Packin’ Up: The Best of Marion Williams
By Bob Marovich
If you thought you’d heard everything Marion Williams recorded, alone or with the Ward Singers or Stars of Faith, think again.
In addition to the thirteen hand-picked solo tracks by Williams’s longtime friend and producer, Anthony Heilbut (The Gospel Sound, The Fan Who Knew Too Much), Packin’ Up: The Best of Marion Williams features thirteen previously unreleased tracks. One of the unreleased gems showcases Williams with the Ward Singers at the 1957 Newport Folk Festival. The cuts span the years 1957 to 1993. Heilbut’s extensive liner notes place Williams’ career and each song on the CD in their proper historical and musicological context.
Listening to the CD is evidence enough why Rolling Stone called Williams “the greatest singer ever,” and why she is the only gospel singer to receive the prestigious MacArthur Genius Grant. The sound that bursts forth from Williams is a kaleidoscope of musical hues. She could shift from an otherworldly growl to a line of earsplitting high soprano notes in the course of a few bars. Her trademark high “whoo” gave proto-rocker Little Richard his “note.”
Some of the tracks on Packin’ Up possess such intimacy—Williams with Herbert “Pee Wee” Pickard on piano and an overdubbed Rev. Jonathan DuBose Jr. on guitar, for example—that they feel like well-produced field recordings. Others are more musically robust, such as “The New You’ve Got to Move,” where Williams and her musicians not only relish the chance to tell the rich and powerful to move on out of the way, but appear to march merrily behind their corpses like a New Orleans second line.
Many songs on the compilation come from the pens of premier gospel songwriters Thomas A. Dorsey, Rev. W. H. Brewster, Virginia Davis Marshall, and Roberta Martin. Williams’s reading of Martin’s arrangement of “Didn’t It Rain” captures Mahalia’s bounce. On a conversational version of Dorsey’s “I’ve Got to Live the Life I Sing About,” Williams tears with sanctimonious delight into the line: “I can’t go to church and shout all day Sunday / Slip around and get drunk and raise hell all day Monday.”
Packin’ Up makes you wonder what Marion Williams couldn’t sing? “Press On Like the Bible Said” and the twelve-bar blues “Sometimes I Ring Up Heaven” demonstrate how potent she could have been as a blues belter, and how potent she was rendering gospel blues. She sings a long meter “Dr. Watts:” “Angels With Their Gaze.” She almost gets happy singing the rarely-delivered verse of “Poor Pilgrim of Sorrow” (“When Death Shall Determine My Stay Here”). “The New Burying Ground” showcases Williams’ fealty to the great quartet singers. And the 1957 tracks, “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” and “Packin’ Up,” the latter from the Newport Jazz Festival, will make you regret that there are not more live releases from that era.
Marion Williams may sing “Nobody Knows, Nobody Cares,” but we care. We care immensely. Packin’ Up is an enchanting retrospective of a monumental talent. The only regret is that she didn’t live longer to enjoy her Genius Grant and produce more gospel music.
Five of Five Stars
Picks: “The New You’ve Got to Move,” “Promises to Keep.”