Various Artists, The Soul of Designer Records

Gillian G. Gaar

By Gillian G. Gaar

on 09.23.14 in Reviews

From 1967-77, if you were a gospel group that wanted to make a record, you likely found your way to Designer Records in Memphis. Whatever your budget, label boss Style Wooten was willing to accommodate, producing and recording 45 RPM singles you could buy on an as-needed basis to sell at your shows — a form of self-publishing for the cash-strapped.

Packed to the brim with soul

By this means, Designer Records released more than 500 gospel sets during the decade, 101 of which have been cherry picked for this four-disc box set. And what makes this collection especially fascinating is that it not only features groups who went on to bigger things (the Grammy-nominated Canton Spirituals; the Jubilee Hummingbirds, whose lineup included soul heavyweights like James Carr and O.V. Wright; Rev. Houston Potts Jr. & Sister Mary Pride, who recorded the gospel classics I’m Not Uneasy and Lord, Take Me Just As I Am), but it also spotlights those who only made the trek to Designer once, leaving a single record as their sole legacy.

Take the case of Alberta Powell, for example, about whom the liner notes say “nothing is known.” Her two sides, “Trusted” and “The Same God” (both written by Powell), have a deep, brooding resonance, her rich voice thrown into sharp relief next to the fine-picked guitar. Harps of David are another lost-to-history group, whose lively “It’s Me Oh Lord Standing in the Need of Prayer” bubbles with enthusiasm.

And that’s another key element of this set. These aren’t just songs of praise; they’re songs of joy and celebration. From the fiery strut of the Gospel Songbirds’ “I Thank You Jesus,” to the moaning blues of the Shaw Singers’ “God Has Done So Much For Me,” to the Rev. Leon Hamner & the Holy City Travelers’ rollicking rave up “Only Jesus Knows,” this is a set packed to the brim with soul — in both senses of the word.