Monday, 18 March 2013

Two gospel records

I may have to curtail the extended blog posts for a bit, but I'm still going to try to post regularly - maybe even make a virtue of the more limited time available by focusing more on individual songs.

Here, for starters, are two gospel recordings I have known and loved for a long time. They have been posted on youtube quite recently, so what better reason to celebrate them?

Alright, in the time it takes to type this Russell Davies would have conjured up about half a dozen relevant anniversaries, outed a lyricist mysteriously absent from the original sheet music credits and made who knows how many other pertinent observations, utilising his trademark waspish wit all the while, but hey, I can only work with what I've got.

The Swan Silvertones are best known for their version of Mary, Don't You Weep, which famously inspired Paul Simon to write Bridge Over Troubled Water, but I also like the less well known A Lady Called Mother, also from their time at Vee Jay Records.

As so often, the appeal for me can be easily explained. It's all about the balance of passion and control. Mary, Don't You Weep feels like a clever compression of what would, I suspect, have taken a great deal longer to build to in live performance: on disc they go from 0 to 60 in a remarkably short space of time. While A Lady Called Mother may not have quite the same sense of release, it could be argued that that makes it more interesting: it's sort of straining at the leash at certain points but never quite breaks free into vocal abandon. Anyway, I think it's well worth listening to.

Incidentally, what is it with cottages? She's in "a cottage far away" and the loved one in Golden Teardrops is in a "cottage by the sea". A stock motif to do with some sentimentalised image of the South, perhaps? Or maybe a convenient way of isolating the loved object: she is somewhere remote and alone, uncomplicated by the attention of others. Enshrined, as you might say.

There's a good piece about the Swan Silvertones on the Classic Urban Harmony website, here (which is recommended generally anyway for its superb coverage of doo wop artists), taking you through the group's history on various labels, including Specialty, and reveals that A Lady Called Mother was actually a B side.

There is also an interesting story on the same page about singer songwriter James Powers tracking down Claude Jeter in his final days in a hospital in New York, and you can hear the song he wrote about Jeter, sung with Jerry Lawson of the Persuasions, plus some interview footage with Lawson talking about what it was like growing up during the golden age of gospel groups.

My second choice was originally issued on the Songbird label (a gospel subsidiary of Don Robey's Duke-Peacock). Thank goodness that at last someone has put this great performance up on youtube, as I couldn't find it anywhere else. I got to know this as a track on a cassette presumably compiled by Viv Broughton as it was a tie-in with his book Black Gospel, published in 1985 (Too Close to Heaven, which accompanied his later Channel 4 documentary series, is essentially the same book). This was one of two songs by Inez Andrews and the Andrewettes on the tape, the other being I'm Glad About It, which is not on youtube or Sp*tify as far as I can tell.

To these ears In the Need of Prayer is a superb performance: wilder, maybe, than the Swan Silvertones, but it doesn't seem like an empty display. It still feels controlled, crafted, the overflow of emotion coming at precisely the right moments in the song.

Sad to report, as I was looking around for a handy biography online, I discovered that Inez Andrews (top) died in December of last year, which I suppose makes for a post facto Russell Davies-type link. There is an obituary in the New York Times, here and a more detailed and personal account here. A writer of an earlier piece in the New York Times, Jon Pareles, is quoted in the Times obit as saying:
“When she takes on supplicating songs like the midtempo ‘Lord I’ve Tried’ or the glacial minor-key blues of ‘Stand by Me’ — both of which rise, verse by verse, to a near-scream — Ms. Andrews can sound desperate, on the verge of hysteria. Hers is a gospel of terror, and of the relief faith provides.”
That, I think, could apply equally to In the Need of Prayer.

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