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From MCA Library, a Chorus of (Mostly) Heavenly Gospel Singing

TIMES POP MUSIC CRITIC

With all the interest in the pop-gospel fusions of Kirk Franklin these days, the timing couldn’t be better for a series of gospel retrospectives from the MCA Records library, which draws on the releases of such labels as Duke Peacock, Decca, Chess and Nashboro.

Unfortunately, the liner notes on the albums, which are released in association with the Gospo Centric label, are so skimpy that you don’t get much, if any, sense of the artist’s history or even when many of the recordings were made. Still, the music itself is frequently stirring in the budget-priced collections, which retail for around $11.98 in CD.

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** Various artists, “A Tribute to Gospel,” Peacock Gospel Classics/Gospo Centric. “Sisters and brothers, this is Rev. Satchmo getting ready to beat out this mellow sermon for you. My text this evening . . . ‘When the Saints Go Marching In.’ ” That’s how Louis Armstrong introduces the opening number on this 10-track collection, which focuses on gospel efforts by artists better known for their secular music.

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The lineup ranges from rock pioneer Little Richard’s surprisingly sedate “Search Me Lord” and R&B; standout Bobby “Blue” Bland’s silky “Ain’t God Something” to the Ink Spots’ mellow “It Is No Secret” and the Impressions’ spirited “Amen.”

While this may seem like a good way to get into the series, the music serves best as simply an appetizer for the more hard-core gospel tracks that you find on other collections in the series.

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** 1/2 Various artists, “Divine Sounds--Best of Classic Gospel,” Peacock Gospel Classics/Gospo Centric. When you start off with Mahalia Jackson, you know you are on solid gospel ground. The album’s production team must have felt so, too, because they bring her back two tracks later for a return appearance--a version of “It Is No Secret” that is so powerful that it erases any trace of the Ink Spots’ rendition from your memory.

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But this volume isn’t a one-woman show by any means--not when you have such other gospel standouts as Aretha Franklin (who is also represented twice), the Mighty Clouds of Joy and the Soul Stirrers also featured.

Yet this album too seems an unnecessary stop on the gospel expedition, especially when you have a Billy Preston’s “You’ll Never Walk Alone” taking up space that could presumably have been devoted to the Dixie Hummingbirds, Shirley Caesar and other gospel legends.

One thing in the album’s favor, however, is that it may introduce you to the late Rev. Cleophus Robinson, one of the most popular gospel stars of the ‘50s and ‘60s. His music, like Kirk Franklin’s, tended to employ some pop edges at times. Ten of his songs are included in “I Shall Know Him,” another entry in the series.

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*** 1/2 Mahalia Jackson, “In My Home Over There,” Peacock Gospel Classics/Gospo Centric. There’s nothing in the package to tell you when or for what label Jackson recorded these 10 songs (two of which are repeated from the “Divine Sounds” sampler), but the music itself--from “Amazing Grace” to “In the Upper Room, Pt. 1"--is presented with such gripping vocal passion that you’ll become a fan. Franklin may be the Queen of Soul, but Jackson is the Queen of Gospel.

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Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent).


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