Gospel music has played such a major role in shaping contemporary pop--including much of the vision of such varied artists as Elvis Presley, Aretha Franklin and Willie Nelson--that it's a shame the music is usually relegated to specialty bins in record shops.
While many excellent gospel albums have long been available in CD, new gospel packages from Rhino Records and Fantasy Records make it more inviting than ever to search out the albums in stores.
The Rhino series, "Jubilation! Great Gospel Performances," is a comprehensive survey of gospel. Drawing material from various record labels, the three albums serve as an excellent starting point for a exploration of gospel music.
Volumes 1 and 2 are devoted to black gospel, while Volume 3 focuses on white, country gospel. The lineups are impressive in both cases.
Among the 18 artists saluted in Volume 1 alone: Mahalia Jackson, the Soul Stirrers, Clara Ward & the Ward Singers, Aretha Franklin with James Cleveland & the Southern California Community Choir, the Dixie Hummingbirds and Shirley Caesar.
Volume 3 contains gospel recordings by some of country music's biggest and most influential artists, from Hank Williams and the Carter Family to Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard.
Each album in Fantasy's new "Legends of Gospel" series is drawn from Specialty Records' catalogue and is devoted to a particular artist. The first five acts saluted: Sister Wynona Carr, R.H. Harris & the Soul Stirrers, the Chosen Gospel Singers, Alex Bradford and Dorothy Love Coates & the Original Gospel Harmonettes.
While all offer stirring moments, the Carr collection is especially noteworthy because it bends the gospel tradition without sacrificing its passion and rejoicing. The album, "Dragnet for Jesus," features more than two dozen selections recorded between 1949 and 1954.
Carr was a Cleveland-based singer-songwriter whose biggest hit, 1952's "The Ball Game," demonstrated a flair for unexpected metaphors. In the memorable song, Carr spoke of temptation and salvation in terms of a baseball game with Jesus waiting at home plate.
\o7 The first base is temptation
You know the second base is sin
The third base is tribulation
If you pass, you can make it in.\f7
Two years later, Carr returned to the studio, according to the liner notes by Lee Hildebrand and Opal Nations, and tried to follow up on the novel topicality of "The Ball Game." Both attempts are available for the first time in the new collection: the album's title tune, a gospel nod to the Jack Webb TV show and "15 Rounds for Jesus," which substituted boxing for baseball.
Sample lines from the latter:
\o7 I hear the bell now ringing
And Satan jumps up fast . . .
I let him do his fighting first
I know that he can't last.\f7
Five more titles in the Fantasy series are due this fall, featuring such artists as the Sam Cooke & the Soul Stirrers, the Pilgrim Travelers and the Meditation Singers.