‘…the soundtrack of joy…’
LOVE LEAD THE WAY
The Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir
Brooklyn Tabernacle Music
I have always considered the six-time Grammy Award-winning Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir the hipper, cooler sibling of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, or a more soulful Up With People. The multicultural, multi-ethnic choir, populated by lawyers, doctors, former crack addicts and homeless people from various NYC neighborhoods, but few trained musicians, are led by the talented Carol Cymbala. Long before it was popular the choir was blending gospel with CCM, and has never wavered from this format. (You may recall the BTC from President Obama’s January Inauguration, when it leveled the crowd with a stirring rendition of “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” with Alicia Olatuja singing a powerful lead that generated headlines around the world.)
Produced by Cymbala and Jason Michael Webb, Love Lead the Way is the group’s 27th record and the first for its own label, Brooklyn Tabernacle Music. It contains lush praise ballads and rock-infused anthems, such as “We Lift Your Name,” where the ensemble sings, “We are not ashamed to lift your name,” and it is quite clear from their demonstrative voices that they are not. Regardless of the musical underpinning of individual selections, the album maintains the choir’s trademark thunderous wave of electric spirit and tight harmonies with melodies that tug at the heart.
The Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir, ‘Let Your Kingdom Come,’ from the new album, Love Lead the Way
The Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir, ‘I Won’t Go Back,’ written by Williams McDowell, from the new album, Love Lead the Way
There are so many quality selections on the album, it’s hard to choose the best, though in my book the prayerful and peaceful anthem of surrender, “Take Me As I Am,” sung beautifully by Karen Melendez, is tops. Also, the aforementioned “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” included here, comes as close to Wilhousky’s majestic version as any arrangement I have ever heard.
“Breathe” features rich orchestral work—the marvelous Nashville String Machine was tapped to assist—and clever chord changes to a rhythm that mimics soul-cleansing breathing. “Working It Out” is for listeners looking for more gospel than CCM, and “Let God Arise” falls within the currently popular P&W style.
Love Lead the Way is the soundtrack of joy.
Picks: “Take Me As I Am,” “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
‘…steeped in spicy southern soul…’
GET A GRIP ON GOD
Apostle Norbert Simmons & the Gospelaires feat. BoPeep
Hailing from Deeper Life Church Ministries of Goldsboro, North Carolina, where Apostle Norbert Simmons is founder and pastor, the Gospelaires quartet is steeped in that spicy southern soul that characterizes today’s gospel quartet singing–a traditional sound beefed up with bass, keys, drums, and electric guitar.
The lyrics are the most distinctive aspect of Get A Grip On God. The Gospelaires revel in turns of phrases, such as on “Fellowship,” which they sing is the “only ship that won’t sink.” Likewise, during the title track, the men exhort listeners to “get a grip on God…he won’t let you slip.” The group doesn’t “have time to be messing around” while they are “Working for the Lord,” and add that if you do the same, you “won’t get paid ‘til you get through,” which metaphorically is a good thing. On the funky “Don’t Make a Move,” the quartet recommends you don’t change your job, car, or even get married “until you hear from the Lord.” “Could’ve Been the Other Way” is a reminder to be happy any day that you are among the living.
Apostle Norbert E. Simmons and the Gospelaires, from the Deeper Life Church Ministries in Goldsboro, NC, perform ‘Don’t Give Up’
Musically, the Gospelaires infuse the title track and “He’s My God Too” with a driving tempo, backbeat, and vamp, while “God Is So Amazing” possesses a soft soul soundtrack. The harmonies are strong, and the production, courtesy of Johnavon “BoPeep” Sauls, is well balanced.
The Gospelaires (not related directly to the legendary Gospelaires of Dayton) are Apostle Norbert E. Simmons, Samuel Platt, Pernell Simmons, and Johnavon Sauls. Get A Grip On God is a solid release. When you hail from the Carolinas, where there are quartets a-plenty, nothing less than your A-game will do.
Picks: “Get A Grip On God.”
‘…about the complexity of modern life…’
SPARE THE ROD, SPOIL THE CHILD
A Mildred Summerville Production
DVD: RT 2 hours, 25 minutes
Ann and Regina McCrary of the McCrary Sisters lead a cast of gospel singers and actors in a DVD presentation of Spare the Rod, Spoil the Child, a gospel musical written and produced by Mildred Summerville (co-written by Regina McCary) of the J&L Summerville Academy in Wilson, North Carolina.
A morality drama peppered with comedy and traditional gospel singing, Spare the Rod follows the Fosters, a modern African American family wrestling with a portfolio of social ills—from the dangers of drugs and alcohol to rape, pregnancy, and illness. The family is anchored by a praying grandmother (Ann McCrary) steeped in mother wit and the Word. She can cite biblical passages to suit all occasions. Her influence is omnipresent but not embraced by her petulant daughter-in-law and angry grandchild, who frequently question Grandma’s unerring fealty to the Most High.
The focus of the story is the grandchildren, who are young adults struggling against the push of society and the pull of the family. Despite the title, the play is not about aggressive discipline but how a family that prays together stays together.
Promotional video for Spare the Rod, Spoil the Child, starring the McCrary Sisters, Melvin Williams (of the Williams Brothers) and other top gospel artists. The gospel musical was written by Mildred Summerville and Regina McCrary and produced by Mildred Summerville of the J&L Summerville Academy in Wilson, NC
Regina McCrary steals the show as feisty Aunt Mamie, a sanctified Moms Mabley whose malapropisms, homespun humor, and happy church mother cool the drama with comedy whenever it reaches the boiling point. Other gospel artists in the musical are Leanne Faine, who plays the preacher; Melvin Williams as the assistant pastor; Tracy Worth as the high school principal; and Evelyn Turrentine-Agee, who speaks to the youth about the dangers of addiction. Each has an opportunity to sing songs for which they are well known, especially during the concluding church scene, which is essentially a vehicle for an all-out gospel concert.
Of special note is pianist Dana Kristina Joi Morgan, whose performance of a medley of classical and sacred melodies is a tour de force of technical brilliance.
While not all of the several dramatic motives are resolved by the conclusion—one wonders, for example, whether the young man who wanted to play the piano instead of football got to realize his dream—Spare the Rod, Spoil the Child is earnest in its sympathetic depiction of the complexity of modern life.
The two-disc DVD set captures the troupe in a live September 2009 performance at Fike High School in Wilson, North Carolina. Recommended for high school students.
‘…full of good old gospel gusto…’
WAITING RIGHT HERE
Stellar and Dove-nominated artist Alvin Darling takes listeners by the hand and leads them back to the old landmark on Waiting Right Here.
These days it is difficult to find a gospel project that does more than pay lip service to the traditional gospel sound. Waiting Right Here, on the other hand, contains so much hand clapping, joyous music, at fast and slow tempos, that even the odd contemporary selection does not stray too far, in lyric and arrangement, from the old school influence. This is not surprising coming from Darling, who has penned songs for trad divas Shirley Caesar and Dorothy Norwood.
Examples of full-throttle traditional style songs on the album include “Grateful to You Lord” and the quartet-y “Help Me to Stand.” “Zion” is cast in the “what’s wrong with the church today” mold, and “I Want to Say Thank You” is sung by Darling with bluesy passion with assenting background vocalists and B3. Darling taps into his inner Walter Hawkins on the smooth contemporary ballad “Jesus Turned the Page.” The album also includes a remix of Darling’s hit, “All Night.”
Vintage Alvin Darling, from 2008, with his hit ‘Nobody But the Lord,’ testifying before a lively congregation. A remixed version of the song is featured on Darling’s new album, Waiting Right Here.
The album showcases the firebrand singing of Beverly Bynes Roberts, who lights up a half-dozen tracks, most notably the jazzy and contemporary “The Red Sea,” and the album’s standout selection, “God Says Yes,” a church wrecker in fourth gear.
The album is also a family affair, with Alvin’s son, Shaun, assisting with engineering and production, as well as contributing lead vocals, arrangements, and song compositions. “Jeremiah” features three generations: Alvin sings while Shaun plays keys and Alvin’s baby grandson (and the song’s namesake), coos.
Released in early April, Waiting Right Here is a delightfully earthy album, full of good old gospel gusto.
Pick: “God Says Yes.”
‘…a festival for the eyes and ears…’
BISHOP K.W. BROWN PRESENTS
EARL BYNUM & THE MOUNT UNITY CHOIR
The Mount Unity Choir of Virginia’s Mount Lebanon, or “The Mount,” is an archetypal example of the modern church choir. It combines the looseness and swagger of the gospel chorus with the austerity of an old landmark senior choir. The ensemble demonstrates its ease in singing P&W, contemporary and traditional gospel, and high anthems on Live, its CD/DVD release.
Directed by the talented singer-songwriter Earl Bynum, who writes several of the album’s songs and also leads a few, the Mount Unity Choir is as big, bold, and dramatic as the East Coast church it represents. The choristers stepped up to the plate to ensure that this project, an eight-year vision of the pastor, Bishop K.W. Brown, would come off without a glitch, and they were successful.
‘Bless the Name of the Lord,’ the official video single from the CD/DVD release, Bishop K.W. Brown presents Earl Bynum and the Mount Unity Choir
The album contains “Bless the Name of the Lord,” the choir’s recent single. Bynum’s “Bless the Lord Oh My Soul” could be another radio single if the similar title does not confuse listeners. “Were You There” is a vehicle for the effervescent Bishop Brown to sing and preach to the worshippers assembled. Chicago’s Lemmie Battles rips into the hand-clapper “Victory” with characteristic aplomb.
The project’s emotional apex is Cora Armstrong. Her mascara-smearing testimony and subsequent singing of her own “Keep on Believing” is nothing less than awe-inspiring. Her riveting performance on the companion DVD—which includes all of the songs on the CD, plus snippets of two tracks that did not make the final cut—is alone worth the price of the project.
It might well have been doxology after Armstrong’s performance, but COGIC’s Dr. Judith McAllister was up next, and she brought the house to its feet on the passionate P&W selection, “Arise.” Jazz-inspired Sherry Sarrel completed the program with “God is on Your Side,” but her jaunty selection was all but eclipsed by the two powerhouses that preceded her.
The DVD allows the listener to witness the pageantry of the recording session, with its colorful praise dancers and banner bearers. A festival for the eyes and ears, Live is a tribute to Earl Bynum and the Mount Unity Choir. It also reflects the inspiration of contemporary gospel architects such as Thomas Whitfield, J.C. White, and Richard Smallwood, whose sophisticated blend of gospel and classical techniques continues to have a profound impact on the church choir.
Picks: “Keep On Believing,” “Bless the Lord Oh My Soul,” “Victory.”
‘…faithful to the traditional style that brought them through…’
The Flint Cavaliers
Low Rush Music/Grammercy Records (2013)
The Flint Cavaliers, known by their fans as the Cavs, have been around for many years.
The Stellar and Soul Train Award nominees from Flint, Michigan—a stalwart quartet town—waxed at least one disc for Hoyt Sullivan’s Su-Ann imprint back in the 1970s. Havin’ Church, the group’s latest offering, demonstrates their faithfulness to the traditional style that brought them through.
Whether delivering drive tempo songs, slow burners, or selections that evoke ‘70s sweet soul, the group stays grounded in the practical wisdom of the old church. The title track, a warning to those who do not take worship seriously, is a clever spin on that wisdom, but it is designed to make listeners chuckle rather than bristle in indignation. “Your body’s in church but your mind’s on the other side of town,” the Cavs sing, rolling their eyes at those who are “shaking and faking” in church on Sunday. “Don’t let the devil steal your praise,” they conclude.
The Flint Cavaliers, ‘Same God,’ the first single from the group’s new album, Havin’ Church
Like “Havin’ Church,” “Same God,” the current single, is a vigorously rendered church wrecker. Tracks such as “Praise Him” and “Willing to Run” feature tight, high soul harmonies a la the Violinaires. Marcus Peterson sounds like Russell Thompkins Jr. of the Stylistics in his falsetto lead work. “Going Up Yonder” is a funky quartet take on the Hawkins Family classic, while the bonus track, “Give Me Strength,” is a bluesy gospel prayer.
Although too many quartet projects suffer from production flaws these days, Havin’ Church is not one of them. Cavs members Minister Lonnie Clark and Craig L. Johnson do a fine job blending the music and the voices in proper proportion.
Picks: “Same God,” “Havin’ Church.”
‘…appealing to a multicultural churchgoing audience…’
TOP 25 GOSPEL SONGS–2013 EDITION
Maranatha Music/EMI Music CMG Distribution
If it were not for a couple of traditional-leaning selections, Maranatha Music’s Top 25 Gospel Songs–2013 Edition could easily be titled Top 25 Praise and Worship Songs–2013 Edition. (Maranatha has, in fact, released Top 50 Praise & Worship Songs 2013, along with Top 25 Praise Songs—Instrumental and Top 10 Gospel Songs 2013.)
Whether or not P&W is your cup of tea, there’s no denying that the amalgam of gospel and CCM has, along with smooth contemporary gospel, claimed a significant space on the gospel charts. Top 25 Gospel Songs highlights this reality by combining praise-centric releases from established gospel stars with those of emerging indie artists.
Recognized stars represented on the two-disc collection include Martha Munizzi, whose celebratory “Make It Loud” opens Disc One. Shekinah Glory Ministry (“Revival”), Isaac Carree (“I Worship You”) and VaShawn Mitchell (“You Reign”) are among the other familiar figures, as is William McDowell, whose enormous P&W hit, “I Give Myself Away” is also included.
Anita Wilson, ‘More of You,’ from her debut CD, Worship Soul, is included on Top 25 Gospel Songs—2013 Edition
Among the emerging artists is Jackiem Joyner, who wails sax on an instrumental version of Kirk Franklin’s “I Smile.” The project also introduces the listener to some less familiar names, such as Avery Sunshine, Tim Miner, Jamie Jones, and Bryan Popin, whose encouraging “Alright” has the right amount of bluesy inflection.
Standout tracks include Anita Wilson’s rich and prayerful “More of You,” from her national debut CD Worship Soul; and Jonathan Butler’s fine contemporary ballad, “I Stand On Your Word.” For those who only know Tamela Mann for “Take Me to the King” are treated to “Here I Am,” a passionately sung ballad from her Best Days album.
The exceptions to the P&W/contemporary rule on the collection are Dottie Peoples’ churchy “I Got This,” and the Lee Boys’ “Praise You,” which features a feisty duel between electric guitars and sacred steel.
Percy Bady has done an admirable job compiling an enjoyable set that flows well and represents the mainstream P&W and contemporary sounds that appeal to a multicultural churchgoing audience.
Picks: “More of You,” “I Stand On Your Word.”
Bob Marovich is a gospel music historian, radio announcer and author. His “Gospel Memories” radio program of vintage black gospel music and artist interviews airs live first Sundays from 3 a.m. to 7:30 a.m. on Chicago’s WLUW 88.7 FM, and streams live at the station’s website. Snippets of recent broadcasts can be heard online at the Gospel Memories Radio Show. Bob is also founder and editor of The Black Gospel Blog.