Johnny Ray Daniels speaks softly, but his voice shakes North Carolina’s coastal plain when he and the other members of Little Willie and the Fantastic Spiritualaires start to sing the gospel music they’ve passed down for generations.
And when he hits his signature high notes? Watch out.
“I do my own style. I got a style that God gave me,” Mr. Daniels, who records with the Spiritualaires and on his own, says in a new documentary film. “‘Cause when I hit my high notes, everybody say, ‘Oh, that’s Johnny Ray. I know who that is.’”
The Spiritualaires are among the talented, enthralling singers and musicians on the album The Sacred Soul of North Carolina, released on October 15. The short film went public on Oct. 5. The album and film are joint projects of Bible & Tire Recording Co. of Memphis and the nonprofit Music Maker Relief Foundation based in Hillsborough, North Carolina.
(UPDATE: Johnny Ray Daniels' solo album is set for May 2022 release on Bible & Tire and Music Maker.)
The October 2021 album’s first single—premiered exclusively here at SoulCountry (Our first song premiere!)—is Little Willie & The Fantastic Spiritualaires’ “Have You Tried Jesus,” a truly rocking number that’ll get believer and skeptic alike jumping and dancing. (See video above.)
Like many of the performances on the Sacred Soul album, the Spiritualaires’ moves as hard and fast as any rock ‘n roll or soul music—or harder. Mr. Daniels sings: “Holy ghost will make you walk right! Holy Ghost will make you talk right! Holy Ghost will make you live right!”
Tim Duffy, the longtime executive director of the Music Maker foundation, said he once saw Mr. Daniels sing so hard, he fainted.
“It’s all about that music and that moment,” Duffy said. “It is so different (than other gospel and roots music), and it is the roots of R&B and the roots of soul music.”
“They just go full tilt. I don’t know why, but that’s how they do it,” added Duffy, who first managed and recorded the Carolina Chocolate Drops, the genius members of which—Rhiannon Giddens, Dom Flemons and Justin Robinson—went on to international acclaim.
The Music Maker foundation has worked with a long list of blues, roots and gospel musicians, helping them make recordings, tour, and earn something for their work. Some of the artists have played shows all around the world.
At the request of Duffy and Bible & Tire record-label founder Bruce Watson, the local gospel singer and minister Alice Vines gathered groups from eastern North Carolina for the Sacred Soul recording session inside an old storefront in tiny Fountain, North Carolina, (population 355) in February 2020, just before the pandemic took hold. The building, known as Music Maker East, also is home to artist Freeman Vines' workshop and his incredible Hanging Tree Guitars.
Watson recorded 11 artists in eight days, all of them live, with local musicians.
The Sacred Soul album also features Mr. Daniels’ son Anthony “Amp” Daniels and his knockout gospel group, the Dedicated Men of Zion. The quartet traveled to Watson’s Delta-Sonic Studios in Memphis in 2019 to record their own album for Bible & Tire.
The Dedicated Men of Zion also open the new Sacred Soul collection with the rousing “I Can’t Turn Around,” on which the younger Mr. Daniels takes after his father., singing with the emotion of a classic-soul artist and hitting some heavenly high notes of his own.
The Sacred Soul album also includes Ms. Vine’s family group The Glorifying Vines Sisters harmonizing on “Tell It All to Jesus,” plus Bishop Albert Harrison & The Gospel Tones, The Johnsonaires, soloist Melody Harper, the sisters group Faith & Harmony, and others.
Duffy notes that these gospel singers and musicians get lots of time to perfect their signature songs, often playing the same tunes at multiple churches on Sundays.
The powerful singing seems to shout back the demons in a region that lives with a legacy of devastating racial discrimination. The past and present continues to impact Black North Carolinians and the economic ruin of many small towns in the eastern part of the state.
“You take the Vines family or the Daniels family, and they’ve literally been in the same 25-mile region since 1760,” Duffy said. “This is a continuum of music for close to 300 years in one area.”
Learning more about North Carolina’s hard-gospel artists, or “sacred soul” as Duffy and Watson call it, has been astonishing even for those roots-music aficionados. Watson, who formerly produced records by Mississippi Hill Country bluesmen such as Junior Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside for Fat Possum Records—directly inspiring artists such as The Black Keys and the North Mississippi Allstars.
“It’s like discovering the Pacific Ocean was under my feet,” Duffy said.
For the artists on this Sacred Soul collection, their own kind of gospel music comes as naturally as a summer rain.
“Music and singing, it’s like your life or something you’re going through. It brings joy to you,” Mr. Daniels says in the film.
Unfortunately, the namesake of the Spiritualaires, Little Willie Daniels, passed away since the album and film were made. Most of the group are brothers.
The full group as featured: singers “JJ” James F. Jones, James Ray Barrett, Jarvis Daniels Jr., and Little Willie Daniels. The backing band is Johnavon “Bo Peep” Sauls on lead guitar, organist Markell Nobles, and drummer Jahim Daniels, J Rock on keys, and equipment manager Tyjon Harris.
“Always, always, before I do anything, people don’t even know it, but I pray,” Johnny Lee Daniels adds in the film. “I ask God, I say ‘Lord, touch me with your spirit that I’ll be able to touch someone else.’”