Hive Five: Our Daily Listicle of Musical Musings
“It’s definitely a challenge to present gospel music to people in the best way,” says Gabriel Roth, the man behind the Daptone label whose release schedule this week involves an a cappella album from the Como Mamas, a gospel trio from Mississippi. Recoded at Mt. Mariah church, the record showcases the stirring voices of Ester Mae Smith, Angela Taylor and Della Daniels. Roth puts the project’s charm this way: “People are looking for feeling in music and sometimes it’s elusive because these days people use all these tricks and techniques to try and make something emotive and it gets lost. But this record has so much feeling and depths to it and not just in a spiritual way. Even though there’s no band, the rhythm of the record is so rocking.” Building on the appeal of the Como Mamas, Hive got Roth to round-up five gospel entry points — both classics and from the Daptone label — for all you non-believers.
1. The Soul Stirrers, “Just Another Day” (1952)
The Soul Stirrers was my biggest in into gospel music. I got a record I think called The Soul of Sam Cooke and The Soul Stirrers and I got real heavy into it. To me, the Soul Stirrers are kinda the Beatles of quartet singing. They were the number one group and Sam Cooke’s contributions as not just a singer but also a song writer were amazing. To me that’s the side of Sam Cooke that not enough people know. Everybody knows him as one of the greatest R&B singers but I think few people realize how amazing a gospel singer he was. With the Soul Stirrers in general, the harmonies and the rhythms are amazing — I don’t think anybody matches what they were doing. There’s so many quartet groups in this genre, but if you’re going to start somewhere it’s the Soul Stirrers.
2 . The Swan Silvertones, “Sign of the Judgement” (1963)
That’s also from the quartet tradition. I don’t know when they started singing — the ’50s or something — but they just kept on recording and this song’s from later on, so you can kinda hear how the style got a little bit more like rhythm and blues but it still has that real sincere quartet sound to it. I always loved that particular song because it starts with this real vibrato a cappella intro and then the way it drops in you have this amazing background harmony. There’s a great guitar player on that record too that’s kinda floating in the back. If you start with the Soul Stirrers, this is the next link moving forward.
3. The Staple Singers, “For What It’s Worth” (1967)
There’s a big tradition of gospel music and pop music going back and forth. You have things like Wilson Pickett and Ray Charles who would get gospel songs and gospel hits and just change “Jesus” to “baby” and turn it into an R&B hit. On the other side of it there’s a lot of times gospel groups would take their revenge in a funny way and take pop songs and do them different, like there’s an amazing version of the Brooklyn Allstars doing “I’m So Glad You’re Mine Now,” the Al Green song, but they make it about Jesus. It’s unbelievable, man, with just one word they change the whole meaning of the song. So the Staple Singers were really the most successful of any of the groups who were able to cross the bridge from gospel to pop in a way and the reason why was because of the message songs. They would sing music that was not religious but it still had these positive messages. So when they took Stephen Stills’s “For What It’s Worth,” you realize how much a singer like Mavis Staples can bring to a song and it resonates so deep for me.
4. Naomi Shelton & the Gospel Queens, “What Have You Done, My Brother” (2009)
This is a record that Daptone put out that was a bit of a sleeper, maybe because people didn’t give it the time of day because they see the word “gospel.” But Naomi is one of the greatest singers alive. In that song it’s a little darker and heavier but it’s a real killer the way that she digs in on that song.
5. Ester Mae Smith & Della Daniels (from the Como Mamas), “Move Upstairs” (2009)
After I heard the Como Mamas we put out a local ad down in Como inviting people to the church and we matched donations for people to come down and sing. We recorded a bunch of local people singing and this was one of the contributions. The performance is unbelievable: They kinda took the song and got more and more crazy. I think it’s an important song for people to hear.