Golden Age of Gospel

Michael Corcoran

By Michael Corcoran

on 02.24.06 in Dozens

Back when I was a partying fool, I could always tell how smashed I was the night before by what CDs were in the player the next morning. When I was a young banger of the head, that would mean AC/DC or Led Zeppelin or that Bob Seger album with "Nutbush City Limits." I reached for songs that would take me higher and higher before my flop into the nightly suicide. But sometimes I went the other way and one morning-after I found Carole King's Tapestry in the chamber. Man, that's wasted.

About ten years ago, old black gospel music started being where I went when I wanted to lose the last bits of my mind each night. Where's the notch-up in intensity after Al Green? I found it in the "SS" groups: the Soul Stirrers, the Swan Silvertones and the Staple Singers. It was there in that little package of evangelical dynamite Shirley Caesar of the Caravans, whose voice stuck and quivered like an arrow hitting the bullseye. If music is the language of the soul, gospel spoke to me with a friggin 'megaphone. Where I used to end the night with "Whipping Post," that Allman Brothers guitarathon became the opening act for the sacred steel of the Campbell Brothers and their protegé Robert Randolph.

Before she went down to Muscle Shoals to make her deal with the pop music devil, Aretha Franklin was considered a fairly good gospel singer, but she was no Mahalia Jackson or Bessie Griffin or Willie Mae Ford Smith. For every great church singer who went on to the pop charts, there are hundreds, thousands maybe, who refused to sing for encores instead of salvation, choosing to keep their deal with the Lord. There are also incredible singers who air out their heavenly gift on Sunday, then go to work cleaning motel rooms on Monday. Stardom wasn't in God's plans for these wailing, growling, shrieking church ladies who exemplify the splendid anonymity that makes the history of gospel music so fascinating.

Which years constitute gospel's golden age? They're generally considered to be the '40s and '50s, though I think the glory years started in the late '20s, when reformed juke joint piano player Thomas A. Dorsey gave gospel its bounce and became the Irving Berlin of spirituals. And I think you have to take it as far as the early '70s, when three of gospel's all-time greats — Mahalia Jackson, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Clara Ward — all died within a year of each other and the Staple Singers defected (you don't "cross over" from gospel) to pop.

Elvis Presley's favorite gospel group, this band of forceful voices from the Tidewater community of Virginia (also home to the Silver Leaf Quartet and the Harmonizing Four) is the link between the Fisk Jubilee Singers — who tried to assimilate, but always killed with the old "Negro spirituals" — and the Motown-inventing Soul Stirrers. Though their definitive version of "Swing Down, Chariot" is not included here, there are 23 tracks that find the Gaters — the Mills Brothers of gospel — at the top of their game. Their vocal arrangements are impeccable.