Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Jackson Southernaires - Travel On

Travel On

Why Malaco Matters

On Friday, April 15th, Malaco Records' historic studio and headquarters at 3023 West Northside Drive in Jackson, Mississippi was destroyed by an EF2 Tornado. Although I've written about the company a few times in the past, I've been concerned, for the most part, with the essential role they played in keeping Southern Soul music alive during the seventies and eighties. They did something else, however, that was equally important, and I'd like to try and focus on that for a moment here.

In 1975, before Dorothy Moore's mega-hit recording of Misty Blue picked them up out of almost certain bankruptcy, Malaco founders Tommy Couch and Wolf Stephenson had the foresight and courage to read the writing on the wall and go where authentic Southern Black music was headed - back where it came from in the first place; the Church.

They made a decision to open up their own Gospel division, and brought in local legends The Jackson Southernaires to help them with the project. The group was unhappy with the fact that their Peacock contract had been sold to corporate giant ABC by Don Robey a couple of years before, and were looking to make a change. Down Home, the groundbreaking album they would record as the inaugural Malaco Gospel release in 1975, is simply fantastic, as indicated by this hauntingly deep cut we have here today. Just great stuff.

The Southernaires, who had been around since 1940, were being led at the time by the energetic Franklin Delano Williams. Couch and Stephenson were smart enough to appreciate what they had, and made Williams their 'Director of Gospel Operations'. In addition to The Southernaires' own string of nineteen top ten Gospel albums that were to follow, Williams, as A&R man and producer, would bring legends like The Soul Stirrers and The Angelic Gospel Singers into the Malaco family as well. It was during his watch that Malaco would acquire the Savoy label in 1986, making it the largest Gospel recording company in the world. Following in the Savoy tradition, Frank Williams would go on to form The Mississippi Mass Choir in 1988. The live album they recorded as their initial Malaco release would go straight to number one, as did the follow-up God Gets The Glory. After William's unexpected death in March of 1993, the Choir's It Remains To Be Seen would stay at the top of the Gospel chart for a full year. Although a great loss to the company, Malaco's Gospel division soldiered on without him, and remains to this day the beating heart of Gospel Music in this country.

When I knocked on the door at Malaco almost five years ago, it was Jerry Masters who let me in, and allowed me to sit with him and Darrell Luster in the control room as they mixed down Apart From The Vine, a track from the soon to be released Sensational Nightingales album, The Gales. At the time, I don't think I fully appreciated how much Gospel Music had grown to become the bread & butter of the company, and how much love and attention they took in keeping things real.

I'd like to take this opportunity to thank Malaco and its employees for all the years of hard work and dedication to great American music, and offer to help in any way I can in their efforts to rebuild.
You guys rock.