Sunday, August 21, 2011

Soul & Spirit, But Mostly Spirit

In July 1967, Atlantic placed an ad for the »Big Hit Albums of the Summer on Atlan- tic-Atco: 32 Exciting New Releases« (and this actually included seven LPs by Stax / Volt). In this ad, we find the illustrious names of Wilson Pickett, Carmen McRae, Percy Sledge, Herbie Mann, Patti LaBelle & The Bluebelles, Arthur Conley, Darrell Banks, William Bell, Otis Redding, Joe Tex and Booker T & the MGs. And amidst the albums by these artists we have, quite singularly, also one Gospel album: »Shine On Me« by the Harmonizing Four, a male gospel quartet (and really a quintet if you include the guitarist).

Atlantic LP # SD R-005 (1967)
A great name in gospel music indeed! Accor- ding to most, the group was organized as early as 1927 in Richmond, Virginia. However, only in June 1943 they had their first recording session, in a New York studio. In the begin- ning, they performed as »Richmond's Harmonizing Four« (1943), »The Richmond Harmonizers« (c1947-8), »The Harmonizing Four of Richmond« (1951), but they dropped »Richmond« after the beginning of the '50s* (see note below). The known standard histories of gospel music will tell you the details of their career up to the '60s, and I can't go into this here. In 1957 they signed with Vee-Jay Records. They stayed with the Chicago label until it busted in 1966 (and had even a LP out on the ill-famed and short-lived Exodus label). Then, Atlantic took them on.
     Atlantic shortly before had started their Religious Series of LPs (remember Sondra Williams!). So, they rushed the Harmonizing Four into the studio in mid-April '67 and released their first Atlantic album three months later, number 5 in the Religious Series. As said above, it was called »Shine On Me« (Atlantic LP # SD R-005) and adorned with a colorful cover featuring Flower-Power bubblegum letters. Obviously, the cover was meant to convey a message of hipness; it was designed by Atlantic's Religious Series producer Richard Simpson himself. The similarity with other covers of the period, above all Gordy LP # 922 (The Temptations' With A Lot O' Soul, also from 1967), is striking. It seems that there was a real »cover war« going on between Motown and Atlantic.
For the record, Gordy LP # 922 was released on July 17, '67, thus more or less about the same time as Atlantic LP # SD R-005; the copyright for Motown's album cover was filed on July 28, 1967. Thus it might be a coincidence that both covers are so remarkably similar. On the other hand, it doesn't look like pure coincidence. But, further information pending, there is no knowing who copied from whom, if so.

However, there is nothing much »hip« or »contemporary« on this LP; nothing of the gos-pop or soul-gospel stuff which was about to stir the gospel scene already in '67 and was destined to dominate the following years. And it would have been hard on the Harmonizers to do so: first, because they had, for all changes in style and taste (they switched from acoustic to electric guitar in the early '60s), a very solid and continuous tradition; second, because they were rooted in close-harmony singing and thus very much focused on vocals, leaving them little possibility to adopt newer styles via the instrumentation. Well, I for my part am happy that they didn't, because they sound great. But I am less sure if the music critics and the respons- ables at Atlantic found it much to their liking at the time. Look just at the insipid Billboard review (see pic above, from the Sept. 2, 1967, issue p. 43): »The cele- brated Harmonizing Four have a meaningful album here, mostly of traditional material ...« »Celebrated« obviously means »of former days' fame«, and they do old stuff in the old ways (»traditional material«). And their album is »meaningful«. Hmm?? Can't guess what this was meant to say. And if you expect some more hymnic praise from the back cover of their LP you will be disappointed. Richard »the Bishop« Simpson, who wrote the notes, remained equally vague and insipid. He stressed the celebrity of the group and repeatedly urges listeners to listen to them as if it were for the first time ... and invites those few others who have really never heard them. The only line in which Simpson really tries »to sell« the group to a contemporary audience outside the gospel field proper is when he wrote: »Soul, spirit and deep conviction are contained in this album ... All of these qualities are evident ...« At least once he utters the magic word of these days and accords »soul« to the Harmonizers. But it would have been in vain, and unfortunate as well, to turn the Harmonizing Four into something else. For they were true to their roots:
»"The Harmonizing Four were kind of hanging back," says folklorist Vaughan Webb at the Blue Ridge Institute at Ferrum College, near Roanoke. "They were in this realm between the old stand-up-straight quartet singing and the more modern music." Webb was one of a group of researchers who, a quarter century ago, tracked down many of the then-living quartet singers to interview them. "The Harmonizing Four had a stronger grip than most groups on the roots of that tradition," he says.« (read more here).
The above-quoted Billboard critic was right in one thing, though, namely in singling out the title tune »Shine On Me« for special praise. It is truly a beautiful piece of »musical pastiche«, done in a narrative style. Alas, it goes on for almost 7 minutes. The remaining songs, with the exception of the closing »House, Picture & Prayer« all remain within the conventional 2-3 minute limit. To honor the decade-long tradition of the Harmonizing Four, I decided to post two hymns which underline their glorious »harmonizing« of old ... and probably what they did best. Both songs are credited as traditionals, and the first was sung and recorded by many gospel greats: »If I Can Help Somebody« was done by Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Mahalia Jackson, among others. »This Rock Is Jesus« was, at first sight, never recorded before (or at least not under that title). But once again one tampered with a song's title, because »This Rock Is Jesus« is nothing but the known hymn »In Times Like These«, written by Ruth Caye Jones. She »reportedly found inspiration to write In Times Like These during World War II when she was moved by reading the words of 2 Timothy 3,1: "This know also that in the last days perilous times will come." As she read those words, inspiration for the song came, and she jotted lyrics on a small notepad she had in her apron pocket.« (Read more here). The song was recorded, among others, by Mahalia, Martha Bass, Albertina Walker and ... Little Richard.
     A nice twist in hearing these two songs together is that in the first you can hear Thomas Johnson (lead vocals, tenor) on lead, while the second song features the group's second tenor, Lonnie Smith (who occasionally played guitar and piano as well). It's nice to hear the contrast between the two different tenors. The other members of the '67 lineup were Joseph »Gospel Joe« Williams (baritone), Ellis Johnson (son of Thomas, bass) and Jesse Pryor (on guitar). Both Th. Johnson and Williams belonged to the group's oldest members, having been with them since the '30s ... or, rather more exactly, they were the very core of the group. (Accounts about and by Joseph Williams differ considerably, some making him one of the original 1927 members of the group, others maintaining that he joined only in '33 or '36!). Lonnie Smith joined in 1943 (when he replaced John Scott, the group's original tenor, who was enlisted in the Army), Ellis Johnson in 1958. Although there were additional members or substitutes during the '50s and '60s, the lineup of 1967 was very much that of 1943. And no doubt, you can hear that on their '67 recording, and I say this as a praise:

The Harmonizing Four: »If I Can Help Somebody« / »This Rock Is Jesus« from the Atlantic LP # SD R-005 (1967):

*Note: There were other groups known as »Harmonizing Four« in the '30s, one from Alabama, possibly spurious and mis-attributed, another one often mentioned in connection with Arthur »Big Boy« Crudup (he toured with some »Harmonizing Four« in 1939/40). However, the latter (about which I know nothing) are not identical to Richmond's Harmonizers.
* * *

Further reading (and omitting the standard gospel reference works which, at any rate, say only little about the post-'40s Harmonizers):
For modern CD-releases, see here and here.
    This photo is taken from Kip Lornell: Virginia's Blues, Country, & Gospel Records, 1902-1943, p. 158.
    Buy his book here.

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