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Precious Memories

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A new five-CD series from Peacock charts the history of gospel music

By Nicky Baxter

Ever since Africans in America became Christianized, gospel music has served as the unshakable foundation binding the community together. During times of trouble, it was the sacred song to which black folk looked for answers. The music offered emotional relief to the oppressed and served as a clarion call for freedom.

In addition, gospel is the fixed root of a myriad of musical progeny, most obviously blues, soul and jazz. Less apparent is spiritual music's influence on pro-active rap (gospel was among the first American idioms through which social messages were transmitted).

In recognition and celebration of gospel's enduring import, MCA has introduced the Peacock Gospel Classics imprint. The label's debut is a sweepingly comprehensive five-CD set, individually packaged, spanning the form's astonishingly diverse heritage: Through the Years: A Collection of Songs From Great Gospel Choirs; We Are Soldiers: Great Songs From the Gentlemen of Gospel; Over in Glory: Favorites From Classic Gospel Groups; Precious Memories: Favorites From Gospel's Women of Song; and Thank You for One More Day: The 70th Anniversary of the Dixie Hummingbirds. Each of these discs has much to recommend, although limited space precludes an in-depth analysis of the individual releases.

Great Gospel Choirs is a collection of live performances ranging from traditional roof-raisers ("Tell Me How Did You Feel?") to more contemporary--and, in some quarters, controversial--fare ("He Lives Today"). "Tell Me" is characterized by sparse instrumentation (organ and tambourine), and the choir's sonorous voice reigns supreme. The song commences with spirited interplay between the male and female sections of the Universal Kingdom Choir; soon thereafter, a rough-hewn male lead singer's frenzied praises commandeer centerstage.

"He Lives Today" is, in comparison, relatively sedate. Boasting a lively electric bass figure tethered to some suspiciously funky drumming, the instruments are as prominent as the choir. The song is highlighted by soaring, jazz-inflected lead vocals and a chanting choir accompaniment brimming with finger-popping verve. Other stand-outs include "Jesus Will Make a Way," which showcases a Donnie Hathaway sound-alike and hip-hopped-up choral embellishments.

Soaring Like Hummingbirds

The Dixie Hummingbirds are as responsible as any group for spreading the "good news" of black sacred music. For more than half a century, they criss-crossed the country performing in churches and packed concert halls and cutting moderately successful records.

Featuring a lead singer augmented by three-, sometimes four-part, harmonizing, over the decades the group's extraordinary music has undoubtedly made converts along the way. So influential are the Hummingbirds that pop artist Paul Simon covered the group's "Loves Me Like a Rock"; the original is included on Thank You for One More Day.

That album's "Christian's Automobile" is a bracing number, with one singer humming a bass line while his companions harmonize. Knifing through are the impassioned exhortations of the lead singer (Ira Tucker?) who, as the song gathers steam, whoops and shouts like he's just seen the Holy Ghost.

It's been reported that Bobby Blue Bland found inspiration in the Hummingbirds' praise-songs. "Christian's Automobile" lends credence to that theory. "You Don't Have Nothing" is an abbreviated foot-stomper roiling with the unrestrained zeal of true believers. A forceful baritone practically crows his victory over evil, while his vocal support offers stolid support in an even lower register.

Over in Glory consists of songs by what amounts to gospel's super groups. The Mighty Clouds of Joy, the Soul Stirrers, Five Blind Boys, the Staple Singers and others are duly represented. The Mighty Clouds' entry is an electrifying sendoff to a youngster going away to the war in Vietnam. The lead (male) singer scarcely controlled anguish is underscored by empathetic vocal backing, terse drumming and shrill, whining guitar. One can imagine this song being played at anti-war demonstrations 40 years ago--or 40 years from now.

Like the Dixie Hummingbirds, the Soul Stirrers helped alter the course of Africanized nonsecular music. The ensemble boasted some of the most influential gospel shouters in the tradition's history. R.H. Harris was arguably the unit's greatest vocalist. The Soul Stirrers are best remembered, however, as Sam Cooke's group, his stepping stone to the world of secular music.

On "Jesus Build a Fence Around Me," Cooke's pioneering crooning style is very nearly fully formed. The sweet, melancholy tenor, the languorously drawn-out phrases are all in place, but his blazing passion here is unfettered by pop music's commercial constraints.

Finally, this collection is to be prized for its scope and sheer ambition. True, more comprehensive liner notes would have been useful. Given their lengthy career, recording dates might lend some context for the Dixie Hummingbirds' Thank You.

Listing individual members of the various groups (particularly on Through the Years) might have also have provided a fuller picture. On the other hand, the act that these discs are offered individually certainly lessens the potential load on one's pocketbook.

In any event, for gospel music aficionados, nearly every track in this collection, is indispensable. For neophytes, the series is an excellent starting point. Even those who find gospel music's holy-roller testifying somehow discomfiting, will discover themselves nodding in affirmation to the music, if not the message.

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Web extra to the December 17-23, 1998 issue of Metro.

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