MEMPHIS' SACRED SOUL REVIVAL
MEMPHIS — Inside a restored Memphis brownstone dating to the 1860s, Pastor Juan Shipp was moving a little despite his 82 years as he peered through the studio window where old friends gathered to sing a new song of joy.
The music producer and former owner of small local record labels, Pastor Shipp flung his arms, clapped and pointed to Elizabeth King, known in the 1970s as Memphis' queen of gospel, her hair now gray and step a bit slower, urging her and the backing Vaughn Sisters to deliver a line with just a little more punch.
“Callin’ right wrong—right wrong!
Callin’ wrong right—wrong right!
Lets me know why we’re livin’ in the last days.”
Ms. King was singing about the end times—and the current American state of affairs—with the sisters ringing in with call and response.
While it was just another day of music in Memphis, the session was also a sign of rebirth for the city’s “sacred soul” that’s now spreading its message around the world.
“What I would really like for it to do? I would like to see gospel music going into nightclubs,” Pastor Shipp said during a (masked) break in the control room earlier this fall. For him, Memphis gospel has a certain groove.
“It has that ring, that bluesy touch to it.”
Memphis’ sacred-soul revival took off earlier this year, when Bible & Tire Recording Co. released a collection of Ms. King’s early gospel sides and unreleased tracks that Pastor Shipp had produced, Elizabeth King and the Gospel Souls: The D-Vine Spirituals Recordings.
The album of all-new recordings by Ms. King is set for release in spring 2021, joining other new Bible & Tire selections filling record stores’ shelves and delighting roots-music fans and young hipsters everywhere. On the day of my visit, Pastor Shipp and label founder Bruce Watson had just finished recording an interview for NPR’s nationwide program, Weekend Edition.
“Some of the artists I dealt with 40 to 50 years ago,” Pastor Shipp said, “they’re doing great!”
Back in the 1970s, Pastor Shipp was a gospel DJ on KWAM. Frustrated with the poor quality of the recordings he was playing, the reverend decided to do something about it.
He’d heard about Tempo, a little recording studio at the corner of Union and Hernando in downtown Memphis across from the Greyhound bus station, just a few blocks from Beale. He dropped into a little café’ adjacent to the studio and found Clyde Leopard, a rockabilly pioneer who sometimes played drums on sessions at nearby Sun Studios and later joined the Snearly Ranch Boys.
Among the hundreds of Shipp’s recordings, some feature wah-wah guitar, rare for gospel even now. It gave the records a touch more soul. It made you want to move.
Word spread of the soulful sounds. Soon groups from Detroit, Alabama and nearby Arkansas and Mississippi flocked to record their own 45s under Shipp’s tutelage to sell at their shows at outdoor festivals and churches.
Pastor Shipp reserved his D-Vine Spirituals label for Ms. King and other top local gospel acts. If a singer or group wasn’t quite ready for prime time, he put them on his other label, JCR Records.
“I knew the local groups,” Shipp said. But the groups who began to contact him from afar, “they knew me.”
Meantime, Bruce Watson, a middle-aged white fellow, longtime music producer and now the founder of Bible & Tire, kept running across the funky 45s that Pastor Shipp had made.
“I’d go out and find these singles. Gospel music to me was like it is for so many other folks—it’s really hard to listen to,” Watson said. But not Shipp’s records and not much of Memphis gospel. “That was soul music. That was blues—they just talked about God and Jesus. It touched me in a visceral way.”
Watson knows a thing or two about unearthing lesser-known American music. The veteran in-house producer and engineer at Fat Possum Records, based in Oxford, Mississippi, 90 minutes’ drive southeast of Memphis, helped the label reissue old recordings and create new ones by raw-but-powerful bluesmen T-Model Ford, R.L. Burnside, and Junior Kimbrough. Not to mention the development of new acts such as the Black Keys.
As Fat Possum began to explore a wider musical territory, Watson started Big Legal Mess Records about 12 years ago to focus on roots music. He'd already released the exceptional collection of songs from another deep-soul, raw-gospel label, The Soul of Designer Records.
After many years in Mississippi, Watson sold his recording studio in the community of Water Valley about 10 years ago to Matt Patton of the Athens, Georgia-based band Drive-By Truckers. Watson’s wife, a nurse, had been making the long commute to Memphis for years anyway.
He built Memphis Record Pressing, the first vinyl manufacturing plant to open in America in decades. Selling his part in the record plant, Watson opened Delta-Sonic Studios in 2018. He started Bible & Tire two years ago to focus on gospel and named the label for a shop he’d once spotted in Kentucky. The slogan is: “Retread Your Soul.”
Watson might never have found his way to Pastor Shipp and the sacred-soul gospel legacy without musician friend Michael Hurtt, who would dig for old independent-label 45s when he’d visit Memphis on tours with his New Orleans-based bands, The Royal Pendletons and the Haunted Hearts.
For Hurtt, there was something about the D-Vine Spirituals and JCR records that stood out. They were especially passionate and innovative, and the label’s collection seemed endless.
Pastor Shipp’s name was on all of them.
Asking around town, Hurtt tracked down Pastor Shipp and nine years ago met him for coffee on Union Avenue. After some research, the men ventured out to Clyde Leopard’s old studio in nearby Olive Branch, Mississippi. Leopard’s family had revealed that all of Shipp’s master recordings had been moved there from the old Tempo Studio and needed salvaging.
Hurtt calls Pastor Shipp’s recordings a “piece of musical archaeology” that allows listeners to hear some of Memphis’ grassroots talents in their unadorned glory. “You put these records on and they just come to life,” said Hurtt, now based in Detroit. "There’s so much mystique here.”
After rescuing them from Leopard’s water-damaged studio, the men brought the master tapes to Scott Bomar’s studio in Memphis, where they stayed in a storage room for years. Hurtt was diagnosed with cancer and was busy writing a book with Billy Miller about Fortune Records and couldn’t find the time to do anything with the recordings, which he calls “the raw music of the people.”
He’d worked with Watson, writing the liner notes for the Designer Records collection. Around that time, Watson began asking about the master tapes after opening Delta-Sonic.
That “was the final piece of the puzzle,” that Watson “had a studio where he could transfer those tapes and Pastor Shipp could just come over there” to go through the recordings,” Hurtt said.
Eventually the men struck a deal, and Watson began the partnership with Pastor Shipp.
In 2020, Watson gathered some of those rare gospel singles, releasing The Last Shall Be First, The JCR Records Story, Volume One. Hurtt is writing the liner notes for the new compilations.
On the day I visited the studio in October 2020, Watson sat with Pastor Shipp sat by a computer and filed through more old JCR tracks, playing them loudly on fantastic speakers perched nearby. They were weeding out selections for Volume Two, expected in 2021.
Something had told Pastor Shipp not to lose track of the recordings.
“I consider it divine intervention,” Shipp said. “The Lord sent someone into my life with the finances to do it. I attribute all of it to what Bruce has done.”
Old songs, new songs
On the new collection of Ms. King’s older songs, she launches into the lead song softly: “I heard the voice of Jesus say,” as the doo-wop-style harmonies of the all-male Gospel Souls swoop in. By the song’s end, Ms. King becomes a fiery shouter, reminiscent of the great Stax Records singer Carla Thomas but a tad more homegrown, gritty and raw.
Pastor Shipp remembers those sessions with Ms. King. As he told my friend, Memphis columnist and radio host Jared Boyd for the Daily Memphian:
“I was in the studio with Liz when we were cutting ‘I Heard the Voice.’ And she wasn’t singing it the way I wanted her to sing it. … I said, ‘Liz, sing this song like you are making love to Jesus.’
“When she put her whole soul into it, that’s when we got ‘I Heard the Voice,’” Shipp said.
For those early recordings, Ms. King joined up with the Gospel Souls, who had recorded in 1969 on Designer Records. Like so many of the acts who worked with Pastor Shipp, their music seemed divined from the sounds that had converged in Memphis—church music, the blues of the Delta and the nearby blocks where Robert Johnson and other greats spent many a day, and even country and rockabilly made just down the street at Sun Studios.
Swirled together, the sounds of Memphis became rock ’n roll.
On the 1972 track “Down Here Waiting,” Ms. King sounds as much like a blues woman as a preacher: “I found him to be my hellhound chaser. I found him to be my midnight rider,” she sings. While many of her songs are derived from standards and hymns, Pastor Shipp said she also would make up her own.
King’s “Waiting on the Lord” was inspired by a car accident, in which she had to be pried from the wreckage. A mother of 15 who grew up in remote Tallahatchie County, Mississippi, Ms. King still deals with pain from the crash but sings every Saturday morning on local station WMQM.
Singing a new song
The title track of Ms. King’s new record rocks, with wah-wah guitar courtesy of local Americana artist Will Sexton (who’s married to singer-songwriter Amy LaVere) and backed by the rest of the Sacred Soul Sound Section: drummer George Sluppick, bassist Mark Edgar Stuart and additional guitarist Matt Ross-Spang, a local producer and engineer who has worked with the Rev. Al Green, John Prine, Margo Price, William Bell and others.
Ms. King is at the heart of it all, performing songs from the D-Vine Spirituals and Designer catalogues. She’s joined by the harmonizing Vaughn Sisters, who also recorded with Pastor Shipp for D-Vine Spirituals decades ago (Pastor Carolyn A. Brown, Mrs. Deborah Ballard and Mrs. Mae Hicks, all kin to bluesman Johnny Ray Daniels).
Preparing for the new sessions with Ms. King, Watson immediately thought of the Sensational Barnes Brothers, whom he’d met while producing a record for bluesman Robert Finley and had run into at Scott Bomar’s nearby Electraphonic Recording studio.
It turns out, Ms. King once had been their babysitter.
The brothers, Courtney and Chris, sons of local gospel singers, had sung on former Hi Records soul man-songwriter Don Bryant’s new records for Fat Possum. (Mr. Bryant’s other half is the great singer Ann Peebles, best known for “I Can’t Stand the Rain” and “I’m Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down.”)
The Sensational Barnes Brothers recorded the first album on Bible & Tire, performing songs from the Designer catalogue. On their psychedelic-gospel song “Let It Be Good,” imploring the listener to live life the way you want and follow God, they sang with their father, Calvin “Duke” Barnes, who passed away earlier this year.
Bible & Tire also has released an album by the rocking, soul-shouting North Carolina quartet, Dedicated Men of Zion, who perform songs from the D-Vine Spirituals catalogue. Watson connected with the singers through his friend Tim Duffy, the North Carolina-based photographer, producer and founder of the Music Maker Relief Foundation, whose label has preserved and helped support blues and roots artist in those hills.
Gathering in tiny Fountain, North Carolina, Watson recorded 12 gospel groups in the workshop of artist Freeman Vines and his Hanging Tree Guitars. The project will become the Sacred Soul of North Carolina documentary.
Watson also has commissioned a documentary film on the Bible & Tire story, using some of Pastor Shipp’s Super-8 video recordings.
As for Pastor Shipp, he’s back on the radio after more than 40 years. He recently launched a show on Memphis’ WYXR, a new community radio station housed in the towering atrium of Memphis incredible Crosstown Concourse, a massive old Sears & Roebuck store and warehouse that was long abandoned, now an arts-and-community facility with galleries, shops and restaurants—and where all of the city now can come together.
He’s following his calling, like he did many years ago, still making records and playing them on the air.
“I just want them to hear the beautiful sounds here in Memphis.”