Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Pump Up the Beat!

mid-week gospel

It is a truism, easily substantiated by numerous examples but beyond the need of proof, that gospel strongly influenced r&b, then soul. In that process, also many spiritual tunes were turned into »secular« songs and eventually lost every connection to their origin. It happened much more rarely, at least in the '60s, that the conversion went the other way round. One such instance is the Swanees's 1966 release on Federal #  12542.

The Swanee Quintet (whose members debuted on this blog some two weeks ago) were a staple of Nashboro records into the mid-1960s when they had lost, after 15 years with the label, much of their former appeal. However, they had a special fan in James Brown who knew the Quintet since his early days (actually from before he started his own career) in Augusta, Ga. Brown had once worked as a shoe shine boy outside the WGAC radio station in Augusta (where the Swanees had their afternoon radio programme). The shoe shine boy grew up listening to the Swanee Quintet and in his teenage years secularised the sound of Ruben Willingham and the Swanees ... (quoted from here). In 1966, therefore, JB once again became the producer, and the result was the Federal single # 12542. That the billing on the label doesn't say »Swa- nee Quintet« or the like but »Rev. Willingham and His Swanees« might preannounce the solo career of Ruben Willingham which started soon after.

The Swanees '66 single features a »gospelized« version of JB's former hit »Try Me« and kind of a rock-gospel sermon by Willingham underlaid with a heavy beat and possibly with the participation of the brass section of the JB Band, based on JB's »Ain't That A Groove«. »Try Me Father« is often referred to merely as a gospel version of Brown's 1958 hit »Try Me« which is a pretty unfair description. Over a sterling arrangement, Johnny Jones rarely swoops into his more customary falsetto (in my opinion, there are a lot of places in the song where it almost sounds like Wilson Pickett is leading the song) but instead captures the intensity of the lyrics. ... this is not just a doo-wop-styled ballad, but rather a serious soul meditation which ... is one of the strongest records they released during their prime (quoted from here). »Try Me Father« is an obvious variation on James Brown’s classic 1958 proto-soul »Try Me« ... But turnaround is fair play, because The Godfather of Soul ... owed much of his early stage histrionics from the sound and style of gospel music performance. ... A typical Swanee track it’s not; »Try Me Father« is much better: a quintessential case of gospel borrowing from soul borrowing from gospel (quoted from here).

And certainly, typical church tunes they're not; but wonderful examples of crossover, albeit in the more unusual direction. Quite ahead of their times, really. Listen here:

Rev. Willingham and His Swanees: »That's The Spirit« / »Try Me Father« on Federal # 12542 (1966):

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