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'The Soul of Designer Records' is one of the most fascinating compilations of gospel music ever produced.

Music Review: Various Artists – ‘The Soul of Designer Records’

The Soul of Designer Records is a treasure trove of lost gospel and soul music from the Memphis-based Designer Records label. The new four-CD set contains 101 songs from the small label, most of which were recorded between 1967 and 1977. This was the peak of the “Memphis sound,” as exemplified by such artists as Booker T., Al Green, and the Staple Singers, and those influences are evident throughout the set. While the lyrics to these songs profess a faith eternal, the music suggests even more.

The Soul of Designer RecordsThe collection opens with the dulcet tones of the Gospel Songbirds’ “Tone the Bells Early.” From there we hear dozens of a cappella, soloists, duos and small bands singing songs of praise. What is fascinating is how this music duplicates the growth of soul music in the mainstream world, most notably that of the fellow Memphis label Stax. Practically every major advance made in black music during this time is reflected here in some way.

Examples include Elizabeth King, whose singing is reminiscent of Aretha Franklin in “Testify for Jesus,” the classic country blues of the Reverend Leon Hammer’s “He Won’t Deny Me,“ and the urban blues of “Beautiful City” by the Dynamic Hughes Gospel Singers. For this listener, the set’s climax comes towards the end with two tracks from Elgie Brown. His “When Jesus Comes,” and “A Helping Hand” feature the type of guitar fireworks and rhythmic power that were associated with the Isley Brothers, or even Jimi Hendrix (who played with the Isley Brothers, albeit briefly).

The artists who recorded these tracks came from all over the United States, and owner Style Wooten operated his studio in a manner not unlike that of a vanity press. They would record their songs, and buy as many as they could afford, which were generally sold at appearances. Legend has it that some would buy as few as 25 singles at a time, then come back for more once they had sold them. Clearly this was a labor of love for everyone involved.

Besides Wooten, the other driving force in all of this was studio hand Roland Janes. If someone arrived and needed a guitar player, Janes would step up, and if a drummer or other instrumentalist was absent, Janes just made a call. It is said that Janes recorded up to 500 gospel singles during this time, and he stayed active in Memphis right up until his death last year. One of his more surprising credits came in 1998, when he worked with the classic grunge band Mudhoney on their Reprise album Tomorrow Hit Today.

Singing in church was a profound early influence for many soul musicians, and this collection reflects that importance. These obscure recordings provide a window into a world many of us never knew existed, and it is a fascinating journey. The Soul of Designer Records is one of the most fascinating compilations of gospel music I have ever heard.

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