Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Holding On

Mid-week Gospel

It's time to follow up the story of the Meditation Singers. Roughly one month ago,
I wrote about their 1958 album which was spear-headed by Della Reese presenting »her« Meditation Singers.

The Meditation Singers (1964), left to right: E. Rundless, L. Lee, D. Hammonds, V. Rogers,
M. Waters. - Photo from the Gospel LP # MG-3038.

The problem for the Meditation Singers in the early 1960s was that they had crossed over into secular venues, e.g. when they accompanied Della Reese in night clubs or Las Vegas casinos. This brought them considerable disrepute in the traditional gospel community. You can sense it to the present day. Thus, in most of the better known literature on Black Gospel (suffice it to mention the names of Anthony Heilbut, Bil Carpenter or Robert Darden) the Meditation Singers are virtually ignored. Horace C. Boyer in his The Golden Age of Gospel (Urbana- Chicago 2000, p. 127 f.) does mention and acknowledge them as »one of the premier female gospel groups of Detroit«, but apart from noting their »great influence on the Motown Sound« exclusively deals with their '50s activity and gives much space to the role of Della Reese (which, after all, was somewhat limited really). And as if to underline this near silence in the literature on gospel music we find them variously, and sometimes in greater detail, treated in non-gospel works, e.g. in Jay Warner's American Singing Groups which basically is concerned with non-religious music. There, and thanks to the happy coincidence provided by the alphabet, we find the Meditation Singers in the company of the Medaillons (a male West Coast outfit of the '50s) and the Mello-Kings (»one of the blackest-sounding white groups of the 50s«, a quintett from New York). They likewise appear in the priceless encyclopaedia of Keith Rylatt (Groovesville USA. The Detroit Soul & R&B Index, Worthing 2010), because they recorded in 1961/2 several songs for the Detroit labels »D-Town« and »HOB« under the name »The Meditations«.

Gospel LP # MG-3038 (1964)
However, the Meditation Singers did not abandon the field of gospel music in the first half of the 1960s and »went pop«, far from it. A good example of their output during these years is their last album for Savoy Records, released on the subsidiary »Gospel«. At the same time, it was to be their last LP before they moved to Checker / Chess Records. I am speaking of the Gospel LP # MG-3038 entitled »I'm Holding On«. Pondering the title and considering the pretty symbolic cover (SEE POSTSCRIPT) it seems to me that they inten- ded to put across a clear and unequivocal message with this LP: Look here, we're still »holding on«, namely to gospel (and to the Gospel), and we're still holding up the cross (right into the spotlight as the cover shows)! It was like saying, don't you think we've become night club singers! And fittingly, this LP does not contain anything that could be called »pop-gospel«, and the dominant piano viz. organ, coupled with the absence of guitars, restricts the similarity of the overall sound to what »secular« outfits of the time were doing. But then, where can you draw the line? It certainly can't be determined solely on the basis of which instruments are employed, and in regard to the purely vocal aspects it's very hard to separate the fields of gospel and '60s-r&b anyway. Needless to add the truism that the latter could not have come into being without the former when it comes to the vocal techniques.

Unfortunately, the sound quality on this LP is not perfect, but that can't be helped. The songs were recorded on September 23, 1964, at the Medallion Studios in Newark, New Jersey, and supervised by Rev. Lawrence Roberts, Pastor at the First Baptist Church in Nutley, likewise in New Jersey. Roberts was an »iconic gospel producer at Savoy Records and director of the famous Angelic Choir of Nutley«, who had produced one of Savoy's best-selling LPs, »Peace Be Still«, in 1963. You can hear E[a]rnestine Rundless (lead), Verlene Rogers (sometimes incorrectly spelled Verlaine Rogers), Donna Hammonds, Marie Waters and Laura Lee (Rundless).

The two songs you can hear below are »Lord I've Tried« and »My Soul Looks Back«. Both are standards that have been recorded by many other gospel singers or groups. The first song was written by William Herbert Brewster (1897-1987), the second by Rev. James Cleveland (1931- 1991); Cleveland himself did much work with the Meditation Singers. And both songs are primarily a showcase for the lead singer, while the backing vocals remain rather passive throughout and basically accompany the lead voice; more so in the first song than in the second. It is up to you to judge how close this kind of gospel music really was to contemporary soul and r&b, which I think is pretty much the case in many important respects. Of course, the message was different, and the similarities in vocal performance, rhythmic structures and harmonies should not make us forget that we're dealing here with religious songs. They are meant as such, and deserve to be heard as such. Yet it remains a fact that you could buy this album when the first wave of the »British invasion« had just overflowed the U.S.A. If you concentrate on the music, this is an interesting point to keep in mind.

The Meditation Singers:
»Lord I've Tried« / »My Soul Looks Back« from the Gospel LP »I'm Holding On« (1964)

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Postscript 16. Sept. 2011:
The cover was designed, as is obvious at the first glance, by the legendary Harvey (see this collection for his cover art). Curiously, this cover was then re-used on another Savoy LP from ca. 1970 (by Dorothy Norwood, see here). There are several other Harvey covers not identical but rather similar to the one under discussion (see here and here).

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