I’ve heard that gospel can be traced to appearing in the 1930s. The music steadily rose in popularity throughout the next two decades, thanks in part to Mahalia Jackson and Marion Anderson, then on through the sixties with the Staples and the Hawkins families. When I think of gospel, I think first of traditional gospel. Gospel in the Groove is a newer form called Contemporary Gospel.
Most of the time, detractors of gospel say they enjoy listening to the music but don’t care for the words, meaning the religious message. I don’t object to getting sanctified, but I admit I don’t want to be washed in the river of the sequencer. Contemporary Gospel seems to be drawn from newer derivations of soul music, styles of music that I’d heard, but I had to research genre titles. The smooth sound of Quiet Storm of the ‘70s (think Al Green) and the polished production techniques of Urban of the ‘80s and ‘90s combine as the music foundation for Contemporary Gospel. The songs rather than being traditional psalms, hymns, and spirituals are all newly written material. These are personal expressions of using the bulwark of faith to maintain and do right in a modern world.
I don’t at all doubt the sincerity of Helen Baylor, who provides the first song, “Sold Out”. She’s “given up things, on carnal things, don’t amount to nothing.” With all the rash of conversions in the entertainment world, she is aware she faces some skepticism. She sings here that she’s “sold out to Jesus”. In real life, Helen first had a successful career as Helen Lowe. She opened for Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder, performed in Hair and with Chaka Khan among others. Despite her successful show business life, she was laid low for a time with substance abuse and shattered relationships. Her religion helped her pull through all that, and she looks on her music now like her ministry. She performs not only in concerts, but in housing projects, prisons, and women’s shelters, and she moves out of the church to help those people whose lives can seem a little more like hell than hallelujah.
I dug the sophisticated funky groove of “U Don’t Hear Me” by Terri Carroll, where she slides stylistically through rap, urban, and quiet storm willing to take up any form to deliver her message to any willing to listen. Her message is obvious from the title, that just not enough people are really listening. The foley effect needle drops on the track of an old 78 until Al Green’s fast-talking falsetto clips into “Sure Feels Good”. The Winans move through funk and suddenly flutter their wings in a broad beautifully textured harmony. The Mighty Clouds of Joy, one of the Hawkins family, and especially “Deliverance” by the New Jersey Mass Choir even carry something for me, a reminiscence of traditional gospel.
Musically, this is not my cup of tea, but I’m glad that people can find something in contemporary music that can sustain them in life. Contemporary Gospel is immensely popular. Word of this release must have spread word of mouth, as there is little in the way of advertising and I doubt this has ever appeared on any music video channels. Already close to a quarter million copies have been shipped by just one on-line merchandiser. The truth of it is, my niece will love this record when I send it on to her.