Various Artists: I Heard the Angels Singing

Various_IHeardTheAngelsSingingExtraordinary collection of Southern black gospel 1951-1983

Ernest L. Young’s Excello and Nashboro labels have a creation story that would be tough to duplicated today. Young started as a successful jukebox operator in Nashville before adding a retail store that sold his customers the very records they’d been renting on a nickel-per-play basis. Further capitalizing on these two ventures, Young realized that starting a label and selling his own records would be even more profitable. Recording in a makeshift (and later, a purpose-built) studio in his store, he launched the Nashboro label in mid-1951 and the subsidiary Excello the following year. Excello initially picked up Nashboro’s excess, but became a blues and R&B label in 1955, releasing sides by Lonnie Brooks, Slim Harpo, Lightnin’ Slim and others.

Young’s businesses fed one another, with his retail shop sponsoring radio programs and offering its front window for live broadcasts. The label’s early productions were primitive by modern standards, but stripping down the arrangements to a cappella or voices supported by a simple guitar allowed the testimony to shine. There are splashes of piano, organ and reverb, but even as the productions became more complex over time, the focus always remained on the fervent vocal fire. Nashboro’s acts included soloists, duets and groups singing lead and backing, call-and-response and harmonies, and the label found both artistic and commercial success in all these varied formats. The material includes both gospel standards and newly written songs, each of which provides lasting echoes of the era’s civil rights struggles.

Highlights include the male-female duet testimony of the Consolers “This May Be the Last Time”(the refrain of which was repurposed for the Rolling Stones’ “Last Time”), the CBS Trumpeteers’ soulful “Milky White Way,” the Gospel Five Singers’ torchy “Love Deep Down in Your Heart,” and the pre-teen shout of Robert “Little Sugar” Hightower (of the Hightower Brothers) on “Seat in the Kingdom.” Many of the fifties and early-60s sides share vocal attributes with doo-wop, and the later entries branch into the blues of Sister Emma Thompson’s “You Should Have Been There,” the soul of Rev. Willingham and the Swanee Quintet’s “That’s the Spirit,” and the wild hand-clapping rock ‘n’ soul of Bevins Specials’ “Everybody Ought to Pray.” The productions finally become stereo with Hardie Clifton stirring soul vocal on the Brooklyn Allstars’ ballad, “I Stood on the Banks of Jordan.”

Though the sonics improve throughout the 1970s, the music remains mostly faithful to the gospel, soul and blues roots of the late 1950s and early-to-mid 1960s. It’s not until the end of disc four, with the Salem Travelers’ 1981 “Moving On,” that the sound of 1970s R&B is really heard. Gospel’s influence is easy to find in the popular music of the ’50s and ’60s, but listening to these Nashboro sides it becomes evident that it wasn’t only crossover stars like Sam Cooke and Aretha Franklin who made an impact. If you like the soul of Chess, Stax, Muscle Shoals, Atlantic or any number of vocalists and groups whose style was rooted in gospel, you’ll enjoy just about every track on this set. Providing a cherry on top, the 16-page booklet is stuffed with superb picture, graphics and detailed liner notes by Opal Louis Nations. [©2014 Hyperbolium]

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