THE OPPOSITE OF NOWHERE
By Jonathan A. Lethem
Let us just suppose, for a moment, that you are a person with a day job of some kind, let’s say one like mine—I write books and am a university professor—or one like yours, whatever it might be. Butcher, baker, social worker, tire-regroover—or let us say you work in a bank, or robbing banks. Perhaps you even work in a church; maybe you’re the janitor, or perhaps even the pastor of a church. It doesn’t matter. What if one day you woke up with a message burning through you, like a piece of mental lightning, one that went beyond the brain, to electrify your senses, and pulse in your limbs. Perhaps it felt as though this electrical message ran straight from your ears and your throat, so that you found yourself humming with it, subvocalizing. As though this electrified message wanted to come out of you and find its way into the world.
And now let us pretend you know where there is a recording studio. And you—or maybe the person who runs the recording studio—happens to know a relaxed local musician with a really funky, laid-back guitar sound, a person who likes to sit in and might even help arrange this message of yours into a song.
Maybe this guitarist is a ‘ringer’ who played in a real soul band once upon a time before turning into a guy who repairs cars, or sits on his porch and yells at passing cars that drive too fast. Or maybe it is the soundboard operator who is the ringer. He makes innumerable tiny suggestions, perhaps helps you shorten a line of your lyric, which you scribbled on a paper placemat down at the burger joint last night because suddenly the thinking was just flowing out of you. And your teenage cousins, they harmonize on the sidewalk together on all kinds of songs they hear on the radio – why not bring them in to sing backup? Whatever the circumstances, take the band really hears what it all means and they light up and play like they’re part of your electrical system, like they’re the band you heard in your brain the day this message first announced itself to you… and then they even surprise you and catch you up in the groove, double-timing it on the fade-out, getting a little funky…
…and for that one day, in that studio, you make a tiny piece of immortality, for anyone who might be bothered to notice.
Music as permanently strong and meaningful of this doesn’t come from nowhere—it comes from the opposite of nowhere. It comes from individual inspiration, yes, but individual inspiration fired and forged and upheld by community, tradition, and context. Some of these songs are made by mysterious persons who remain hidden from view; some by working musicians who moved from occasion to occasion and circumstance to circumstance.
In either case, the creators in question left behind the particular piece of amazement collected here as a testament of one moment of synchronicity. Nobody just opens up their talent and bathes the listener in beauty such as this without, at some level, a lifetime’s preparation. The music on this compilation didn’t come from nowhere, and now, it has refused to be accept nowhere as its destination—it has arrived on this compilation to claim its place in your awareness, to change the world at last, or again.
These songs are resplendent with love and yet are not love songs, not in the sense of man-addressing-woman, or woman-addressing-man. The material here speaks of life and death, care and disrepair, exultation and release, sorrow and pain, and exhort the listener to hold on, seek peace, let light shine, know joy, recognize the love in one’s fellows—nearly every ecstasy excluding the erotic variants is on offer here. All this music fits naturally into a context of people trying to speak to other people about the condition of being alive, and the fact that the emotions are universal and collective ones doesn’t make them any less intimate, passionate or devastating.
Jonathan A. Lethem is an American novelist, essayist, and short story writer. In 2003, he published The Fortress of Solitude, which became a New York Times Best Seller. It is a great book that created such a wonderful semi-fictional world around its protagonists, one of them a soul singer, that we asked him to write the notes you see above. Luckily he said yes! He has written a boatload of novels since then.
LET YOUR LIGHT SHINE
By Robert F. Darden
At the end of gospel music’s Golden Age (post-World War II to the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968), gospel’s major labels, Savoy, Gotham, Specialty, Peacock and a handful of others, were stacked with groups that had begun in the 1940s, their sounds firmly rooted in gospel’s past.
Things changed (somewhat) when one of gospel’s biggest groups—the Staple Singers—signed with Stax Records and released a remarkable series of hit singles: “Heavy Makes You Happy” (early 1971), “Respect Yourself” (late 1971) and “I’ll Take You There” (1972). The songs featured a full and funky band, gospel harmonies and lyrics that were less about Jesus and more about justice.
But funk and soul music are defined primarily by the beat, whereas gospel music is most easily defined by its evangelical lyrics. Gospel artists wanting to feature the beat and the words often had trouble finding record deals with the traditionally conservative gospel labels. It was OK for soul artists to sing that we all needed to learn how to get along. For gospel artists, not so much.
Modeled after Andrae Crouch and the Disciples, the Staples, the Mighty Clouds of Joy and, yes, Sly and the Family Stone, a new wave of gospel soloists, quartets and small choirs pounded out a rhythmic brand of gospel music, much of interested in peace, brotherhood and understanding.
New or unknown gospel artists (like most of these on this set), were often forced to record for “vanity” or tiny one-off, invariably under-capitalized labels with great names: Du-Vern, Senoj, Impel, Lovie D, Su-Ann, Arc-Bel-Kno and others. Some flared brightly for a few brief seconds; others never really flamed at all. It’s on these often-obscure labels that gospel’s funkiest, wildest, more innovative music first appeared … and usually disappeared shortly thereafter.
Some gospel artists self-recorded because they struggled to find a major label. The Triumphs had recorded a single LP for Vee-Jay but when the label, which was already in financial trouble, didn’t pick up the contract, the Rev. Joe Peay released “We Don’t Love Enough” on his own Black Artists label. “I always tell people that Vee-Jay missed out on two big artists,” Peay told me, “the other was the Beatles.” Albert Floyd said that The Floyd Family initially pitched “That’s A Sign Of The Times” to Savoy, which turned it down. (Though they later recorded for Savoy, the song never made it on the Savoy release, perhaps because it was too “topical.”) Likewise, after the Gospel I.Q.’s left Su-Ann, they were forced to release “Peace In The Land” on the even smaller Impel label.
But a lack of major label backing wasn’t necessarily a problem in a day when live music still dominated gospel music. The Triumphs toured widely, were a regular with Operation Breadbasket’s Los Angeles affiliate and even sang at the inauguration of L.A. mayor Tom Bradley. From Charlotte, the Gospel I.Q.’s toured throughout the Southeast and made occasional forays into New York, sometimes opening for acts like the Mighty Clouds of Joy or the Brooklyn All-Stars. The Floyd Family, dubbed “Gospel’s Jackson 5” by one DJ, also crisscrossed the country and once opened for the Rev. James Cleveland in Madison Square Garden. The Floyds—six brothers and sisters—also regularly sold out of their 45s and autographed pictures.
In fact, many of these artists featured multiple family members. The Religious Souls were another name for the multi-talented Kingcannon Family, under the watchful eye of Bishop Reggie Kingcannon. The sharply dressed Kingcannons, three females and four males, probably would have had a hit with “Condition The World Is In” had the 45 received better distribution and production. The Fantastic Shadows included several members of the Davis family of Miami, led by lead singer Althea. Their bass-driven “Time For Peace” will remind you of Undisputed Truth. The fourth major iteration of the Soul Stirrers (represented here by “I'm Trying To Be Your Friend”) included, at different times, Arthur, Leroy, Dillard and Rufus Crume. And the Gospel I.Q.’s included Bobby, Billy, John and Gene Houze.
The Staples Jr. Singers were a family band in the early ‘60s who loved the music of Pops Staples’ emerging gospel powerhouse. So much so, they actually named themselves after them and inspired Annie Caldwell to write and record “We Got A Race To Run,” which absolutely nails Mavis’ burnished hoarse-throated burr. The Staples Jr. Singers eventually split into the Caldwell Singers, featuring Annie and her family, and Brown Singers, featuring her brothers Edward and R.C. And both groups still perform Staples-influenced gospel throughout Mississippi today.
Sometimes the years of touring paid off. In addition to the Soul Stirrers, the Floyd Family Singers cut an album with Savoy and, besides the Vee-Jay LP, Peay said Gospel I.Q.’s recorded for OKeh Records (and one of their songs, “This Generation,” was even recorded by the Friends of Distinction).
Other equally worthy artists didn’t fare as well. The Mighty Reverlaires, despite the whole Wilson Pickett-styled stone soul of “Sunshine After Every Rain,” didn’t leave much of a vinyl footprint. The William Singers’ “Don’t Give Up” is polished, savvy and funky, a worthy heir to “Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” but repeated Google searches don’t turn up much at all (in part because there are several better-known gospel Williams Brothers out there).
And more’s the pity. James Bynum’s slow-burn soul release “We Are In Need” for the obscure E.B.C. label probably could chart today. The Rev. Harvey Gates (represented here with two incredibly soulful tracks, “Price Of Love” and “It’s Hard To Live In This Old World”) is an undiscovered genius. While copies of the otherwise unknown Willie Dale’s extraordinary “Let Your Light Shine” on Lovie D Records from Bakersfield has rabid fans a’plenty—one of the few known copies of the 45 recently fetched $10,000 on eBay.
As for the other artists and their songs, some have found new life on YouTube, including portions of Houze and the Gospel I.Q.’s joyous 50th anniversary concert. Houze, who said he has been pastor of New Hope Missionary Baptist Church in Charlotte for more than quarter of a century, still sings every Sunday. “I sing a lot,” he said, “and I have one good thing with me—our organist for the Gospel I.Q.’s plays for my church as well. He knows all of my songs, so that’s a plus for me.”
Floyd said the Floyd Family Singers toured for 20 years. “We could have made a career out of it,” he said, “but when I was out there, I saw so much stuff that I didn’t want my children to ever become involved with it, so I just kind of pulled back from it.” The family has occasional reunion concerts when the children (now with a host of grandchildren) return to Charlotte. One recent such concert drew 1,200 people. Floyd himself is retired, content to tour local fairs with Tiger the Counting Horse (check out Albert and Tiger on YouTube), the horse who knows a $100 bill from a $1.
Peay, the longtime pastor of the Praise Sanctuary in the Westmont neighborhood in Los Angeles, says he didn’t sing much anymore, but stays in touch with the surviving members of the Triumphs, including Benny Goodman, Charles and Leonard Whittiker. He recently performed a funeral for a friend in Pittsburgh, one of the cities where the group had had a loyal fan base. “And honest to God, there were about seven to eight of these young people who used to attend our concerts there,” Peay said, “and they all began to sing, ‘We Don’t Love Enough’ right then! It brought tears to my eyes. They didn’t miss a word! I couldn’t sing the entire song right now if you paid me $100.”
It may be that some of the others in this collection—the Rev. Harvey Gates, Willie Scott, James Bynum, the Might Reverlaires—are still out on the gospel highway, still performing in small churches somewhere. They’re all worth seeking out. And if you hear Willie Dale is singing, be sure and ask him if he has any spare copies of “Let Your Light Shine” lying around…
Robert F. Darden is the author of People Get Ready! A New History of Black Gospel Music (Continuum/Bloomsbury, 2005), Nothing But Love in God’s Water, Volume I: Black Sacred Music from the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement (Penn State University Press, 2014) and Nothing But Love in God’s Water, Volume II: Black Sacred Music from Sit-Ins to Resurrection City (Penn State University Press, 2016). He is a former gospel music editor for Billboard Magazine and the founder of the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project at Baylor University.
By Pastor Keith L. Whitney
When I first came to Detroit from Jackson, Mississippi in 1968, Gospel was not my native musical language—I grew up in a church that did Negro Spirituals, hymns, and classical songs. Detroit broadened my musical understanding of what church music could be. Gospel was the music of the day—church choirs, community Choraleers, quartets and the like were the musical movers and shakers of the city. My family and I spent many Sunday afternoons attending Gospel concerts at our church and in concert halls throughout Detroit. The radio was inundated with Gospel. Black owned religious stations played the latest records by revered Gospel artists, and quartet concerts and choir contests were often announced. Detroit was—and is—the Gospel music capital of the world.
The late great Aretha Franklin was a Gospel fixture in the city, despite also performing secular music. Mattie Moss Clark and her daughters, The Clark Sisters, were royalty. The Winans family, who made their mark on the Gospel world, were in the process of becoming the face of Gospel music in Detroit. Popular music did not escape the power of Gospel, and Gospel did not escape the power of secular music.
The Gospel bands heard on The Time For Peace Is Now were comprised of musicians who played both church and secular music. The church borrowed—or rather commandeered—the guitar, bass, drums, and other instruments used to backup Motown, Stax, and other popular labels—to give power to the songs they supported. Musicians who sang at ‘the club’ on Saturday night were often leading solos or singing in the choir on Sunday mornings. Saturday night and Sunday morning music began to interweave, which was especially felt when the church choirs sang Gospel. It was Gospel’s influence that made Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke, and many others the voice of the 1960s and 1970s. Gospel was the soul of America.
This album is reflective of the dichotomy of the sacred and the secular. The music here is in some sense the same as the music of the club. “Keep Your Faith to the Sky” could have you singing “Keep Your Head to the Sky” by Earth, Wind and Fire. Listening to “It’s Hard To Live In This Old World” and “That’s A Sign of the Times” imbues the pessimistic/realistic sense of what was happening. Like many Blues songs, the problem must first be named before it can be solved. At the end of The Time For Peace Is Now, hope is still present. The problem is named in the beginning and a possible solution is presented.
One of the rights of passage in the Black Community, especially for males, is one’s regular session at the barbershop. My barbershop is Whitlow’s Barber Lounge, found on the west side of Detroit. Vonnie Whitlow has been there for over fifty years, and was mentored by Raymond Parks, the husband of Rosa Parks. He has been the mentor to thousands of young men and women. He has allowed his place to become a sanctuary for the community—therefore it is not just a place to get a haircut, it is a place where the ideas of manhood are instilled. Heated discussions arise about women, sports, politics (both local and national) and to be sure, church. As one who is a part of the church, I have the chance to engage in conversations especially about religion. The community theologian who has not darkened the door of a church in a while spends his time educating those who will listen to what he thinks the church ought to do. Brothers who are perhaps deacons, trustees, ushers, or some other office in the local church respond, sometimes with passionate retorts. No matter the position, whether from within or outside of the church, there are moral lessons taught in the barbershop that are instilled even in the hearts of the brothers on the other side of the law. When I heard this album, I thought of the barbershop. No, not all Gospel will fit in Sunday worship services, but what I call the secular Gospel is preached anyway.The music of The Time For Peace Is Now is what I call “Barbershop Gospel”. This is the Gospel that is accessible to the ‘ain’ts’ and the ‘saints’. The themes here embrace the realities of life as well as hope for the future.
Songs such as “It’s Hard to Live in this Old World,” “That’s A Sign Of The Times” and “Condition The World Is In” question the realities of life, poverty, disease, income inequality and the like. The historic pull of the Black Church is present in these songs—name the problem, seek a solution and keep hope at the forefront. “Peace In The Land” challenges each of us to take personal responsibility to make a change, with the question, “What are you doing to bring peace in the land?” “We Got a Race to Run” and “Don’t Give Up” propose a solution to our problems. Listening to these songs forty years after the fact reminds us that there is nothing new under the sun. Although “Barbershop Gospel” is the predominating music of The Time For Peace Is Now, one cannot escape the reality of the church, and the Black Church in particular. These songs become like the “morality plays” of the middle ages—they teach Biblical truth to the Biblically and religiously illiterate. Mini sermons are preached, words of encouragement given and a benediction of “Don’t Give Up” dismisses the congregation. Although this is a classic album, its words are as powerful today as they were when first sung.
Pastor Keith L. Whitney is the Pastor of Sanctuary Fellowship Baptist Church in Detroit, Michigan.