It takes a foreign record company to give a slice of U.S. musical history its respect due on this essential-listening project.

Best of Proverb & Gospel Corner Records: 1959-1969
(Narro Way/Gospel Friend, Sweden)

As is so often the case, it takes a foreign record company to give a slice of U.S. musical history its respectful reissue that domestic labels don't see fit to provide. Most releases from Sweden's Gospel Friend Records are single-act compilations, but Best of Proverb & Gospel Corner Records: 1959-1969 covers a couple of imprints founded by an entrepreneurial Los Angeles polymath whose efforts went quite some way to chronicle soul gospel in California and elsewhere in the Western states. 

The story of the two labels whose work is featured in this 52-track, double-CD compilation starts with the mid-1950s Christian conversion of r&b singer Duke Henderson. As he became better known as Brother Henderson, with multiple irons in the fire of Southern California's gospel scene, he helped first to found Proverb Records and, later, the Gospel Corner imprint. His primary function at the companies seems to have been as director of a&r (artist and repertoire), and this collection evinces his talent for making sure the labels' talent best showcased their abilities.

The set offers some fiery moments that would interest listeners who might not usually pick up soul gospel reissues of this vintage. The Chambers Brothers, famed not many years later for their "Time Has Come Today" psychedelic masterpiece, are represented here by a side of their sole single as an act specializing in sacred music, "Just a Little More Faith." Its simple, guitar-accompanied jauntiness hardly hints at the tripiness from the siblings that would follow. And the Mighty Mighty Clouds of Joy, whose lengthy run on the Peacock/ABC label ventured broached such groundbreaking moves as opening for the Rolling Stones and having a #1 disco record, are heard in an early, concert-recorded 45, "Jesus Is Real." Not only does lead singer Joe Ligon pretty much personify hard gospel vocalizing with it, but the group is credited as the Mighty Mighty Clouds of Joy.

Just as the labels were briefly home to acts on the ascent, others on their commercial decline made their mark as well. Among them were the Pilgrim Travelers, Former lead vocalist Lou Rawls had left the group to explore his r&b/jazz/blues muse by this time, but they still recorded worthwhile material, such as a swinging rendition of Thomas Dorsey's "Peace In The Valley." Henderson himself recorded a bit for his own operation as well, with a recitation on the passing of John F. Kennedy, "Eleven-Twenty Two-Nineteen Sixty Three" (yes, it's spelled out) and the more musical "I Made Up My Mind" making the cut from his only album recorded as the good Brother. Prince Dixon also memorialized a departed leader with "April 4, 1968" (the late of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.) among his contributions collected here.

Henderson's belief that gospel music could be a bridge over the generation gap had to have been a factor in having the Watts Community Choir record a rendition of the Hollies' "He Ain't Heavy (He's My Brother)," featuring lead vocals by future "message music" soul singer D.J. Rogers (the choir's other track here "Keep On-Keeping On" has some fierce conga&drum kit break beat action accompanying the heavenly harmonizing). Much as he had youth in mind, though, he was willing to record the occasional piece of call-and-response line singing, the kind of devotional composition more prevalent in African-American churches before the praise&worship bug bit many congregations' music directors. That sort of singing that's practically a museum piece now is best heard here in Rev. W.E. Jasper leading his Little Rock, Arkansas flock through "Father, I Stretch My Hand to Thee." The impulse toward modernity and topicality manifested elsewhere, though, as in Madame Nellie Robinson's "Viet Nam" and Dixon's encouragements to the contemporaneous civil rights struggle, ""Keep On Fighting" and the  more slowly paced "Something Is Wrong."

Whether the music Henderson nurtured did much in the way of bridging generations may be left for others to declare more authoritatively. But the era of the Proverb and Gospel Corner labels most definitely did bridge the span from more traditional church sounds to ones that, if not produced with mainstream crossover play in mind, were certainly influenced by sounds going on in r&b, rock and pop. Though the percussion may occasionally bear out those influence, more often than not, the guitars give it away. Never do they get to the extremes of feedback and wah-wah that would have led to a booking at a hippie festival, but the later the date of a recording, the rawer and more fluid the six-strings are apt to sound.

Detailed notes from Gospel Friend Records founder Per "Slim" Notini give copious historical context to the surfeit of goodness to be heard here. Fans of soul gospel before its gatekeepers became enamored with chasing adult r&b radio spins, from the time before name-it-and-claim-it snake oil merchants filled so many pulpits, this best-of is probably essential listening.

Jamie Lee Rake