Starting A Gospel CD Library
I've often been asked by people who are new to Black gospel what recordings I'd recommend. There's no perfect anthology wherein every track is a knockout. I can think of many recordings (and there's a discography in A cappella - Rehearsing For Heaven), but I can't recommend one in particular, because not everyone's taste will be catered for in any one CD. So over the next few months I’ll talk about a few recordings and groups (available on CD) that I consider useful if you want to get deeper into Black gospel.
The Golden Gate Quartet: Travellin' Shoes (Bluebird 07863 - RCA Heritage Series 66063-2).
One of the many compilations. Pick any of the early 'Gates recordings and you can't go wrong (the Complete Recorded Works 1937-1943 are on four CDs on the Document label), but after the '50s, when they add a piano and move to Paris, they become formulaic, on record at least. Sorry.
The Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet were one of the most popular and influential groups of the ‘30s and ‘40s, and still perform today, though no longer in this precise style, nor are they based in the USA but in Paris. Before the late ‘30s, the word ‘jubilee’ had previously been used to describe all Black religious singing groups, but it henceforth became synonymous with ‘rhythmic spiritual’, which is how the Gates described their vocal style. This was a style characterised by fast tempos, tight, recitative-like narrative leads, evenly-balanced harmonies, jazz syncopation and a percussive approach to each word.
The members on this CD (which has a cappella cuts from 1937-1939) areWilliam Langford (tenor), Henry Owens (tenor), Willie Johnson (baritone and leader), Orlandus Wilson (bass). The quartet started in the 1930s in a barbershop in Norfolk, Virginia, singing 'rhythmic spirituals' or 'jubilees' - light, joyous 'gospel' songs, which appealed to secular as well as church audiences. Previously the Norfolk Jubilee Quartet and others had paved the way, but the Gates brought in a bit of the Mills Brothers stylings (pseudo-instrumental breaks), Pentecostal rhythm and syncopation and an impeccable blend. Because of the light touch and popular appeal, they've sometimes been dismissed as having 'little distinctively Negroid content, being aimed mainly at the white market' (Godrich and Dixon: Blues and Gospel Records 1902-1942), but they didn't aim to push anyone's praise buttons, but to inform in an entertaining and dignified way.
Leader Johnson wanted every syllable to be percussive and rhythmic, and also used the word 'organophonic' to describe the sound he was aiming for. And he got it - the Gates are tight, and the blend is seamless and rich with light upper voices (Langford had a classic high tenor voice and a beautiful falsetto) and Johnson's mellow baritone which glues the sound together - at times he sounds like a harmonic of the bass voice, so tightly welded is he to Wilson's driving bass part. As Johnson said: “It was vocal percussion, it was just like a drum, but it had notes to it, it had lyrics to it, you see. and you had different beats, you had different accents. You would accent it here, accent it there, but what was done was done together... it was just plain percussion. Like a bunch of guys beating a tom-tom somewhere.” (Interview with Doug Seroff, January 1980. Gospel Arts Day booklet, Nashville, June 1989)
Their first recording 'Golden Gate Gospel Train' (they recorded 14 songs in two hours that day) came after a couple of years of touring, and it rocks - a churning railroad track rhythm, various imitations of trumpet and sound-effects, brief snatches of field-holler - with a kind of groove you can only call funk. (I hear this kind of groove too in the later quartet Heavenly Gospel Singers.) Even on more polite, less syncopated songs like Dorsey's 'Bedside of A Neighbour' (recorded at the same session), they maintain a solid forward hm-hm-boh hm-hm-boh momentum. There's a beautiful interplay too, on that song, in the final 'instrumental'verses, between the the lead ('trumpet') and Johnson's moaned interjections.
The third cut from the first session 'Job' alternates a fast syncopated and tense chorus, with a verse where the backing holds a wall of sound (a remarkably rich sound for three voices) behind Johnson - who sings a funkily rhyming narrative. Johnson has a great sense of phrasing and rhythm, snappy and syncopated, and not too far from rap for some commentators to have pointed to the Gates as rap’s progenitors. 'Noah' follows a similar pattern with an explosive chorus, a relatively meditative tag and narrative verse.
'Dipsy Doodle', 'My Walking Stick' and 'Stormy Weather' are secular items that could be the Mills Brothers, and there are also instances of exaggerated accents and character voices in 'Cheer The Weary Traveller' and 'Ol' Man Mose'. Moses makes another appearance in 'Go Down Moses', here called 'Way Down In Egypt Land', which starts like a university quartet: rubato solo and unison lines, with Wilson's bass prominent, expands into a slow call-and -response verse, then rocks out. 'Let That Liar Alone' contains four-line verses: each line features a different member.
'To The Rock' is actually 'Don't Want To Go There' (see Move On Up, pp 10-11 - quel surprise! I never noticed this before) - and this one has more of the funky syncopation, and a different structure involving a call-and-response verse. Man, this moves.
'I Looked Down The Road And I Wondered' is one of my favourites: it begins with another funky rolling rhythm, with a gently sorrowful lead, then introduces a falsetto parallel harmony to the lead (an unusual device in quartet), while baritone and bass keep rolling on intensely underneath. With the long notes held by the twin leads and the driving background, there's a rare tension and beauty.
The Golden Gate Quartet: Gospel Train (JSPCD 602).
This collection duplicates some of the cuts on Travellin' Shoes, contains one comedy recitation 'I Was Brave' and a couple of pop spirituals: 'Rock My Soul' and 'Saints Go Marching In'. (The latter is married to the old song 'Life Is Like A Mountain Railroad' over a clanka-lanka background.) It's maybe the better collection, though it doesn't contain 'I Looked Down The Road And I Wondered' or 'To The Rock' or 'Bedside of A Neighbour', but makes up for it by having 'This World is In A Bad Condition' (with bass solo verses), 'Behold The Bridegroom Cometh' (with it's fabulous 'jazz-band' break) and a beautifully-moaned 'Remember Me',(those three are in A cappella - Rehearsing For Heaven) and 'When They Ring The Golden Bells' (see Move On Up). 'Lord Am I Born To Die' is another slow and moving prayer, with lovely chordal shifts.
The titles are sometimes confusing: I've mentioned the obscurely-named 'To The Rock', and there's also 'My Lord is Waiting' which is really 'My Lord is Writing', 'Sampson' is actually 'My Soul Is A Witness' though they sing 'I'm another witness'.
There are a few Golden Gate Quartet compilations, but as I said, the ones to look for have the cuts from 1937-1950.