If passion and fervor were electricity, the performances on The Soul of Designer Records (Big Legal Mess Records) could put the glow in every neon sign in the city on the Mississippi River where they were recorded.
Between 1967 and 1977 Designer label founder Style Wooten and his studio main man Roland Janes, a heroic figure in Memphis music, produced between 400 and 500 gospel singles. Many of the artists they recorded came from Tennessee, Mississippi and Arkansas, but as the label’s reputation grew they began arriving from more far flung locales–Chicago, St. Louis, Boston, Ohio, the Carolinas, Florida, California–sometimes literally waiting in line for their turn to cut at Janes’ Sonic Studios.
What’s astonishing is how seamlessly this set’s 101 songs by dozens of groups and solo acts lock together. That’s due to more than the unbridled sound of pure faith welling up in the varied voices of such largely obscure performers as Elizabeth King, who wails like Aretha on “Testify for Jesus,” and Rev. Leon Hammer, who howls like Blind Willie Johnson on “He Won’t Deny Me.” Many of these numbers share a badass, wild-eyed energy–the same primitive, reverb-soaked mojo that drives the classic Memphis rockabilly, garage rock and blues that was Janes’ specialty. The protean roots rocker also plays guitar on many of these sides, drawing on a do-it-all trick bag of riffs that range from needlepoint blues licks ’n’ leads to funky James Brown-style strumming to bristling country bends to unrepentant power chords.
Psychedelic gospel: Elige Brown, ‘A Helping Hand’ (1975, released by Designer Records)
The Designer singles also capture the evolution of Memphis blues and soul as reflected in their sanctified cousin of a genre. The musical timeline starts in 1963 with the traditional quartet approach of Grand Junction, Tennessee’s Gospel Songbirds, who telegraph call-and-response vocals over simple blues chord changes, followed by the hot Bobby “Blue” Bland boogie of the Dynamic Hughes Gospel Singers’ “Beautiful City.” It climaxes in the Hendrix-fueled six-string psychedelic gospel of Elige Brown, whose 1975 “When Jesus Comes” and “A Helping Hand” navigate a psychedelic sea of wah-wah, phase shifter and distortion pedals.
Along the way there are stops for the New Orleans second-line grooves of the Foster Brothers, the driving post-Stax urgency of the Magnificent Soul Survivors and the Mahalia Jackson-influenced Cora Bell Watkins, whose 1973 “Love King Jesus” sounds like an anachronism among the frequently percolating singles of Designer’s later years, wrought in the city where the Staple Singers and Al Green were cutting Top 40 pop crossover smashes.
What’s also astonishing is that none of this–the variety, the quality and durability of the material, the consistently impressive level of talent–was calculated. Designer was a “custom” record label, a now-vanished musical equivalent of a vanity press. With few exceptions, the groups and artists who recorded for Designer paid owner Style Wooten a fee, advertised once in the ’60s at $469.50, for cutting two sides in the studio. There were no fancy talent scouts involved. Performers contacted him, and anybody with the cash, sometimes paid in rolls of quarters on the installment plan, could make a record–just like Elvis did on his first visit to another famed Memphis institution, the Memphis Recording Service.
“His attitude was: ‘Come in and cut a record and I’ll give you 25 copies. When you sell those, come back and buy another 25,’” Roland Janes told Michael Hurtt, who authored The Soul of Designer Records’ entertaining, informative liner notes.
Elizabeth King, ‘Testify for Jesus’ (1970, released by Designer Records)
If the artists slated to record hadn’t brought sufficient musical support for the work at hand, Janes would strap on his guitar or call on his cast of studio players to fill the keyboard, drum or bass seats as needed. Typically the performers that cut for Designer were amateurs: truck drivers, barbers, school teachers, farmers, housemaids and factory workers who played gospel music on the side. Most came to Sonic Studios as part of a long-weekend pilgrimage to play gigs around Memphis and the Delta. Some were more accomplished. Memphis’ own Jubilee Hummingbirds, for example, launched the careers of soul greats James Carr and O.V. Wright and remain in operation today. They’re represented here by four tunes including the tremolo-guitar spiked “Stand By Me.” Others, like the Mighty Blytheville Aires of Blytheville, Arkansas and Alberta Powell, for whom no biographical details can be found, literally had their day in Sonic and quickly slipped into history.
What nearly all of Designer’s customers shared besides religious conviction was the wide-eyed thrill of recording in a real studio for the first time, and that’s audible throughout this ambitious collection.
The Soul of Designer Records is also a tribute to Style Wooten and Roland Janes, who were truly mavericks in an industry, city and era known for iconoclasm.
Guitarist-evangelist Joe Townsend, ‘I’m Going Over the Hill’/’If I Could Not Say a Word’ (from The Soul of Designer Records)
Wooten was a literal giant of a man, standing six-foot-six and with a full, furry beard and a wax-tipped handle bar moustache. Born Jesse Corbett Graham in 1921, he was an enigmatic character who led a band, ran a trucking company and started a music management company that all bore his adopted moniker before launching Designer when he was already in his forties. He also founded the pop oriented J’Ace Records.
Wooten knew how to make a homemade blackjack, enjoyed driving the smallest cars that could contain his broad frame, had issues with alcoholism that toppled his first marriage and is rumored to have left secret bank accounts all over Memphis when he died in his sleep in 1998. As his son Jason told Hurtt, “You knew parts of him, but you never knew all of him ’cause he never told anybody.” Yet those who did business with Wooten spoke of his fair, honest and pleasant nature.
Janes and Wooten intersected shortly after Janes opened Sonic in 1963. By then Janes had already laid the foundation for his place in music history. Starting in 1956 he was the house guitarist for Sun Records, playing on singles by Jerry Lee Lewis (including “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On”), Billy Lee Riley, Charlie Rich, Sonny Burgess and many others who would define the sound of rockabilly and nascent rock. He also became a skilled engineer and producer, developing microphone placement and tape-to-tape recording techniques that helped revolutionize recording. Janes built Sonic after a faltered attempt at running his own Rita Records label. And at Sonic he minted the sound of Memphis ’60s garage rock, working with a plethora of teenaged bands with names like the Yo-Yo’s, Flash & the Casuals, the Rapscallions and the Memphis Charms. On weekends he and Wooten made gospel recordings for Designer.
The Magnificent Soul Survivors, ‘Hold On To His Hand’ (from The Soul of Designer Records)
Janes closed Sonic in 1973, leading Wooten to purchase his own gear and move the Designer Records operation into his home at 3373 Park Avenue in Memphis. But Janes kept on as a session player and producer until his death last year, at age 80, once again manning the board at Phillips Recording (the studio Sam opened after he sold Sun), and cutting tracks for a string of albums by his many torchbearers, including Mudhoney’s Tomorrow Hit Today in 1998.
By the early 1970s, Designer Records was one of the most successful independent gospel labels in the United States due largely to its sheer volume of releases and Style Wooten’s unmitigated willpower. And while today many of the artists who took advantage of Designer’s services have given up performing, and a good many have also given up the ghost, The Soul of Designer Records upholds Wooten’s promise that for a reasonable fee their musical pursuits will be immortalized.