Graded on a Curve: Sacred Soul: The
D-Vine Spirituals Records Story Volume One & Volume Two

On January 14 a crucial chapter in the history of hot gospel gets fresh illumination thanks to Bible & Tire Recording Co.’s two-volume retrospective Sacred Soul: The D-Vine Spirituals Records Story. Across four sides of vinyl (available separately or as a bundle), two compact discs (ditto), and digital (available through Bandcamp), these 28 recordings by nearly as many different groups and performers document a sustained run of inspired artistry and savvy production that was originally released on 45rpm singles. Eminently listenable, the contents also celebrate the no-nonsense go-for-it gusto of grassroots independent record making.

By now, it’s no secret that African-American gospel is one of the indispensable fibers in the grand weave of 20th century music, and not just for its foundational role in the development of Soul. No, the undiluted stuff, almost always waxed by smaller, if not necessarily independent record labels, is worthwhile, indeed highly prized, entirely on its own for its combination of skill and intensity sharply honed through commitment and belief.

Formed in downtown Memphis, TN in the early 1970s by US Air Force veteran, preacher, radio personality, and soon to be record producer Juan D. Shipp, D-Vine Spirituals is as vital to hot gospel’s growth narrative as Nashboro and Pitch/Gusman, both labels from the southern region of the USA that flourished in the same approximate timeframe.

The proof is in the listening, as Bruce Watson’s Bible & Tire Recording Co. has already released two volumes focused on D-Vine Spirituals subsidiary JCR (stands for Juan, Charles, and Robert, not Jesus Christ Records) and an LP dedicated solely to Elizabeth King and the Gospel Souls, who cut the label’s paradigm-shifting first single “I Heard a Voice” in 1972.

That Shipp’s decision to start a label wasn’t based in a desire for wealth and stardom shouldn’t be surprising given the style of music in which he specialized. But his primary reason (beyond the bedrock objective of gospel, which is to spread the good news) should be pretty relatable to music lovers, even those unmoved by religious matters. Specifically, he didn’t like the sound of the gospel records cut locally by Designer Records. Rather than wait for better results from some other entity, he stepped up and did it himself.

As said, local means Memphis, so while D-Vine Spirituals adds yet another layer to the ridiculously deep musical saga of its home city, the label’s activities while extant were essentially confined to the gospel circuit, where over time, groups traveled to Memphis from Detroit and Kansas City, MO in order to tap into the D-Vine Spirituals sound.

And integral to that sound is the studio in which those records were made, which belonged to Clyde Leoppard, a white man, a session drummer for Sun Records, and the leader of the western swing band the Snearly Ranch Boys. Rockabilly notables Warren Smith, Eddie Bond, Paul Burlison, and Bill Black all passed through Leoppard’s outfit, but he only managed one single, the ‘billy and country swing-tinged “Split Personality,” a likeable tune but no mindblower, cut for the Sun subsidiary Flip.

While Leoppard initially served as engineer at his Tempo Recording Studio, its needs specified that Shipp eventually took over in that capacity. Alongside a lasting friendship with Shipp, the importance of Leoppard’s contribution is far more related to the studio he built, a padded out room that facilitated an aura that was both deep and lacking in frills, with this sound quickly becoming D-Vine Spirituals’ calling card.

Although liner notes accompany both volumes, the digital copies of those texts that I received for review offer little insight into the dates of recording beyond the years of the label’s operation, 1972-’86. This is just as well, as the allure of the D-Vine sound derives from its timelessness. A song’s stripped-down intensity can make it sound like it was cut in the early or mid-’60s, but then the recurring and wholly welcome wah-wah guitar of secret weapon Wendell Moore makes clear that Shipp wasn’t striving for the retro, even when the string bending extended from the template set by Roebuck Staples.

There are a few examples that do clearly fall between the early ’70s and mid-’80s, such as the Casio-style keyboard tones and programmed rhythms of “The Reason I Love Him” by The Kingdome Airs on Vol. 1 and a couple spots on Vol. 2 that are detectably connected to developments in ‘80s R&B and funk, but nothing detracts from the flow of these collected sides.

Another way of putting it: there’s not a lesser track in the bunch, and while side one of record one does open with King’s exquisite “I Heard the Voice,” I do suspect the order of the selections on these volumes avoids a chronological progression. And I’ll note that unless the dates of the sessions were written down, it’s likely the exact order of the recordings is lost to time (Discogs lists nearly 70 singles, all with unknown recording dates). But the lack of chronology means there’s no diminishment in quality across Vol. 2.

Elder Jack Ward, who cut the massive gospel hit “Don’t Need No Doctor” (charting for two years) for the Stax subsidiary Chalice as lead singer of the Christian Harmonizers, is the most well-known name on either volume, and he’s the only artist to appear on both, backed ach time by the Gospel Four, who also get their own solo track, the superb “The Devil Don’t Like It” on Vol. 1.

Understandably, the acts comprising these sets are far less concerned with standing out from the crowd and more about hitting congregations (and record buyers) with maximum impact. And yet a sense of the samey never creeps in as these songs progress, which is especially impressive given the format of initial release.

Guitar and voices do dominate the proceedings, but there’s also piano, nicely highlighted in “I Know I’ve Been Changed” by Sister Jessie M. Sherley, and numerous instances of organ, with “Jesus, He’s a Miracle Worker” by the The Gospel Six of Tunica, Mississippi even hinting at garage rock (Shipp often employed session musicians to enhance the sound). However, the organ in “The Lord’s Prayer” by The Dynamic Hughes Singers is pure church, and that’s what these sets are ultimately all about.

Let’s bring it back to Memphis for the close of this review. The notes for Vol. 1 mention a concert featuring all D-Vine Spirituals acts held at the Overton Park Shell, a location recently spotted in the music film Memphis ’69 (released last year by Fat Possum), which documented performances from the fourth Memphis Country Blues Festival. That movie provided fresh evidence of the city’s stature in modern music’s overall scheme, and now here’s Sacred Soul: The D-Vine Spirituals Records Story Vols. 1 & 2 reemphasizing the point so beautifully.

Sacred Soul: The D-Vine Spirituals Records Story Vol. 1
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Sacred Soul: The D-Vine Spirituals Records Story Vol. 2
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