Put the Whole Armour On: Female Black Gospel – The 1940s-1950s
NarroWay (release date: October 18, 2019)
By Bob Marovich (as originally featured in Living Blues)
“If it wasn’t for the women, you wouldn’t have church.”
This quote, which accompanies a vintage photograph of three African American women lifting their hands heavenward, is not only featured prominently in Put the Whole Armour On, a two-CD tribute to 1940s and 1950s female gospel artists, but it serves as an apt prelude to the collection.
That is, notwithstanding the prominence of women in African American churches, most denominations did not allow women to become pastors. In response, some females became evangelists, saving souls through street corner oratory as well as gospel music.
The 54 selections curated for this collection cover some of the most popular gospel singers of the golden era like Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Clara Ward, and Mahalia Jackson. Included is Jackson’s initial and unsuccessful but plaintively rendered Apollo Records release “I’m Going to Tell God.” The package also introduces lesser-known figures such as Madam Ernestin Martin, Mary Frazier, and Mari Brown, whose lilting voice delicately delivers “Did You Stop to Pray This Morning” with R&B pioneers the Johnny Moore Trio.
Standout tracks include the Angelic Gospel Singers’ exuberant version of Thomas A. Dorsey’s “Jesus is the Light of the World” (the composer credit is inexplicably listed as “Traditional”), “When the Pearly Gates Unfold” by the Colemanaires with a fiery lead vocal by Cynthia Coleman (aka R&B thrush Ann Cole), and the Ward Singers’ “I’m Going Home,” supported by steel guitarist extraordinaire Sam Whinham.
While the singers are the focus, their accompanists are often just as impressive. Besides the Johnny Moore Trio and Whinham, the trombonist accompanying the Goldrock Gospel Singers on “Jesus I’ll Never Forget” sounds like an alumnus of a shout band. Anne C. Graham’s 1945 performance of the title track sounds backed by the New York-based Melba Pope Trio, a small combo that did session work and released its own product.
The album’s track list progresses in alphabetical order by artist surname, but the strategy works surprisingly well. It certainly makes it easier to follow Chris Smith’s liner notes, which offer informative biographical sketches of each artist in alpha order. But a discography identifying date and place recorded and list of musicians is noticeably absent from the booklet, perhaps a victim of size limitations.
If women were regrettably denied the opportunity to preach the gospel from the pulpit, Put the Whole Armour On demonstrates that they were just as impactful, if not more so, as singers of the gospel.
Four of Five Stars
Picks: “Jesus is the Light of the World,” “When the Pearly Gates Unfold,” “I’m Going Home”