Gospel Truth

Gospel has been the bedrock of popular music since it was first recorded in the early 1900s. It was the first musical love of iconoclast rockers ranging from Little Richard to Elvis Presley. It has produced soul singers as dazzling and innovative as Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, and Aretha Franklin. Its rhythms have propelled numerous pop, blues, jazz, R&B, and rock 'n' roll standards and provided the vocal basis for doo-wop in particular and ensemble singing in general, from the Ink Spots and the "5" Royales to Boyz II Men. It has become a multimillion-dollar industry for countless independent labels and publishing companies and remains a vital part of African-American culture. It is among the best represented genres on the reissue front and has been studied by academics and rock critics alike. Yet gospel has seldom crossed over to the pop and R&B charts, and many of its greatest practitioners are all but unknown by anyone but their die-hard followers.

Rhino's three-disc boxed set Testify! The Gospel Box represents a valiant if flawed attempt at rectifying this situation. Spanning more than 50 years of gospel recordings, from the Southern Sons Quartette to Whitney Houston's star turn with the Georgia Mass Choir, Testify! offers a wide-ranging sample of the music and confirms the genre's continuing impact on contemporary vocalists. Many of gospel's most influential artists are here, including Marion Williams, Mahalia Jackson, Thomas A. Dorsey, the Original Five Blind Boys of Alabama, Professor Alex Bradford, and the Swan Silvertones. Many of the songs will be familiar to even the most secular ears: "Milky White Way" and "Amazing Grace"; "Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition" and "Mary Don't You Weep"; "Oh Happy Day" and "Peace in the Valley."

The mock-Bible packaging is exquisite, and the booklet includes some impossibly rare photographs as well as a fine essay by historian Carol Cooper that focuses on the pioneering career of Thomas A. Dorsey, who, as a songwriter and publisher, ranks as the single most important figure in gospel music.

Given the painstaking detail and comprehensive nature of most Rhino sets, Testify! could have offered a definitive overview of gospel's rich history and an ideal introduction for the novice. Sadly -- and bafflingly -- it does neither. The role of gospel's female trailblazers of the '40s and '50s is scantly documented. And whether due to oversight or licensing restrictions -- something Rhino usually points out in their collections when it means the exclusion of an important song or artist -- many of gospel's innovators are absent, despite the set's 50-song play list.

The omissions read like a who's who of gospel history: Sister Rosetta Tharpe, a hugely successful and influential gospel hit-maker best known for the 1944 standard "Strange Things Happening Every Day" and the Soul Stirrers, who over their 40-year career under the tutelage of R.H. Harris produced countless standards, defined quartet singing, and introduced the world to Sam Cooke, whose vocal turn on the Stirrers' "Touch the Hem of His Garment" is among the most scintillating moments in gospel history. Also missing in action: Blind Willie Johnson, the gravel-voiced, slide-guitar wizard from the '20s and a towering figure in the gospel blues; Arizona Dranes, a widely influential pianist and singer responsible for the 1926 classic "My Soul Is a Witness"; the Abyssinian Baptist Gospel Choir, at one time gospel's best-selling group; W.H. Brewster and his Brewsteraires, an early influence on Elvis Presley; and the Roberta Martin Singers, an inspiration to countless groups thanks to its legendary recordings from the '40s and '50s. Without these artists, and about a dozen others of equal importance, a gospel collection the size of Testify! is like a blues overview that omits Muddy Waters or a jazz set that overlooks Louis Armstrong.

All this said, Testify! does contain some gorgeous, ragingly powerful music and spans the gamut of the gospel sound, from soaring, deftly arranged quartet harmonies to thunderous mass choirs. The first disc is dotted with sanctified standards and political pieces, among them the Golden Gate Quartet's 1942 hit "Stalin Wasn't Stallin'," not the group's definitive moment (try "He Never Said a Mumblin' Word," from 1941) but one that at least gives you an idea of gospel's influence on countless doo-wop ensembles from the '50s.

The Trumpeteers' "Milky White Way" has been cut by numerous groups throughout the decades, but its majestic 1948 take, included here, is the one on which Elvis Presley based his own version for 1961's His Hand in Mine, Presley's first gospel album. Also included is the Swan Silvertones' "Mary Don't You Weep," a stunning showcase for the roof-raising falsetto of Claude Jeter. Dorothy Love Coates' "That's Enough," from 1956, establishes her as a masterful pianist, a clever songwriter, and one of the greatest female vocalists ever to grace the planet. Her robust voice, impassioned phrasing, and swaggering delivery eclipse even the more revered work of Mahalia Jackson (represented on Testify! with a late-'50s version of "Didn't It Rain") and the propulsive mid-'60s secular work of Aretha Franklin (who checks in with a fine 1972 rendition of "Mary Don't You Weep," recorded with James Cleveland's Southern California Community Choir and culled from her live gospel set Amazing Grace). LaVern Baker, a church-trained vocalist and early rock 'n' roll architect thanks to hits such as "Jim Dandy" and "I Cried a Tear," supplies a glorious version of "Precious Lord," cut in 1959 with Professor Alex Bradford's Bradford Singers. Although the track does not represent Baker's finest work, it is nonetheless a wonderful return to her roots.

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