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Reissue of 'Dylan's Gospel' resurrects the spirit of 1969

Bob Dylan's mercurial words on religion and spirituality have been examined for decades. Scholars, cultural critics and theologians have speculated with their pens, parsing the songwriter's syllables as if they were grains of sand. Entire books have focused on his spiritual explorations, beginning with his Jewish roots, his sometime embrace of evangelical Christianity and beyond.

For all the words, though, few have argued its point more thoroughly — and with fewer academic buzzwords — than Brothers & Sisters, a choir of Los Angeles session singers who in 1969 gathered at Sound Recorders Studios in Hollywood under the direction of Lou Adler to record an album of the most uplifting and spiritually inclined works in Dylan's early canon. The result, the recently reissued "Dylan's Gospel" (Light in the Attic Records), was released by Adler's Ode Records in 1969, but the record failed to make much of a marketplace impression. It became a footnote, one of many such stabs at adapting the songwriter's work in new styles.

Over the decades, "Dylan's Gospel" became collector fodder and started moving through underground file-sharing circuits and onto the hard drives of fanatics for whom the song choices and the performances resonated. Adler, after all, had enlisted vocalists Merry Clayton, Gloria Jones and Edna Wright to do solo runs over a vast gospel choir assembled from throughout L.A.'s many African American choirs.

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Imagine "I Shall Be Released" as though delivered during a Southern Baptist service on Sunday morning. Multiply it by "Chimes of Freedom," "All Along the Watchtower," "Just Like a Woman" and five others, and the result is a sublime convergence of Dylan and the Gospel — even if some of the selections barely address God and religion.

To wit: "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight" is less about finding Jesus than it is finding some lovin'. But that doesn't make this rendition any less magnetic. Filled with conga rhythms and call-and-response joy, the recording is a vivid reworking. "My Back Pages" too is an uplifting rendition of Dylan, recollected with piano, pipe organ and an overflowing spirituality. "I Shall Be Released" sounds descended from above.

In the decade that followed "Dylan's Gospel," the songwriter would pen some of his most inspired devotionals. The best of them, "Knockin' on Heaven's Door," "Gotta Serve Somebody" and "What Can I Do for You?," harness his lyrical genius in service of ideas on Christianity and God. Less proselytizing — and way more effective — is "Every Grain of Sand," his microscopic look at the wonders of the natural world and the beauty that created it all. (The evangelical phase inspired a fair share of clunkers — "In the Garden," "Man Gave Name to All the Animals" and "Covenant Woman" among them.)

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You can hear the seeds of Dylan's 1970s awakening throughout "Dylan's Gospel," especially considering it was engineered to sound like the inside of a sanctuary. The sessions were arranged by Gene Page, best known for his work with Martha and the Vandellas, Barbra Streisand, Love Unlimited Orchestra, Whitney Houston and others, and because the choir was created with homegrown talent, "Gospel" offers a window into South L.A. praise music of the 1960s.

The timing couldn't be better for this recording to resurface. "Twenty Feet From Stardom," a film showcasing the work of pop music backup singers, last month won the documentary Academy Award for its loving look at life just outside the spotlight. Like that film, Brothers & Sisters features the heavenly voice of Clayton, an artist best known for her work on the Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter."

"We took it to the church," Clayton told writer Jessica Hundley in the reissue's liner notes. "That's how we approached it. Just like we were singing in our choir in our church." Elsewhere she described the Alder-helmed recording session as being filled with "all these great guys and girls that did background in Los Angeles," including "all your friends, people you absolutely adored, people you sang with at church, just an array of wonderful singers."

That spirit permeates "Dylan's Gospel" and makes for a heavenly worship session, regardless of creed.

randall.roberts@latimes.com

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