december 2011


The Lost Gospel

By Bob Marovich

Various Artists
Tompkins Square 2011

Imagine yourself diving head first into a crate packed with dusty 45 rpm vinyl records of gospel music.

Not the hits of the day--not the Gospel Harmonettes, Gospel Keynotes, Davis Sisters or the Caravans--but quartets, trios, duos, singers, preachers and choirs you may not be familiar with, artists whose renown didn't reach beyond their city or region. They sold their discs whenever and wherever they ministered in song. Some artists were fortunate enough to secure interest from a large indie label or a decent distribution deal, only to sink quickly into the nether regions of memory.

These are the records assembled on This May Be My Last Time Singing, the three-CD follow-up to gospel collector and enthusiast Mike McGonigal's critically acclaimed collection, Fire in My Bones, also a three-CD set on Tompkins Square.

It offers 72 selections from gospel music's massive marginalia, many from artists who took advantage of recording's DIY environment to put their own music out. Nestled amidst this assortment of artists, which runs the gamut from professional (Zion Travelers and the Clefs of Calvary) to locally prominent (Joiner's Five Trumpets) to amateur (Brother Clark & his Trio), is a dizzying array of performance styles from gospel artists and preachers linked by their genuine religious zeal and desire to go all-out for the Lord.

The Clefs of Calvary, ‘He’s Good.’ The group is featured on This May Be My Last Time Singing: Raw African-American Gospel On 45 RPM 1957-1982.

Some amazing gospel music appears on smaller labels, however, and this set includes such thrilling performances as the Southland Singers' jumping "Save Me Jesus" (Hi-Way, ca. 1963) and "All Wrap Up in One" by the Floridian Otis Wright and the Spiritual Harmonizers. The Zion Travelers' "Milky White Way" (Excell) is a marvelous version of the Trumpeteers' classic original, a song arranged by gospel chorus pioneer Professor Theodore Frye and covered by Elvis Presley. "If It Wasn't For the Lord What Would I Do" by the Cumberland Rivers of Detroit (Kable) has a melody that echoes the proto-soul of its day--a fantastic single that has stood the test of time.

Other selections on the set are by ensembles with more enthusiasm than skill. For example, Brother Clark and His Trio's "Send the Holy Ghost Down" would have been outstanding were it not for one very off-key voice in the trio. The electronic drum machine on the Sounds of Soul's "Perfect Like the Angels" undermines former Gary Echoes of Eden member Selma Kirkendall's stunning old-school gospel vocal.

The Zion Travelers, ‘Soldier of the Cross.’ The group is featured on This May Be My Last Time Singing: Raw African-American Gospel On 45 RPM 1957-1982.

McGonigal's wry sense of humor but genuine respect for the music come through in the accompanying booklet. He does an admirable job cleaning up the original discs that serve as the source material, some of which undoubtedly needed deep groove scrubbing after years of wear and love.

This May Be My Last Time Singing underscores how seemingly infinite is the number of small-run gospel singles, and what would be lost were it not for people like McGonigal who dive head first into crates of gospel records, pull several to the surface and ensure they see the light of day.

This May Be My Last Time Singing: Raw African-American Gospel On 45 Rpm 1957-1982 is available at

marovichBob Marovich is a gospel music historian, radio announcer, and author. In its seventh season, Bob's "Gospel Memories" program of vintage black gospel music and artist interviews airs live first Sundays from 3:00 to 7:30 a.m. on Chicago's WLUW 88.7 FM, and streams live at Snippets of recent broadcasts can be heard at Bob is also editor of The Black Gospel Blog.




Quick Q&A: Mike McGonigal on This May Be…:

Fire In My Bones struck a chord with listeners upon its release. Were you and the label anticipating a follow-up from the outset, or was This May Be… a response to Fire’s reception?

Mike McGonigal: At first we spoke of it as a follow-up, and it is in some sense. But I was trying to do really different things with each record. The first one was looking at a lot of music that had been reissued previously but wasn’t too well-known outside of a small circle, and saying “Look, gospel encompasses many different kinds of sound and texture, particularly this raw stuff that I like a lot maybe you would too?” The second compilation verges a lot closer to so-called gospel soul, and is narrower in many ways and is knowingly obscure. I do not like these records because they’re obscure, at all--but as they are not well known, and have amazing music on them, I wanted people to hear it. I was really frustrated with the quality of a lot of the releases others have done of black gospel from the late 1960s into the 1970s, with the exception of the killer stuff that Bruce Watson has done with Big Legal Mess--the reissues of Designer, Pitch and Gusman stuff is all crucial.

You’re a digger. Did you happen upon any sources that yielded unexpected bounty per the selections?

McGonigal: Where did I find the most records? I found a lot of them in record stores in Detroit, Memphis and Chicago. And many of them I got online, on eBay and the like. I’d either pay way too little or get bid crazy super-high on the things. It’s crazy how expensive some gospel records are these days, though I might be partly to blame for that myself.

In regard to licensing the material, in terms of the history of recorded music, you’re dealing with some very old recordings. What is your process in terms of tracking down the artists featured on the compilations?

McGonigal: On the first record, a lot of tracks were licensed from the people who own the rights to various labels. For the second compilation, we’ve hunted down a lot of the original artists themselves.

Have you run into many dead ends where an estate, or relative, could not be found?

McGonigal: Ohh yes, totally. There are great records that had to be left off--for now, anyway!

Read the complete interview with Mike McGonigal at Aquarium Drunkard

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