Sunday, November 06, 2011

The Great Excitement of '63

In 1961, Clara Ward signed a contract to appear regularly at Las Vegas's New Frontier Hotel and in December performed for the first time at New York's Village Vanguard night club. TIME (April 28, 1961) run a story about The Grandison Singers, a female group who had switched from churches to liquor-serving clubs. »Says Mary Grandison: People in the nightclubs accept the music more than people in the churches. It's more quiet here. It's almost reverent«. In 1962, Clara Ward & her Singers started their long-lasting series of engagements at the Golden Horseshoe Saloon in California's Disneyland (see also here). Meanwhile, Della Reese and the Meditation Singers had taken to the stage of Las Vegas's Flamingo Hotel and graced the platform at New York's Copacabana (read more here). Finally, in 1963, excite- ment about »gospel going pop« peaked when New York's first »gospel night club« opened, the Sweet Chariot on Times Square.

Billboard ad, June 1, 1963
In the Sweet Chariot, a white and predominantly upper-class audience came to wag their feet to the »sanctified beat« of black »tambourine pounders« (Ren Grevatt's choice of words). »Angelic bunnies« floated between the tables as waitresses, »wearing shorty gowns with handsome non-flappable wings attached ... pleasingly female though not provocative« (Billboard, May 18, 1963, p. 12). The rest rooms were labeled »Brothers« and »Sisters«. As for the music, »[t]here is a noticeable avoidance of selections with a direct religious reference. The emphasis is strongly on the music and the beat«. A week later, on May 24, TIME followed-up with the article »Gospel Singers: Pop Up, Sweet Chariot«. It greets the »new sound« with limited enthusiasm, though, and the writer is aware of what may happen when »experienced huntsmen« and »desperate hustlers« of the music business are after a »new sound«. (The article is worth reading, and since TIME has recently closed its archive to non-members I reproduced most of the text at the end of this post; see below.)

The opening of the Sweet Chariot ignited new cash fantasies in the minds of many in the music industry ... and also appealed to a number of gospel outfits. The idea that gospel »had finally made it« was quickly transformed into the strangest of business plans, and the headline in the Billboard May 18, 1963 issue, viz. »Can Gospel Replace The Twist?«, tells it all.
BB, July 13, 1963, p. 20
In the June 8, 1963, issue Ren Grevatt (indefatigable in driving home the message of how gospel was about to become pop) authored another article entitled »And Now Gospel's Popping Into Pop Field«. Grevatt again focused on The Sweet Chariot and also mentioned Clara Ward and her success in pop night club circles in this regard. He also quotes some of the leading cash grabbers, Ewart Abner of Vee-Jay and Columbia's Dave Kapralik. The latter, closely involved in the business of The Sweet Chariot, said about the performances, »[i]t won't be the purest kind of gospel«. Which didn't matter much to him because he felt that »the relig- ious aspect of the gospel is not an important aspect. The customers are not going to gospel clubs to get religion or get the message. They just want to hear what I call happy music. They have fun without the message.« In the above-mentioned TIME article, Kapralik is quoted with the words: »It's the greatest new groove since rock 'n' roll. In a month or two, it'll be all over the charts.«
     A businessman could well state the bare facts so bluntly. The participants on the other side, viz. the various Gospel outfits, did not dare or think it right putting it this way. Gertrude and Clara Ward (who by 1963 had yielded completely to the lure of secular venues although they never, to my knowledge, appeared at The Sweet Chariot) are often reported with saying that singing spirituals in night clubs »brings the message of the Lord to all«, spreads the Gospel and could be helpful in saving lost souls, thus selling their performances in pretty unholy places as kind of a missionary work. Few did believe them.

JET magazine, August 8, 1963, p. 65
In summer '63, the estab- lished gospel scene, in unison with many church representatives, started to strike back. A clergyman saw in performing gospel music in night clubs a reckless disregard of the genre's inner essence. This essence was, for him, tied to its roots, namely the birth of sacred song in »blood and toil and sweat and tears« and thus not fit to be the stuff of mere amusement. More importantly, Mahalia Jackson had launched a general onslaught on »pop gospel« in June '63, declaring that »Pop gospel has failed because it's not the voice and sentiments of the American people.« The mixture of pop and gospel was, she went on, a contamination of the latter, and »there are some things people are afraid to mess with and pop gospel was one of those things.« In other words: »No man wants to be pulled down, and pop gospel music was like pulling God down.« (All quotes from Billboard, Sept. 28, 1963, p.1.)

On August 31, Billboard declared that »pop gospel as an important trend is dead« (p. 3). Seen in retrospect, the authoritative voice of Mahalia Jackson gave »the Great Pop Gospel Balloon« (Laurraine Goreau), for the next years at least, a mortal blow:
In 1963 when a number of companies tried to develop a pop gospel sound in New York (complete with gospeleers shouting out ditties in nightclubs) the movement failed. Mahalia Jackson had much to do with putting the fear of the Lord into those companies with her strong stand against taking gospel and watering it down. (Eliot Tiegel in Billboard, Nov. 6, 1971, p. RN-40).
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In the midst of all this excitement, Buena Vista (Disney's pop record label established in 1959) released LP # STER-3318: The Famous Ward Gospel Singers Recorded Live at Disneyland. Obviously, this was a by-product (and a prop at the same time) of the Wards' concerts at the Golden Horseshoe. However, neither Clara nor Gertrude Ward went on record here, and the whole live show is performed by The Gertrude Ward Singers. (For the different cover of the French issue see here.)
The members of the group you can hear on that LP were the following: Viola Crowley (sadly, she passed away recently in June 2011), Geraldine Jones, Clara Thomas, Vermettya Royster, Mildred Means and Malvilyn (Simpson) Statham. The singer best-known among r&b aficionados will be Vermettya Royster, a once-time member of the Ikettes and the Raelettes and still active. Most of them had recorded and performed with Clara Ward and/or her mother since 1959, but none before 1958 when the famous '50s outfit of the Ward Singers (feat. Marion Williams and others) broke up. There's only one reasonably good photograph that shows, with the unfor- tunate exception of Clara Thomas, all of the above-mentioned singers; it was re- portedly taken in 1969 (with Clara Ward and Elvis Presley in the center):
The 12 songs on this LP are mainly uptempo, with much tambourine-shakin' goin' on. All singers have leading parts in one song or the other, but most of the tunes are too fast and chorus-oriented to give the leading voice a chance to shine. However, there is Vermettya Royster's intense, 5-minute version of »Never Grow Old«, and there are two tunes showcasing the rough-edged voice of Geraldine Jones, »I'm Getting Nea- rer« and »Something's Got A Hold On Me«. It's those two you can hear below. And notwithstanding the endless discussion about gospel groups performing at secular venues I think these tunes are worth hearing. You can easily pour ridicule over the Ward Singers' engagement in Disneyland, as Anthony Heilbut, for one, has done: »... Disneyland, where the Ward Singers, the cartoons of gospel, joined the wonderful world of Mickey Mouse« (The Gospel Sound, p. 110).

But I don't think things are as easy as that. Bil Carpenter offers a much more ambivalent and balanced perspective on what the Ward Singers achieved: »They were the first to perform in Las Vegas hotels, the first to perform in amu- sement parks such as Disneyland, and they brought a flamboyant elegance to a musical form that was considered an unglamorous vestige of slavery« (Uncloudy Days, p. 429). The major part of the songs on Buena Vista LP 3318 are overtly religious, above all the con- version song »Something's Got A Hold On Me« (and which is, incidentally, closely related to Lula Collins's »What Is This«). And I believe that notwithstanding the context the message is still there and the artists aren't singing simply to amuse the crowd. At least I can't hear that, can you?

The Ward Singers feat. Geraldine Jones: »I'm Getting Nearer« / »Something's Got A Hold On Me« from the Buena Vista LP »Recorded Live At Disneyland« (1963):

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Some additional items regarding the »Disneyland experience« of the Ward Singers:

(1) From The Afro-American, July 17, 1965, page 11:

(2) From Willa Ward-Royster: How I Got Over. Clara Ward and the World-Famous Ward Singers. As told to Toni Rose, Philadelphia 1997, p. 161 f.:

»... one of the press people asked, "What do you have to say when people object to your singing in places like nightclubs and Disneyland?" Mom's [i.e. Gertrude Ward's] change of heart was clear in her answer:
I don't know if they've accepted it by now or not. They thought that when we went out into the clubs, we'd be singing blues or jazz or even rock-and-roll, but we sing the same songs in the clubs that we sing in church. It's wonderful how they accept Gospel singing, sometimes even more than people in the church. (...) I've heard worse in some churches and from the mouths of the "holy" than I've ever heard in any nightclub.«
(3) The Ward Singers were, not the least for their flamboyancy, idols for gays in the black community (and sometimes beyond), somewhat similar to opera divas who are often venerated among gays. Tellingly, there is a chapter on the Ward Singers (this time including Clara) performing at Disneyland in John Edmonds: Called, Justified, Glorified, and Gay. The fictional Memoirs Of Gospel Singer, Josephus Hezekiah Carson, Bloomington 2008, pp. 150-56. The author is overwhelmed by the »five beautifully be-gowned and be-wigged and be-dazzled ladies« that »made their grand entrance« and describes the Clara Ward Sound by the adjectives »shrill, full, force- ful, energetic, harmonious«. Sorry that I can't quote more here. Read it here (not all pages are visible at any one time!) And having done this you might as well look here.

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TIME magazine, Friday May 24, 1963: »Gospel Singers: Pop Up, Sweet Chariot« (Extracts)
Once a year or so, the popular-music business falls into a faint, and the only thing that can bring it around again is a new sound. The new sound quickly becomes every hipster's new groove and everybody imitates it until even little children no longer care to listen. Last year the twist was replaced by the bossa nova, but as things turned out, it was a case of a starving man rescuing one who was merely hungry. Business faded.
     For months now (and in the record business, months are decades), despe- rate music hustlers have been searching for the new groove. Experienced huntsmen confined their attention to Negro music, which, with the single exception of country music, has supplied them with every new idea since the blues. Last week, with appropriate fanfare, they proclaimed they had found the sound: pop gospel. Waving contracts and recording tape, Columbia Records moved into a new Manhattan nightclub called the Sweet Chariot and began packaging such devotional songs as He's All Right for the popular market. "It's the greatest new groove since rock 'n' roll," said Columbia Pop A. & R. Director David Kapralik. "In a month or two, it'll be all over the charts."
     Yeah! Since gospel music is the root of rhythm-and-blues and "soul jazz," the discovery turned out to be embarrassingly obvious—like eating the hen after stealing all the eggs. (...)
     Gospel music may have seemed a surprise a half-block from Broadway, but Pentecostal churchgoers and sinners "out in radioland" have been hearing it for years, sung with devotion by such groups as the Clara Ward Singers, the Stars of Faith and the Mighty Clouds of Joy. Recently, its spirit and style and shouts of "Yeah!" (but rarely the rest of the lyrics) have crept into popular music, but only Mahalia Jackson has been popularly successful with the pure version. A couple of years ago, Brother John Sellers and the Grandison Singers became the first to sing gospel in nightclubs. A thin flock of groups followed, some complaining bitterly that cheating preachers had driven them into it by failing to part with a livable share of the church offering.
     Wha? Gospel's move into nightclubs (where Negroes call it "ofay gospel") does not necessarily corrupt either singers or songs. But its adoption by the popular-record industry gives good reason for melancholy. To succeed with the predominantly teen-age audience, it will be hyped up and sanitized to the point of becoming grotesque. (...) Having spent so long on the back streets, gospel singers greet the establishment's new enthusiasm with a doubting, puzzled Wha? (...) But even with all the corporate delight at the new groove's financial prospects, the cheerful, sensate piety of the music had already begun to sound like its own requiem by the end of the first week of official enthusiasm. Gospel music is the last remaining unpackaged expression of Negro culture; now that it is being merchandised, where will the new grooves come from?


  1. You're such a good researcher and you also have a knack for locating seldom-seen magazine articles and photographs. Very informative! Thank you.

  2. Thank you! But I shouldn't listen to you because I'm prone to succumb easily to the siren-like temptation of flattering myself ... However, apart from the printed books etc. I possess, "google books" and "google news" (the archive pages) provide the soundest basis for most research. They've got a lot digitalized by now. Would that there were more resources online, most importantly printed journals (Downbeat, Cashbox and others)! Actually I find it often harder to create a more or less coherent narrative from the information I find. Well, I keep on trying as we all do. There is even a slight chance that we get better in time.

  3. Wow,excellent article - very enlightening and also made me search for my Clara Ward albums. It also reminded me to check youtube again because there is a wonderful clip I'm sure you would enjoy - Marion Williams - Packin' Up - it fits perfectly with your essay and it illustrates everything you wrote about (including audience who had no clue what was this all about but enjoyed the music nevertheless).

  4. Thanks! I believe you refer to this video:
    (haven't discovered yet how to create hyperlinks in the comment section :). Magical! The great Marion Williams. And nice views of the white teenage audience, courteously handclapping along. But to tell the truth, I'd be clapping too.