Gospel Truth

While Testify!'s first disc establishes gospel's sonic foundation and its influence on R&B and soul -- the pounding pianos, the furious rhythms, the swooping ensemble vocals, the grit and sanctified force of the genre's supreme soloists -- the rest of the box chronicles gospel's musical shifts, most of which mirrored the evolutions and revolutions of black secular music from the late '60s to the '90s. As the acclaimed 1982 documentary Say Amen, Somebody attests, gospel lost little of its energy and power following its glory days of the '40s and '50s. Some formidable talents emerged in the coming decades, among them Inez Andrews, the O'Neal Twins, and the Williams Brothers. Meanwhile, Marion Williams, the lead voice of Clara Ward's classic mid-'50s ensemble and the only gospel vocalist to rival Dorothy Love Coates, continued to add to her legacy through singles and albums up through the early '90s, all of which are worth hearing.

Much of the old gospel fire, though, had been snuffed and relit in whatever style was currently tearing up the R&B charts. Although the mass-choir sound never died, and center-stage divas continued to emerge from the best of them, more typical was the cloyingly upbeat "Oh Happy Day," a crossover pop hit in 1969 for the Edwin Hawkins Singers, and the jarring mid-'70s disco gospel of "Mighty High" by the Mighty Clouds of Joy. The slick contemporary pop of Yolanda Adams, Sounds of Blackness, and the various offshoots from the Winans family kept gospel alive in the church and on the charts, and secular artists including Boyz II Men and the gospel-trained Whitney Houston also dabbled in the holy waters. If nothing else, Testify! offers an adequate survey of how the music has evolved and where it is today.

To learn how it got there, though, the collection is a botch.

Mahalia Jackson contributes to the collection basket with "Didn't It Rain"
Mahalia Jackson contributes to the collection basket with "Didn't It Rain"
Disc One mixes politics and religion with the Golden Gate Quartet's "Stalin Wasn't Stallin'"
Disc One mixes politics and religion with the Golden Gate Quartet's "Stalin Wasn't Stallin'"

For those serious about exploring the genre, a better course would be to avoidTestify! and cobble together your own gospel history. How? Start here: Pick up Specialty's The Great Shrine Concert, Spirit Feel's Fathers and Sons and Stars of the Gospel Highway, Savoy's Legends, and Columbia's out-of-print but easy-to-find pair of Gospel Sound compilations. Then start exploring. The deeper you dig into this immeasurably important music, the more you'll wonder how Rhino could've produced such a sinfully skimpyset.

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