Judge Victor Valdivia makes a joyful noise unto the Lord. The Lord responds, "Put a sock in it, kid."
Rarely seen performances by the biggest stars of the gospel era.
Between 1962 and 1965, NBC aired TV Gospel Time on Sunday mornings, a half-hour show that served as the first time that many Americans were able to see black gospel stars on TV. The show was shot on location in places like Chicago and Memphis, allowing gospel singers from various regions to get mainstream TV exposure. Many of the singers and groups that appeared on the show would become the biggest stars in both gospel and secular music and would help bring gospel music into the mainstream, where it would influence many secular R&B and rock & roll artists.
Soul of the Church compiles many kinescopes of these episodes, and it's an excellent collection with so many great performances that it's hard to even list them all. Gospel titans like the Rev. James Cleveland, the Blind Boys of Mississippi, the Clouds of Joy, the Three Professors of Gospel, and the Dixie Hummingbirds, amongst many others, perform here. One episode even features R&B legend Ruth Brown. Many of the performers also act as hosts, introducing groups, choirs, and other singers as well as performing themselves. When they act as hosts, some of the singers are understandably awkward in front of the camera, since they had never appeared on TV before, but once the music starts, their awkwardness disappears and they become flawless performers.
It's fascinating to see the different styles that gospel music can take. All of the music is based in traditional Christian songs, but the arrangements and singing vary depending on the artists. There are swinging choirs and harmonizing quartets, sparely accompanied singers and elaborate orchestral pieces. "Go Away Satan," for instance, is a jaw-dropping piece of pure fiery preaching accompanied only by a piano and a choir. By contrast, a song like "There's Not a Friend Like Jesus" by Ernestine Washington is a classic piece of '60s R&B that sounds identical to any of Aretha Franklin's best work. Similarly, the Highway QCs, the legendary gospel act that launched the careers of Sam Cooke, Lou Rawls, and Johnnie Taylor, are, for all intents and purposes, a rock-and-roll band. With their hard R&B sound and prominent electric guitar, they turn spirituals like "I Heard" and "Do You Love Him?" into swinging R&B songs, and make "Nobody Knows" into a doo-wop song that can stand alongside anything the Four Tops ever recorded. The Harmonizing Four's version of "Amazing Grace" is a smoky, electric blues that shows the clear link between the Chicago sound of Muddy Waters and gospel that led to rock. Throw in songs like Ruth Brown's "I'm Going Home on the Morning Train" and Marie Knight's "You Better Run," both of which could have easily been Top 40 hits had they been released as singles, and you've only scratched the surface of just how much stellar music is contained in this set.
As for the technical quality, that's more variable. On the plus side, the PCM mono mix is actually nice and loud. There are a few pops and scratches here and there and on occasion some tape hiss, but considering the age and quality of the material, this sounds remarkably good. The full-screen transfer, on the other hand, is much less dazzling. These are old black-and-white kinescopes from the early '60s and they definitely show their age. They're frequently murky and blurry and the flat staging and direction make these sometimes visually unappealing. The musical performances are enjoyable but you may find yourself frequently turning off the images to focus on the great music. The shows all come with their original sponsor messages by hair and skin care products, but there's also an especially irritating digital watermark that ruins the illusion that you're actually watching the shows as they originally aired. As for extras, you'll get a smattering of performances by Mahalia Jackson from her TV gospel program, although all of these are also available on the A Gospel Calling: Mahalia Jackson Sings DVD, so if you're any kind of gospel fan, you'll probably get that collection, too.
Nonetheless, Soul of the Church is a must-have for gospel fans. You'll get a wealth of spectacular performances and rare songs in one well-compiled set. Gospel neophytes who can overlook the less-than-dazzling visual quality will also get to hear just how important classic gospel is to the roots of rock and roll and R&B. Highly recommended.
Not guilty! Hallelujah!
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