Selected Albums — 3
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Having saluted the male quartets, Heilbut turned next to the great gospel women. He opens with two of Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s pre-war recordings, featuring only her and her guitar, all that’s needed. The Georgia Peach was the first post-
Thomas A. Dorsey gospel singer on records; this album’s cuts date from 1930 and 1960, her first and last sessions. Mary Johnson Davis may have been the most influential of all soloists. She introduced a melismatic style that would become synonomous with gospel, and her rapt students included Mahalia Jackson, Clara Ward, and Marion Williams. Other masterpieces include Ward’s Precious Lord and At the Cross, Williams’ sermonette, It’s Getting Late in the Evening, and Frances Steadman’s wordless Moan Frances. Two of Heilbut’s favorites are Sister Jessie Mae Renfro, a high-voiced ex-blues singer, who had forgotten nothing about her musical past, and Bessie Griffin. Bessie’s Well Well Well and I Want to Rest recall her glory days in New Orleans.
 

   

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Heilbut enjoys the male quartets but he loves the great gospel groups, and this album includes three of the finest. MIssing are The Famous Ward Singers, but since he had recorded so many songs with their lead Marion Williams, he preferred to spotlight their greatest rivals. The Roberta Martin Singers were the first and most influential, featuring Martin’s extraordinary piano, easily the most influential in gospel history, and a series of phenomenal soloists — Norsalus McKissick, Delois Barrett Campbell, Eugene Smith, Bessie Folk, and Martin herself, Dinah Washington’s inspiration. Also featured are Dorothy Love Coates and The Original Gospel Harmonettes, including live performances from their first national tour; and The Famous Davis Sisters, featuring Ruth “Baby Sis” Davis, perhaps the most powerful female voice of her generation, and Imogene Green, a contralto blessed to sound as if she had just rolled
out of bed.
 

   

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Among gospel singers, Bessie Griffin is considered the equal if not superior of Mahalia Jackson. They were both natives of New Orleans with immense, ravenous contraltos. In recent years Neko Case has named Bessie the greatest voice in American music. This anthology includes most of her best work from early days in New Orleans (including Thomas A. Dorsey’s Someday Somewhere and Lucy Smith’s I Just Have to Call His Name) to her years in Chicago with The Caravans (the bone-chilling live version of Too Close to Heaven and a duet with that song’s composer, Professor Alex Bradford) to her time in Los Angeles, where Heilbut would last record her in 1988, a year before her death, singing the poignant Someday He’ll Make It Plain to Me.
 

   

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What R. H. Harris was to quartet leads, Willie Mae Ford Smith was to gospel soloists. Even Mahalia Jackson idolized her, and adopted some of her phrasing and performing tactics. This anthology includes a live version of In My Home Over There, recorded in her 80s, and still featuring the huge contralto voice that Thomas A. Dorsey considered superior to Bessie Smith’s. Among her many proteges were Brother Joe May, dubbed by Mother Smith, The Thunderbolt of the Middle West. Their styles were so similar that, when asked for his favorite singers, Heilbut conflates them into Joe May Ford Smith. Martha Bass, mother of the pop singers Fontella Bass and David Peaston, had a contralto, almost as lustrous as her mentor’s. Edna Gallmon Cooke’s voice was small and exquisite. This anthology includes bravura hymns in the Mother Smith style, as well as Come By Here, performed with The Radio Four, a combination of soloist and quartet, song and proto-rap, that would become Edna’s signature.
 

   

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What the world didn’t know was that Williams had been critically ill, and had begun dialysis treatments. The song’s title was her testimony, “strong again, I’m ready to go.” The voice was no longer a multi-octave marvel, but the more focused, intense approach worked well with both fans, who liked Strong Again and Prayer List with its allusions to AIDS, cancer, and diabetes; and critics who praised her readings of Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child and God Bless the Child. One song, the a cappella hymn, A Charge to Keep I Have, would be featured throughout the movie Fried Green Tomatoes. Though recorded when she was 64, it has become her most famous recording, even more popular than her Ward Singers hits.
 

   

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Marie Knight is best known for her 1940s duets with Sister Rosetta Tharpe, but she was exceptionally versatile. As a pop singer in the late-50s she gave Dinah Washington a run for the money. Thanks to an album recorded in her late-eighties she was able to work longer than any singer of her generation. This 1976 album was her first in many years, and features echoes of Tharpe-Knight, with her sister Bernice Roach playing the Rosetta role. Then in her mid-fifties, she still had a lot of voice left, excelling in hymns like Where He Leads Me and the title selection, a song she first recorded in 1946.
 

   

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A collection of a cappella gospel, ranging from the non-pareil Golden Gate Quartet singing Thomas A. Dorsey and Dr. Watts in the late thirties, to Bessie Griffin and Marion Williams in the 1970s singing a cappella solos that resemble field recordings. Other stars include R. H. Harris and Leroy Taylor with The Soul Stirrers, The Famous Blue Jay Singers with the commanding Charlie Bridges and the rip-roaring Silas Steele, The Georgia Peach, the mid-40s queen of New York gospel, and Harris’ second wife Jeanette Harris and her Golden Harps, generally considered the greatest female quartet. Jeanette was a big early influence on both Dorothy Love Coates and Mavis Staples. Heilbut was fortunate to record her in her sixties for an album, The Soul of Chicago, that is no longer in print.
 

   

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This most famous of gospel documentaries was largely drawn from Heilbut’s book, The Gospel Sound, and he introduced the director George T. Nierenberg to most of the performers, close friends whom he had previously recorded, among them Willie Mae Ford Smith, Thomas A. Dorsey, Sallie Martin, and The Barrett Sisters. He also contributed a novella-length exegesis to this 2007 CD/DVD.
 

   

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It was a joy for Heilbut to interview Sam McCrary, the quartet’s manager, who helped him select their best work. There’s Poor Pilgrim of Sorrow, a unique duet between McCrary, a bluesy Caruso, and the sly, dry baritone Willie Frank Lewis; duos being an extreme anomaly within the quartet genre. Other classics include Lord Don’t Leave Me and When We Bow, led by the sultry baritone Willie Love, first husband of Heilbut’s “sister” Dorothy Love Coates; Lewis’ rollicking Let’s Go; Stand by Me, led by Edward “Preacher” Thomas; and I Can Tell You the Time, featuring George McCurn, the most forceful and versatile bass of his day.
 

   

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R. H. Harris, universally recognized as the first quartet lead wholly committed to modern gospel, is the “Father.” This collection includes some of his greatest recordings with The Soul Stirrers, starting with the non-pareil Walk Around, from 1939, and leading into Sleep On Mother, Lord I’ve Tried, and This is My Prayer. He had many musical “Sons,” among them Sam Cooke, who replaced him in The Soul Stirrers, and Archie Brownlee, the thrilling lead singer of The Five Blind Boys. Julius Cheeks and The Sensational Nightingales are the third featured quartet. Heilbut admits that the baritone Cheeks owes more to the Stirrers’ second lead James H. Medlock, and the Gales, an east coast quartet, are not exact descendants of the mid-western Stirrers. They remain a classic ensemble, still working in 2012. Julius Cheeks himself inspired both Wilson Pickett and The Mighty, Mighty Clouds of Joy.
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