I’ve always preferred Saturday morning to the other mornings. When I was a child there was no school, the BBC played real Pop music when the rest of the week it behaved as if the Beatles had never happened (there were pirate music stations but my parents controlled the dials), football games for the school team against kids you knew from other schools (so it mattered). As a grown-up there was no work, a lie-in, maybe time for a Full English in the local cafe, anticipation of a good night with family & friends whether at the local juke joint or at the best the city could offer. Mornings like these deserve a complementary soundtrack, music that takes an already raised spirit a little bit higher. Cue Alex Bradford & the Abyssinian Baptist Gospel Choir…
Heavens Above! I know very little about Gospel music but I do know that this is one of the most joyous songs I have ever heard. It was Tom Waits, a man with an admirable breadth of excellent taste, who put me on it. Not all of his recommendations, curated on disc or listed in newspapers (remember them?) make it on to the loosehandlebars playlist but I kept returning to “Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody”, stamping my feet, clapping my hands, joining the choir & speaking in tongues. (OK, maybe not that last one). I’m aware that the majority of the Soul singers from the 1960’s first performed in church, sometimes adopting an alias for their early recordings as the move from sacred to secular music was frowned upon. I’m interested enough to investigate the work of the peerless Sam Cooke with the Soul Stirrers but there’s so much crate-digging into Black music of the 60’s & 70’s still to be done that I really do not have the time to properly investigate the decades before. Tom Waits said, “without spirituals and the Baptist Church and the whole African-American experience in this country, I don’t know what we would consider music”. I think he’s right there.
“Professor” Alex Bradford, “the Singing Rage of the Gospel Age” (how cool is that?), was born in the steel town, Bessemer, Alabama in 1926. Having spent time in New York (sent there by his parents after an incident with a racist cop) & in the Army during World War II, he moved to Chicago where he worked as an arranger/accompanist/composer for stars Roberta Martin & Mahalia Jackson. He started his own vocal groups, performing at churches & revivals,using his experience in vaudeville, jazz & dance to develop a modern style of Gospel & gaining a reputation as a live attraction. He recorded with Specialty Records & in 1954 wrote a song which was a big success & earned a gold disc.
“Too Close To Heaven” is a surprising Gospel record. At the time the smooth stylings of the Platters & the early Doo-Wop of groups like the Moonglows & the Penguins were carrying the swing in popular Black music. Bradford’s vocal is still impassioned, with just the one lovely falsetto whoop, but the record is by no means the raw, declarative Gospel you might expect. It sounds contemporary to me, not at all out of place on that “1954’s Greatest Hits” album.
Such a popular song quickly became part of the repertoire of other groups. This wonderful performance of “Too Close…” by the Blind Boys of Alabama is taken from “The Sights & Sounds of Gospel’s Golden Age”, a CD/DVD combo that is tempting my wallet. The Blind Boys, are giving it plenty here, the camera concentrates on charismatic vocalist Clarence Fountain though I wouldn’t mind seeing more of what the rhythm guitarist is up to. Clarence, who went blind at 2 years old, met his bandmates at the Talladega Institute for the Deaf & Blind. They played their first professional date in 1944, had their first hit in 1948 & are still around, being Grammy nominated in 2016. Here his power & presence brings to mind Levi Stubbs of the 4 Tops. As leading lights of Gospel music the Blind Boys had many offers to record secular songs. The rest of the group were in favour of following the money but Clarence, as the vocal lead, was going nowhere. “Who needed it? Our bellies were full, we had no headaches, we were happy. At least, I was happy singing real gospel.” Top man!
By the end of the 1950’s Alex Bradford had stepped away from touring & as the minister of music at the Greater Abyssinian Baptist Church in Newark, New Jersey was setting new standards for massed choir singing. He became involved with off-Broadway Gospel influenced theatre productions the first of which, “Black Nativity”, book by Langston Hughes, music arranged by Bradford & his co-star Marion Williams, took him on a successful tour of Europe. In 1962 the troupe were filmed at a church in Utrecht, Holland, the Bradford Singers being joined by Ms Williams’ group, the Stars of Faith. This snapshot is of a more restrained style of worship, a more theatrical experience than an uninhibited testifying to the Lord. The talent & Art on display is undeniable.
I am by no means a religious man but I am moved by emotion & sincerity in music whatever its source, whenever it was recorded. I am still most affected by the African-American voice & its influence on popular music from the slave songs & spirituals to Rap. I may not understand the nuance of the development of Gospel through the decades as I like to think I do with Blues & Soul but the virtuosity & creativity of its finest exponents is proof that the Devil does not have all the best tunes.