This is about as representative a collection of early Silver Age Midwestern soul gospel group talent as one may hope to find.
The One-derful Story: Halo Records
Stax had one. So did Motown (and, kind of, does again).
Had what? They were r&b record companies with imprints dedicated to soul gospel. At least one smaller Chicago label, One-derful!, followed suit with its Halo subsidiary.
Halo's mid-1960s series of singles were issued at a transitional time in the genre they documented. The "churchier" arrangements of organ, guitar and drums given quartets and soloists during the music's critically generally agreed-upon golden age from around World War II to 1964 or so were making way for the integration of fresh influences taken from r&b and pop. In fact, at least one of Halo's producers referred to the label's output as "gos-pop." From my vantage point as someone introduced to African-American gospel via the Edwin Hawkins Singers' "Oh Happy Day" in the '70s and the weekend sacred programming on an AM r&b station several years later, however, much of what comprises this last volume of Secret Stash Records' overview of all of One-Derful's imprints sounds pretty traditional to me. Conversely, as someone who's kept up with this side of gospel long as I have, many of this year's Dove and Grammy nominees in their traditional soul catagory sound modern to me.
But it's still easy to hear the tide turning, abetted as it was by the same studio band that accompanied acts who recorded for One-derful proper and its other worldlier subsidiaries. The Salem Travelers, later to issue full albums on Checker, Peacock and other labels, exemplify the direction their genre was going both sonically and textually. The collection's CD version commences with a bumptious rendition of the spiritual "Wade In The Water" that could be mistaken for an especially fierce Chicago r&b side of the same '66 vintage. The urgent imprecation to the Almighty of "Give Me A Few More Days" would later be reprised in '72 as an album track, but here bristles with desperation against circumstances that remain not fully articulated. If that song perhaps subtly references the troubles of the contemporaneous civil rights struggle, it would be no surprise, as they would later more explicitly critique the Viet Nam war and domestic racism. "Children Goin' Astray, " wherein they team up with one Little David, about whom the accompanying 36 pages of extensive liner notes and pictures (again, with the CD) say nothing more. The pop/r&b impulse of the musicians recording for Halo accompanying the label's other acts resulted in plenty of invention apart from the, perhaps, especially ambitious Travellers. The Flying Clouds of Joy's own vocal arrangement and the loping background given by One-Derful's players resulted in a sort of bluesy doo-wop on "I Have Made a Change." A similarly delicate approach works to imbue the Golden Toners' "Why Can't We Love Our Fellowman" with the feel of late-period Sam Cooke (who, fortunately, never quite shed the gospel influence of his tenure with the Soul Stirrers).
Conversely, the co-ed Gospel Ambassadors exude a vim that could conceivably segue into Chubby Checker and Gary U.S. Bonds twist dance hits with "Send Your Cleansing Power." The Beautiful Tones' "King Jesus Will Roll My Burdens Away" swings like a rawer example of the sort of mid-tempo r&b that continues to find favor on the Carolinas' beach music scene. Rev. Lofton & The Holy Travelers' "Lord I Never Will Forget" sounds even more exotic, with a choppy beat that sounds almost as much like first wave ska as it does a demo' for one of Curtis Mayfield's Hispanic-vibed productions for Major Lance.
Still, there's plenty of church, sonically speaking, going on in the Halo catalog. The Redemption Harmonizers do serious destruction with their "Amazing Grace," testimonial prologue. And though calling bothJohn F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. a "Modern Messiah" posits the Harmonizers flirting with blasphemy--here's hoping the group didn't come up with the song title--one can easily hear how the number saluting them could have become a favorite at weekend programs (gospel speak, or at least it was, for concerts held in church sanctuaries). The congregational feel works into uptempo pieces, too, such as gal group the Gospel Souls' "I've Been Saved." The Dayonians' "Keep Moving Alkong" has a steady, clapping cadence that gives it a resemblance to an updated field holler or spiritual. The minimal guitar-and-tambourine setting of the Heavenly Wonders' "Jesus Is A Rock" works the same kind of feeling.
The trouble with reviewing compilations of soul gospel material from this era is that, in the main, there's not a stinker to be found. The age of acts of this sort recording 45s, at least often as not a single 7"er in their whole career, represents nigh countless ensembles dedicated enough to the music and/or the Lord (ideally both) to give it their best shot and not hold back. The combination of using muscians already playing on r&b sides, a fresh spate of acts coming from big city churches, and One-derful's commercial considerations created significantly different circumstances for the gospel acts recording for Halo.
Yet there are nothing malodorous here, either. Acts not included on the album are discussed in the notes, which is odd. It's a shame that the compact disc is so full that there's no room for the two Salem Travelers songs included on a single accompany the initial LP pressing. Otherwise, this is about as representative a collection of early Silver Age Midwestern soul gospel group talent, perhaps with more aspirations for airplay than some, as one may hope to find. Collectors who already have all the already-issued work here should still want it for the spate of previously-unreleased gems. The Halo Story is pretty angelic.
-Jamie Lee Rake