Recently, noted author, scholar and blues expert Bob Eagle said he’d put together a list of his favorite Gospel performances…. so without any further ado, here is part one!
I really began to get into blues in 1963. Before that, I wasn’t focused. I had heard black gospel such as Mahalia Jackson because I was caught up in the trad jazz craze that had seeped into Australia from the UK. I got into BU [i.e., Blues Unlimited magazine] and the prewar Blues & Gospel Records around 1963, and of course there was some gospel coverage there. But what really got me started on gospel was a Kiwi named Terry Winsor, who sent me tapes of Rev. George W. Killens with his congregation, lining out some old Dr. Watts hymns: they still send cold chills down my spine. And at about that time, “Black Nativity” toured Oz, and I got to meet Prof. Alex Bradford, one of the first gay guys I had met in my then-sheltered existence. His Vee–Jay album LP-5023 is still a favorite.
I know some blues fans don’t like gospel, thinking that it requires belief. But then do we believe we could carry out the threat suggested by Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Your Funeral And My Trial”? This is an all-too-brief introduction to some favorite pieces.
My outright favorites tend to date from about the time I first got interested, or earlier. But in the late 1990s, in a Church of God in Christ in Drew, Mississippi, I heard an evangelist who converted me to tears within minutes. She was Evangelist Arthur Mae Barnes Hampton. She had never recorded but was absolutely stunning. Had she been recorded, she would definitely be near the head of this list. She is indicative of the depth of talent which still exists in the gospel field, and the opportunities there are to still hear wonderful gospel if you know where to look.
These are among the songs which I automatically have to replay over and over when I think of them, or accidentally hear them. I’ve left out Blind Willie Johnson and Charlie Patton, and many other guitar-playing singers, if only because they are guys who readily appeal to blues fans, and may not inspire readers to check out the diversity of sounds available.
#10. “Go Devil Go”
One style that is popular with blues fans is sanctified music associated with the Church of God in Christ, and also the Missionary Baptist Church – stuff like Elder Richard Bryant. Then there’s the sanctified piano associated with Arizona Dranes. Here is a postwar example, by Sister Lillie Mae Littlejohn.
#9: “God’s Creation”
I’ve also left out Sam Cooke’s contributions, because he is so well-known, as is his forbear, Rebert Harris. But one of his sound-alikes really appeals to me: the late James Phelps, of the Gospel Song Birds, who came from Louisiana. The reverse, with its pulsating organ, immediately appeals, but I now prefer the breathtaking lead from James on this one, first heard on an outstanding CD put out by Bruce Bastin’s Heritage label: “Glad I Found The Lord.”
#8: “Freedom After A While”
If female groups are de rigueur, there are still huge numbers of male groups to choose from. A top one which Rick Milne introduced to me is Joiner’s Five Trumpets, from Gary, Indiana. This song features a great bass voice, by either James Campbell or John Ford. The lead voices are probably Lee Sims, George Dowdell or Walter Ford.
#7: “Day Passed And Gone”
Sticking with male groups, and incredible voices, we reach the Spirit of Memphis Quartet, with this track featuring the declamatory voice of the late Silas Steele, over probably Earl Malone’s soft tones. The group was led by Jet Bledsoe when I saw them live in Memphis in 1972.
#6: “Preshious Lord” [sic]
Reverting to the guitar-playing prewar-styled singer, it’s hard to ignore Blind Joel Taggart’s amazing postwar demonstration disc of Thomas A. Dorsey’s “Precious Lord”.
And….. a moment to help pay the bills….
Folks, we’re having a fundraiser to help pay for the cost of converting three volumes of the complete transcripts of Blues Unlimited Radio into eBooks. The cost is quite high — each one is about 600 pages — and every dollar raised will go towards that effort. You can donate by clicking on this link. And we thank you!