Malaco Collection Lifts Up 75 Years of Gospel Music
At its heart, gospel music is joyous, celebrating life, love, hope, and redemption, even in the face of loss, uncertainty, and death. The music itself — fervent choruses that mount higher and higher with praise, call-and-response shouts that pull listeners into the heart of the song, the thrumming organ that floats under the choir’s wings, the bright guitars and driving percussion of contemporary gospel — moves body and soul to sway and be carried away. The 100 recordings that The Gospel According to Malaco: Celebrating 75 Years of Gospel Music collects in this 8-CD set is cause for a joyous celebration, of the music, of Malaco’s 50th anniversary, and of the label’s history in massing the largest catalog of black gospel music in the world. Renowned gospel music scholar Robert Marovich (A City Called Heaven: Chicago and the Birth of Gospel Music) tells the stories of each song in the collection in a beautiful, full-color illustrated book that accompanies the set. The book alone is worth the price ($69.95).
When Tommy Couch and Mitchell Malouf founded the Malaco Music Group in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1968, it didn’t start out in the gospel music business. The duo formed the group as a soul music label, emulating Stax, Atlantic, and Chess, among others. In 1975, though, Malaco signed the Jackson Southernaires, mainly because it had acquired the Peacock label on which the group had been appearing. Eventually, Malaco acquired gospel labels such as Savoy, Apollo, Atlanta International, and Shurfine, which gave Malaco a gospel catalog that reached back to the 1940s. As Marovich says of this set, “never before have so many memorable gospel songs from so many significant gospel stars been collected in one package. These songs brightened spirits when they were released and continue to do so whenever they are heard. This collection presents some of the best of African American gospel music and does it with the grace and dignity the songs deserve.”
While fans of gospel music will be able to graze through a sumptuous feast here, there’s nourishment for everyone. The set contains songs by artists ranging from the familiar — Mahalia Jackson, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the Original Soul Stirrers, Reverend James Cleveland — to the less familiar (except to gospel fans): The Highway QC’s, Reverend F.C. Barnes & Janice Brown, The New York Restoration Choir. A few of the highlights include The Jackson Southernaires’ moving version of the old spiritual “Sweet Hour of Prayer,” which includes a spoken word narrative floating through the song; Solomon Burke’s stirring version of Thomas A. Dorsey’s “Precious Lord, Take My Hand”; Mahalia Jackson’s lilting “Move on Up a Little Higher,” which is dominated by a stride piano and a jaunty organ playing call and response with each other underneath Jackson’s vocals; and Reverend Benjamin Cone’s “Pray in Your Own Way,” a narrative spoken over a tune that takes its structure from the old spiritual “Wade in the Water.”
Reverend James Cleveland & the Charles Fold Singers’ “Jesus is the Best Thing” plays off the tune of Gladys Knight & The Pips “You’re the Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me.” Myrna Summers’ glorious “Uncloudy Day” illustrates the power of a gospel song to transport us beyond ourselves. Summers’ soaring lead vocals are surrounded by transcendent choral vocals, lifting the roof off the church where the congregation is gathered. Dorothy Norwood’s reggae-inflected “Shake the Devil Off” is an energetic anthem that will have listeners actively dancing around to shake off the temptations they face.
There’s no better way to get acquainted — or re-acquainted — with the joys and beauty of gospel music than by getting lost in the memorable songs, and Marovich’s accompanying book, in The Gospel According to Malaco: Celebrating 75 Years of Gospel Music.