Various Artists | The Last Shall Be First: The JCR Records Story, Vol. 1- | (Bible & Tire Recording Company)
4 out of 5 stars
The advance promotional material of this trip back to the ’70s calls these 17 songs “unsung grooving Memphis sacred soul”; that’s succinct and on target. These slabs of extremely obscure yet rousing gospel singles, some of which never made it to a vinyl album, have never been previously available digitally.
Leave it to Fat Possum label founder Bruce Watson who unearthed and popularized some of the deepest, rawest, most moving and little heard Southern blues to do the same for gospel. That’s the concept behind his Bible & Tire label and he scores on these impossibly rare sides.
There’s a long and involved story behind the JCR company (clearly explained in the disc’s comprehensive historical liner notes), but the condensed version is that the early 70s imprint released gospel tunes from acts that didn’t make the grade for the higher quality D-Vine Spirituals label. Most were one-offs by outfits that all had “The” before their names. Welcome to The Silver Wings, The Chosen Wonders, The Bible Tones…the list goes on. It’s astonishing that the rootsy, heartfelt and authentic qualities of these tracks weren’t considered strong enough to make it to the big leagues, but the excellence of these cast-offs makes for a moving and, well, spiritually uplifting listening experience.
In retrospect, this era was the golden age of religious music. While the acts represented on Volume 1 are unknown to most, the sacred style–electrifying call and response with rudimentary backing–influenced acts as varied as Paul Simon, Humble Pie, Ry Cooder, Bob Dylan and dozens more. Many added African American singers to their recordings to try and capture the Lord praising mojo heard here in all its hallelujah glory. When writers describe artists as being “gospel influenced,” they are referring to this music.
The quality of the voices is consistently superb, especially considering the recordings were likely done quickly, in a single pass without overdubs. The lead singer of The Chosen Wonders is a ringer for Sam Cooke on “Too Late Too Late,” and the woman who takes center stage on The Seven Sons’ “I Want to Move a Little Higher” could have been a star at Motown. The Stars of Faith go Sly Stone-type funk on the ripping blues of “Sitting Down.”
This is, as the cliché goes, the real deal. Deep, sanctified and potent gospel made without any commercial considerations; simply to express the love of religion and its power over these incredible singers lives.
The best part is that there is more promised in future volumes. Get on board y’all.