december 2011

The Staple Singers on Jubilee Showcase

A Time Capsule of Gospel Music

Chicago’s Jubilee Showcase Was ‘Church Before Church’

By Linda Cain

Various Artists

Gospel music, like blues, is roots music that has influenced most every genre of the American musical landscape. R&B, soul, rock, country, bluegrass, folk, pop, jazz and yes, even rap and hip-hop all share origins with this rhythmic, sanctified sound that rose from the church.

In Chicago, the sweet sound of gospel music wasn't confined to houses of worship. Thanks to the popular TV show Jubilee Showcase, produced and hosted by Sid Ordower, the sacred realm was brought to the secular world over the airwaves of Ch. 7, WLS/ABC-TV every Sunday morning from 1963 to 1984. From local church and youth choirs to the most famous gospel artists of each era, Jubilee Showcase presented a wide variety of inspirational music to a vast audience that considered the program to be like going to "church before church."

Jubilee Showcase producer and host Sid Ordower with Martin Luther King, Jr. and Jesse Jackson.

Gospel pioneers such as Chicago's "father of gospel music" Thomas Dorsey, Albertina Walker, the Barrett Sisters, Rev. James Cleveland and The Caravans all performed on this landmark series, which won an Emmy for a Pioneering Project in television broadcasting.

Classic Moments in Jubilee Showcase on DVD is a time capsule of gospel music, featuring series highlights in four episodes that span the years from 1964 to 1975. The joyous performances will make you want to get up off your couch to sing, sway and clap along.

Show #1 from 1964: Staple Singers, Soul Stirrers, Norfleet Brothers

With the performers bringing color and excitement to the screen, this show depicts Jubilee's early days and is filmed in B&W in a stark studio with a small audience seated in folding chairs.

A promotional spot for Jubilee Showcase

It's a real treat to see a youthful Mavis Staples belting out "Wish I Had Answered" in her deep throaty alto, accompanied by her brother and sister on backup vocals. Hearing Pops play his trademark tremolo toned guitar reminds one of the origins of a unique style that has influenced decades of guitar players, including Ry Cooder and Rick Holmstrom, both of whom have backed up Mavis in recent times.

The Soul Stirrers’ performance is a history lesson in and of itself. Echoes of the style Sam Cooke developed are evident from the first notes. The group's electric guitar and bass rhythms, heavenly four-part harmonies, catchy melodies and two wailing soloists--including the great James Phelps, who had only recently taken Cooke’s place--on "Must Jesus Bear The Cross Alone?" display the roots of several styles of secular music. Phelps was soon being pursued by Chess Records, which thought he had the makings of a major artist. More than any other group, the Stirrers’ post-Cooke evolution is documented on this 80-plus minute retrospective. During their earliest appearance here, host Ordower notes Cooke’s recent departure from the group; in the last filmed number, , his voice betraying his advancing years, Ordower mentions Cooke’s tragic early death.

The Norfleet Brothers, five singers and a guitarist, specialized in old-timey spirituals and jubilee songs, similar to the Blind Boys of Alabama. With two lead singers trading solos, backed by complex four-part harmonies on bouncy numbers like "My Lord Is Riding All the Time," the brothers' style recalls Southern a cappella spirituals from a time when congregations couldn't afford instruments. Thus, the talented singers supplied the notes, chords, melody, percussion, bass and rhythm with their voices--a remarkable feat the Norfleets mastered.

Show #2 from 1969: Soul Stirrers, Inez Andrews

Now in color, this show opens with a rousing number from a huge local choir, the New Friendship Inspirational Choir of Chicago. Soloist Inez Andrews, formerly of Albertina Walker’s famed gospel group The Caravans, displays the kind of vocal majesty, drama and emotion that Aretha Franklin took from the church to secular stardom. Not to mention that Inez could likely break a glass when she wailed on the high notes!

‘He was a warrior!’: About Sid Ordower and Jubilee Showcase

For the final number, Inez joins the Soul Stirrers, backed by a huge choir, for a house rockin' version of "Peter, Don't Be Afraid."

Show #3 from 1975: Andrae Crouch & The Disciples

This show displays how much Jubilee Showcase had progressed in just one decade, both musically and in its production values. L.A.'s Andrae Crouch was already a worldwide gospel phenom at this point, who had crossed over to audiences of all ages, races and creeds. His integrated, nine-piece band included instruments not often heard in churches at the time, such as flute and trumpet. Crouch's sophisticated compositions, which mixed in pop and jazz idioms, ushered in the modern gospel era. Members of Crouch's hip-attired band were allowed to solo, creating a jazzy vibe, while delivering a serious message about faith.

Show #4 from 1969: Jessy Dixon, Salem Travelers, Gene Viale

Pianist/composer Jessy Dixon and his three female backup singers get down with the same type of call-and-response vocals that Ray Charles and The Raelettes took from gospel music, making for an exciting Jubilee segment. Not only that, but Dixon's incredible vocal range includes high-falsetto screams that could make Little Richard blush.

The Salem Travelers, founded in the 1960s at the Greater Salem Baptist Church in Chicago, featured two soloists, three-part harmonies and one hot band that could easily have backed up Magic Sam on the West Side, especially the bluesy lead guitarist. Dressed in Nehru jackets and orange satin shirts, the Travelers could have passed for the Temptations to anyone channel surfing.

Albertina Walker reflects on the importance of Jubilee Showcase

Gene Viale, a handsome young Italian American singer from Southern California who was raised in his grandparents' church, wows Jubilee’s African-American audience with his impassioned displays of soul-gospel singing.

For the show's exciting grand finale, Viale, the Salem Travelers, Jessy Dixon and bands jam together, with all the superb singers taking solo turns and improvising on "I Know What Prayer Can Do." This final number on the DVD exemplifies the diversity and unity that Ordower and Jubilee Showcase strived to achieve over the years.

The DVD also features a “Learn About The Artist” segment with recent interviews with several surviving performers and brief histories of their bands, including Mavis Staples, Jessy Dixon, Willie Rogers of the Soul Stirrers, Andrae Crouch and members of the Salem Travelers.

Watching this very special DVD is to see an art form evolve. From the folksy Southern spirituals of the Staple Singers, to the masterful four-part harmonies and rhythms of the Soul Stirrers that evolved into doo wop and R&B, to the jazzy, sophisticated musical stylings of Andrae Crouch, Jubilee Showcase documented the history of modern gospel music as it changed with the times.

And it becomes apparent that not only was this long running TV show a part of Chicago music and gospel history; it is a reflection of social progress in areas of equal rights and integration.

Producer Sid Ordower, a progressive WWII veteran with a media background, was known for his volunteer work with many charitable and social causes. In the early '60s, he began working alongside the African-American Christian community in Chicago to create a dignified platform for a deeply spiritual music that cried out for hope and faith in turbulent times. That the profound lyrics were accompanied by heavenly choirs, soaring harmonies, soulful clapping, irresistible rhythms and danceable backbeats made the music all the more compelling to a widespread audience.

‘He elevated the appreciation for gospel music to the level that it is’: Jessy Dixon pays tribute to Sid Ordower’s vision and influence

Ordower also hosted the program, introducing the acts while slipping in little sermonettes, in which he would allude to current events, praising the performers and their message of hope in "this confused and troubled world."

The legacy of this groundbreaking TV show is more than simply presenting entertaining and outstanding musical talent. The unwavering faith, sincerity and conviction of the performers is palpable. Their uplifting, inspiring message and rousing, celebratory music can be enjoyed by people of all faiths.

The DVD does not include a booklet, liner notes or a table of contents. Fortunately there is an online treasure trove of information and photos about Ordower, the artists and Jubilee's history.

For more information and to purchase the DVD, visit the Jubilee Showcase website.

Linda Cain is the managing editor Chicago Blues Guide, the Windy City’s go-to source of information and news about the local blues scene.

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