Gospel seems to be one of those genres that is not so well-served by the recording medium.
That doesn’t mean you can’t find a great Mahalia Jackson recording, or Sister Rosetta Tharpe. But the soul of Gospel music comes out in live performance. I learned this after listening to a Smithsonian Folkways recording of trombone “shout” bands – basically, a Gospel choir of trombones and drums rather than singers and tambourines. I sort of liked the massive sound, and the beat, but that’s it. It was interesting, nothing more. Then I saw one of those bands, McCullough Sons of Thunder from Harlem, playing live. Well, talk about the spirit moving – these guys were blaring and swaying and sweating, and soon I was sweating too. I guess that’s what people mean when they call something a “religious experience.”
I would later present Sons of Thunder in a concert setting at Merkin Hall, where I swear I thought parts of the ceiling were going to come down, and where there were more people at the end dancing in the aisles than sitting in the seats. I got interested in the “Sacred Steel” tradition too – the Campbell Brothers and other artists who use pedal steel guitars as a way of making the spirit sing. I’ve had the Five Blind Boys Of Alabama sing in our studio. I have recordings of all of these, and they are great – audio postcards of musicians summoning the spirit of Gospel right there and then. But part of me thinks they’re great – to me – because they take me back to the live experience, and I wonder how effective they are for people who weren’t there.