Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Pittsburgh Gospel: The Anna Murrell Singers

mid-week gospel

At least three »Murrell Singers« are known from the gospel field, and two of them do not concern us here. I just mention them briefly to avoid confusion later on:
     (1) A group, maybe male, attested in the New York area in 1948-49. I found the following news reports about them: New York Age, July 24, 1948, p. 4: »Pastor's Aid Club of Mt. Calvary Baptist Church sponsored a program last Sunday afternoon, with Murrell Gospel Singers as guests [!] artists. Mrs. Clara Ivy was mistress of ceremonies.« - The Afro-American, March 26, 1949, reports from Brooklyn that a group called the »Murrell Singers« was among the groups appearing in a gospel program at Little Zion Baptist Church.
     (2) The Carnell Murrell Singers, who hail from Dallas, Texas, and are contempo- rary; for Carnell Murrell, see more here.

The Anna Murrell Singers
The group I'd like to present tonight are the "Anna Lee Murrell Singers" from Pittsburgh. (The photo to the left is probably taken from their only Gospel LP # 3031, rel. in 1964 or early 1965, but I haven't seen a copy of this LP yet; if anybody does happen to own it please let me know or send me scans of the cover!). During their history, the Anna Lee Murrell Singers were also billed as »Anna Murrell Singers« (e.g. on their Gospel records), »Madame Murrell Gospel Singers« (in a concert ad from 1968) and »Anna Murrell Gospel Singers« (in a news report from 1970).

The personnel of the group, according to the Gospel-Savoy files and Hayes-Laugh- ton's Gospel Discography, were for their mid-1960s recordings: Anna Lee Murrell, lead; Betty Jayne Thomas (also on piano); Geneva Bostic; Doris Beach; Verna Williams; Delores Johnson.
     *Anna Lee Murrell , founder and leader of the Murrell Singers, was born in 1930. In 1983, she was among the first winners of the Pennsylvania-based Gold Penny Award, and in 2011 she was honored as a Pittsburgh Gospel Legend. Here is the respective news report from the New Pittsburgh Courier, January 05, 2011:
(Click for larger version)
Apart from her 60's songs, Mrs. Murrell composed in 1982 a »dramatic gospel musicale« entitled Whatever Happened to the Beautiful Church?, but I do not know anything more about it.
     *Delores Johnson is today probably known as »Dee Johnson«, and you can read more about her life in an article by Sharon S. Blake, »Song Bird: For Dee Johnson, the joy of music is only a heartbeat away«.
     *Betty Jayne Thomas can be presumed to be a parent of Anna Murrell if the information is correct that a certain Tessie L. Thomas was Anna's father. About the further members of the group I do not possess any information. As far as I know, the group had no male members during the 1960s but in 1983 the musical singer Carl Hall was quoted to the effect that he »sang for ... Madame Anna Lee Murrell's Sin- gers« (from The Pittsburgh Press, November 06, 1983). It remains unclear at which period this may have been the case.

(click to enlarge)
The history of the Anna Murrell Singers began probably in or around 1953 since Mrs. Murrell in 1967 claimed that they were in the business for 15 years. The photo to the left, taken by Pittsburgh press photographer Charles »Tee- nie« Harris (more on him in the note at the end of this post), shows the Murrell Singers in August 1962 »in Calvary Baptist Church for All Night Gospel Sing for the Charles "Buggsy" Drafts Fund« (the photo is from the digitalized collection of the Carnegie Museum of Art Collection).

The group seems to have been particularly active from 1967 to 1970. There are several news items covering their appearances:

     (1) Uniontown Morning Herald, July 06, 1967 (p. 14): »Murrell Gospel Singers, under the direction of Anna Lee Murrell, will present a program on Sunday at 7 p.m. in Mt. Olivet Baptist Church, Stewart Ave. The singers, one of the most popular groups of its kind in this section of the country, have sung in 25 states in the past 15 years. Ten years ago they were presented in New York City by the famed gospel promoter, Joe Bostic Jr. They are currently under contract to the Savoy Record Co. of Newark, N.J. Their current records are »A Shoulder to Lean On« and »The Lighthouse«.
     (2) Uniontown Morning Herald, September 15, 1967 (p. 20): »Murrell Gospel Singers will present a gospel musical program on Sunday at 7:30 p.m. in Mt. Olivet Baptist Church. The singers, under the direction of their founder and leader, Anna Lee Murrell, sing only gospel songs written by Miss Murrell. They have sung in 25 states in the past 15 years. (...)«.
     (3)  News Dispatch (Jeannette, Pa.) March 26, 1970: »BLACK HISTORY PROGRAM PRESENTED AT HEAD START. - The Anna Murrell Singers presented a program of »Black History Through Song« as the second in a series of programs for parents and staff of the Westmoreland County Head Start Program. (...) The Anna Murrell Singers, led by Mrs. Anna Murrell, reside in the Pittsburgh area. They have performed musical programs in 36 states as well as in Mexico and Canada. Mrs. Murrell began the program by giving a brief outline of Black History. She mentioned such outstanding persons as Benjamin Banneker, Crispus Attucks, and Phyllis Wheatley. (...) Mrs. Murrell stated that the purpose of the »Black History Through Song« program was to ease dissension among the people of America through the educational approach. She stated that »we are the ones who must make history for tomorrow.« Mrs. Murrell pointed out the significant role Black men have played in all of our major battles and wars. She also mentioned that many slave revolts took place but that most Americans have not been told of these uprisings. Mrs. Murrell listed »ice cream, golf tees, potato chips, the player piano, gas masks, and the first traffic light« as inventions created by Black people. She went on to state that »the Black cowboy and the Black frontiersman have been almost totally ignored.« Mrs. Murrell cited as a »sign of progress« the fact that »Representative James Shore of New York has introduced a bill to establish a National Commission of Afro-American History and Culture.« She suggested all parents who teach their children »who they are, what they are, where they come from, what they're worth, and to humanity.« (...)
     (4) The Pittsburgh Press, March 28, 1971, 10 f.: Excerpts from the essay GOSPEL MUSIC ... RELIGION OR ENTERTAINMENT ? by Al Donalson:
»On a recent Sunday afternoon, the Anna Murrell Singers made a joyful noise unto the Lord in St. Paul's Cathedral, Oakland. The Gothic splendor of St. Paul's was an unusual setting for a gospel music concert. Most gospel programs are performed in storefront churches, sanctified churches or the so-called »hard-shell« Baptist chur- ches in the ghettos. The program at St. Paul's was performed before a predominantly white congregation. And although there was a heavy snowfall that afternoon - not to speak of the televised Sunday sports - the cathedral was nearly filled to capacity. »We had sung there the year before,« said Mrs. Murrell, the group's leader and soloist. »At first, I had to sort of lead them into the spirit of the music by showing them how to clap their hands and pat their feet. None of them got up and did the 'Holy Dance,' but some of them were crying and really getting involved in what we were doing. They were moving with Murrell and enjoying it,« she said. The Murrell Singers are black, and like most black gospel groups, are identified as »hard-gospel« exponents as opposed to the Nashville gospel sound normally associated with white gospel singers. (...)"

In 1969, the Anna Murrell Singers did appear in a TV special on Channel 4 entitled »This Is Soul« (as announced in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette April 29, 1969, p. 29):

As for their released music, the Anna Murrell Singers recorded for Gospel-Savoy in 1964 a mere twelve songs, two of which remained unissued. The remaining ten songs went on their one and only Gospel LP # 3031 (The Light House) (which I am, by the way, desperately looking for ...), and four songs were released as 45s on Gospel # 1089 and # 1097. According to the Savoy discography as well as Hayes-Laughton's catalogue, the first single was recorded on 28th February 1964, the second several months later on 15th October. However, there is something wrong with these dates, because the labels of my promotional copy of Gospel # 1097 bear a radio station stamp with the date »February 27 1964«. This being hard evidence, so to speak, I am inclined to believe that the recordings were done somewhat earlier than stated in the discographies.

Well, this is about it. If somebody knows more about the Anna Murrell Singers, please contact me. For conclusion, let's hear their two songs released on Gospel # 1097 (I put the B side first on a personal inkling ...):

The Anna Murrell Singers: »Wait On The Lord« / »The Light House« on Gospel # 1097 (1964):


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Additional Note:
Charles »Teenie« Harris (1908-1998) photographed for the Pittsburgh Courier for almost 40 years, documenting life in the African-American community. His appro- ximately 70.000 negatives, recently acquired by the Carnegie Museum of Art, form one of the richest-known archives of Black life in an American city from the 1930s to the 1970s.

On the net, you can see a small but significant selection of Harris's photos in the collection of the Carnegie Museum of Art. Search the database for his photos here.

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