Sunday, October 09, 2011

The Staples Reloaded

In 1969, a lot of people, and especially the tradesmen in the record industry, had understood what market force gospel music had become. Emblematic for this growth in importance and sales numbers was the extraordinary success of »Oh Happy Day« by The Edwin Hawkins Singers. The song was known since the 18th century, but the new version by that local Californian choir opened up a new world. I'm not concerned with that song now. Rather, I would like to draw your attention to an interesting article by Daniel Goldberg which was published in the World Of Soul-special of the Billboard August 16, 1969, issue: »1969 - Gospel Makes Great Industry Strides« (pp. S16, 18 & 25). Here are some salient passages of that long article. It contains an interesting overview of the then relevant Gospel labels:

      It is perhaps paradoxical then, that 1969 should be referred to as a year when gospel is making great strides. It is also a little deceptive for in its purest sense gospel is not a field whose success can be judged by commercial standards alone (implicit in many religious teachings is the insignificance of worldly wealth). Nevertheless it is indisputable that in recent months, gospel has begun to emerge from the outskirts of the music world. Until recently it has been a relatively obscure musical cult, spawning many but in itself appealing to a faithful and widespread but small audience while gospel »stars« like James Cleveland or the Statesmen quartet remained largely unknown to the mass market.
    It is impossible to discuss gospel music without specifying what kind. The only thing that the word »gospel« implies is a connection to any of the many Christian churches in this country. The field divides itself into two very separate entities differing from each other culturally and musically. One of them is black or »soul« gospel, which comes out of black churches and has influenced virtually every major r&b artist. The music has the same African roots.
     Soul gospel fans are found wherever there are r&b fans: the major cities, New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, Nashville, Baltimore and throughout the south. In many of those areas there are strictly gospel radio stations, while in others, r&b stations devote part of their airtime to gospel programming.
    On the other side of the gospel spectrum is white of country gospel, correspond- ing in sound and appeal to the groowing country market. There is scarcely a country artist who has not put out an album of hymns at one time or another. Two of the biggest, Johnny Cash (»The Holy Land«) and Tammy Wynette (»Inspiration«) have had good activity on the pop chart with such material this year. Country gospel, aided by the fledgling Gospel Music Association is becoming a substantial field.

    And no account of gospel in the last few months would be complete without mention of »Oh Happy Day« which has stirred controversy throughout the black gospel world while capturing the fancy of the general public and becoming gospel's first RIAA certified million dollar record. Another sign of a growing interest in gospel was the move of two major record companies previously uninvolved in the field to come out with gospel series.
     The first was Buddah records who added to their »360 degree sound« when they came out with the »Sunday Series« as well as their contribution of the smash Edwin Hawkins Singers work. The other was Jubilee records who came out with an 11 album release earlier in the year complete with a publicity sweep through the south called the »Jubilee Gospel Train«. The Jubilee release consisted mainly of previous- ly unrecorded gospel artists, but included Novella Williams, Gospel Majors of Louis- ville and King Solomon's Choir. The Buddah release included albums by the Five Blind Boys, The Harmonizers, and The Staple Singers.
     Both of these newcomers dealt in the soul gospel line. Scarcely a newcomer to the field is the exclusively soul gospel Savoy Records of New Jersey. Savoy has some of the biggest names in the soul gospel business including James Cleveland, Dorothy Norwood and the Angelic Choir. Other artists recording for the label are the Davis Sisters who did »Wait A Little Longer« and Charles Banks. James Cleveland is probably the biggest draw and the most loved gospel soloist around. While someone like Mahalia Jackson (one of the few who has made the jump to a popular audience without a sacrifice in her content) restricts her performances to large public audi- toriums, Cleveland who has comparable popularity in gospel areas, will frequently play a small town church. By far his best selling record to date is »Peace Be Still« which has become a gospel classic, and still sells at the rate of 50,000 copies a year. Dorothy Norwood whose big hit was »The Denied Mother«, is the label's leading female soloist. Her most recent single is »The Prescription« which is a story-telling song. The Angelic Choir has backed up both artists, as well as record- ing by themselves. They backed up Cleveland on »Peace Be Still« and »Bread of Heaven« and currently have »He's Sweet I Know.« Another choir recording with Savoy is the Southern California Community Choir whose »Come See About Me« featuring Cleveland is their current release.
     Another major gospel label is Peacock, the gospel branch of Duke which is an r&b company. Some of their top artists are Rev. Julius Cheeks Jackson and the Sensational Nightingales, the Jackson Southernaires, and the Mighty Clouds of Joy. They also have Rev. Cleophus Robinson whose LP »He Did It All« a collection of sermonettes and music is one of their best selling albums. Other of their top albums are: The Loving Sisters »Tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King,« »Presenting the St. Matthews Baptist Church Choir,« and the Brooklyn Skyways, »The Unbelieving Man.« The biggest single for Peacock this year was »Too Late« by the Jackson Southernai- res.
     Hob is the gospel label of Scepter records, and in recent years it has become a major gospel force. Some of their major choirs are the New Hope Baptist Church Young Adult Choir which is directed by Ann Moss of the Drinkard sisters (Cissy Drinkard of the Sweet Inspirations also came from that group), the Thompson Community Singers, who are known for »I'll Trade a Lifetime« which was recorded with Rev. Milton Bronson, and the Brockington Ensemble who came out with a version of »Oh Happy Day« around the same time as the Pavillion smash. Other top Hob artists are Albertina Walker and the Caravans, the Swan Silvertones, who did »Only Believe« and Evangelist Shirley Caesar whose »Don't Drive Your Mama Away« was a major gospel hit.
     Nashboro is an exclusively gospel company whose top artists include The Brooklyn Allstars who are known for »He Said He Would Move,« Dorothy Love, The Swanee Quartet, the Original Gospel Harmonettes, and the Consolers who recorded »Lord Bring Me Down«.
     The United Artists subsidiary Veep, primarily an R&B label, has recorded gospel acts as well. Their leading soul gospel group is the Robert Patterson Singers who have an international reputation. Their current LP is »Live In Germany.«
     Chess records has a gospel line also. They have the Chicago quartet The Soul- sters (Sam Cooke's first group) who now have a song called »Soul Is In But Gospel Is Out of Sight,« The Majestic Choir, who have recorded »Let's All Walk a Little Bit Prouder,« the Violinaires, and Gene Vialli, a white singer who has a song called »What Color Is God?«

  Ralph Bass of Chess is not at all surprised by the growing commercial success of gospel. For yeears he has been talking about the possibility of what he calls »Gos-Pop,« gospel-oriented music with a mass popular appeal. There are a few artists who have become popular through gospel. The most prominent of there is Mahalia Jackson; others are Clara Ward and the Staple Singers. Bass believes that people now have the need for the kind of spiritual message that gospel provides, and that if presented correctly, gospel offers great appeal for the mass market. This opinion is shared by many others in the soul-gospel business who feel it is one of the most challenging musical fields.
     Others, however, view commercialization with disdain, feeling that using the sacred religious message for profit is a perversion of what is holy. They question the motives of gospel entertainers who would perform in a nightclub. The conflict between those who are in it for completely religious reasons and those who hope to make it a thriving commercial entity came to a head with the controversy sur- rounding »Oh Happy Day.«

1969, then, was a good year for gospel. As Goldberg noted, several record companies jumped for it, not the least among them Buddah Records from New York. They started to release a re-issue series (the Buddah 2000 series), putting out old records by the Five Blind Boys (of Alabama), The Caravans, The Harmonizing Four and ... The Staple Singers. All these LPs used Vee-Jay masters, and so did Buddah LP # BDS 2009: The Best Of The Staple Singers (on the label, we actually read The Very Best Of ... see below). The Staple Singers had by 1969 become famous on the Stax roster, and Mavis Staples had gone solo in spring 1969 (see here). But Buddah pos- sessed the rights to their old Vee-Jay recordings and they put them to good use in April 1969 when BDS 2009 was released. (I don't know whether the fact that the kitschy cover, showing a black Madonna instead of the artists, was likewise a result of copyright issues; after all, the Staples weren't signed to Buddah).

Cover of VJLP 5019 (1962)
Now, Vee-Jay LP # 5019 (The Best of The Staple Singers) had been in itself kind of an after- thought: Not because Best-Of-albums are by their very nature re-issues of older material, but because the Staple Singers were not even any longer signed to Vee-Jay when they put out this LP. They had switched from Vee-Jay to Riverside in Febuary 1962, but the Vee-Jay LP was released only in October. Staples reloaded, therefore, when there was no new material to be had ... but at least they put a wonderful group photo on the cover!
     The material released on the Vee-Jay LP was recorded between 1955 and 1961. There is one song from the very first session of the Staples for Vee-Jay (Chicago, Nov. 1, 1955: »God's Wonderful Love«), and various songs from the very last session on January 20, 1961. This is the tracklist (it's the same for the Vee-Jay LP and the Buddah re-issue), with recording dates. Original releases on 45rpm or LP are shown in brackets:
  • A1 »Uncloudy Day«, rec. Chic. Sept 11, 1956 (Vee-Jay # 224), Mavis lead vocals
  • A2 »I Know I've Got Religion«, rec. Chic. Sept. 11, 1956 (Vee-Jay # 224), Roebuck lead vcls
  • A3 »Will The Circle Be Unbroken« rec. Chic. Feb. 25, 1960 (Vee-Jay # 885), Roebuck lead vcls
  • A4 »God's Wonderful Love« rec. Chic. Nov. 1, 1955 (Vee-Jay # 169), Mavis lead vocals
  • A5 »Low Is The Way« rec. Chic. Jan. 9, 1958 (Vee-Jay # 866), Mavis lead vocals
  • A6 »Don't Knock« rec. Chic. Feb. 25, 1960 (Vee-Jay # 902), Mavis lead vocals
  • B1 »Let's Go Home« rec. Chic. Jan. 9, 1958 (Vee-Jay LP # 5000), Mavis & Roebuck lead vcls
  • B2 »I've Been Scorned« rec. Chic. Jan. 20, 1961 (Vee-Jay # 902), Roebuck lead vcls
  • B3 »Swing Low« rec. Chic. Jan. 20, 1961 (Vee-Jay # 912), Mavis lead vocals
  • B4 »Stand By Me« rec. Chic. Jan. 20, 1961 (Vee-Jay LP # 5014), Mavis lead vocals
  • B5 »Pray On« rec. Chic. Aug. 19, 1959 (Vee-Jay # 893), Mavis lead vocals
  • B6 »Downward Road« rec. Chic. Aug. 19, 1959 (Vee-Jay # 881), Mavis lead vocals
Mavis Staples, ca. 1964
This indeed covers much of the best the Staples recorded for Vee-Jay (starting with their initial smash »Uncloudy Day« ... »with Mavis singing a deep, erotic lead« as Anthony Heilbut wrote). It's as fine an anthology as there ever was, and the Vee-Jay recordings of the Staple Singers remain classics. And it was a time when they were still strongly connected to church circles. This only changed from 1962 onwards, when they started to play secular venues and turned towards folk and blues tunes. In August 1962, already contracted to the folk-jazz label Riverside, they made their first cabaret appearance. As this happened, their white audience listened up and the Staples were soon the darlings of the emerging folk circus. In spirit, if not so much in style, they were soon miles away from their Vee-Jay recordings.

Buddah LP # 2009 (1969, but label
design is post-1971)
Below, you can hear two songs from the Buddah LP # 2009 (and so from Vee-Jay LP # 5019 as well); both tunes have Mavis Staples singing lead. The first song, »Pray On« was originally released in November 1960. It is an uptempo shouter, »a frantic rhythm shout with Mavis belting like her idols Dorothy Love [Coates] and Ruth Davis« (Anthony Heilbut, The Gospel Sound, p. 279). The second song, the famous hymn »Stand By Me«, was composed back at the beginning of the 20th century by Charles Albert Tindley. There are numerous versions of it but few as heart-rending as Mavis's (see also below, postscript of March 26, 2012). And it's a beautiful song that very much transcends religious boundaries as well, speaking about the frailty of human exi- stence. For the record, Mavis takes some liberty with the lyrics; I transcribed them below.
Happy Sunday all!

The Staple Singers: »Pray On« / »Stand By Me« from the Buddah LP # 2009 (1969, rec. 1959/61):

When the storm of life is raging, stand by me
     When the storm of life is raging, stand by me
When this world is a-tossing me
Like a ship, oh yeah, out on the sea

     Thou who knowest the wind and water
     Come on, come on and stand by me.

When I done, done all I can
And my friends, oh yeah, they don't understand
     Thou who knowest, you know all about it
     Come on, come on and stand by me.

* * *
POSTSCRIPT 10/11/2011
I forgot to mention that Vee-Jay LP # 5019 was »reloaded« after 1962 the first time on Exodus, the short-lived label created when it was plain that Vee-Jay would fold soon (read more here). The LP # EX/EXS-64 was released in 1966. So this makes Buddah # 2009 actually the second re-issue, albeit the first from outside Vee-Jay/Exodus.

POSTSCRIPT March 26, 2012
From the liner notes of Clive Anderson (Charly CD # SNAP 282: The Staple Singers: Come Up In Glory. The Best of the Vee-Jay Years, 1955-1961, 2006):
The quality of the The Staple Singers' output for Vee-Jay remained uniformly high. Album tracks were never filler and sometimes represented the group's finest work. Their reading of Stand By Me ..., from the 20th January 1961, is a case in point. A sacred song penned by ... C.H. Tindley, it had been record- ed many times since The Pace Jubilee Singers put out their version on Victor in 1928.  ... [N]o interpretation has ever stood comparison with The Staple Singers' waxing. Their sense of light and shade, the simple precision of Roebuck's guitar and above all Mavis Staples' reticulated, fibrous lead were stunning.

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