And in about the mid-fifties the Singers were still a mixed group with male members, featuring the tenor Herbert Carson and bariton singer James Cleveland. However, when the Meditation Singers and Della Reese went into a Detroit recording studio in summer 1958 no male singers were present.

On the Jubilee album »Amen!« you can hear Della Reese, E[a]rnestine Rundless, Laura Lee Rundless, Marie Waters (Della's sister) and DeLillian Mitchell (also Delillian Price, as indicated on the LP). They all were, with the exception of Laura Lee and DeLillian Mitchell (who may not have been a member from the beginning but came in later), original members of the Meditation Singers. On the organ was Emory Radford, on the piano Kirk Stuart.

Jubilee LP # 1083 (1958)
The sub-title of the Jubilee LP »... Della Reese presents her (!) Meditation Singers with Ernestine Rundless« (actually the part »with Ernestine Rundless« is found only on the back cover) does not inspire much sympathy with Della. Of course, you can argue, as some have done, that Della Reese used her popularity to bring attention to »her« old group and, as it were, have them participate in her fame. And also Jubilee Records might have had an interest in selling this LP as a »Della Reese recording« rather than an album by a widely unknown Detroit gospel group. Yet you may also argue that Della with this LP effectively put the Singers into her own bag, although she was but a marginal and often-absent member of the group in comparison with E[a]rnestine Rundless. I am not sure, really, but to me it smacks of arrogance on Della's part ... and she could easily get away with it: Once you're famous you're always right. And I wonder what the Singers thought of Della posing piously in front of a colorful church window when she had actually made her name with MOR-pop? In any case, the media of the epoch uncritically divulged Della's perspective: A Billboard writer mentioned the »good cover shot of the artist«, as if Della was the only artist, and in another review of the LP the Meditation Singers are presented as »her original gospel group«.

From BILLBOARD, Oktober 27, 1958, p. 26.
From BILLBOARD, November 17, 1958, p. 42

The Jubilee LP has a tolerably good sound quality which is praised on the back cover with the strange neologism »Superlaphonic Hi-Fi«. In some ads that Jubilee had published in January 1959 we read of »StereoSonic LP's« which were, according to the company, »the Finest Stereo Albums Made«.

The songs on this LP are mainly traditional spirituals, arranged by Mortimer »Morty« S. Palitz. One song, »Hard To Get Along«, was written by and credited to Laura Lee Rundless. The first tune on Side 2, »Rock A My Soul« (sic!), is an old Negro-spritiual which is very famous to the present day and in general known as »Rock My Soul In The Bosom Of Abraham«. As we get to hear it on the LP it really is a gospel boogie. The group is accompanied by a speedy organ, and the song is noteworthy in that it features E[a]rnestine Rundless as the second lead singer.

Della Reese, E[a]rnestine Rundless & The Meditation Singers: »Rock A My Soul« from the Jubilee LP »Amen!« 

To tell the truth, Della Reese with her (presumably) patronizing attitude towards the Meditation Singers doesn't score much with me, but I have to admit that she sounds great on the entire recording. Actually she did a much better job here than on the secular recordings she produced during those years. You can hear this on virtually every song, and I just chose two in the following for you to judge. The first song, »I Know The Lord Has Laid His Hand On Me« (in fact, this song is commonly entitled »I Know The Lord Has Laid His Hands On Me« and that is also how you can hear it on the LP!), is in parts, especially at the beginning, a good example for close harmony singing, before the vocal line is taken over by Della Reese alone.

Della's voice is dominant in the second song, »Up Above My Head I Hear Music In The Air«, at least in the first half where she sings practically solo. In the second (and speedier) half she is joined by the Meditation Singers who take over the response part. Lindsay Planer wrote about these two songs as you can hear them on the Jubilee LP:
»I Know the Lord Has Laid His Hand on Me combines the give and take of the call and response with Reese's authoritative command to create a powerful, if not poignant impression on the audience. ... Sister Rosetta Tharpe's Up Above My Head I Hear Music in the Air is unquestionably among the most exuberant sides on Amen! as Reese's vivaciousness is infectious.«
»Up Above My Head« is indelibly linked to the name of Sister Rosetta Tharpe who had recorded this song in November 1947 together with Marie Knight. Anthony Heilbut called their recording a »gospel smash hit« of the 1940s (The Gospel Sound, p. 270). Since Tharpe and Knight had formed a duo in 1946, the song was their first release on 78 rpm: »Rosetta and Marie had another big commercial hit with Up Above My Head, a familar church song that became their signature duet and reached number six on the "race" chart on Christmas« (Gayle F. Wald: Shout, Sister, Shout! The Untold Story of Rock-and-Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Boston 2007, p. 86).

Della Reese & The Mediation Singers: »I Know The Lord Has Laid His Hands On Me« /
»Up Above My Head I Hear Music In The Air« from the Jubilee LP »Amen!« (1958):

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Della Reese made a pop career and remained for the greater part of the '60s one of the most-booked and best-selling singers of Middle-Of-The-Road-Pop. She paid a price for this, however. Being exposed to fame, she soon fell victim to the never-relenting tabloid press. What this resulted in can best be illustrated by an article in the JET-Magazine which was not known for subtle headlines and unobtrusive comments. It appeared in the issue of October 1, 1964, and dealt with the question of whether small-breasted women were generally more intelligent ... whereas the ones with the big boobies were, well, you name it. As an example for the bosomy type we then find Della Reese mentioned (and pictured!) in the illustrious company of Etta James and Eartha Kitt, with the comment added: »tops as entertainers, but not in the brain department?« This is how Della Reese ended up in the mainstream media. It was the curse of fame.

POSTSCRIPT March 11, 2013
Recently I came across Opal Louis Nations's two-part article about the early careers of Della Reese and The Meditation Singers, published in Big City Blues, February-March 2002, pp. 29-31 & June-July 2002, pp. 21-23. There are several interesting details in this very well-researched pieces which I incorporated in the text above. You can access both articles at the author's website (PDF files):

     *Opal Louis Nations: »"The Angel from Detroit". The Story of Della Reese & The Meditation Singers of Detroit. Part One (1931-1969) The Show Bar Years«, in: Big City Blues, February-March 2002, pp. 29-31.
     *Opal Louis Nations: »"The Angel from Detroit". The Story of Della Reese & The Meditation Singers of Detroit. Part Two (1931-1969) The Rise to Fame and Fortune«, in: Big City Blues, June-July 2002, pp. 21-23.

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