Sunday, August 07, 2011

Way Up

Bessie Griffin (born Arnette Broil) hailed, like Mahalia Jackson, from New Orleans. In 1947/8, she made her first recordings in New York with the »Southern Revi- valists of New Orleans« (aka »The Southern Harps«).
»As a member of the Southern Harps, Griffin ruled New Orleans. On two different occasions, once while the Southern Harps were singing "Just Over The Hill" and once during "I Want To Rest", overwrought listeners actually died during the performances. But the Southern Harps never broke through, despite Griffin's house-wrecking abilities« (Robert Darden: People Get Ready! A New History of Black Gospel Music, New York 2004, p. 256).
Following an invitation by Mahalia Jackson, with whom she was later often compared as to her vocal style and impressive contralto voice, she came to Chicago in 1951. She then toured during the early Fifties with Albertina Walker and her Caravans. In the later '50s, she performed in and around Chicago as well as in New Orleans, but by singing alone she only made a modest living and therefore took up some other jobs besides, e.g. as a radio D.J. She later said that she had to use ramshackle cars while touring, those cars having »maypop tires«, that is they »may pop any moment«.

1958 we find her in Los Angeles with Art Rupe and under contract to his influential Specialty Records. Robert »Bumps« Blackwell, producer at Specialty, had the idea, in 1959, to stage a gospel musical which eventually was called »Portraits in Bronze«. This musical opened in Los Angeles in September 1959 and brought Bessie consider- able fame; Steve McQueen and Bette Davis attended her performances. During the following years she would be appearing on several TV evening shows, performing parts of the said gospel musical.

From Jet-Magazine, Sept. 27, 1962

From Billboard, Dec. 8, 1962

»Portraits in Bronze« had great importance not only for Bessie Griffin's career, but also for the general impact and crossover appeal of gospel music. Tony Cummings, in a biographical sketch of Bessie Griffin that is worth reading (»Bessie Griffin: A pioneering, and largely forgotten, giant of black gospel music«), remarked that »Portraits signalled the first move of gospel into clubs and coffee houses«. Thus, in 1960 not only Bessie Griffin appeared on the stages of night clubs and even recorded in secular venues, but a number of other gospel singers and outfits did the same, most notably the Clara Ward Singers or The Meditation Singers. A short notice in JET (March 31, 1960, page 63) announced that »the Show Boat Lounge in Las Vegas has someting new in entertainment. While players seek to beat the dice and slot machines, Sister Bessie Griffin and her gospel quartet keep the joint rocking with song«. To perform in Las Vegas or in night clubs was anything but easy in the be- ginning since the religious tunes seemed rather out of place in this context, to put it mildly. Bessie called the music she was performing in secular venues »Pop-Gospel« and later explained how they got religious repertoire through to the public (those present and those buying her records, that is): »We didn't know how people would react to us shouting 'Jesus' so we'd sing 'My Saviour' or 'Master'«. But she also felt there must be a limit to her efforts at ingratiating her music with the tastes of a secular-minded public. That is why she once and again started deliberately singing slow and solemn hymns like »Old Rugged Cross« when the crowd was calling for uptempo shouters like »When The Saints Go Marching In«.

Liberty LP # 13002 (back cover)
The production of »Portraits in Bronze« was a big deal, as befits a major musical. The album which went along with it, Liberty LP # LMM-13002, boasted a »unique combination of gospel & jazz«. The packaging of the LP was as extravagant as the musical, the record being sold in a foldable sleeve with many photos and stately liner notes. However, the sleeve notes for the most part sound rather pathetical and come up with little but worn-out clich√©s. Just read this: »The story of a people - the soul music of a race born in debt, which lived in debt and died in debt. They sang when they were happy ... they sang when they were sad. This is Portraits in Bronze«. What is interesting, though, is that already back in 1960 the term »soul music« obviously had a certain currency and was considered idoneous for advertising a record of black gospel music. (Bessie Griffin would later again be packaged as a »soul artist« in her 1969 album »The Gospel Soul Of Bessie Griffin« (Savoy LP # 14322) but at that time the term »soul« had become ubiquitous and almost hollowed out by its ominpresence.)

Bessie was accompanied in most songs by a undistinguished choir, the »Gospel Pearls«. Among the session players we find young Billy Preston (on piano & organ) who was later to make a big name for himself. In the following, you can listen to a traditional spiritual featuring Bessie Griffin solo without vocal backing. The song, famous enough, is entitled »Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child«. Both melody and lyrics go back to the time of slavery. It was a deplorable practice during that epoch to separate children from their mothers when sold to a new owner:
»He took great pains to convince a farmer and his wife, in Chester county, of the iniquity of keeping negro slaves, but to no purpose. They not only kept their slaves, but defended the practice. One day he went into their house, arid after a short discourse with them upon the wickedness, and particularly the inhumanity of separating children from their parents, which was involved in the slave trade, he seized the only child of the family, (a little girl about three years old) and pretended to run away with her. The child cried bitterly, " I will be good - I will be good," and the parents showed signs of being alar- med. Upon observing this scene, Mr. Lay said, very emphatically, " You see and feel now a little of the distress you occasion every day, by the inhuman practice of slave-keeping.« (Quoted from Evert A. & George L. Duyckinck: Cyclopaedia of American Literature, Volume 1, New York 1856, page 270).
But of course you can take the song's message in a more general vein and then it might be understood as a lament about the existential, albeit temporary (»some- times«!) solitariness of Man. A simple song, and Bessie does perform it seemingly simple. Yet how profound as she slowly, almost imperceptibly, glides downwards into an ever deeper register as the song goes on. Very moving and a great performance. And it nicely and convincingly validates Anthony Heilbut's verdict: »Bessie's TV appearances seldom show her at her best. She is not preeminently a rhythm singer, but she's always saddled with some pop-gospel jump tune. Occasionally she'll sing a real gospel hymn, and the difference is a revelation« (The Gospel Sound, p. 141). Now let the revelation come down on you:

Bessie Griffin (feat. Billy Preston): 
»Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child« from the Liberty LP »Portraits in Bronze« (1960):

Sometimes I feel like a motherless child
A long ways from home

Sometimes I feel like I’m almost gone
Way up in the heavenly land

True Believer, way up in the heavenly land.

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Anthony Heilbut's chapter on Bessie Griffin ( »Bessie Can Moan and Move a Moun- tain)« in his The Gospel Sound is essential reading.

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POSTSCRIPT Aug. 20, 2011:
For the song »Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child«, see also here: TokTokTok / Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child.

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