MEMPHIS — Inside a restored Memphis brownstone dating to the 1860s, Pastor Juan D. Shipp danced and pointed through the studio window as his old friend Elizabeth King, who’s been called the Memphis Queen of Gospel, sang a new song of joy.
At 82 years old, Pastor Shipp —a music producer and local DJ on Memphis’ new community radio station WYXR as well as a former small record-label owner — was urging King and the backing Vaughn Sisters to deliver their verse with just a little more punch.
King, now 76, with her hair whitish- gray and her step a bit slower than when she was recording popular local singles in the 1960s and ’70s, was singing about the end times. But she was also reflecting on the current state of affairs in America, with the sisters ringing in with the call and response:
Callin’ right wrong (Right wrong!)
Callin’ wrong right (Wrong right!)
Lets me know why we’re livin’ in the last days.
While it was just another day of music in Memphis, the session marked a step toward rebirth for the city’s groovy gospel music.
In his 2010 book Soul Music: Tracking the Spiritual Roots of Pop from Plato to Motown, author Joel Rudinow writes that soul music establishes and honors “a lineage linking African American secular music innovations with the work of the African American church.” Sacred-soul music, therefore, maintains that musical flow, replacing secular lyrics with religious ones.
Although Memphis had been a hotspot for sacred-soul around the 1960s, the secular-meets-spiritual genre is seeing a revival. In late 2019, Bible & Tire Recording Co. released a collection of King’s early gospel sides and unreleased tracks called Elizabeth King and the Gospel Souls: The D-Vine Spirituals Recordings, which Shipp produced. And in April, King released an album of all- new recordings, Living in the Last Days.
For King, this new musical journey is the answer to a prayer. After nearly 50 years without making a record — despite singing in church and on radio for many years — she wanted the chance to reach others beyond the neighborhoods of Bluff City.
“Somebody thought enough of me after all those years to want to invest in me at an old age. That’s a blessing from God,” says King. “It really means something to me, because it’s really a way of life for me.”
READ THE FULL STORY: Our full-length, updated feature on this movement in Memphis music and Elizabeth King's first record in about 50 years, for our friends at No Depression, the international roots-music journal. (Purchase of the current issue or a print or digital subscription is required--but the magazine is certainly worth supporting.) -Alan Richard