Earlier this year, Craft Recordings released a 40-track compilation entitled Jesus Rocked the Jukebox, Small Group Black Gospel (1951 – 1965) and while I’m not sure how many of these songs exactly made it to a jukebox, the other part of the title is accurate: many of these groups provide music filled with the spirit. Composed of singles from Vee-Jay records (Chicago’s legendary mid-20th-century label) and Specialty Records (its L.A. counterpart), the box set is all about the voices. Don’t know The Soul Stirrers or Highway QCs? Well you’ll probably recognize their singers Sam Cooke and Lou Rawls. Here are five featured tunes that testify to the importance of this music’s legacy.
1. The Blind Boys of Alabama’s “Swingin’ on the Golden Gate”
The Blind Boys of Alabama — presented alongside the likes of The Happyland Singers — open up the second disc with “Swingin’ on the Golden Gate,” a rousing tune that includes the lyric “Wake me shake me, don’t let me sleep too late,” a line that resurfaces again in “Let Me Ride” by The Staple Singers (yes, the group with Mavis). And with all due respect to the vocals, some superb rhythm guitar lifts the song to higher ground.
2. The Soul Stirrers’ “Jesus Give Me Water”
The Soul Stirrers are probably one of the best-known gospel groups of the era, in large part because of Sam Cooke‘s tenure with them. “Jesus Give Me Water,” originally released in 1951 in both 45 and 78 formats, is an early example of Cooke’s considerable vocal prowess. And while Cooke stayed with the group until 1956, the solo career which followed is what made him a pop music legend.
3. The Staple Singers’ “Let Me Ride (A.K.A. Swing Down Chariot) “
This phenomenal family charted several times on the pop and R&B charts of the 1970s. But the tracks on this collection are pure gospel, featuring the rumbling vocals of Mavis and the rolling guitar of her “Pops,” Roebuck. It’s been said that sharing genes enhances harmonies and The Staple Singers are supporting evidence of that idea: with this hymn, “Pops” and his daughters are of one voice.
4. The Patterson Singers’ “Heavenly Father”
A unique find from this compilation is the Patterson Singers — a group originating from Brooklyn. If you don’t listen closely to their lyrics of praise, you might think they were one of those ‘60s girl groups like The Chiffons or The Shirelles. “Heavenly Father,” a doo-wop style ballad, reminiscent of “For Your Precious Love” (made famous by Jerry Butler and the Impressions in 1958) is particularly sublime, thanks to the ringing vocals of lead singer Mildred Lane.
5. The Swan Silvertones’ “Mary Don’t You Weep”
You may not know them, but they were one of the mainstays of 20th Century Gospel. The groups’ unforgettable “Mary Don’t You Weep” is the perfect introduction, with its great harmonies and the soaring falsetto of singer Claude Jeter. For the record, the lyric “bridge over deep water” inspired Paul Simon to write “Bridge over Troubled Water;” Jeter went on to contribute vocals to Simon’s There Goes Rhymin’ Simon — a rare instance in which he allowed himself to sing secular music.
PS. Learn more about the great Mavis Staples. Plus, a look at Prince’s complicated view of religion and sex.
Photo: The Staple Singers with Don Cornelius on Soul Train (public domain)
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