It would take considerably less time to list Western music which is not Influenced by gospel, so pervasive has the genre’s inspiration been over the years. Vernacular music by definition didn’t get written down, so any musical archeology of how things developed will always be a best guess of the best-informed. But I think we can say with confidence that gospel music encouraged four-part harmony groups, playing a tambourine on the off-beat, singing like you are possessed by a deity and improvising the melody, among other tropes. From a huge 500+ list of suggestions I have selected an A-list and a giant B-list for those who want to explore this fertile musical territory further. Does the devil have the best tunes?
Clyde McPhatter was the lead singer of Billy Ward & The Dominoes when they converted the gospel tune ‘Have Mercy, Jesus’ into a number one hit single ‘Have Mercy Baby’ in 1952. It was the first big pop rhythm & blues song to highlight gospel features and it was a smash hit. Shortly afterwards Clyde McPhatter left to start his own group The Drifters. He was replaced by Jackie Wilson.
The Statler Brothers, to quote one of the two brothers Harry Reid “took gospel harmonies and put them over in country music”. Heavily influenced by The Blackwood Brothers (who were a family) from the previous generation, they formed in 1955 in Staunton Virginia originally performing only gospel. They backed Johnny Cash for many years but never turned their backs on religious music. This song ‘Bed Of Rose’s’ is from 1970 and has one of the greatest apostrophes I have ever encountered as they sing about a lady of ill-repute who is shunned by the church. “America’s Poets” said Kurt Vonnegut.
Ray Charles did not have a religious childhood, and having gone completely blind by age 7 he learned his music, including playing Bach & Mozart at a school for blind children which although he preferred the country & jazz he heard on the radio. ‘I Got A Woman’ blended jazz, gospel and country and was directly lifted from gopel quartet The Southern Tones ‘It Must Be Jesus’ which itself is based on Josh White’s ‘There’s a Man Going Round Taking Names’. A big hit record since covered by dozens of singers, it was a major influence on the birth of soul music in the late 1950s and beyond.
In the 1960s soul music exploded. Fans argued over the relative merits of the three great cathedrals of soul: Motown in Detroit, Atlantic Reocrds in New York and Stax in Memphis where a mixed-race band called Booker T & the MGs played behind everyone from Otis Redding to Isaac Hayes. Sam & Dave were nurtured by Hayes and David Porter and their thrilling live act was legendary, using church techniques and dynamics led by the great drummer Al Clark.
My discovery of the week was this track by jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis who is from New Orleans where gospel was the hand the rocked the cradle of ragtime and early jazz introducing those syncopated rhythms into the brass bands, beautifully realised here in a track from the extraordinary LP In This House, On This Morning recorded in 1994. The evocative album takes us on a jazz journey through a New Orleans church service instrumentally and is outstanding.
Elton John wrote Border Song with his brilliant lyrics partner Bernie Taupin in 1969 and he recorded it with many of his old friends in the session-musician world : Maddie Bell, Tony Burrows, Leslie Duncan and Barry Morgan. The choir was arranged and conducted by Barbara Moore, voice of The Saint Theme and Bedazzled among many others. It could be an anthem for where we are now in 2018. ‘Holy Moses, I have been removed… I have been deceived, he’s my brother let us live in peace…’ Elton’s first hit (in Canada) and covered by Aretha Franklin on the album Young Gifted & Black in 1972.
Aretha Franklin was born to the Reverend C.L. Franklin who later became pastor of the New Bethel Church in Detroit in 1942. A child prodigy, self-taught on piano and singing in church by the age of 9, visitors to the (broken) family home included Clara Ward, Martin Luther King Jr, James Cleveland. Mahalia Jackson, Sam Cooke and Jackie Wilson. There is gospel in every note Aretha ever sang. This song ‘Until You Come Back To Me’ was written by her friend Stevie Wonder and released in 1974.
Aretha’s funeral was broadcast on television here in New York earlier this year - over nine hours in all – a true gospel funeral with many singers including Shirley Caesar, Stevie Wonder and Chaka Khan who blew the roof off the place. Raised in Chicago by ‘beatnik parents’ (her words) and raised as a Catholic, her rhythm and blues tastes were formed by the radio. After being picked up by Rufus and recording six albums with them, she released a solo album in 1978 which included the banger ‘I’m Every Woman’ and this lesser-known song.
No one expresses the twin poles of gospel better than The Reverend Al Green – in the song ‘Belle’ he veers from holy to sexual in one line – and the tension between these magnetic opposites flows throughout his career. He took a hiatus from singing soul music in 1980 which lasted ten years, releasing ten gospel LPs during that time. Along with most soul vocalists, the melismas, hesitations, ad libs and asides are what make the records great.
This is a cover of the brothers Gibb aka The Bee Gees, who could have featured this week being drenched in gospel enlightenment.
Denny Laine would eventually become a member of Wings, but back in the early 1960s he was in Birmingham band The Moody Blues and covering the superior soul hit ‘Go Now’ by Bessie Banks and turning it into a pop song, althought the Moodies version is note for note a cover of Bessie. Black groups play soul, white groups play pop. It’s a rule, apparently.
Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland is a hugely under-rated blues/soul/country singer who often played and recorded with blues star B.B. Kingbut also had a successful career of his own thanks to his exhortational style of singing, from the nightclub rather than the pulpit. ‘Turn On Your Love Light’ from 1961 is one of his most popular songs and was regularly covered by The Grateful Dead and Van Morrison.
That old soul fan argument about who was more authentic : Motown or Stax has an interesting twist in the 1980s when Broadway show Dreamgirls (The Supremes) tooks its bow and featured an extraordinary performance by Jennifer Holliday as Florence Ballard, the Supreme who was sacked. Quite simply the greatest vocal performance I’ve ever heard on record, and deeper soul than anything Motown ever released. Recently it became a staple of the X-Factor since if you can sing this song, you can sing.
Kanye West is quite probably on medication these days, I believe that he has never really recovered from the death of his mother in 2007, partly as a result of plastic surgery. In 2004 West recorded Jesus Walks which was a massive hit record. Always pushing the boundaries of the sound of his music, he became less interested in rapping and more concerned with production. The opening song of 2016 LP The Life of Pablo features gospel superstar Kirk Franklin, Chance The Rapper and many others and points the way to future gospel-inspired influences.
Almighty ‘Allelujah! A-List Playlist:
1. Have Mercy Baby – Billy Ward & The Dominoes
2. Bed of Roses – The Statler Brothers
3. I Got A Woman – Ray Charles
4. I Thank You – Sam & Dave
5. Holy Ghost – Wynton Marsalis
6. Border Song – Elton John
7. Until You Come Back To Me – Aretha Franklin
8. Roll Me Through The Rushes – Chaka Khan
9. How Can You Mend A Broken Heart – Al Green
10. Go Now! – The Moody Blues
11. Turn On Your Love Light – Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland
12. And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going –Jennifer Holliday
13. Ultralight Beam – Kanye West
Beautiful, Bountiful, Beseeching B-List Playlist:
All of these songs were – at one point – in The A-List and remain unzedded.
1. You’ve Got A Friend (live) – Donny Hathaway
2. Keep On Pushing – The Impressions
3. Respect Yourself – The Staple Singers
4. If You Don’t Know Me By Now – Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes
5. Some Kind Of Game – Against All Logic (Nicolas Jaar)
6. Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting – Charles Mingus
7. You Turn Me On – Labelle
8. River Deep, Mountain High – Ike & Tina Turner
9. Higher & Higher – Jackie Wilson
10. Trouble, You Can’t Fool Me – Ry Cooder
11. Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing – Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell
12. These Arms Of Mine – Otis Redding
13. You Send Me – Sam Cooke
14. Cry Baby – Garnet Mimms & The Enchanters
15. You Got The Love – The Source & Candi Staton & Frankie Knuckles
16. Jimmy Mack – Martha Reeves & The Vandellas
17. The River Of Dreams – Billy Joel
18. If You Think You’re Lonely Now – Bobby Womack
19. Mercy, Mercy, Mercy – Cannonball Adderley
20. I Feel The Earth Move – Carole King
21. Deeper Well – Emmylou Harris
22. He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother – The Hollies
23. Another Day – Jamie Lidell
24. Coming Home – John Legend
25. Man In The Mirror – Michael Jackson
26. Reach Out – Midfield General
27. Deeper Than The Holler – Randy Travis
28. Sweet & Dandy – Toots & The Maytals
29. The Glow Of Love – Change
30. I Am The Black Gold Of The Sun – Nuyorican Soul, Jocelyn Brown
Guru’s Wildcard Picks:
Spoiled for choice. So I’ll give you three artists who were not mentioned this week:
Earth Wind & Fire:
Ben Folds Five:
These playlists were inspired by readers' song nominations from last week's topic: How great thou art: songs influenced by gospel. The next topic will launch on Thursday at 1pm UK time.
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