High Water Records, based at Memphis State University in the 1980s, veered away from the urban and Delta blues recordings they were making during that era to record some of the most incredible gospel music ever committed to tape (see the March issue of Blues Bytes for a review of the previously-issued CD from the Pattersonaires).
The 38 songs included on this collection's two volumes, subtitled Memphis Gospel Quartet Heritage, were the result of the groundbreaking doctoral research done by Kip Lornell. As the subtitle indicates, the focus on all of the recordings is on vocals. And there are some incredible performances to be found here. Many of the cuts are sung a capella, and it's quite easy to hear the influence that this genre of music had on the great soul singers of the past and present.
Most of the same groups appear on both volumes, so it's hard to say which is most essential. Actually, I can't imagine owning one disc without also having the other.
So where do I start in talking about the highlights, as there are so many remarkable performances? I'll begin by mentioning the vocals of Clara Anderson on Volume One, leading her group, the Harps of Melody, on "Blind Bartimus." If you like good gospel piano, then check out "Why Not Try My God?" from the Pattersonaires, featuring gritty, soulful lead vocals from James Shelton and piano from Willie Gordon.
If you crave a little funkier sound, then don't miss the incredible version of "Swing Down, Chariot" by the Spirit of Memphis Quartet.
One of my favorite gospel numbers is "Up Above My Head I Hear Music In The Air," which was covered by the New York-based blues band The Holmes Brothers on their excellent 1990 debut album, In The Spirit. The version here by the Gospel Writers is much more subdued than the Holmes version, and features some of the best ole' time harmonizing I've ever heard.
The Gospel Writers also provide three of the highlights of Volume Two, with the spirited a capella number "Peace Of Mind," the soulful "There Are Days I Like To Be Alone," and the call and response vocal work on "Press On." Lead singer Willie Wilson, Jr. gives the latter number a heaping helping of classic Memphis soul, just like on the great recordings made in that city's Stax studio.
One of the catchiest numbers is the uptempo "You'd Better Run," with great harmonizing from the Spirit of Memphis Quartet.
Finally, if you prefer the classics, then you'll be overwhelmed by the Pattersonaires' stirring rendition of "How Great Thou Art." Absolutely incredible.
I always urge blues fans to keep an open mind, and not to immediately turn away from gospel music. It is, after all, the roots of the music that we all love. And there wouldn't be much of a tree without those roots. Happy In The Service Of The Lord is one of the best gospel collections I've ever heard, and is highly recommended.
--- Bill Mitchell
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