Of all the musical threads that led to the creation and evolution of rock and roll, gospel remains by far the most compartmentalized. That’s partly a matter of content: more than the blues (plenty raunchy), traditional folk (ditto), even pious country (which by the ‘50s was deep into its exploration of drinking, adultery, and various other forms of rowdy behavior), gospel is so obviously at the extreme from rock and roll content that the two crowds only intersected in the minds of geniuses like Elvis, Jerry Lee, Little Richard, and (later) Aretha who could hold both forms in their heads simultaneously.
The gospel music buyer has also been historically segregated from the average pop music fan. Even a large record store back in the vinyl days might have a selection of only a few dozen gospel records by the Mahalia Jacksons whose names would be vaguely familiar to wizened pop ears. Although the internet has changed access somewhat, the vast majority of gospel records to this day change hands at church services or in specialized stores that only sell gospel records (and other religious paraphernalia) but absolutely nothing secular. (It’s a good chance there’s one near you that you know nothing about: in Raleigh the wonderful Gospel King Records, which is all but anonymous on a drive-by, does the trick.)
Given how little of gospel recording (distinct from the enormous gospel influence) has found its way across this barrier, it’s a genre that is rife for reissue. But the diversity of gospel is also a hurdle for the compiler: to put smooth reverent quartet crooning from bands like the Soul Stirrers next to gospel shouters can offend the ears. The two early ‘70s volumes of The Gospel Sound (originally on Columbia, since reissued by Sony and Shout) remain canonical introductions; given the dates of their release it’s no surprise that these releases emphasize the blues-gospel interface. Nevertheless, scads of great gospel music, and most representations of the pop forebears within gospel, remain to be collected and explained.
I suspect that some of this was on the table in 2009 when Portland-based Mike McGonigal began lovingly compiling gospel reissues for Thompkins Square Records. The first, Fire In My Bones: Raw + Rare + Otherwordly African-American Gospel (1944-2007) is a genre-hopping exploration of nooks and crannies across the span of recorded gospel presented as part of the “Old, Weird America” lexicon. This was followed in 2011 by This May Be My Last Time Singing: Raw African-American Gospel on 45RPM (1957-1882), which emphasizes the diversity, idiosyncrasy and economy of gospel music. Both of these reissues can be breathtaking at times and have helped me to understand the diverse musical currents that collectively make up gospel. But their musical ecumenacism comes at a cost: they can be difficult to listen to.
I Heard the Angels Singing: Electrifying Black Gospel From the Nashboro Label (1951-1983), released December 2013, is the third and best collaboration between McGonigal and Thompkins Records. Forgotten, and notably white, musical entrepreneur Ernie Young founded Nashboro (and also it’s perhaps even better known blues subsidiary Excello, which released important sides by Slim Harpo and Lightnin’ Slim) one block off Broadway in Nashville out the back of Ernie’s Record Shop in 1951. Young also sponsored gospel programs on several different radio stations, some broadcast from the Nashboro studio. By integrating recording, broadcasting, and sales, Young created an independent audience of customers and bypassed the need for chart hits. It was a formula that worked: Nashboro was the stamp on some of the best gospel music for several decades, even after Young sold the company off in the late ‘60s.
Although its probable that a couple hundred diverse artists recorded for Nashboro, from early faves the Skylarks to the lusciously voiced Dorothy Love Coates, I’d characterize the overall sound of the label as “midtempo gospel”: Never wimpy and only rarely melismatically over-the-top, the label’s forte was the slow-burning epiphany typified by the Gospel Songbirds’ “Won’t It Be Grand”, which is included on the third of the four CDs that comprise I Heard The Angels Sing. There is also a resonant beat McGonigal and pals have assembled that suggests one or more now-anonymous Hi Rhythm Section equivalents supporting the Nashboro artists.
Even though the tracks included in I Heard the Angels Sing span 30 years in creation, there is a purity and uniformity that speaks to the music being relatively untouched by popular influences: this compilation makes the case that the gospel-pop interface is largely a one-way street. I’m sure that’s not entirely true: listen to the Spiritual Keynotes’ “Ashamed of Jesus” from 1959 and compare to “The Great Pretender” or “I Was the One”, both from 1956, to be reminded that the web of musical relationships is complicated. Still, no funk era or disco phase is revealed in I Heard the Angels Sing: think of this as a great gospel groove record for maximal musical satisfaction. And yet still, there are moments that stand out like beacons: Edna Gallmon Cooke’s “At the Gate” (1966) and the Gospel Songbirds’ “When They Ring Them Golden Bells” (1963) were among the easy peaks that knocked me out first time through this collection, with many others soon following.
Not that this is a perfect reissue: the notes are sparse at best, and the package (in 12” vinyl format, whereas the other two Thompkins Square gospel reissues are in CD-sized format) is just a drag. Nevertheless, this reissue works both for the gospel collector and the curious musical spelunker. And there is much more Nashboro product to be heard: let’s hope for a deeper dive somewhere along the way into the legendary but lost body of work that Dorothy Love Coates recorded for Nashboro, and perhaps a Skylarks compilation. Until then, see you at church.