'SACRED SOUL' SHOW BRINGS MUSIC TO LIFE
MEMPHIS — Gospel artists Elizabeth King and Elder Jack Ward gloriously returned to live performances here this weekend for the first time in months — following the first screening of the documentary film on Bible & Tire Recording Co., the label that’s helped them return to making records after a nearly 50-year break.
Walking into the theater before the show, King shuffled slowly.
On stage, she danced and sang with fiery passion, her sequined deep-red dress aglitter.
She opened with the rocker “What You Gonna Do?,” her new single from the forthcoming album I Found a Love. (See video below.)
“God got your number! Know where you live!” she sang, warning thine enemies.
“I’m almost 80. I’m going to drink a little water in between songs,” she told the audience at the Crosstown Theater, part of a giant old Sears store and warehouse complex into the Crosstown Concourse, a new center for Memphis music, food, business and community.
King’s explanation for taking a moment's break wasn’t necessary, though, because she sings with more intensity in her singing than many young performers could.
She was backed by Memphis’ outstanding Sacred Soul Sound Section, a band of musical heavyweights: band leader and guitarist Will Sexton (who besides his own projects, plays with his singer-songwriter wife, Amy LaVere, and has played alongside Joe Ely, brother Charlie Sexton and many others); Matt Ross-Spang (who also plays guitar and has produced Margo Price, Al Green, John Prine, Lucero and many more); and talented bassist Mark Edgar Stuart and drummer Will McCarley.
Veteran organist-pianist Tony Thomas also joined the band, with guest saxophonists Jim Spake (who’s played with Alex Chilton, Al Green, Lucero and bunches more) and Alan Clayton, with wonderful vocals by two of Elizabeth King’s 15 children (!), daughters, Betsy Spring and Yolanda Sherrod.
Before the concert, the audience watched the 30-minute film, telling the story of how Memphis producer Bruce Watson’s Bible & Tire label came to life.
The documentary, directed and shot by Jonathan Thomason and scheduled for official release soon, begins with Pastor Juan D. Shipp discussing his D-Vine Spirituals record label, which made local gospel records in the early 1970s.
The minister and gospel DJ had another record label, JCR Records, but he reserved D-Vine Spirituals label for the strongest artists. A two-volume set of these recordings will be released in January.
None were stronger than Elizabeth King, at the time a young singer in her church. Only five months earlier, she’d joined forces with the all-male Gospel Souls.
“Well, Liz, she — she stood out” among local singers, Elder Ward utters in the new film.
King and the Gospel Souls, who sang sweet doo-wop style harmonies, were the first act to record on D-Vine Spirituals, as far as Shipp remembers.
Their first single together was the sublime “I Heard the Voice.” Recorded at Tempo Studios at 83 Hernando Street, at the corner of Union Avenue in downtown Memphis, Pastor Shipp worked with King to take her vocals to new heights.
“He pushed me’’ to sing her best, King says in the film.
Or, in one of the most infamous stories about Pastor Shipp, he asked King to put all her love and spirituality into the song — to sing it like she was “making love to the Lord.”
While he laughs about it now, Shipp isn’t a man prone to sacrilege.
“I wanted it to be grasping,” he says of her singing in the film. “Associated with the spirit of God.”
King responded by praying.
“And then she received it, and it was fantastic,” Shipp recalls.
A signature sound on Shipp’s best recordings is the wah-wah guitar by little Wendell Moore, who in the film looks like he was about 13 when he started playing on the records.
Young people loved that updated 70s sound in gospel, Cora White, a singer in the group that became the D-Vine Spiritualettes, says in the film.
Pastor Shipp began taking some of the gospel acts he recorded on the road. The film uses footage from some of those performances and mostly unseen photographs of Shipp as a radio DJ (which he’s now doing again on WYXR-FM, a national model for a groovy community radio station, whose studio is in the Crosstown Concourse lobby.
In the film, local singer Mae Hicks discusses the thrill of a country girl coming to the city to sing. And Robert Bowers discusses joining the Traveling Stars, a large male singing group he says in the film had been around since he was a boy.
Pastor Shipp would be the emcee of the traveling gospel shows, singer Stanley Shotwell says in the film.
“Those are memories I will always treasure,” Shotwell says. “We drove from Memphis to Kansas City at 55 miles per hour. That was the longest trip of my life,” he says, remembering one trip with Pastor Shipp and other groups.
The Rev. John Wilkins, the guitarist and singer who’d often don a cowboy hat and later record for Fat Possum Records, unfortunately passed away early in the COVID-19 pandemic. He appears in the film and was part of the gospel group the Scepter Six.
Wilkins was a talented musician whom DJs at WDIA radio would recommend to blues musicians passing through who needed accompaniment in shows on Beale Street and clubs around town.
Then there was Elder Ward & the Gospel Four, who also would return to recording with Bible & Tire decades later.
Elizabeth King recalls in the film of visiting a Nashville prison to perform, a “penal farm” as she describes it, and one of the most frightening experiences of her life.
“There was too many doors locked behind me,” she says.
“Segregation was still prevailing” during some of those travels, Shipp adds in the film. He remembers a restaurant on the Missouri-Illinois line where Black visitors had to pick up their food at the rear of the place.
“Back in the day, you had to have really thick skin,” he said, noting the group started carrying food with them. “I didn’t like the idea of going to the back door.”
Shipp quit the tours when some groups started charging fees that he thought were too high.
“But God always intervenes,” he says.
Michael Hurtt, a rock ‘n roller who previously lived in New Orleans and now Detroit, was a record collector who’d become crazy about the records Shipp made with groups on D-Vine Spirituals and JCR Records.
Hurtt finally called Shipp and met him at CK’s Coffee Shop on a trip to Memphis.
“I’d like to get it out there in the world again,” he said of the reverend's recordings.
Later, Hurtt and Shipp would discover the D-Vine Spirituals and JCR Records master tapes and hundreds of old records at the home of the late Clyde Leoppard, a musician and producer who owned Tempo Studios and taught Shipp more about sound engineering.
Leoppard had moved his studio nearby Olive Branch, Mississippi, but the place had been heavily damaged by water.
Years afterward, a partnership began with local producer Bruce Watson, and now some of the best old recordings are being re-released in many different new collections, paired with Hurtt’s liner notes about the musical acts.
At his Delta-Sonic Studios, Watson began to wonder what some of the surviving artists might sound like today.
King said it was an answer to a prayer when Shipp called her back into the studio, where she heard some of her old songs for the first time in decades.
Then she came to Watson’s old brownstone studio to try recording again.
“She stepped up to the mike, and it blew me away how good she was, how strong she (still) is,” Watson says in the film, still sounding amazed.
“With Pastor Shipp pushing me, I’m gonna do it,” King said that she decided.
Shipp says in the film he hopes the unearthed recordings — and the new ones from these aging artists — will leave a strong musical legacy and record of talent and inspiration. Already, Bible & Tire has released some of the JCR Records collection.
“D-Vine Spirituals presented the person at their best,” he says. “I was different, and I always tried to present the best.”
The show goes on
At the Crosstown Theater, after the showing of music videos by Ward and King, the elder stepped on stage.
Joined by four family members as background singers, Ward sang several numbers whose music is reminiscent of 1950s and 60s early rock ‘n roll and soul.
On “God’s Love,” his guttural singing reminded me of the Fairfield Four and a lower-register Ira Tucker of the Dixie Hummingbirds.
“When you’re weak, he’ll make you strong,” Ward sang. “He-eeeee’ll never leave.”
Then on “Someone Who Is Greater Than I,” he reached for glory. “By the river up in the sky, there is someone who’s greater than I,” he sang, nailing an impossibly high note on the “I.”
Known as the Elder Jack Ward Company Singers, Carla Ward, Francis Ward, Cecila Gary and Johnny Ward, moved in tandem to the songs, wearing black dresses and pants, with the men in sharp, long blue-and-brown plaid coats and khaki slacks.
Before he introduced Elizabeth King, Pastor Shipp — who emceed the evening’s event — recognized many guests, including his wife of 62 years and members of the Jubilee Hummingbirds, who also are working on new music.
King took the stage with the opener from her new album, then sang a mid-tempo call-and-response tune of her own.
“I know God. He’s a mighty God,” she sang. Then she ad-libbed: “He’s a mighty good doctor! The doctor said I ain’t gonna walk no more. He’s a mighty good doctor!
She sang a new, funky song called “I Need the Lord,” and the beautiful “He Touched Me,” from her 2020 comeback album, Living in the Last Days.
“Got a new way of walkin’ since He touched me,” King sang as she marched across the stage.
She introduced “A Long Journey” by remembering her mother. “I was 5 years old,” she said. “She taught me this song. ... She would be sick a lot. She said, ‘I’m goin’ on a long journey after while.’”
At the end, the crowd at Crosstown stood and shouted for an immediate encore. King stepped back on stage, and while confessing to feeling weary, she launched into another of her best songs.
“I don’t feel no way’s tired!” she sang knowingly, the band kicking in with pounding organ and bass guitar on the song from Living in the Last Days.
“Nobody told me that the road would be easy,” she continued, stepping up a register, her return to performing plainly evident. “I don’t believe he’s brought me this far to leave me.”
MORE: Read our feature on Elizabeth King's return to recording, published in the leading roots-music journal, No Depression.