what-a-legacyRev. Clay Evans & the Ship
What a Legacy
Rev. Clay Evans Heritage Series (2016)

By Bob Marovich

“Give me my flowers while I am still here,” the Consolers instructed in 1955, “so I can see the beauty that they bring.”

What a Legacy, a collection of Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church Choir tracks never before released on CD, is one way a legion of friends and fans are giving their flowers to the Reverend Dr. Clay Evans, who turned 91 this year: by preserving some of the classic musical moments of Fellowship, aka “The Ship,” the church he founded in Chicago in 1950.

And lo, the flowers have bloomed so tall and plentiful that the album is now in the top ten of Billboard’s Top Gospel Albums chart—a satisfying development for any gospel music traditionalist.

Compiled and produced by musicians Gregory Gay, Curtis Fondren, and Royal “Mickey” Warren, the fifteen-cut CD contains previously released material out of print as well as rare transcriptions of Fellowship radio broadcasts. The latter are among the most thrilling selections not only for their historical value but for the quality and raw urgency of the performances and the response of the congregation to each embellishment and outburst of spiritual emotion.

“Bye and Bye” is the most significant selection culled from the radio broadcasts. Rev. Evans wrote this song while a member of Chicago’s legendary Lux Singers, a group that performed it with the late Bertha Burley Melson on second lead. Hearing the song here, Melson reprising her Lux role with the Fellowship Choir circa 1960, is the closest thing to hearing the Lux Singers themselves, a group that once included an all-star cast of Evans, Melson, James Cleveland, and Imogene Greene.

Other radio broadcast gems include “It Is Well With My Soul” and the church’s theme, “What a Fellowship,” which includes the broadcast’s memorable spoken introduction over exuberant handclapping and singing by the choir. The choir’s rendition of Julia Mae Kennedy’s “Lord’s Prayer,” complete with thundering organ, gives the listener reassurance and goosebumps.

The out of print selections are predominantly from the Ship’s first two albums, produced by Idessa Malone Nelson in 1962 and 1963, respectively. Among these are Woodrow Walker’s “Seeking for Me” and Rev. Evans’s personal theme, “It Is No Secret.”  Both selections were so popular in the early 1960s that Nelson released them as a 45 rpm single. It is unfortunate that so few examples of Walker’s singing have outlived him.  His powerful yet friendly baritone, if employed in R&B, could have put him on the level of a Brook Benton.

Incidentally, Idessa Malone Nelson may well have been one of the first, if not the first, African American female record company owners. Her productions for the Ship were among the first of a three-decade long career of untold hundreds of vanity recordings of church choirs and sermons by their pastors.

Evans’s performance on “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” from the Checker LP The Last Request, with Ben Branch and the Operation Breadbasket Orchestra and Choir, is soul stirring, to say the least.

The fidelity of the cuts on What A Legacy is excellent, particularly considering that the original transcriptions represent the limitations of AM radio. The seamless way in which the producers intermix the live and studio recordings, however, make the entire presentation sound like a radio broadcast.

One can only hope there are more jewels to come from the Rev. Clay Evans Heritage Series, and that this CD, and its chart success, will inspire other churches to mine their own vaults for long lost treasures.

Five of Five Stars

Picks: “Bye and Bye,” “Seeking for Me.”

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Written by : Bob Marovich

Bob Marovich is a gospel music historian, author, and radio host. Founder of Journal of Gospel Music blog (formally The Black Gospel Blog) and producer of the Gospel Memories Radio Show.