Robert Marovitch: The Gospel According To Malaco: Celebrating 75 Years of Gospel Music
(Malaco Records. Book and 8-CD set. Review by Miko Giedroyc)
Contemporary Gospel has been the soundtrack of my life, spiritually and musically, for almost 20 years. Before that I was a jazz obsessive. One of the reasons I came so late to gospel was Mahalia Jackson’s set in Bert Stern and Aram Avakian’s film of the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, Jazz On A Summer’s Day. How, I asked, could such an amazing singer come onstage and sing a four-chord old-schooler (I7 IV7 II7 V7) after the gorgeous complexity of Bebop, the deep groove of Hard Bop and the calm sophistication of Cool? Gospel, it seemed to me at the time, was barrelhouse without the double entendres. And at the time, my Christian faith wasn’t strong enough to appreciate the beautiful simplicity of Jackson’s closing song, Our Father, to a visibly stunned crowd at Newport.
In strictly musical terms, the history of gospel music from about 1960 to 1990 is a history of “Catch-Up” with the rest of African American music. My theory is that what happened to gospel music in the earlier part of the last century is the same as that which happened to all Christian institutions: terrified of the modern world, it closed its eyes to what it perceived as the pollution of the secular world. Jackson, for example, vowed never to sing secular music, and famously said that the problem with singing the blues was that when you’d finished singing them, you still had them. (But it is of course nonsensical to suggest that this moving spirit of the Civil Rights movement distanced herself from the world in any other way than musical). Only in the 1960s did the Church liturgy start to look outwards; that Edwin Hawkins’ Oh Happy Day and the Second Vatican Council coincide is, to me, no coincidence.
Based in Jackson, Mississippi, and the only surviving independent African American music label, Malaco Records is the “Last Soul Company”, the plucky and lucky survivor of over 50 turbulent years in the music business. Plucky because of its history of successful competition with global labels through the use of brains and ears (witness the meteoric success of the Mississippi Mass Choir, the brainchild of the Jackson Southernaires’ Frank Williams, also Director of Gospel at Malaco); and lucky on several counts (saved from financial ruin in the mid-1970s by Dorothy Moore’s Misty Blue, and from loss of life and of musical assets when a tornado ripped Malaco’s premises apart in 2011).
The significance of this 8-CD album, accompanied by 140 pages of detailed and fascinating commentary by Robert Marovich, is not in its modern comprehensiveness, however. Today’s giants of contemporary gospel – Kirk Franklin, Fred Hammond, Donald Lawrence, Israel Houghton, Donnie McClurkin, Kurt Carr – are mainly to be found on other labels (though Malaco has had its fair share of top artists). For me, its significance is that it is an education in traditional gospel and an aural history of the Great Gospel Catch-Up of 1960 to 1990, courtesy of the Savoy and Apollo gospel back catalogues which Malaco shrewdly purchased in the 1980s, and which catapulted Malaco into pole position through the ownership of the key recordings of Mahalia Jackson and The Rev James Cleveland, the “Queen” and the “King” of Gospel respectively, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, et al.
Disc One spans the period 1947 to 1965, has 18 tracks, four from Apollo, the rest from Savoy. Apollo’s golden era coincided with Mahalia Jackson’s tenure, 1946 to 1954, and the first song on the disc is the recording that made her famous, Move On Up (1947). Track Six, In The Upper Room (1952) which Jackson co-wrote, is a less well known later release at Apollo but shows greater musical openness – it is harmonically three-dimensional, uses backing vocals and has greater dramatic confidence. The Ward Singers were one of Savoy’s earliest signings in gospel and a highlight is their Old Landmark (1951, Track Five), made still more famous over ten years later by Aretha Franklin, and then by James Brown in The Blues Brothers. This early version of the ultimate gospel thumper is suave and nuanced, and I prefer it to any other I’ve heard.
Otherwise, Twelve Gates To The City (1955, The Davis Sisters) is a muscular shuffle, and the Hammond-plus-Leslie has a modern bark rather than a traditional shimmer; Open Our Eyes (The Gospel Clefs, 1958) is a gritty harbinger of the Motown Sound; and there are two songs from The Rev James Cleveland and The Angelic Choir, Peace Be Still (1963) and I Stood On The Banks Of Jordan (1964), featuring his gut-wrenching baritone and the early sound of the mass choir. Cleveland, the “King”, is a key figure in the Catch-Up, fusing in his music traditional gospel – as exemplified by the 16 tracks on this disc leading up to his – with modern soul, jazz, pop and mass choir arrangement (it is Cleveland’s choir which sings Old Landmark with James Brown in The Blues Brothers).
|Sister Rosetta Tharpe
Disc Two joins the musical dots between these early steps into modernity and fully-fledged contemporary gospel. As the tracks pass, the elements of contemporary gospel fall into place before one’s ears: piano and Hammond not just playing harmony and groove but improvising fills (check Precious Memories, Track 1, Sr Rosetta Tharpe), the electric guitar becomes a fixture (Gospel Train, Track 2, The Golden Nuggets, Malaco’s first recording on the album), the soloist becomes preacher/narrator/ improviser (Frank Williams’ first appearance on the album with the Jackson Southernaires in Sweet Hour Of Prayer, Track 5), the mass choir becomes exciting and takes centre stage and sings complex harmonic and rhythmic patterns, orchestral instruments appear and are given theatrical scores (same track), and in general the musical gulf between the gospel and the secular narrows (check Call Him Up, recorded two years before Fame). The disc ends with a fabulous flourish: Jesus Dropped The Charges (The O’Neal Twins), spot-on lead vocals, slappy bass, four-to-floor drumming, red hot Hammond, a mass choir in tight responses and a beautiful chord chart with all my favourite modulations!
The rest of the album does not in any way disappoint, and there are some special highlights for me: another recording of James Cleveland’s Peace Be Still (Onyx 1983) on Disc Three, this time by the great Vanessa Bell Armstrong, the title track of her debut album, done as a deep 6/8 with fabulous jazz harmony; Solomon Burke’s recording of Thomas Dorsey’s Precious Lord (Savoy 1983) on Disc Four, a massively exciting and dramatic preach-led rendition over blues-soaked Hammond and guitar which never goes into time; also on Disc Four Perfect Peace (Onyx 1984) featuring Keith Pringle, harmonic gorgeousness; and a 2005 reprise of Oh Happy Day (Malaco) with a lovely lazy latino vibe. And then there are songs performed by Ricky Dillard, LaShun Pace, Dottie Peoples and several mass choirs (especially those of Mississippi and Georgia).
Bravo Malaco! As Robert Marovich notes, “never before have so many significant gospel stars been collected into one package. These songs brightened spirits when they were released and continue to do so today…this collection presents some of the best of African American gospel music and does it with the grace and dignity the songs deserve.” And the song I keep going back to is the very first on the album, Mahalia Jackson’s 1947 Move On Up, which doesn’t have a mass choir, an electric guitar, a virtuosic Hammond, a string orchestra, a “shout” coda, or any particular harmonic shape at all. But it’s gorgeous and moving, and reminds me that it is not always necessary to use tritone substitutions to praise and honour God.
Miko Giedroyc is organiser and organist of London’s Soul Sanctuary Gospel Choir and, alongside Tracey Jane Campbell, one of its two founders.
The Gospel According To Malaco is released on 28 February