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V/A - This May Be My Last Time Singing: Raw African-American Gospel on 45RPM, 1957-1982

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Artist: V/A

Album: This May Be My Last Time Singing: Raw African-American Gospel on 45RPM, 1957-1982

Label: Tompkins Square

Review date: Oct. 19, 2011

Despite provenance and proliferation on par with other vintage genres, gospel just doesn’t seem to garner the same degree of crate-digging diligence that other types of music foster in collectors. The disparity might have something to do with the one-note topicality of sacred songs: it’s only possible to praise God and Jesus verbally in finite different ways, and many revered gospel artists weren’t prone to experimentation outside of time-tested forms. There’s also the ambivalence or aversion of certain secular ears to such religious sentiments voiced in song. What’s harder to dismiss or refute is the passion and power that so often suffuses a gospel performance by artists wholly invested in the means of expression, whether in person or on record. These vessels of faith through song carry conviction that is both undeniable and largely indefinable on secular grounds. As my brother, an ordained Baptist minister, puts it, “you need not believe what they believe, but you best believe their belief in it.”

A companion compilation to Tompkins Square’s Fire in My Bones, This May Be My Last Time Singing both builds on and diverges from the parameters of its predecessor. Curator Mike McGonigal once again mined deep into his respective collections of records and associated ephemera, but switched gears a bit to focus on a narrower time frame with pieces culled from 45 RPM sides within a quarter-century time frame. In order to maximize the variety of content, he also set a rule to feature each artist or group just once in a track list that runs 72 deep. It’s a rule he bends only slightly in a single instance.

As with the small galaxy of labels excavated by The Numero Group within the realms of soul and funk, the outfits under McGonigal’s scrutiny were nearly all operations of mom and pop-scale. Larger established entities like Specialty, Nashboro and Chalice (Stax’s gospel subsidiary) signed popular national acts and garnered large market shares, while companies like Booker, Bible Days, Sterling Chapel and dozens of others worked the regional fringes. Local focus and financing meant latitude to record the commercially suspect, and the set’s selections bear this out in glorious profusion. Local churches or the artists themselves bankrolled many of the cuts with commercial aspirations secondary, if manifest at all.

Highlights are too numerous to recount at length, but the diversity of tracks goes a long way toward combating the aforementioned redundancy in lyrical content that can sometimes undermine gospel song craft. Electric guitar work by turns gorgeous and bracing abounds, beginning with the delicate preface to Sam Williams & the Harris Singers, “He Will Fix It.” Little more than a fragment, “Jesus Been Good” by The Fantastic Angels hitches a cherub-voiced choir to a bluesy groove laid out by crisp guitar and sparse syncopated drums. R. Jenkins and the Dayton Harmonaires sing praises over a wah-wah-juiced, boogaloo backbeat on “Put Your Hand in the Hand.” The Exciting Traveling Four traffic in the can’t-miss combination of oscillating rink organ and barber shop harmonies on its 1982 opus, “Oh Lord I Have No Friend.” Stacking tracks against each other makes for striking contrasts. Sounds of Soul opt for a percolating drum machine backdrop to its 1970 ode to the savior, “Perfect Like Angels,” while Jessie Lee Harris relies solely on piano and her sweetly serene voice to convey confidence in her savior’s care.

Numerous cuts reflect their age and the effects of avid use of previous owners. Recorded in 1980, Rev. George Oliver’s “I Got to Move to a Better Home” is in worse shape than a Son House Paramount 78, but made all the more affecting because of the washed out, crackle-laden fidelity. Similarly, Elder Robert McMurray’s gravel-voiced sermon, “Walk with God” repeatedly pushes back against an undulating wall of obfuscating sonic sludge.

It’s remarkable how many pieces echo potential counterparts in the blues, soul and doo-wop idioms. Rev. R. Henderson’s spare and repetitive guitar riff on “Stop Living on Me” could easily be the work of some grizzled Fat Possum resident of the past decade. Similarly, The Dedicators’ “So Many Have Fallen By the Wayside” and Brother Smith & His Stars of Harmony’s “God Don’t Take No Vacation” wouldn’t be out of place in rotation on a Southside Chicago soda shop jukebox. The quietly awesome sacred steel & washboard of the set’s penultimate track, Rev. Lonnie Farris’ “Jesus is Living Today,” travels yet another tributary.

The music speaks vociferously for itself, but McGonigal also includes a small fortune of edifying context through track-by-track annotations and photographs. There are even facsimiles of a handful of Sunday School pins from his personal collection. Say what you will about Greil Marcus and his dog-eared catch-phrase “Old Weird America,” but the appellation works just as well in encapsulating the odd and vibrant splendor of many of these sides, as well as the multiplicity of faith-rooted personalities behind them.

By Derek Taylor

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