I Heard The Angels Singing- Elecrifying Gospel From the Nashboro Label, 1951-1983
Once upon a time, gospel had soul. From the fifties to the early ’80s, gospel music was the mothership for soul men and women who started out in church. Since its launch in 1951, Nashville’s Nashboro records was the go-to label for many of the artists who favored the jubilee style of gospel, featuring the call and response style that began to be featured in soul and r&b when some gospel singers were starting to cross over from singing about the Lord to shouting the praises of more secular pursuits. After flirting briefly with a combo of gospel and hillbilly music, Nashboro stayed true to the cause, featuring only artists praising the fruits of the spirit, forsaking the secular world, saving the bluesier/ r&b for it’s sister label, Excello, launched in ’55. Many of the label’s early tunes were cut at legendary 50,000 watt Nashville radio station WLAC, famous for beaming out black R&B hits nightly throughout the south with Gene Nobles and the Hoss man, John R. long before mainstream radio would play them.
Tompkins Square has assembled a four CD set of artists from Nasboro’s roster from ’51-83, the golden age of gospel. Slim and the Supreme Angels, the Gospel Keynotes, Bro Joe May and the Swanee Quintet were well known and well represented here. Not all the names are famous ones, but the intensity of some of the lesser known groups and artists rivals that of the bigger names.
On The Swanee Quintet’s ’55 release “It’s Hard To Get Along” on Disc I, the call and response thing gets a workout backed by some Lowman Pauling style guitar. “This May Be The Last Time” is a traditional tune that has been reworked by a score of performers over the years including the Staple Singers in ’59 and even the Rolling Stones. The Consolers version is janglier and jauntier than both.
Disc 2 highlights are the Gospel Clouds of Joy’s ’62 cut “Thinkin’ Of His Goodness” oozes funk with its throbbing bassline and burbling B-3 backing a frenetic praising throwdown.
The Hightower Brothers’ ’63 take on “Glory Glory” sounds like Little Richard on piano backing Wilson Pickett on a rollicking rocker.
On Disc 3, Bro. Joe May’s ’66 rendition of “Silent Night” will ruin you for anybody else’s version. Sounding like Solomon Burke, May rattles the walls and brings a tear to your eye with his spoken word segment in the middle.
The Gospel Keynotes ’76 offering, “Keynotes Prayer,” on Disc 4, showcases the incredible Paul Beasley’s falsetto on the choruses, hitting notes you didn’t know had even been invented to a melody mimicking James Carr’s ’67 soul classic, “At The Dark End of The Street.”
And just down the track on the same disc, check out the lesser known but equally vibrant Tommy Ellison and the Five Singing Stars’ “Come On Home.” Although it’s from ’82, it has has the sound of early ’70s gospel soul. With Ellison’s Wilson Pickett panther screams, a throbbing bassline and a pulsing B-3 behind it, this one would be easily convertible to a soul ballad if you switched out a few words and changed the focus from heavenly to a her.
The songs are grouped by years: Disc 1, ’51- ’57, Disc 2, ’58- ’63, Disc 3, ’64- ’67, Disc 4, ’68- ’83. But even the oldest stuff doesn’t sound dated, often rocking harder and funkier than some of its ’80s followers. You’ll be jumping back and forth on this stuff to immerse yourself fully in a collection of black gospel that truly is electrifying. Whether you’re of the secular or the churchy persuasion, the material here will move you and keep you moving to the beat and in the spirit.