Greatest Gospel Gems

Devoted as black gospel music is to testifying, it’s bitterly ironic that it remains America’s best-kept musical secret. Gospel’s marvelous explosions of faith and joy shaped rock and R&B, especially the use of high tenor and falsetto leads and the styles of group harmony that have developed from doo- wop to Bell Biv DeVoe. Yet no gospel star since Mahalia Jackson has been a household name.

Nevertheless, believers in great music — no matter the content of the lyrics — should rejoice in Fantasy Records’ Specialty Gospel Twofers. The first five CDs in this series each contain about two dozen tracks recorded during gospel’s golden age — the late ’40s through the late ’50s — for Specialty Records, one of the great gospel labels. The series is far from flawless; the compilation and annotation are slapdash at best, and some of Specialty’s strongest performers aren’t represented. Yet the sheer purity and power of the vocalizing will still knock the socks off the uninitiated.

A good introductory survey is Greatest Gospel Gems, which features such titans as the Soul Stirrers (with and without Sam Cooke), Professor Alex Bradford, James Cleveland, Brother Joe May, and Sister Wynona Carr, among others. But the best good news of the series is compilations from four groups: The Best of Dorothy Love Coates and the Original Gospel Harmonettes, the Swan Silvertones’ Love Lifted Me/My Rock, Oh Lord — Stand By Me/Marching Up to Zion by Clarence Fountain’s Original Five Blind Boys of Alabama, and The Best of the Pilgrim Travelers.

The Pilgrim Travelers were an exceptionally smooth quartet. Featuring baritone Jesse Whitaker, they are reminiscent of doo-wop groups in which the vocals blend rather than support a dominant lead singer. The Original Five Blind Boys of Alabama (not to be mistaken for the more celebrated Five Blind Boys of Mississippi) had in Clarence Fountain a great, growly preacher who in his most animated moments might as well be speaking in tongues.

The Swan Silvertones, a quartet led by Claude Jeter, set the standard not only for dozens of gospel groups that followed but for such falsetto-centered pop harmony acts as the Impressions and the Temptations. And they had great material — Paul Simon’s ”Loves Me Like a Rock” and ”Bridge Over Troubled Water” were inspired by the Swans.

The greatest gem, though, is the Dorothy Love Coates set, an authentic greatest-hits collection that reveals an artist of vision and talent, strength and determination. Love Coates was always among the most socially conscious gospel artists, and she was both a great songwriter and a magnificently rough, bluesy singer: ”That’s Enough” rocks harder than anything Aretha Franklin ever did. More than any other pop vocal field, gospel has been dominated by women, and Love Coates remains one of its greatest, though terribly under-recognized, figures. The release of this CD alone is enough to make the Specialty series a landmark. A

Greatest Gospel Gems
  • Music