Wednesday, September 27, 2006

The Five Blind Boys Of Alabama - Something Got Hold Of Me (Gospel 1047)


Something Got Hold Of Me

Part One of Four


Clarence Fountain, blind from his birth in 1929, was sent to the Talladega School for the Negro Deaf and Blind in eastern Alabama. By the time he was 12 years old, he was singing white traditional music in the school's 'glee club' by day, and tuning in to WSGN in Birmingham at night to hear The Golden Gate Quartet do their thing. He and his pals tried to imitate their Jubilee style of singing, and before long were performing together as a group in the area.


Pictured here in the only known photograph from that period, they called themselves The Happy Land Jubilee Singers, and began touring the southern Gospel circuit. By 1946, they were singing regularly on WDOD in Chatanooga, Tennessee, and had made quite a name for themselves. In early 1947, founding member Velma Bozeman Traylor died in some kind of shooting accident, leaving Fountain, George Scott, J.T. Hutton, Olice Thomas and Johnny Fields to carry on.

Their radio broadcasts caught the ear of The Coleman Brothers, a Jubillee styled group that had performed at FDR's funeral, and had a few hit records under their belt. The brothers had formed their own record company up in Newark, New Jersey, and invited The Happy Land Singers to record for them. They covered a song that The Colemans had already released on DECCA, I Can See Everybody's Mother But Mine, and it "sold like mad".

A Newark promoter named Ronnie Fields had booked both the Jackson Harmoneers and The Happy Land Singers and billed the show as "The Battle Of The Blind Boys". The raucous competition between Clarence Fountain and Harmoneers' lead singer Archie Brownlee to 'tear down the house' was a huge success, and led to both groups changing their names to "The Five Blind Boys", of Mississippi and Alabama respectively. They took the show on the road, traveling together, just layin' em out in the aisles (In a brilliant promotional move, they always had a couple of ambulances lined up outside to transport any of the faithful that were about to be 'slain in the spirit'!). Fountain has said of that period, "...it was just what the doctor ordered. We learned how to love each other, to be brothers, and put things together and go all over the country. The audience loved it, and ate it up like cornbread and black-eyed peas."

Pilgrim Traveler J.W. Alexander caught their act in Detroit, and convinced Art Rupe to sign them to his Specialty label in 1953. Their first release for the label, "When I Lost My Mother", showcased their new 'hard gospel' style and just took off - selling over a hundred thousand copies - more than label mates the Travelers and the Soul Stirrers combined. They began to travel the 'Gospel Highway' together in package tours put together by the record company, and the Blind Boys were basically stealing the show.

George Scott's groundbreaking electric guitar work was a big part of the group's 'sound' and (reportedly after they just 'killed' the Soul Stirrers at a show in Passaic, New Jersey) was instrumental in the Stirrers hiring guitarist Bob King in 1955. (As you may recall, King was the man who wrote It Must Be Jesus, the 1954 Southern Tones hit that Ray Charles 'borrowed' to create I Got A Woman...).

Fountain also befriended the Stirrers' new vocalist, a kid from Chicago named Sam Cooke. He was only 14 months older than Sam, and recalls that he was "...an all right cat. He had a good solid mind, and he could just stop and read you a book... He didn't mind taking you to the bathroom, doing things with blind people that a lot of people don't like to do. Sam was all right when he was all right".

When asked about Cooke's 'crossing over' in 1956 he said, "We were there, we knew exactly what went down... I was in the studio with Sam Cooke when he signed his contract. The man offered me one just like he did him, but I turned it down because that ain't what I told the Lord I wanted to do... I told the Lord 'if you do this, and you do that, then I'll stay out in the Gospel field and work for You alone...' It's what I promised Him. When you promise God something, you don't go back on that." Fountain goes on to say that Sam "got to be too big for his own self... he was a good arranger, he could write, he could do everything he had to do, but my theory is that he failed to realize that God is in control, and if you promise the Lord you're going to do something, you need to follow that..." He feels that "Sam was the turncoat in Gospel, and that tore the Gospel circuit down to the ground, because people didn't believe we were sincere".

In any event, The Blind Boys left Specialty, who had begun focusing its energy on its rock & roll artists like Little Richard and Larry Williams, in 1957. By 1959, they were back in Newark, and had signed with Herman Lubinsky's Savoy label. Their records were released on his Gospel subsidiary under the direction of Ozzie Cadena, and they just cooked!

By the time our current selection was released in January of 1961, Archie Brownlee had died, The Pilgrim Travelers had thrown in the towel, and the 'golden age of Gospel' had essentially come to an end. Nobody told the Blind Boys, I guess... Check out George Scott's blistering guitar, and Fountain's unbelievable vocals... great God almighty! When Clarence starts testifying about how the 'holy ghost got in his body', it just knocks me out, man. You (astute observer that you are) can't help but notice the 'similarity' to Etta James' monster 1962 hit Something's Got A Hold On Me, right? Although the label on our single credits Blind Boys' baritone Johnny Fields as the composer, his name isn't mentioned in the BMI listing for the Etta tune... just a liitle more 'secularization', I suppose.

...to be continued

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Aretha Franklin - What A Friend We Have In Jesus


What A Friend We Have In Jesus

Well folks, I'm not sure if you noticed this, but over on our 'B' side post of Bobby Womack's A Lonesome Man, soulbrotha left this in the comments:

"Wait one cotton-pickin' minute!

"A Lonesome Man" is "What A Friend We Have In Jesus"! Every Baptist church sings this hymn to this day. I was raised on this song. The writers are Joseph Scriven & Charles Converse. It's funny how Bobby got mad about the Rolling Stones snatching his song, but he then goes and lifts the entire melody of another song and just changes the words. Hmm...

By the way, "What A Friend We Have In Jesus" has a fascinating history behind it! Would you believe that this is the most popular song in Japan? (23 million Japanese sing it every year!) Somebody needs to send "A Lonesome Man" over there. Bobby could make a fortune!"

So, I checked out the song's history at the great link he provided, and then started searching around. Sure enough, the Womack tune seems to be pretty much a note by note transcription of what has become a traditional Southern Baptist hymn (not to even mention the whole Japanese angle). It's been covered by everybody from Tennessee Ernie Ford to Leontyne Price, The Pilgrim Travelers and even Merle Haggard!

It is this Aretha Franklin rendition, however, that may be the most loved.

At the height of Aretha's reign as Atlantic's "Queen Of Soul", it was Jerry Wexler who put together the Amazing Grace project. Over the course of two days in early 1972, Aretha joined forces with her former piano teacher and vocal coach, James Cleveland, to create what many consider to be her greatest work. The concerts, at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles, featured Cleveland's incredible Southern California Community Choir along with Atlantic session stalwarts like Cornell Dupree, Chuck Rainey and Bernard Purdie. Warner Brothers filmed the proceedings, and the resulting double LP (with production assistance from Arif Mardin), sold over two million copies, broke into the top ten on Billboard's Pop album chart, and won Aretha her second Grammy that year (for 'Best Soul Gospel Performance'). A single from the record, a cover of Marvin Gaye's Wholy Holy, made the R&B top 50.

Franklin's 'Gospel roots' came roarin' back, and proved, as she herself had always maintained, that she "never left the Church".

This awesome version of the Baptist hymn that you're listening to is as fine an example of the "mass choir" Gospel style as you're likely to find. Reverend Cleveland, known by then as the "Crown Prince Of Gospel", had taken the lead in the development of the 'sound', and is at the top of his game here. That's him playing the piano as well. Aretha, in addition to delivering one of her all time greatest vocal performances, is also playing the celeste! Powerful stuff, man. I love the way they come building back up there at the end to deliver the knockout punch... Lord have mercy!

Anyway, I agree with ol' soulbrotha that, yes, The Womack lifted the melody wholesale. I'm kind of surprised that Leonard Chess didn't pick up on it, I mean they had their own Gospel division at Checker and everything, but then again, I'm sure the hymn had passed into the "public domain" by then...

Good lookin' out, brotha, thanks!

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Here He Goes Again...

Hey everybody, it's me. You know, I been thinkin'...

Again and again in the course of researching the soul records we've been listening to together this past year, I keep running into one of my first loves, Gospel music. It's influence is everywhere, and while soul music may indeed have risen out of Gospel, Gospel never went anywhere. As a matter of fact, even though it has become extremely difficult to find 'authentic' soul music around anymore, authentic Gospel is alive and well and, most probably, right there in your town.

We are the ones who are obsessed with this notion of 'crossing over'. We are the 'genre police'. I mean, do you really think that when Al Green talks about "The Power" in songs like Love And Happiness, that it's a different power than the one that shakes the walls of his Full Gospel Tabernacle every Sunday? I don't. I believe it is this same power, this 'holy ghost', that shines through the best Gospel and soul records.

As Mavis Staples says, "The devil doesn't have any music."

Anyway, this is the place to celebrate that power. Say Amen, somebody!

In keeping with my credo, 'In Vinyl Veritas', we'll be focusing primarily on 45s. With that said, I want to start things off with a song that came up today on my iPod and just KNOCKED ME DOWN!


Father, Father

Roebuck 'Pops' Staples was a true giant. A man who walked the line between the 'sacred and the profane' with ease... whose faith in his own vision of God and family never let him down. I will (definitely) be profiling Pops, Mavis and the rest of the 'Singers' in upcoming posts.

Let's just listen for now.

This incredible tune comes from the last album he ever recorded, a Pointblank CD of the same name released in 1994. Guests like Ry Cooder and Jim Keltner helped the record win the Grammy for "Best Contemporary Blues Album" (go figure) that year, but Pops' message came through loud and clear. Daughter Mavis, who produced this title track, joins her dad in updating the 'sound' that kept the holy ghost rumblin' through the pop charts in the 1970s.

Pops passed away on December 19, 2000. His music will live forever.