Like sunrise after a stormy night, Jesus Rocked the Jukebox: Small Group Black Gospel 1951-1965 bursts into worn-down ears. Concord Music Group’s Craft Recordings imprint assembled this blast of classic gospel from the 1950s and ’60s expressly to show the direct and multifaceted influence of gospel music on secular soul and rock ‘n’ roll. I have the three-LP version, and vinyl’s warm sound and physical ritual make LPs seem the ideal way to take in these cleanly remastered recordings of songs by some groups that remain household names (like The Staples Singers and The Blind Boys of Alabama) and others I’d never heard of.
Precursors of almost every element of rock and soul bubble through these songs. You can even hear the tremolo guitar of Link Wray and Tommy James in The Staple Singers’ first hit for Vee-Jay records, 1956’s “Uncloudy Day.” Ever danced to “(You Make Me Wanna) Shout” at a wedding? Hear it in “Stay With Me Jesus” by The Chosen Gospel Singers, in The Blind Boys’ “He’s Alright,” and in “I Dreamed Heaven Was Like This” from The Highway QC’s, the latter written by member Johnnie Taylor, later the blues and soul man of “Disco Lady” fame.
Devotees of any version of Bobby Bland’s “Turn on Your Love Light” might recognize its racing beat in “Living for My Jesus” from The Happyland Singers, also known as the Original Five Blind Boys of Alabama. The Rolling Stones borrowed from the same group’s “This May Be the Last Time” for their hit “The Last Time.” The handclap energy and piercing vocals of The Detroiters’ “Angels Watching Over Me” is an irresistible two minutes and 16 seconds. You can’t help feeling the spirit in The Staple Singers’ “Help Me Jesus,” while detecting clear resonances with Johnny Cash’s classic band in the instrumental accompaniment. You can easily hear girl groups like The Shirelles in the shout-sweet vocals of The Patterson Singers’ “Heavenly Father.”
And then there’s the pure weirdness of the set’s final track, The Swan Silvertones’ “The Lord’s Prayer.” Another of that group’s songs inspired Paul Simon to write “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”
Bigger names than Johnnie Taylor made the jump from gospel to secular music. The groups on Jesus Rocked the Jukebox include The Soul Stirrers with their lead singer Sam Cooke, whose crystalline vocals turn the simple “Just Another Day” into a stirring call to prayer. And both The Chosen Gospel Singers and The Pilgrim Travelers included a young Lou Rawls.
The influence went the other way too. Another Taylor tune from the QC’s, “God Has Not Promised” from 1960, smacks strongly of 1950s doo-wop. A number of tracks borrow styles and sounds from rock and soul. As if in parallel, a number of secular singers returned to their religious and gospel roots – Al Green, Smokey Robinson. (Even Tommy James.) Indeed, as Robert M. Marovich writes in his incisive liner notes, “Whether performed on Saturday night or Sunday morning, the music of Black America springs from the same root: the celebratory music of West Africa, where there was no difference between sacred and secular.”
Claude Jeter, founder of The Swan Silvertones, had a clear take on the relation of and difference between sacred and secular music, telling The New York Times in 1992: “I had many offers to sing rock ‘n’ roll, but I never did it. I promised my mother I would never sing nothing but for the Lord. As far as lyrics are concerned, there’s just as much truth in the blues as there is in gospel. The difference? The blues doesn’t move me spiritually. The Devil, he’s over there singing the blues, and I’m over here singing gospel. Even though he’s got true words, I’ve got true words too.”
The size of the set is one of its great benefits. Rather than a single sample from each of various groups, you get a well-rounded sense of the whole rocking-gospel sub-genre through six sides of vinyl. While this is no doubt a worthwhile collection on CD or digital, it sure feels great to drop the needle on those sides. If you have a record player, get the vinyl. But in addition to its historical and musicological interest, Jesus Rocked the Jukebox is pure enjoyment any old way.