Various Artists: Jesus Rocked the Jukebox: Small Group Black Gospel (1951-1965)
This stellar anthology offers a spiritual journey into not just the soul but the very heart of rock 'n' roll's origins.
Jesus Rocked the Jukebox mines the vaults of the African-American-owned Vee-Jay and Specialty Records to offer a collection of some of the best gospel groups of that era performing some of the genre's best songs. Most importantly for producers Fred Jasper and Mason Williams, the compilation serves as an argument establishing African-American church music as an often under-appreciated tributary into not just the soul but also the heart of rock 'n' roll.
Jesus Rocked The Jukebox: Small Group Black Gospel 1951-1965
The old Delta blues meets hillbilly country origin story for rock 'n' roll is a convenient oversimplification that even Elvis was respectful enough to contradict when given a chance. But for whatever reason, the major anthologists of rock's early years tend to shy away from gospel's obvious influences upon the form, maybe intimidated by the soul-shattering power of some of these numbers, and maybe, unconsciously or otherwise, too eager to perpetuate the segregated line between rock and R&B, which wears its church influences more comfortably.
If the music collected on Jesus Rocked the Jukebox itself isn't convincing enough, Robert M. Marovich, author of A City Called Heaven: Chicago and the Birth of Gospel Music, devotes his liner notes to advancing the argument, declaring "Whether stolen, borrowed, leased or subconsciously emulated, the music of the African American church in the 20th-century has had a profound and permanent influence on popular music." Marovich masterfully tracks this influence, from its elementary force as a training ground for generations of African American artists through the music's influence on white audiences through popular radio programs dating into the '30s.
Listening to the 40 tracks collected here, that influence shines through in a myriad of colors, like the sun through stained glass. The reverberating sound of "Pops" Staples' guitar on "Uncloudy Day" merged blues and nascent psychedelia in the service of the spirit. Meanwhile, the Harmonizing Four, who had backed Sister Rosetta Tharpe during their formative years, bring a proto-rockabilly guitar sound to their "Hallelujah". And, as has been much commented upon, the Swan Silvertones' "Mary Don't You Weep" provided Paul Simon (a master of "subconscious emulation" if ever there was one) with both the lyrical inspiration for "Bridge Over Troubled Water" and the primary melody line for "Loves Me Like a Rock".
The anthology also provides some insight into the complicated question of what divides the sacred from the profane. Several of the groups featured here served as stepping stones into secular stardom for their members: Sam Cooke (with the Soul Stirrers) and Lou Rawls (who performed with both the Chosen Gospel Singers and the Pilgrim Travelers) crossed over into pop superstardom. But others, like Rev. Claude Jeter of the Swan Silvertones and Spencer Taylor, Jr. of the Highway QC's, refused offers to devote their talents to secular songs because of their spiritual convictions.
The Staple Singers, on the other hand, managed to straddle both worlds with success: "Pops" Staple's blues-tinged guitar influenced a generation on both sides of the divide, and Mavis' vocal prowess brought her global recognition as they kept their songs rooted in church values while addressing broader social conditions. And, of course, the external world continued, as it always had, to influence the songs of the church: witness the Blind Boys of Alabama's incorporation of Louis Jordan's "Caldonia" into their own "Swingin' on the Golden Gate" proving the maxim that the devil shouldn't get to keep all the good melodies for himself.
In all, Jesus Rocked the Jukebox fills a necessary gap in the rock 'n' roll origin story as it tends to get told on popular anthologies and it does so, like so many of the performers herein collected, with style and passion.