Graded on a Curve:
Jesus Rocked the Jukebox: Small Group Black Gospel (1951-1965)

The impact of the African-American gospel tradition on soul and rock ‘n’ roll is long-established. Craft Recordings’ Jesus Rocked the Jukebox: Small Group Black Gospel (1951-1965) spreads the evidence across six vinyl sides as they provide an expansive overview of the undiluted spiritual spark. Mingling well-known artists who made the jump into pop territory (Sam Cooke, Lou Rawls, The Staple Singers) with giants in the gospel field (The Blind Boys of Alabama, The Swan Silvertones, The Harmonizing Four), the results are an unmitigated joy. It’s out now in a sturdy triple gatefold.

The give and take between the sacred and the secular was long and productive across the 20th century, and for the details, this set’s notes by Robert M. Marovich do an outstanding job. But really, the beauty of Jesus Rocked the Jukebox is that all one needs to do is listen; the elements of the crossover to soul and rock and of course to the pop charts, is abundant here, and frequently from artists who themselves made the thematic transition.

None were bigger than Sam Cooke. Unlike Ray Charles, who built his career on honing a blend of blues, R&B, jazz, and gospel into a cornerstone of soul, prior to a foray into pop, Cooke was well-known as a member of the already long-running Soul Stirrers. Indeed, the quartet’s greatest success essentially spanned Cooke’s tenure, with the a cappella “Jesus Gave Me Water” an early hit (from 1951, exactly) and one that was clearly influential on doo wop’s explosion later in the decade.

From the following year, “Just Another Day” begins with the vocalist’s immediately identifiable style, blending it with rich harmonizing and simple but driving rhythmic accompaniment that as Marovich explains, was often the design of record labels, in this comp’s case Specialty and Vee-Jay, in hopes of shifting more units. Naturally, this addition is important to gospel’s impact on secular music, particularly R&B and rock. Here, it intensifies the Stirrers’ considerably more emphatic “Come and Go to that Land” and the splendid “Sinner Run to Jesus” (from ’57, a year before Cooke left the group).

Low Rawls was one of Cooke’s replacements in the Stirrers (he’d previously replaced Cooke in The Highway QC’s), and the fellow gospel-to-soul heavyweight is represented here via the raucous uplift of The Chosen Gospel Singers’ “Ananais.” Cut in ’54, by the following year Rawls had joined the Army; for the group’s “Stay Here with Me Jesus,” from the group’s final ’55 session for Specialty, Rawls’ place was taken by Bob Crutcher. It’s still a superb track, as urgent as “Ananais” and with majestic echo-tinged production, but with a stylistic shift nodding to the fiery pulpit oration that helped to shape hot gospel.

Don’t get the idea that Jesus Rocked the Jukebox is merely a survey of those who successfully migrated to the secular; The Five Blind Boys of Alabama never did, and their “People Don’t Sing Like They Used to Sing,” cut for Vee-Jay in ’65 as The Original Blind Boys (one of the many variations of the name utilized since first singing together in the late ’30s), opens side one. By this point, the music is in full-band glory, with raw guitar and rhythm as sophisticated as it is full-bodied, but it was still instantly recognizable as gospel.

And yet they still impacted the development of pop and rock; the wildly celebratory “This May Be the Last Time,” cut a dozen years earlier, was later adapted into a hit by the Rolling Stones. “I Can See Everybody’s Mother” leans much closer to the soul-R&B zone, even featuring sax, while another ’65 cut, “He’s Alright,” moves so fast it seems poised to levitate, with organ and what might be a fife (or pennywhistle) adding depth.

Underlining The Blind Boys’ centrality to the Black gospel experience, there are two more cuts recorded as The Happyland Singers, the tidy punch of “Living for My Jesus” and the aptly titled “Swingin’ on the Golden Gate,” the latter tune swiping the hook from Louis Jordan’s jump blues monster “Caldonia” and taking it to church.

Unlike the other crossovers included here, The Staple Singers attained pop success not by leaving gospel behind but by adapting their Good News message to the pop field, though their ’56 gospel smash “Uncloudy Day” (reportedly a million seller), featuring the resonating, rootsy guitar of group founder Roebuck “Pops” Staples, is distinct from their later chart hits and indeed from many of their cohorts on this set.

The guitar is a constant flavor in the group’s Vee-Jay material. Every song here opens with a calm strum emphasizing Mississippi roots as the singing addresses recurring themes in the genre, with “Let Me Ride” sharing lyrics with “Swingin’ on the Golden Gate.” During this period, the vocal leads were taken by Pops and young Mavis, who’s already in strong form across ’58’s “Help Me Jesus.” Though the Southern edge remained, by “Pray On” the level of urbane soulfulness was rising, and in “Sit Down Servant,” the emotional weight, with Mavis at the forefront, has been only sharpened.

What’s striking is the heightened skill maintained across these 40 tracks, even by the comparatively obscure entries such as the Gable-Airs’ “Move Upstairs.” The sole non-Specialty/ Vee-Jay track on Jesus Rocked the Jukebox, instead issued on the Detroit label Battle, it combines fittingly spirited singing with expert, piano-imbued backing. Speaking of the Motor City, The Detroiters’ pair of ’51 tracks, “Let Jesus Lead You” and “Angels Watching Over Me” start out intense and then launch into vocal fireworks, underlining the potency of hot gospel in the initial years of this survey.

The Patterson Singers’ “Heavenly Father” sits in marked contrast. Cut in ’63, it’s described by Marovich as being in the ballpark of girl-groups like the Chantels, and that’s right on the money, though in lending a bit of range to the set it’s not at all a bad thing. However, the choir-belting of the group’s “I Am So Glad” hits the set’s theme directly in the bullseye.

As do The Highway QC’s. Given the lead voices they shared with the Soul Stirrers- that’s Cooke, Rawls, and Johnnie Taylor, with the last featured on three of the four selections here, a palpable similarity in approach is discernible. Imitative they are not, however, with the somewhat doo woppy, full group interplay of “Pray” diverting from the more Cooke-ish style of “God Has Not Promised.” Shades of Sam are also detectable in “I Dreamed that Heaven Was Like This” and the impressively layered “The Way Up the Hill.”

Given the specifics of Jesus Rocked the Jukebox’s construction, it’s not close to definitive. There’s no Radio Four or Dixie Hummingbirds for just two examples, but the sheer ground covered across three LPs is still remarkable, rounding up the boisterousness and guitar gruffness of The Pilgrim Travelers’ “After While” (cut prior to Rawls’ joining), and two absolute beauties from The Silver Quintette; from vocal and band delivery to the majestic production, “Sinner’s Crossroads” is essentially perfect, and “Father Don’t Leave” isn’t far behind. That they only recorded one single is a headscratcher.

Right from the opening moments of “Oh Sinner,” the prolificacy of Richmond, VA’s The Harmonizing Four is no mystery, as bass voice in the lead spot stands out from the rest of the contributors here. It turns the chestnut “Wade in the Water” into something special, though the almost operatic non-bass delivery of “It’s in My Heart” is a different affair. Reinforcing the comp’s title, “Happy Home” could’ve inspired a few slow dances, and the bass is back up front for the pop-inclined storytelling of “Hallelujah.”

That leaves a sharp half-dozen from The Swan Silvertones to complete Craft’s wisely non-chronological approach. Over the decades, the Silvertones’ stature has risen amongst the accumulated secular fans of hot gospel, in part through deftness and range. “Where Shall I Go” finds them in pop-R&B-ish band territory, while “Sinner Man” is a showcase of vocal fleetness and “Oh Mary Don’t You Weep” brings it down through a more standard lead-backing scenario, and then solidifies a killer groove.

Cut in late ’53, “How I Got Over” establishes strong early form, and a decade later “Sing of the Judgement” reinforces they hadn’t lost a thing, radiating soulfulness, R&B oomph, and hearty doses of post-doo wop flair. Fittingly, their a cappella “The Lord’s Prayer” brings side six to a close, the sheer power and beauty of the combined voices a startling thing to hear. Transcending belief systems and inspiring reflection and hope, it and the whole of Jesus Rocked the Jukebox is a tonic for troubled times.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A+

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