Best of Proverb & Gospel Corner Records: 1959-1969
NarroWay Records (2016)
By Bob Marovich
Gospel music has had many multi-taskers, chief among them the late Brother Henderson of Los Angeles, California.
In the late 1950s, Sylvester C. “Duke” Henderson forsook his R&B singing career, hung up his rock and roll shoes, and plunged headlong into sacred music. He ran the popular All Gospel Record Store in L.A., hosted his own gospel music radio show on 50,000 watt XERB, wrote and published songs, promoted concerts, and headed up two record labels: Proverb and Gospel Corner.
Despite Henderson’s prolific activity, no commercial reissues have given him his propers until now. Best of Proverb & Gospel Corner Records: 1959-1969, from Per Notini’s NarroWay Records out of Sweden, is a 52-track survey of Henderson’s rich roster of artists, many of whom were West Coast favorites. One, the Mighty Clouds of Joy, went on to conquer the world.
The two-disc set starts, appropriately, with one of the earliest recorded appearances by the Clouds. “Jesus Is Real,” circa 1959, showcases Joe Ligon on lead, shouting sandpaper rough even back then. It is followed by the Pilgrim Travelers, arguably the label’s biggest signing, and by then led by James Wafer but without the storied Specialty lineup. “When I’m Gone” demonstrates the same hard singing as the Clouds’ track, even though the Travelers were best known for their walking rhythm and low-key tight harmonies. On the other hand, the Travelers’ take on Dorsey’s “Peace in the Valley” is evocative of its 1940s and 1950s work for Specialty.
What distinguishes this set, and Henderson’s musical ears, is the variety of sacred styles it contains. While heavy on male quartet, as that appeared to be Henderson’s sweet spot, there is a choir (Watts Community Choir), a lining hymn (Rev. W. E. Jasper), rhythmic jubilee singing (Victory Five of Sacramento), a Cleophus Robinson-Josephine James-y duet (Prince Dixon and Sis. Walter Paige), and topical songs (Prince Dixon, Madame Nellie Robinson, and Henderson himself). As gospel artists today often say about their albums: there’s something here for everyone.
The musical accompaniment on Proverb and Gospel Corner singles gets progressively more psychedelic as time winds on. Prince Dixon’s “Keep On Fighting” includes trebly electric guitar riffs. The organ on Dixon’s memorial to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (“April 4, 1968”) gives this Brother Will Hairston-esque treatment a decidedly pop tinge. The same peppy organ (not a churchy B3 by any stretch) propels the Fabulous Ohio Wonders’ “Why Should I Feel” and on the Victory Five’s Golden Gate Quartet-style “John.”
Special gems are a very early Chambers Brothers track, “Just a Little More Faith,” a 180-degree difference in sound from their 1967 hit, “Time Has Come Today.” “Hold Me in Your Arms” by the Mighty Sons of Fort Worth, Texas, is rendered in the classic vocal harmony group style. The Sweet Singing Cavaliers’ “Hold Me” is electrifying, possibly their best cut ever. Brother Henderson’s first dip in the baptismal pool, the rare 1955 “I Made Up My Mind,” sung with a group called the Spiritual Lambs, is available here, possibly for the first time on CD.
Although male dominated, the set does include the distaff Page-Ettes and the Nu-Lite Gospel Singers of Kansas City, the latter giving “Lot’s Wife” and “You’ve Been So Good” strong readings. Henderson’s mother, Helen, formerly with the Simmons-Akers Singers, is represented as a soloist on the fine “He’s a Light,” written by Akers and recorded sometime prior to Proverb’s founding. The mixed voice Watts Community Choir offers a youthful sound on “Keep On Keeping On” and “He Aint’ Heavy.” Sister Walter Paige of the Page-Ettes, Madame Nellie Robinson, and Lady Bird are also among the female soloists.
The entire production is crystal clear, thanks in large part to Henderson’s production talents but also to Notini’s flair for reproduction. The informative illustrated liner notes give the enthusiast as much knowledge about Henderson as exists, depicting an entrepreneur who made a living by giving the little guy a chance. A must for gospel music fans who revel in the pop-infused traditional gospel of the 1960s before it became contemporary.
Five of Five Stars
Picks: “Hold Me in Your Arms,” “Just a Little More Faith,” “Hide Me.”