People who go to a black church take faith in the community, the fellowship, the messages of hope and salvation. But they live for the moments when the choir catches wreck.
One such moment happened when Dr, Charles G. Hayes and the Cosmopolitan Church of Prayer Choir recorded “Jesus Can Work it Out” at some point in the late ’70s or early ’80s. You can tell from the opening beats that it just might be one of those moments when everyone goes home with the music ringing in their ears. The rhythm section hits it from the jump, and the choir falls in (their handclaps are almost perfect, no need for a click track here). Soloist Dianne Williams testifies “I turned it over to the Lord, and He worked it out” with a passion those words on this screen will never convey, with the choir seconding “oh yeahhhh”. Then Williams gets to talking about her bad habits, confessing “I started praying about it” six times before coming back to her refrain, and the choir to its chorus.
Without warning, the ensemble downshifts into a whole new gear (mind you, they’re already on fire), and then another, as Williams starts calling out rhymes, the choir starts responding, and the band lights into a break:
(Work it out) How you gonna pay the rent
(Work it out) All your money’s spent
(Work it out) A little bit to buy some food
(Work it out) My baby need a pair of shoes
(Work it out) And look I got a light bill due
(Work it out) And even got a gas bill too
(Work it out) The telephone disconnect
(Work it out) And waitin’ for your next paycheck
(Work it out) Tell ya whatcha oughta do
(Work it out) Tell ya whatcha oughta do
(Work it out) Tell ya whatcha oughta do
(Work it out) Jesus will see you through
(Work it out) I’m a witness, He’ll see you through
(Work it out) I’m a witness, He’ll see you through
And then Williams recaps the story of Abraham, with the choir and congregation with her beat for beat, as she asserts, “I don’t have no doubt / the Lord’s gonna work it out.” They’re making such a joyous noise, you can barely hear the congregation’s ecstasy in the background. Trust me, it’s there.
Yet, they’re not done. Williams launches into rhyming “Pharoah, Pharoah / let my people go”, and freestyles for another minute or two (“didn’t He, didn’t He work it out”) before reprising the light bill stanza, with the band adding some jazzy-funky fills underneath (the bass player clearly had been checking out Bootsy Collins). Then the track finally fades out, with no evidence anyone really felt like stopping.
Moments like this are part of the heartbeat of gospel music, a ministry that has nurtured black Americans for nearly 100 years and counting. From its roots in black Chicago churches that formed in the wake of the Great Migration’s first wave in the 1910s and 1920s, gospel has gone on to inform virtually every aspect of American music, from soul-jazz to pop diva melodrama. While its message is about salvation and transcendence over the troubles of the world, it shares musical roots with the blues, with both coming from the same wellspring of black experience.
But aside from the occasional crossover success, most listeners — certainly those who’ve never spent time in a black Christian church — haven’t heard gospel in its true environment and context. They might think it’s nothing more than a bunch of people in colorful robes swaying to the beat, as a common caricature would have it. The truth, as always, is a lot more detailed than that. Gospel has evolved with the times, both influencing and being influenced by black pop music, which is to say black people and their daily lives. Some of its most influential performers are part of America’s cultural pantheon. It has given its artists and supporters, from Jim Crow to Black Lives Matter, the strength to face another day of America with a prayer as well as a song in their hearts.
So it might be surprising that, with all the incredible music that has come from the black church, there’s never been a collection to map gospel’s evolution from down-home storefront churches to full-blown pop-like productions. There are reasons for that, as we’ll see shortly, but The Gospel According to Malaco: Celebrating 75 Years of Gospel Music finally fills that gap. Across its eight CDs and 100 tracks, we meet virtually every important artist and development in gospel’s journey to this point. Most of the names will be unfamiliar to anyone who isn’t steeped in the culture. But after going through the music, any sentient human being will discover many wonderful things, whether they subscribe to the lyrics’ teachings or not.
But as essential as this collection is, it probably wouldn’t have been possible had not the lion’s share of black gospel music history ended up under the auspices of a company with roots in the Southern white fratboy scene. Only, I suppose, in America.
Savoy Records and How Gospel Got Over
Gospel music did not find its first audience through records. It grew by word of mouth through Chicago’s Black Belt churches in the late ’20s and ’30s, finding a broader audience through radio broadcasts and sheet music sales of popular songs, which were promoted through gospel conventions and other channels. Mahalia Jackson, commonly considered the godmother of gospel music, recorded some songs for Decca Records in 1937, but they didn’t sell well, and no other record label at the time showed the slightest interest in this rapidly growing genre.
It wasn’t until the explosion of indie labels catering to black audiences in the mid-’40s that gospel achieved any sort of commercial foothold. New York City-based Apollo Records had recorded two Jackson singles, to little success, but the third time was the charm. “Move On Up a Little Higher” (1947), recorded in Chicago with musicians Jackson knew well, was a million-seller, and put Apollo in the black and Jackson on the map.
Newark, New Jersey-based Savoy Records, founded by the notoriously irascible Herman Lubinsky, had been releasing gospel music on its King Solomon imprint since 1943. But its bread and butter was jazz (an early adaptor to bebop, they recorded historic Charlie Parker sessions in 1945) and the honking saxophone subset of what would become R&B. Savoy’s gospel efforts finally bore significant fruit in 1949, when it licensed the single “Jesus” from Philadelphia’s Ward Singers — mother Gertrude and daughters Willa and Clara. That hit launched the group, soon to include Marion Williams, on a long and infuential run atop the gospel charts.
Other indie labels of the era, most notably Vee-Jay and Specialty, also got aboard the gospel train, with music whose drive and instrumentation directly fed into what was becoming rock ‘n’ roll. But Savoy came to dominate the field, capturing the transition from the old-time quartets to larger choirs and keyboard-centered ensembles. It was also the recording home of modern gospel’s first superstar: the Rev. James Cleveland, who transformed the shape and sound of gospel as a singer, songwriter and choir leader. By the early ’60s, Savoy was barely a factor in jazz or R&B, but it owned the gospel field for all intents and purposes, and would remain a gospel powerhouse for decades to come.
Malaco’s Down Home Gospel
Meanwhile, a grittier counterpart to Savoy’s modern sound emerged in the ’70s. Tommy Couch, Sr. started an agency booking R&B bands for gigs on college campuses in Mississippi. In the mid-’60s, he and brother-in-law Mitchell Malouf formed Malaco Attractions, extending the booking business to local nightclubs. They opened one of their own in Jackson, Mississippi in 1966, and launched a label and recording studio in 1967. Initially, they leased records made at the studio to larger labels; their two biggest hits were King Floyd’s “Groove Me” (1970) and Jean Knight’s “Mr. Big Stuff” (1971).
Malaco released its first gospel single, “Gospel Train” by the Jackson quartet Golden Nugget, in 1973, but the group didn’t make a full album, and that appeared to be just a gospel one-off. The label continued recording R&B, but hits weren’t happening. When its pop fortunes were at their lowest ebb, in walked Frank Williams in 1975, looking for a new home for his band the Jackson Southernaires. Not only did the band score Malaco’s first gospel hits, Williams became the head of its newly-formed gospel division. He helped establish Malaco as a haven for the old-school gospel quartets still making music, with a soul-blues sound not at all unlike Malaco’s secular hits (Z.Z. Hill’s “Down Home Blues”, most famously).
Malaco soon discovered what Savoy already knew: you don’t need to sell a zillion copies, or spend tons on promotion, to have a gospel hit. That enabled Malaco to be in a prime position when Savoy entered a decline after Lubinsky’s death in 1974. Arista Records bought Savoy in 1976, but the jazz and gospel operations were eventually sold in separate transactions. Malaco acquired the gospel side — including Savoy’s historic back catalogue — in 1986, allowing the current label heads to continue producing music while handling manufacturing and distribution. The labels couldn’t be more different — Malaco was content for many years to keep the old-time quartet sound alive, while Savoy leaned towards more urban and contemporary sounds — but the arrangement meant Malaco was far and away the leading black gospel music company.
Its prominence grew as it acquired distribution rights to smaller labels (Muscle Shoals Sound — including the famed recording studio; Atlanta International; Onyx; ShurFine; Juana Praise; 4Winds) and one major get: 50 percent of the legendary Apollo Records catalogue, including Jackson’s classic singles, in 1990. That deal meant Malaco owned or had rights to virtually every major gospel recording artist since the ’40s, in addition to its roster of current stars and up-and-coming talent.
That’s why The Gospel According to Malaco is such a major achievement. No other company can be said to have the virtual width and depth of a genre under its cap: Chess Records never did represent all of the blues’ history, and even Blue Note’s enormous legacy doesn’t represent all of jazz. While no black gospel history is truly complete without the Sam Cooke-era Soul Stirrers, the Staple Singers, Andrae Crouch, Aretha Franklin or Tramaine Hawkins, that’s a relative quibble compared to the bounty of artistry and faith on display here from what is now the Malaco Music Group.
A Rich Tradition of Glory, Wonder and Art
Disc one covers the most ground, sweeping from Jackson’s “Move On Up” and other foremothers like the Ward Sisters and the Caravans, to the emergence of Cleveland in the early ’60s. Malaco’s own gospel history begins on disc two, with the Jackson Southernaires and other groups Williams brought into the fold. At this point, it becomes clear that gospel music is a pretty big tent: Savoy’s big soloist-with-choir sound sharply contrasts with Malaco’s roster of quartets. Yet there are commonalities between the two: some preaching here, some testifying there, and deeply felt singing throughout. One major difference is most of Savoy’s recordings were of live performances, and they take on an infectious electricty with the exchange between performers and audience, choir and congregation, that the early Malaco tracks don’t quite match (Malaco would move into live recording later on).
As the box moves through the ’80s, we encounter a couple of remarkable examples where the paths of gospel and pop crossed once again, as they had throughout the ’50s and ’60s. The New Jersey Mass Choir sang on Foreigner’s 1984 hit “I Want to Know What Love Is”, thanks to the happenstance (or, if you will, heavenly arrangement) of sharing an attorney with the rock band (and saying a prayer during the recording session before finally feeling the spirit). The choir would go on to record its own version of the song, which crossed over to the black pop charts. (Interestingly, it’s the only song in this entire set that doesn’t specifically reference God or Jesus.)
Also in the mid-’80s, Little Cedric and the Hailey Singers (including Cedric’s brother Joel) had a hit with a cover of Cleveland’s “Jesus Saves”, but their gospel career wasn’t for long. Cedric and Joel would eventually hook up with another pair of brothers, Don Jr. and Dalvin DeGrate, to become the decidedly-not-gospel R&B band, Jodeci. Of course, they weren’t the first to grow up in gospel and find fame on the secular side. Another who did was Solomon Burke, the ’60s soul icon whose first record was a gospel single for Apollo in the ’50s. But Burke never totally left the church, or the spirit, as evidenced on a magisterial 1983 version of Thomas A. Dorsey’s “Take My Hand, Precious Lord”, perhaps the most famous gospel song ever. (Another gospel chestnut, “His Eye Is on the Sparrow”, receives a contemporary treatment from the New Jerusalem Baptist Church Choir.)
Not surprisingly, many of gospel’s more recent stars are well represented here, including Vanessa Bell Armstrong (“Peace Be Still”, “Nobody But Jesus”), Keith Pringle (“Perfect Peace”), Dorothy Norwood (“Victory Is Mine”, “Shake the Devil Off”), and Dottie Peoples (“On Time God”). But the true stars of the box are the numerous mass choirs represented in magnificent voice throughout. As opposed to choirs housed by a single church, mass choirs are audition-only, best-of-the-best ensembles drawn from throughout an entire state. They evolved from Cleveland’s late-’60s vision for a new gospel umbrella organization, the Gospel Music Workshop of America. His idea was for GMWA chapters to send local and regional choirs to learn and perform the most promising new songs (a direct extension of how gospel spread in the ’30s). Savoy was quick to bring some of those mass choirs into the studio (Florida, New Jersey, Georgia and others), with Malaco finally getting on board in the late ’80s with the Mississippi Mass Choir.
These ensembles represent gospel’s artistry and professionalism in equal measure. The feeling is never lacking, but there’s a polish and drive to the best of their performances, whether they’re soaring among the angels or churning down the church aisles. One example of that is “If I Can’t Say a Word”, by the GMWA Mass Choir, featuring Ann Nesby on vocals and a modern arrangement by Donald Lawrence. (There are all kinds of excellent musicians playing behind the singers throughout the box; too bad they’re not listed in track-by-track info, but then again the liner notes book might be twice as massive if they were.)
But anyone looking to find out what gospel sounds like today won’t get much of it here. Newer indie gospel labels and gospel divisions at major labels are playing as big a role in shaping 21st century gospel as are Malaco and Savoy, and often with more impact in the secular mainstream. Kirk Franklin is represented only as the songwriter of “Joy” (Georgia Mass Choir, 1992), one of his first gospel hits, without any of the crossover successes under his own name and production. BeBe and CeCe Winans, two of the biggest gospel stars of the last 20-plus years, have a distribution deal with Malaco, and are even pictured in the liner notes, but none of their music is included in the set. The most recent track here, 2013’s “Keep Knocking” by the Canton Spirituals, reprises the old-time quartet sound at the heart of Malaco’s gospel tradition, but it might sound just a bit old-timey for audiences used to younger artists like Lecrae, who are more directly influenced by hip-hop and modern pop production. Malaco’s challenge going forward is to represent this new generation of gospel, and tying it into the rich tradition of the music’s mighty ancestors.
What the Music Means
Make no mistake: gospel music is mostly ministry, but partly showbiz. One need only read accounts of performers on the gospel circuit back in the day to learn about the tricks of the trade, the extravagant outfits they wore in performance, and even a nasty rivalry or two. (Not to mention closeted LGBTQ gospel stars, navigating the traditional black church’s longstanding homophobia.) It was never that the best gospel music needed to be gimmicked up, but after all, these were performances, and no small amount of reputation and money could be had by raising the congregation’s temperature a few degrees.
Yet looking through the numerous photos of performers in the liner notes, one senses a lack of artifice. They come across as everyday people, dressed nicely for a photo shoot or captured in concert. No one is or seems to be playing a fantastical character. They sincerely believe in this music, in its power, and the role of faith in both their lives and the broader world. Gospel deejay and historian Robert Marovich‘s interviews for this project with several pivotal figures humanizes them even further.
Indeed, while the biggest names in The Gospel According to Malaco are superstars in the gospel world, many of them, especially those in the mass choirs, are just everyday folks gifted with powerful, well-trained voices. During the week they teach our children, drive our buses, tend to our sick. But when they come together to sing, they become someone else — a bit more inspired. At their best, they sing as if they feel annointed.
Having that feeling, or reaching up to grasp that feeling, is gospel at its core. One doesn’t have to believe in God, or any Christian religion, or any faith at all, to understand the message of this music. Its eye is indeed on the sparrow, but gospel has always been a music to help people deal with the here and now. Numerous examples abound here of singers telling how faith can get you through life’s travails, including the O’Neal Twins’ 1981 classic “Jesus Dropped the Charges”. How’s that for a song title?
Indeed, this set is a window into how an awful lot of black folks in America over the years have managed to make it from week to week while being black folks in America (a central aspect to gospel’s history not at all discussed in the liner notes, which read at times like a well-earned celebratory moment for Malaco). As opposed to the classic spirituals, gospel is less haughty, more earthy (and, to be sure, utterly apart from the spiritual music of white Christian worship). To perform is an artistic experience, to hear it a participatory one. On either side, to be part of it is a cathartic, real-world experience that, as Norwood put it, shakes the devil off. It is not explicitly protest music, but it is in opposition to the status quo. Gospel is very much, to borrow from Clara Ward’s classic composition, how many black people got over.
Likewise, one needn’t be one of the faithful to be amazed at the depth of what gospel has been and become ever since Mahalia Jackson finally had a hit. While many a pop powerhouse singer has taken gospel’s emotion as a jumping-off point for vocal showboating, true gospel isn’t about showing off tricks. It’s about letting go in song, surrendering to a higher belief, and compelling everyone within earshot to do the same. It can be the old-time quartets feeling it in their bones with the hard-earned wisdom of old-time bluesmen. It can also be the collective experience of a large group of singers and players, in communion with their audience, the two groups feeding off each other’s energy. But get past a reductive choirs-and-quartets reading of gospel history, and you’ll discover quite a bit of boundary pushing and tweaking, and a long tradition of borrowing from black pop that neither began nor ended with Cooke and Franklin. In other words, by any measure The Gospel According to Malaco is a major addition to the canon of black artistic and cultural expression.
Gospel both is and isn’t divine inspiration. There’s a message from above, but there’s also talent, hard work, sacrifice, and weekends on the road spreading the word (and selling some product too). I say that not to minimize the inspirational aspect, but to underscore that all this music didn’t just happen once someone hit the “record” button. That makes the achievements captured in the set all the more remarkable. These are people who sang about life, their lives, their audience’s lives, in a manner both relatable and entertaining, with a great deal of craft and understanding. But most of all, they did so passionately. The marriage of artistry and belief has seldom, if ever, been more compelling than at this box’s most exalted moments (and there are many). Nor has it ever so convincingly rocked the house.