Sunday, October 29, 2006

The Soul Stirrers - Stand By Me Father (SAR 101)

Stand By Me Father

When Sam Cooke 'crossed-over' in 1956, it's important to remember that he was not only changing the nature of the material he covered, he was also walking away from what many consider to be the best Gospel 'quartet' of all time. That was something that neither he nor the rest of The Soul Stirrers ever really got over.

Faced with the loss of their charismatic and immensely popular lead vocalist, the group was hard pressed to come up with a replacement. According to Sam Moore, who had opened for the Stirrers as a member of Miami Gospel group The Melionaires, they offered him the job. The night before he was supposed to join the group, Sam went to see Jackie Wilson. "I saw the electrification, the excitement... that's what I want to do," Moore said, and when the Soul Stirrers came looking for him he was gone. They then hired Little Johnny Jones, who was the lead singer of The Swanee Quintet, but he couldn't handle it, and quit to return to Georgia in the Summer of 1957.

They next turned to Chicago, and the place where they had found Sam Cooke in the first place, local gospel quartet The Highway QCs. The QCs had recently added a brash young singer who, everybody agreed, sounded almost exactly like Cooke (for more info on that, please check out the B side). Soul Stirrer guitarist Leroy Crume went to visit him in the wee hours of the morning one day in June of 1957, and sat with the then 19 year old Johnnie Taylor on the steps of his house explaining what it would take for him to become their new lead vocalist. He told him he'd have to make up his mind right then and there, and Johnnie ended up leaving with Crume for Atlanta as the Stirrers' newest member.

They would tour that summer, and were one of the headliners in the 'Big Gospel Cavalcade', an ambitious traveling Gospel revue that included Clara Ward, The Sensational Nightingales, and The Five Blind Boys Of Alabama. Although none too happy about it, Art Rupe continued to record them, but his focus was already shifting away from Gospel at this point. When their new releases failed to sell the way they used to, The Soul Stirrers were dropped by Specialty Records in late 1958. They were offered a contract by Vee-Jay in Chicago, but Sam Cooke convinced them to let him record them instead.

With his best friend and business partner J.W. ('Alex') Alexander (pictured here with fellow Pilgrim Traveler Lou Rawls), Sam decided to start a new record company specifically for that purpose. It would be called SAR, as in Sam, Alex and Roy - the Roy being Roy Crain, the founding member of the Stirrers that Sam insisted on including in the deal.

They began working up material for them right away, with Sam and Alex taking an old Charles Tindley hymn called Stand By Me and turning it into the phenomenal song that you're listening to now. Flying to Chicago, they booked studio time for early September of 1959.

They brought Sam's regular studio guitar wizard (and former Ink Spot), Clif White with them to join with Leroy Crume on the session. With the rest of the group's mournful wail behind him, Johnnie Taylor lays down an incredibly soulful vocal here that makes this one of my favorite Soul Stirrers records ever.

Released as SAR's first single later that year, J.W. Alexander thought it had serious 'crossover potential', and was able to garner some airplay on top 40 radio shows like Alan Freed's. The fact that the general public thought it was Sam Cooke singing lead (and nobody said anything to make them think otherwise) helped, I'm sure.

In early 1960, the car Johnnie Taylor was driving struck a young girl who had run out in front of him. Although the girl wasn't seriously hurt, when the police responded they locked Taylor up for driving 'under the influence of marijuana'. When the rest of the Soul Stirrers showed up to bail him out, it was obvious that they were concerned about how this might affect the group's image. Johnnie decided to quit before he was fired, becoming an itinerant preacher named "The Reverend Johnnie Taylor (formerly of The Soul Stirrers)".

He would be back knocking on SAR's door by April of 1961... (you can read more about that, here.)

Monday, October 16, 2006

Brother Joe May - When The Lord Gets Ready (Nashboro 657)

When The Lord Gets Ready

Ernie Young operated a jukebox route in the Nashville area in the 1940's, and when the records came out of the juke joints, he sold them in his 'record mart' on 3rd Avenue North. Randy Wood (who would later go on to form Dot Records) owned 'the world's largest mail-order phonograph record shop' in Gallatin, Tennessee. His store was the sponsor of 'Randy's Record Highlights' the immensely popular 'boogie-woogie' show hosted by Gene Nobles on WLAC. Ernie wanted in on the action.

When John R returned from World War II in 1946, he became the voice behind 'Ernie's Record Parade', a nightly show that feaured the latest in Blues and R&B. On Sunday nights, the program was strictly 'spiritual', and focused on Gospel. Young's small store was soon inundated with mail-orders, and he realized that the demand for Gospel records by John's mostly black, mostly Southern audience far outweighed the supply on hand. He decided to start his own label to meet that demand in 1951.

That label, Nashboro, was in the unique position of being able to promote its records on the air almost immediately. The first sides were actually recorded late at night in the WLAC studios with John R acting as the producer. Eventually, Ernie set up a primitive studio in the attic of his shop, and set about recording local talent like The Skylarks and The Silvertone Jubilee Singers. He hired the Reverend Doctor Morgan Babb, the leader of The Radio Four, to act as his community liaison and A&R man, and the label was on its way.

Young would start a subsidiary label named Excello in 1952 (for more on the Excello story, please check out the good ol' B side). The first five releases on Excello were Gospel as well, but Young soon used the label exclusively for R&B and Blues.

As time went on, Nashboro established itself as one of the leaders in the Gospel field, especially in the South. WLAC's 50,000 watts, as well as John R's great 'shtick', helped see to that. When labels like Specialty began concentrating on rock & roll in the late fifties, Nashboro was positioned to pick up some of the pieces. Such was the case with today's selection.

Mother Willie Mae Ford Smith was an evangelical 'anointed singer' whose spirit-filled solos at Thomas Dorsey's annual Gospel Conventions in the 1930s paved the way for Gospel as we know it today. She has been compared with Bessie Smith (Dorsey said she was better!), and was the acknowledged inspiration for vocalists from Mahalia Jackson to O.V. Wright. Although she was the 'mentor' for many an aspiring singer in those days, her favorite by far was Brother Joe May, a man she would christen "The Thunderbolt Of The Middle West".

May grew up singing Gospel as a member of The Church Of God in Mississippi, but moved to East St. Louis in 1941 to find work. He soon became a disciple of the amazing Mother Smith, and sang with her every chance he got. Before long, Smith was taking him with her to the Gospel Conventions and he began to make a name for himself. When Pilgrim Traveler J.W. Alexander saw him perform at the 1949 convention he was blown away, and recommended him to Art Rupe at Specialty Records.

His first single for the label, Dorsey's Search Me Lord, would become a million-seller, and May was able to 'quit his day job' to become one of the premier voices in post-war Gospel music. His high energy delivery and powerful voice had people calling him 'the male Mahalia', but in reality he was the creation of Mother Smith, carrying her 'holy ghost' style forward to a new generation. He became one of the top-selling artists for Specialty, and appeared in the 'package shows' organized by the record company. One such performance is captured in the live recording of the famous 1955 Shrine Auditorium Summer Festival Of Gospel Music. Alongside Sam Cooke's Soul Stirrers, Dorothy Love Coates, and Alexander's Pilgrim Travelers, Brother Joe is at the top of his game.

Just like the Blind Boys before him, May saw the handwriting on the wall and, refusing to 'cross-over' he left Specialty for Nashboro in 1958. In many ways, this only solidified his reputation with his southern Gospel audience, and The Thunderbolt Of The Middle West became even more popular down south (I'm sure having his new records broadcast on WLAC didn't hurt either). Today's featured selection was his third release for Nashboro, and is just plain awesome. Check out that voice, huh? "...Tell the government, get ready too. Tell everybody - The Internal Revenue" Just amazing.

Now, as I'm sure you've noticed, this is essentially the same song (with better lyrics) as the one the Rolling Stones covered as You Gotta Move on Sticky Fingers in 1971. They list Mississippi Fred McDowell as the composer, but the earliest recorded version I can find by him is from a 1964 album called Amazing Grace on which he collaborates with The Hunter's Chapel Singers on some Gospel standards. Although it's not unusual in the Gospel field to claim the songwriting and publishing on songs that have already entered the 'public domain' (witness the fact that Stan Lewis is listed as the composer of Just A Closer Walk in our last post!), I just wonder if Brother Joe actually wrote this one himself. It rocks.

Brother Joe would go on to tour Europe, and star on Broadway opposite Marion Williams in Black Nativity (a role later filled by Alex Bradford). Despite declining health, he continued to tour extensively. On July 14, 1972, the Thunderbolt was struck down by a massive stroke on his way to a performance in Thomasville, Georgia. Mother Willie Mae said, "I never thought I'd be saying goodbye to my child... He was my Joe baby, and he knew how to stir me, no doubt about it."

When the Lord gets ready...

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Clarence Fountain - Just A Closer Walk (Jewel 160)

Just A Closer Walk

Part Two of Four

When The Five Blind Boys of Mississippi left Vee-Jay Records for Don Robey's Peacock label in the late fifties, Vee-Jay came knocking on the door of The Five Blind Boys of Alabama. Once their contract with Savoy was up, they signed with the better known (in the Gospel field, anyway) Chicago label, which was clearly seen as a step up.

Vee-Jay, who had released the Mississippi group's records as 'The Original Five Blind Boys', now billed them as the 'Original Blind Boys Of Alabama'. The Blind Boys had found a home, and their records from this period show it... great high energy stuff that demonstrates how far they had come, not only as vocalists, but as a band as well. Unfortunately for them, (and us, too) Vee-Jay went bankrupt in 1965, and left 'The Boys' without a contract.

These were trying times for traditional Gospel 'quartets', as there was not much of a market for their music outside of Church. Although they continued to get work, the 'money was gettin' funny', and arguments within the group began to drive them apart. Clarence Fountain apparently felt that he was the 'star', and that he should be paid more than the other founding members. This wasn't going to fly, and so he left The Blind Boys in 1969.

Stan Lewis signed him up as a solo artist for his Shreveport, Louisiana based Jewel label. Lewis had started out with a jukebox route, and was able to open his own record store in 1948. He was quite the entrepreneur, and built up his mail-order business by advertising on the radio, especially on John R's fabled WLAC broadcasts. Before long, Stan became the 'go-to' distributor in the region for all the major labels, developing close ties with Chess in particular. He started his own label, Jewel, in 1963 and soon branched out to form the Paula and Ronn labels as well. Originally producing swamp pop and R&B records by local talent like Cookie and the Cupcakes, John Fred, and Bobby Charles, Lewis began his Gospel 'Devotional Series' in 1966. Signing the great Clarence Fountain must have been seen as quite the 'feather in his cap'.

By the early seventies, many of the independent labels had either gone out of business, or were being sold off to the big corporations. Lewis, kind of like the 'last man standing', was able to pick up some of the pieces (just as Malaco would a decade later). Great artists like Charles Brown, Lowell Fulson and Lightnin' Hopkins found themselves without a contract, and were soon recording for Jewel. In addition to the performers, great producers & arrangers were also suddenly available, and Lewis snatched 'em up.

The record you're listening to now is a case in point. The producer, Ralph Bass, has absolutely incredible credentials. He came up in the forties with the Black and White and Savoy labels, recording people like Roosevelt Sykes, T-Bone Walker, and Big Joe Turner, as well as the best of the 52nd Street Jazz scene in New York. In 1951, Bass signed with Syd Nathan's King Records where he was assigned his own subsidiary label, Federal. He produced some of the best R&B records ever made (like Sixty Minute Man and Work With Me Annie) and, in 1955 (legend has it) he drove from Atlanta to Macon in the middle of the night to sign James Brown and the Famous Flames before Leonard Chess did. Chess got his revenge a few years later when he hired Bass away from Federal and put him in charge of production for his own labels. It boggles the mind to think of the records that he worked on while he was there in Chicago (think Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, Etta James...). Unreal.

The arranger, Sonny Thompson, has quite the history as well. Sonny had a couple of #1 R&B hits in 1948 (Long Gone and Late Freight) on Miracle Records, and would continue to chart when he moved to King in 1952. He eventually became the head of A&R for the label (I'm assuming he took Bass' place in 1958), and was the man behind all those great Freddie King instrumentals, producing and arranging them as well as ticklin' the ol' ivories... imagine?

Anyway, the point is that by the time this record was made in 1971, Clarence Fountain found himself hooked up with some of the heaviest hitters in the business, and was really going for it. Check out the big production, with the background singers and everything! Even though Clarence was sticking to his promise to 'stay out in the Gospel field', his amazing vocals here would have put many a secular soul singer to shame.

Unfortunately, despite their quality, none of Fountain's Jewel LPs would sell much, and his career was going nowhere.

He would rejoin the Blind Boys in 1980.