WHEN GOSPEL GOT FUNKY
Updated: Jul 8, 2019
LEGENDARY STAX COLLECTION SHOWS OFF GOOD-NEWS GROOVES
One of my favorite soul albums is actually a gospel album. The Gospel Truth: The Gospel Soul and Funk of Stax Records, currently somehow out of print on CD and digital, gathers some of the best music released on the legendary Memphis record label's gospel subsidiaries, mostly in the early 1970s.
"Stax's 70s gospel label was a potent mix of God's words and the devil's beats--the sound of Memphis making amends with the Lord!" blares a promotional message on the back cover of The Gospel Truth collection on CD. I first found the album several years ago in the Stax Museum of American Soul gift shop in Memphis.
Beginning with the Chalice label in the late 1960s, Stax attempted to break into the black gospel market, continuing into the bell-bottom 70s with labels such as Gospel Truth. (Check out the Chalice collections Disturb My Soul and Free at Last, both of which include The Dixie Nightingales' "The Assassination," a mournful memorial track to President Kennedy.)
Maybe the best overall track on The Gospel Truth collection is Louise McCord's fantastic "Better Get a Move On," from McCord's 1972 tribute album to Mahalia Jackson and the later collection Soul Gospel Vol. 2. Backed by the Rance Allen Group (see details below), McCord performed the song at the historic 1972 Wattstax concert at the Los Angeles Coliseum (the largest mostly African-American gathering in U.S. history at the time), according to The Gospel Truth liner notes. (See video below.)
"Move On" was written by leading female Stax songwriter Bettye Crutcher, who also released a solo album on Stax in 1974. McCord's dynamic singing delivers lyrics that like many of the tracks here speak to the song's era and need for unity than to the purely spiritual realm:
"What out before you fall
There may be nobody left to catch you
Handwriting on the wall
People can't you see, it's trying to tell you...
You better get a move on
You better get a move on..."
Two of my favorites on The Gospel Truth are by two lesser-known vocal groups, the Marion Gaines Singers and the Howard Lemon Singers, both from Michigan and about whom little has been written.
The liner notes from this collection tell us that many of the Stax-label gospel acts heralded from Michigan, thanks to Dave Clark's connections there. Stax hired Clark to lead their gospel operations based on his experience working with Houston-based producer Don Robey.
The Gaines Singers' best track is "Do Your Thing," written by Stax songwriter, producer and stylish trend-setter Isaac Hayes. (See video below.) Backed by the Rance Allen Group (see details below), with a prominent piano, hard bass line, wah-wah guitars, and some hiphop-sample-worthy drums (sounding like Al Jackson of Stax's Booker T. and the MGs), the four-member male-and-female vocal group combines freedom-movement language with slang of the era:
"If music makes you wanna move 'cuz you can feel the groove,
Groove on, yeah you better groove on
If you wanna love your brother, go on and love one another
Love on, you better love on
If there's something you wanna say, talking' is the only way, rap on, you better rap on
Whatever you do, do your own thing!...
If you feel like you want to sing, all you got to do is
Sing, sing, sing your song, oh yeah
Sing it, sing it, sing it, right on
If you feel like you wanna talk, all you got to do is...
Talk, yeah talk, I believe we'll rap, aw, rap, rap, rap, rap rap..."
The Howard Lemon Singers' danceable "Let Me Come Home," (which may have been better titled "Let Him Come In," based on the singers' actual words in the song) features a female lead vocalist (perhaps Esther Smith) and a big horn section. The band featured Lester Snell and Willie Hall from Isaac Hayes' group. (See video below.)
(An aside: I believe I've located the same Howard Lemon, now the music director for a congregation in West Palm Beach, Florida. The church website says Lemon had worked as a probation officer in Michigan before retiring to Florida. I'll attempt to contact him and request an interview.)
Another track, Annette Thomas' "You Need a Friend Like Mine" seems like a lost disco classic, produced by bassist Donald "Duck" Dunn of Booker T. and the MGs and Bobby Manuel. The piano-laden track was written by Frederick Knight, whose 1973 R&B hit "I've Been Lonely For So Long" is one of my all-time favorite Stax cuts. The song, later covered by Mick Jagger, which Prince's "Kiss" would resemble (at least in style) some 13 years later.
(Knight had albums of his own into the 1980s and produced the disco-soul smash "Ring My Bell" for former Memphis schoolteacher Anita Ward on Mississippi-based Malaco Records in 1979. Knight's lone Stax album was reissued recently.)
Joshie Jo Armstead's self-penned "I Got the Vibes" is straight-up disco but preceded the movement by several years and apparently became a popular "Northern Soul" track many years later in England. Not a gospel song at all, it clocks in at just over two minutes. (See video below.)
The former Ikette's other track on this collection, which she also wrote, is a slower, more serious track full of hope and reflection on her journey: On "Stumblin' Blocks, Steppin' Stones (What Took Me So Long)," the soprano hits an astonishing couple of high notes while retaining a grittiness to her singing throughout. Armstead was a writing partner with wrote with Nicholas Ashford and Valerie Simpson (known for "Ain't Nothin' Like the Real Thing Baby," "Ain't No Mountain High Enough," "Solid," and more).
Some other highlights from the hard-to-find Stax gospel collection, some of which are available on other albums
The Sons of Truth's "Son of the Deacon," by the Detroit-based gospel funk-rock collective led by Calvin Fair. The group's lone album on Gospel Truth, A Message from the Ghetto, has been remastered and rereleased by the new incarnation of Stax Records and features the all-male group looking badass, posing in 70s clothes in front of an old house. The title track is by far the album's best, sounding like Hendrix meets Sly and the Family Stone after they all found the Lord. (See video below.)
Clarence Smith offers a pre-disco version of the old spiritual, "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child," and it works well, produced by Tom Nixon, who worked with Rufus Thomas on his 1970s hits. Background singers for Smith included Sir Mack Rice, Lou Bond, and Lee Sain. "I want to go home, mmm-hmmm," Smith sings, carrying the lyrics and groove along for more than five minutes. It feels effortless. (See video below.)
The Rance Allen Group, the best known long-term gospel act here besides The Staples Singers, has two tracks, "Talk That Talk (part I)" and "There's Gonna Be a Showdown," the latter written by Philadelphia soul godfathers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff and was a hit for Archie Bell & The Drells. Here, Allen hits some of the glass-cracking high notes he became known for in a gospel career that continues even today.
Gospel singer Jacqui Verdell (also known by Jackie) tried her hand at mainstream music through Stax. Her cut here, "We're Gonna Have a Good Time" is excellent, but failed to get noticed in the marketplace, according to the Stax collection's liner notes, based in part on on Rob Bowman's 1997 book, Soulsville USA: The Story of Stax Records.
The Staples Singers, one of my favorite musical groups ever and about whom I'll write other entries for SoulCountry, contribute "When Will We Be Paid for the Work We Did,"(written by Randall Stewart) speaking to its era and to listeners today, as well. And the Staples' "Brand New Day" is also included here, a rousing pop-gospel-soul hit written by Al Kooper, from the film, The Landlord.
Charles May & Annette May Thomas sing a romantic duet, the solid "Keep My Baby Warm." Their father, Brother Joe May, is known for his preaching and his own Stax releases. Charles May also recorded as the act called 21st Century, and his single "If the Shoe Fits, Wear It," is included here.
I'm not sure why Concord Music/Ace Records didn't include The Gospel Artistics on The Gospel Truth collection--maybe a copyright issue or something. The Silver, Spring, Md.-based group's only Stax-family release, a self-titled album in 1973, is among the most danceable and funky of Stax's gospel releases. (See bonus video clip below.)
In all, though, The Gospel Truth collection makes me want to get happy, dance down the aisle, and thank the Lord for such good music.