Jesus Rocked the Jukebox
Craft Records / Concord Music Group (2017)
By Bob Marovich
In addition to its estimable contributions to the religious, social, and political life of African Americans, the church has also been an effective music training school.
Untold numbers of men and women have learned to sing or play instruments before discerning but sympathetic church communities. While some singers and musicians committed their musical talent wholly to God, others sought fame in the financially lucrative world of rock and roll and R&B.
This exit caused no small amount of consternation among churchgoers who felt that God’s gifts belong to God and not the club. Nevertheless, it should come as no surprise that the artists who left professional gospel singing to become pop stars, either temporarily or for good, brought the sound of the church with them.
Jesus Rocked the Jukebox, a 40-track compilation of Golden Age gospel music from the Specialty and Vee Jay vaults, is an essential soundtrack to the story of how the sacred-secular musical exchange transformed American music on both sides of the divide.
Because male quartets reigned supreme during the period covered by the collection (1951-1965), the majority of the tracks on Jesus Rocked the Jukebox are by the popular male quartets of the era. The Patterson Singers and the Staple Singers are notable exceptions, though one can argue that the Staple Singers was basically a family quartet. And, as Anthony Heilbut has noted, Mavis Staples found her inspiration in Jeanette Harris of Chicago’s Golden Harp Gospel Singers, a female quartet that emulated the fiery lead singing and metronomic harmonies of the Soul Stirrers male quartet.
Thanks to the compilation’s stellar sound reproduction, the aural excitement of the selections explodes from the speakers. The Five Blind Boys of Alabama’s extroverted 1965 recording, “People Don’t Sing Like They Used to Sing,” opens the collection, and appropriately so, given the message. Among the most outstanding tracks that follow are the Detroiters’ hypnotic “Let Jesus Lead You” (1951), the Patterson Singers’ girl group-sounding “Heavenly Father” (1963) and the Chosen Gospel Singers’ “Stay With Me Jesus” (1955), which includes Lou Rawls.
The collection’s inclusion of Rawls and Sam Cooke—Cooke leads the Soul Stirrers on early 1950s tracks “Jesus Gave Me Water” and teams up with Paul Foster on “Just Another Day”—are excellent examples of how future soul stars developed their distinctive singing style on the gospel circuit. Cooke of the Soul Stirrers, Johnny Taylor of the Highway QCs, and the Reverend Claude Jeter of the Swan Silvertones inspired a generation of young artists, including Al Green, while singing gospel music.
Complicating the distinction between the music of Saturday night and Sunday morning is the fact that studio and record company house bands, steeped in R&B, often accompanied gospel groups on their sacred singles. Several examples are offered on this collection.
What makes Jesus Rocked the Jukebox most distinctive is its deep dive into excellent album-only tracks that may have eluded even the most avid gospel music collector. “It’s In My Heart” by Richmond, Virginia, close-harmony group the Harmonizing Four and the Patterson Singers’ aforementioned “Heavenly Father” are fine examples. The Silver Quintette’s rock-infused “Father Don’t Leave,” the flip side of its more popular “Sinner’s Crossroads,” has, to my knowledge, never been released commercially on CD until now.
Jesus Rocked the Jukebox is available as a package of two CDs or three vinyl albums. The essay, written by yours truly, illustrates the tensions as well as the synergies between the sacred and the secular. The result is electrifying.
Five of Five Stars
Picks: “Let Jesus Lead You,” Heavenly Father,” “Living for My Jesus”