Christians Catch Hell: Gospel Roots 1976-79
Honest Jon’s Records
By Bob Marovich
Those of us who moved and grooved to 1970s hits by the likes of George McCrae and K.C. and the Sunshine Band on Henry Stone’s TK label had no idea the veteran record man had a subsidiary reserved for the sacred.
He did. It was called Gospel Roots and, thanks to Honest Jon’s Records, Christians Catch Hell is a top-quality retrospective of the label’s life and times.
The title and front cover of the album reference the extended title track of the Reverend Edna Isaac and the Greene Sisters’ album for Gospel Roots. If (as on this cut) most of the lyrics to the songs on the anthology can be classified as traditional church messages, the majority of the music is not traditional churchy piano and organ accompaniment but 1970s deep soul groove. In fact, if you were not listening carefully to the words of the Reverend T.L. Barrett’s “After the Rain” and “Said It Long Time Ago,” you’d think you were listening to aural highlights from TV’s Soul Train.
Funky bass and heavy drumming support singers who deliver with such confidence that their vocal lines strut like the cartoon characters from Robert Crumb’s “Keep on Truckin’” images. The collection is a fine example of the symbiosis between sacred and secular sounds, and the experimentation taking place, during the late 1970s as gospel artists from the Hawkins to the Winans to Andrae Crouch were modernizing the soundtrack, if not always the lyrical content, of gospel music.
It’s not surprising, given the times and the path cut by the Staple Singers, that message music also made its mark on Gospel Roots. The Phillipians’ “Never Say What You Want” aims a spotlight on the complex problem of poverty through a conversation between a rich and a poor woman. On “Tell Me,” the Fantastic Family Aires shake their collective heads as they sing, “Tell me, what is this world coming to?” The O’Neal Twins, arguably the most popular gospel group of the day among those anthologized, sing “Wake Up Everybody” to encourage listeners to join them in making the world better.
Although deep soul treatments comprise the majority of cuts on Christians Catch Hell, there are some throwback sounds, too, courtesy of the Fabulous Luckett Brothers, the Bright Clouds, and the Brooklyn All Stars. But even here, the quartets were incrementally updating their style to keep one foot in traditional while remaining relevant to a contemporary church. It makes perfect sense, then, for former Psalmeneer Camille Doughty to explore her inner Lady Soul on the Mahalia staple, “Elijah Rock.”
The package design and forty pages of photos and insightful album notes, written by gospel collector and historian John Glassburner, are alone worth the retail price. Christians Catch Hell comes in CD and LP format, and two songs are coupled as a 45 rpm record with a photo cover. The mixing was done at Abbey Road; the entire project benefits from top-shelf treatment.
The Fantastic Family Aires of Chicago appear four times on the anthology, showcasing a range of color in their singing. I suspect, however, that we could have foregone two of their appearances to make room for Gospel Roots artists not included in the playlist, such as Pastor Mitty Collier, Roscoe Robinson, soul collector favorite King James Version, and gospel star Isaac Carree’s mother Nancy.
Nevertheless,Christians Catch Hell provides a fascinating glimpse of a time when it was clear that soul, begotten by gospel, was teaching its parent a thing or two in return.
Five of Five Stars
Picks: “Never Say What You Want,” “Elijah Rock.”