CD Review: Happy in the Service of the Lord – Spirit of Memphis

Happy in the Service of the Lord: 1949 – 1954
The Spirit of Memphis Quartet
Acrobat ADDCD 3007

If you know anything about the Spirit of Memphis, all I have to say is that Happy in the Service of the Lord includes their seminal King recordings, and you will know immediately that it is a fantastic, soul-stirring, spine-tingling listening experience. In addition, it is the most comprehensive collection of the quartet’s work commercially available on compact disc.

Included on the two-CD collection are all of the Spirit of Memphis Quartet’s early recordings, from their limited-pressing Hallelujah Spirituals 78 and national debut on the DeLuxe label, both from 1949, through their years with King and Peacock before Joe Hinton joined the group.

The King sessions comprise the majority of the collection and showcase the legendary singing-preaching majesty of Silas Steele. His voice-of-God delivery sneaks up on the listener and packs enough power to punch a hole in the ozone layer. Added to Steele’s artistry is the emotional lead work of Willmer “Little Ax” Broadnax, the quartet’s steady walking rhythm, and the King studios’ haunting echo that gives the a cappella harmony a three-dimensional quality.

But arguably the finest moment in the set comes a minute into “Blessed are the Dead” (1949), when the listener is treated to one of the most frighteningly beautiful moments of quartet harmony in all of gospel music. The entire track contains the hushed atmosphere of Gregorian chant, but the magical harmonic moment, though it lasts but a few seconds, brings to mind the chilling, dark modal sound of Russian choral singing – very fitting given the subject matter.

This is not the only time that the Spirit of Memphis plays with our senses. Their lining-out of “That Awful Day” (1951) and the mournful trumpet punctuating the Peacock single “When Mother’s Gone” (1954) could give a corpse the shivers. Concluding the set, “I’ll Tell It” (1954) is a tour de force of hard gospel singing on a song recorded by their former labelmates on King, the Swan Silvertones.

The great sweep of the Spirit of Memphis’ oeuvre pulled together for this two-CD collection, with always informative liner notes from Opal Nations, is proof positive that the quartet’s greatest gift to gospel music was high drama.

About Bob Marovich

Bob Marovich is a gospel music historian, author, and radio host. Founder of Journal of Gospel Music blog (formally The Black Gospel Blog) and producer of the Gospel Memories Radio Show.

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