The GMWA Mass Choir feat. James Cleveland and Thurston Frazier
Savoy LP 14281
“I’m Glad” comes to us from the early years of the Gospel Music Workshop of America (GMWA), when musical giants roamed the earth. Those were the days when gospel pioneers such as James Cleveland, Thurston Frazier, Mattie Moss Clark, Robert Fryson, and the O’Neal Twins contributed their talents to the GMWA, setting in motion what has become a commercially and artistically successful convention. No disrespect intended to the many wonderful people who organize the GMWA today, but to have such gospel music history collected under one roof back then must have really been something.
Thankfully, Rev. Lawrence Roberts and Savoy Records preserved the sounds of the GMWA for posterity’s sake, including those from the Fourth GMWA, held in Dallas in 1971. This LP features wall-of-sound choral singing and expert musical leadership from the likes of Cleveland, Frazier, Clark, Fryson, and Edgar and Edward O’Neal.
The album’s first track, “I’m Glad,” showcases the Mass Choir fronted by James Cleveland and Thurston Frazier, perhaps the only time both gentlemen were featured together on a live recording. While ostensibly a sacred song, “I’m Glad” also has a very pointed sociopolitical undertone. From the first line, King James at once offers his gratitude to Heaven and levels a directive at society: “I’m glad man didn’t make sunshine, because he may not let it shine on me.” Similarly, he sings, “I’m glad [man] didn’t create me, for he would surely, surely forsake me.” Like the spirituals, “I’m Glad” has a dual meaning, and Cleveland’s rough, husky delivery, one tear away from a cry, adds to the performance’s overall drama.
Complete with a classic false ending, a coda that features an ostinato melody that builds in intensity, and the growling voice of Thurston Frazier (now remembered at GMWA with the Thurston Frazier Memorial Choir), “I’m Glad” presents the Mass Choir as congregation to Cleveland’s and Frazier’s preachers, with small combo accompaniment.
Compared to today’s GMWA recordings, “I’m Glad” sounds almost primitive in its instrumentation, but its genuineness shines through all the same. Like rays of sunshine that permeate a dusty window, the recording still fires the soul. Unfortunately, while Cleveland’s sentiments about the state of race relations were expressed in 1971, they are as true today as they were thirty-three years ago, when gospel giants roamed the earth.