Sunday, March 18, 2007

Original Five Blind Boys - Lord, Lord You've Been So Good To Me (Peacock 1824)

Lord, Lord You've Been So Good To Me

In 1947, R.H. Harris, the famed leader of The Soul Stirrers, was instrumental in forming the 'National Quartet Association Of America', a group dedicated to promoting the 'quartet style' of Gospel music by organizing and training teenaged singing groups in their own image and likeness. There were chapters in seven states, like the 'Quartet Union Of Indiana' in Gary, home to a young Roscoe Robinson. Roscoe was recruited as a member of a group of kids that called themselves Joiner's Five Trumpets that were being groomed to represent the style for their particular city. They would perform in programs set up by the Association that featured the best of these young singing groups in 'battle of the bands' type competitions. This not only helped to promote the organization, but inspired the participants to give their all to try and 'cut' the groups from rival cities.

It was at one such program that he met Sam Cooke in 1949. Cooke was a member of The Highway QCs, a group that hung around the main office of the Quartet Association in Chicago, and were undeniably the best of the bunch. "The first time I heard Sam, he was shouting with the pretty voice..." Roscoe has said, "So I come up to him and started talking to him and he said, 'Well, man, I like your singing.' I said, 'I just can't sing like you!' He said, 'Man, you ought to come over to Chicago sometime.' And from then on I started coming over, and I rehearsed with them and stayed at Sam's house. His mama would cook for everyone!"

As Cooke moved on to replace Harris in The Soul Stirrers, Robinson would become one of the most seasoned travellers on the 'Gospel Highway'. During the 1950s, the 'golden age' of Quartet Gospel, Roscoe would sing with The Southern Sons, The Silver Quintette, The Royal Quartet, The Kelly Brothers, The Norfolk Singers, The Fairfield Four, The Gospel Jays and The Paramount Singers... talk about a veteran! Small wonder, then, that when the legendary Archie Brownlee took sick he hand-picked Robinson to be his successor in the Five Blind Boys Of Mississippi.

When Brownlee died of pneumonia in February of 1960, Roscoe began sharing lead vocal duties with Wilmer 'Little Ax' Broadnax, formerly of the Spirit Of Memphis Quartet. The incredible record you're listening to now (the flip of the traditional hymn "Sending Up My Timber"), features Robinson's mighty voice just ripping it up, y'all! Archie would have been proud.

Shortly after Archie's death, The Blind Boys' contract with Peacock expired. They asked proprietor Don Robey for a new car before they agreed to re-sign with the label. With Brownlee dead, Robey probably had no intention of signing them anyway, and used it as an excuse to send them on their way. Robinson used his Chicago connections to secure a deal with Leonard Chess, who was only too happy to buy them the car. they recorded an album for Checker called "I'll Go", and did just that, going right back out on the road. When they came through Houston, Robey came to see them. "Chess has a lot of money," he said, "why don't you tell them you're still under contract to me, and we'll sue them for big bucks!" (a typical Don Robey story). He had a pre-dated contract all ready, and everyone signed it but Roscoe and Shorty Abrams, who refused to be a part of something they knew was wrong.

They were thrown out of the group. As the lawsuit progressed, the word on the street was that Roscoe had 'sold out' to the white man (Chess) and turned his back on his own kind (Robey). Nothing could have been further from the truth. He and Shorty formed their own group, The Blind Boys Of Ohio, but despite a rousing release on Constellation, promoters refused to book them. It was at this point that Roscoe decided he had no choice but to 'cross-over' (for more on that part of the story, please visit The B Side)...

By 1972, frustrated with a perennial lack of promotion on the part of the record companies, and a public that seemed increasingly indifferent to his music, Roscoe decided to return to the Lord. As he told David Cole a few years back, “I decided to go back into singing Gospel, mainly because nothing was happening with the R&B, and I felt that by me going back into the Gospel field that I could get more work, which I did. My heart was more into Gospel than into R&B anyway.” The resulting album (Jewel LPS 0066), He Still Lives In Me, showed that Robinson remained at the top of his game. It has recently been re-issued on the sublime P-Vine Japanese release Heavenly Soul Music. Say Amen, somebody!

His next stop would be with T.K. Records subsidiary Gospel Roots, where he would work with the legendary Ralph Bass to produce the long out of print "Time To Live" in 1977. A track from the album, Jesus Is Enough (a sanctified version of Roscoe's biggest hit), can be heard over at Sir Shambling's Deep Soul Heaven as part of the excellent Soul Of Gospel page put together by Gospel afficianados Karl Tsigdinos & John Glassburner.

In 1979, Robinson became a member of The Five Blind Boys Of Alabama. It's unclear whether this was before or after the return of prodigal son Clarence Fountain (who was recording for Jewel at the same time as Roscoe). In any event, they were both aboard for the great 1982 album I'm A Soldier In The Army Of The Lord, which Roscoe co-produced with Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. It was re-released on CD in 2004. Roscoe still performs with 'The Boys' occasionally today.

As MCA began re-issuing much of the Chess catalog in the mid-eighties, the album Roscoe and the Blind Boys Of Mississippi had recorded for Checker in 1960 was released on audio cassette as Soon I'll Be Done. At around the same time, he began working as a producer for the Malaco owned Savoy label, which would release an album on him called High On Jesus, which remains, sadly, out of print. Interestingly, cassettes seemed to be the medium of choice for Gospel music during this period, and if you check out the Gospel Catalogue at Malaco, much of it is still only available in that format.

Happily for us, archivist Opal Nations has put together Roscoe's early quartet recordings, along with the original Peacock and Checker material he recorded with the 'Boys' on a Pewburner CDR - PB 658 Roscoe Robinson (1950-1964). Go ahead and buy one.

Robinson himself has re-activated his Gerri label, and released an excellent album called The Gospel Stroll in 2005. In addition to the almost 'hip-hop' flava of the title track, he joins together with old friend Clarence Fountain for the amazing I Am Pressing On. Pressing on indeed, these two men are among the last living links to the 'golden age' of Quartet Gospel.

We should all bow down before them.