Down Here Praying
Apart from anything else, the release of Amazing Grace, the long-buried film of Aretha Franklin singing gospel songs in 1972, reminded us of the debt we all owe to the black church. African American gospel music explored and mapped the fastest route to the deepest emotions, whether in raw vocal inflections, heart-lifting harmonic changes or ecstatic choral vamping.
There are many fine gospel compilations, but few that I’ve found as fascinating and rewarding as Sacred Sounds, a new anthology of material recorded with various artists by the Detroit-based producer Dave Hamilton for his own labels between 1969 and 1974. Its two dozen tracks, selected by Ady Croasdell and Adam Stanfel, offer a cross-section of approaches to the idiom at a time when its performers were borrowing from R&B and pre-disco soul music.
Hamilton arrived in the Motor City from Savannah, Georgia in the 1940s and quickly established himself as a guitarist and vibraharpist on the local scene. A friend of Marvin Gaye, he played on “Stubborn Kind of Fellow”; his recordings for various labels under his own name included an album called Blue Vibrations for Berry Gordy’s Workshop Jazz label, an early Motown subsidiary (here’s the single, “Late Freight”, co-written with Clarence Paul). As a producer, his vast output yielded many tracks, such as Little Ann’s “Deep Shadows” and James Carpenter’s “(Marriage Is Only) A State of Mind”, which emerged from obscurity only decades later.
There’s a fair chance you won’t have heard any of these gospel tracks, or be familiar with such groups as the Sensational Sunset Paraders, the Detroit Silvertones, the Soul Inspirers and the National Independent Singers. All you need to know is that in other circumstances many of these singers could have turned into Motown superstars. The opening “Jesus Is With Me Pt 1” by Little Stevie and the Reynolds Singers sets the tone: had the Jackson 5 cut a gospel track in 1969 rather than “I Want You Back”, this is how it might have turned out. It’s followed by the Scott Singers’ “I’m Not Ready to Die”, with a house-wrecking female voice leading the group over lightly strummed rhythm guitar, walking bass and a woodblock on the backbeat.
The Reverend Samuel Barbee’s “(This Is) My Plea” opens with a heartfelt sermon on repentance over sepulchral organ, joined by a soulful guitar when the song kicks in and Barbee shows off his Sam Cooke chops. The Sensational Angelettes’ “I Heard a Voice Pt 1”, cheerfully borrows the melody of “Ain’t No Sunshine” for something that sounds like it belongs on one of Dave Godin’s old Deep Soul compilations. Mr Bo’s “Saviour on the Throne” is a genial altered blues in the B. B. King manner, while “Wrapped, Tied, Tangled Up in Jesus” shows the singer and guitarist Mary Ellen George to have been a spiritual cousin of Sister Rosetta Tharpe. The Soul Inspirers’ “Grown Old and Feeble” sound like a natural for a Ry Cooder cover, the Detroit Silvertones’ “Down Here Praying” is a wild shout-up, and the rocking vamp of “I Need Your Power” suggests how compelling the Pure Heart Travelers — that’s them in the photograph at the top — must have been in their prime.
Hamilton built his own studio and subjected his gospel artists to the minimum of interference and no sweetening, aiming to do nothing more or less than capture the singers and musicians au naturel. The result is a vibrant authenticity that leaps out of the grooves.
* Sacred Sounds: Dave Hamilton’s Raw Detroit Gospel 1969-74 is released on the Kent label. His secular productions are available in three volumes of Dave Hamilton’s Detroit Dancers and one each of Dave Hamilton’s Detroit Soul, Dave Hamilton’s Detroit City Grooves and Dave Hamilton’s Detroit Funk.