Like blues, gospel has influenced nearly every genre of popular music
from barbershop and doo-wop to R&B and soul to hip-hop, funk and
rock. This collection gathers work from many of the artists gospel
launched into the mainstream Mahalia Jackson, the Staple Singers and
Sam Cooke as well as innovators who are little known outside the genre.
Gospel music itself spans a variety of styles and moods, from plaintive,
spiritual-based laments to syncopated, polyrhythmic, tightly harmonized
grooves. Among the slower, solo cuts, Dorothy Love Coats' smoldering
"Strange Man" is a highlight, with her rough-edged alto soaring over a
righteous bedrock of organ and brush-slapped drums and tambourine. Even
better is Mavis Staples' ravishing, melisma-laced "Stand by Me," where
every note smokes and billows with feeling. These are deep-throated,
powerful female singers, whose grit and groove could (and in Staples' case,
did) put sexual heat into more secular compositions. Mahalia Jackson's "My
God Is Real" shimmers angelically in comparison over a church-y swell of
The faster, choral cuts have a Sunday-meeting exuberance, all tight
harmonies and polyrhythmic interplay. The Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet, one
of the leading gospel quartets of the 1930s and 1940s, contributes a
complex-rhythmed version of the traditional hymn "Go Where I Send Thee,"
their vocal lines criss-crossing in geometrically precise patterns before joining in euphoric multi-part harmonies. The Five Blind
Boys of Alabama also work mostly a cappella, coaxing complex cadences from
interlocking voices and handclaps in "This May Be the Last Time." The
Violinaires take this syncopated style into harder-rocking territory, with
electric guitars, tambourine and bar-room piano, in the feverish "What He
Done for Me."
This is wonderful stuff, both on its own terms, and as a precursor to so
many kinds of music from Stax and Motown through more melodically based
forms of hip-hop. It's frustrating, though, that the liner notes are so
sparse. They're little more than a track listing, really, and in no way do
justice to the many lives and musical oeuvres represented here.