By the 1970s gospel music was at a crossroads. R&B had incorporated its emotional energy to become soul, and the old-timey feel of much of the music was alienating younger audiences. But gospel fought back by adapting the sounds of contemporary funk and soul to their songs of devotion, and in recent years these records have become extremely collectable. Until now Stax Records and its Gospel Truth label had been largely ignored by those who have anthologised this music. With its high production values and the input of some of the Stax’s finest musicians there really are some amazing recordings on the label.
Started by Al Bell and run by veteran black music radio promotions man Dave Clark, the Gospel Truth label aimed to capitalise on the success Bell had had with the Staple Singers, the gospel group becoming a pop sensation on the main Stax label. Gospel Truth would take existing and new gospel acts and give them the Stax makeover. The very best soul musicians in the world would take time out from cutting hits to create the music for a series of gospel soul and gospel funk masterpieces. It unearthed a star in the unlikely figure of Rance Allen, a man whose voice is in itself an act of God.
This compilation tells the story of Stax’s move into the gospel field by choosing the best of the output over a five-year period, from the Staples’ glorious template via Allen’s unique voice through to a variety of gospel circuit regulars and one-offs. Allen and the Staples seem to be almost polar opposites, with the Staples easing up the words to bring you onboard, while Rance sounded just like a soul artist until you listened to the lyrics, which never eased back in their praise of the Lord. We have cuts from the sought-after and super-rare LP by the Sons Of Truth and Joshie Joe Armstead’s ‘I Got The Vibes’, a Northern soul monster almost from the day it was released. We also have unknown masterpieces by the 21st Century and Annette Thomas as well as gospel great Jacqui Verdell’s only recording for the label.
The 20 tracks reflect the sound of popular black American music of the day from the out-and-out funk of Clarence Smith to the proto-disco sound of the Howard Lemon Singers. The Stax team made these records as if they were making new records for Isaac Hayes or Johnnie Taylor, but their message was of spiritual love rather than the secular kind.
By Dean Rudland