The Soul of Designer Records
Big Legal Mess (2014)
By Bob Marovich
In the days before YouTube and other social media outlets, before mp3s and CDs and music maker software for home computers, gospel artists looking for greater promotion but without a major label deal sought out the expertise of bootstrap entrepreneurs such as Idessa Malone and Style Wooten.
While Malone recorded church choirs and radio preachers, Wooten recorded hundreds of black and white gospel artists for his Designer imprint. Wooten’s pitch was simple: for a flat rate, artists could make a studio recording and have copies of their handiwork pressed onto professionally produced and printed 45 rpm discs. If they sold the first batch of records, they could order 25 more.
The result was more than 500 Designer Records by gospel singers, groups, quartets, and choirs from the late 1960s through the 1970s. They were aural business cards that the artists used to secure more bookings and expand their ministries.
While the full extent of Wooten’s sessions remains unknown, thanks to gospel record collectors, crate-diggers, and enthusiasts such as John Glassburner and Mike McGonigal, Big Legal Mess Records has released The Soul of Designer Records. The four CD set contains 101 selections from the Designer Records catalog, packaged in a gatefold LP sleeve, with superb liner notes by Michael Hurtt on the Designer label, Wooten as entrepreneur, and the custom recording process.
Some of Wooten’s customers went on to become national headliners. The collection includes early work by the Canton Spirituals, Rev. Andrew Cheairs and the Songbirds, Jubilee Hummingbirds, and Genessee Gospel Travelers. Two tracks by the Spiritual QCs list Willie Ligon as soloist; could this possibly be the Mighty Clouds of Joy’s very own Willie Joe Ligon moonlighting?
As can be already surmised, the vast majority of selections on The Soul of Designer Records are by male quartets, a peculiarity perhaps more reflective of the collector community than Wooten’s customer base, though Designer did seem to be a go-to label for quartets. Still, there are notable exceptions on the collection, such as two cuts by guitar evangelist Joe Townsend, who blends religion with John Lee Hooker’s hypnotic guitar beat. The Shaw Singers, who receive more attention on the set than any other group, evoke the street evangelizing of husband-wife duo the Consolers. George Shields and his Gospel Singers incorporate the folk-gospel style of the Staple Singers.
The Soul of Designer Records is a fascinating journey back to a day when gospel was, in general, gravitating toward a harder, more bass-heavy sound to remain relevant to an audience with changing musical tastes. Most importantly, the entrepreneurial foresight of Style Wooten has preserved the legacy of gospel artists whose career might otherwise have slipped into obscurity.
Five of Five Stars