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Revisiting The Soul-Stirring Sounds Of Decades-Old Gospel Music


This is FRESH AIR. Postwar black gospel music was one of the most important musical genres that shaped soul music through the mid-'70s. But short of crate digging for some LPs and singles, it's been increasingly harder to find. A few independent companies have made a dent in the vast amount of unheard music. And today, rock historian Ed Ward looks at some of the recent re-issues they've done.


THE SWAN SILVERTONES: (Singing) Oh, you know the day will surely come. When all the saints, child, must gather home. And I don't want to be rated. I want to hear him say, servant, well done. I want to join that heavenly choir and that sweet home by, by, by and by. I'm going to press on for the day. Yes, surely will come, yes, my Lord. I know the day...

ED WARD, BYLINE: Once upon a time, a cappella gospel singing was the standard. Tunes like The Swan Silvertones' "The Day Will Surely Come," recorded in 1952, show the old style refined by virtuoso singing. But even in a conservative genre like gospel, change was on its way.


THE SWAN SILVERTONES: (Singing) Oh, pass - pass me not, oh, gentle savior. Oh, Lord.

WARD: The Silvertones' "Saviour Pass Me Not" is consider by many their masterpiece. And in it, the rhythm has been taken over by instruments, freeing up the voices for improvisation. And The Silvertones could definitely improvise. Check the ending of "The Lord's Prayer."


THE SWAN SILVERTONES: (Singing) The power and the glory forever, amen, amen, amen, amen.

WARD: The classic version of The Silvertones, with Reverend Claude Jeter as lead singer, broke up in 1965 though because they were old-fashioned and not bringing in the crowds. By then, the black church, one of the most conservative institutions in the country, was being forced to hear younger people like Martin Luther King, Jr., who used its pulpits to preach for social change. An early follower of King was a guitar-playing patriarch of a family gospel group, Roebuck Pops Staples, who'd grown up among Delta bluesmen in Mississippi and moved his family to Chicago in the late 1940s. In April 1965, the family appeared at a Friday-night service of the New Nazareth Church, their home church, to share some songs about the freedom struggle, not a universally popular topic with the congregation. The Staples had just signed with Epic, a major label, and they decided to record the show. The result, an album called "Freedom Highway," has been impossible to find until this year, when Epic reissued it for the 50th anniversary of the march on Selma.


ROEBUCK POPS STAPLES: A few days ago, the freedom marchers marched from Selma to Montgomery, Ala. I know some of you know about that. That was in March of 1965. And from that march, words were revealed, and a song was composed. And we wrote a song about the freedom marchers. And we call it the "Freedom Highway." And we're dedicating this number to all of the freedom marchers. And it goes something like this...


THE STAPLE SINGERS: (Singing) March for freedom highway. March each and every day.

WARD: Chicago's New Nazareth Church wasn't only home to the Staples family, but to the Cooke family, who had give a major gospel star, Sam Cooke, to the world. Sam had utterly transformed The Soul Stirrers, a group that had existed since 1926. And his youth and good looks packed them in at the gospel programs. When he left for pop music in 1957, the group kept on. And when he and J. W. Alexander, another gospel veteran, started the SAR label in 1959 to record pop and gospel, the latest incarnation of the group was high on his list. In 1961, he recorded a session with the group, featuring their latest lead singer, Jimmy Outler, who just replaced Johnny Taylor, who defected to the pop world.


THE SOUL STIRRERS: (Singing) When you have troubles, don't cry. Just remember that he's standing nearby. And if disappointments come, they will soon pass by. But don't you worry, don't get discouraged, and don't cry.

WARD: Strings, modern production and all, this venerable group was moving with the times. But most importantly, a bunch of new groups and soloists were coming up and touring and making records. If you want to hear them, though, you'll have to go find the records. Gospel has never sold well, and it was the lowest-priority item for labels when the great reissue boom that the CD started came along. And when it fizzled out, a huge percentage of this music was locked away in vaults. Universal Music alone has Chess, Peacock and Song Bird, three essential gospel labels. And I hear from people who know that it's extremely difficult to lease any material. I'd love to hear that the Smithsonian or the Library of Congress is helping to get this stuff digitized. It would be an irreparable loss were it all to disappear. But unless someone starts to care, it will.

GROSS: Rock historian Ed Ward lives in Austin. If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like our interview with Steve Jobs' biographer, Walter Isaacson, or cartoonist Berkeley Breathed, check out our podcast, where you'll find those and many more. We'll close with music from trombonist Roswell Rudd's album "Malicool." Today is Roswell Rudd's 80th birthday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROSWELL RUDD SONG) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ed Ward is the rock-and-roll historian on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.