It’s no secret that, if you trace rock & roll’s roots back far enough, you’ll find that there is a correlation—either direct or by way of the blues and R&B—to the gospel music that rose out of churches in the South and migratory centers like Chicago in the mid–20th century. In recent years, a host of compilations have helped make that fact more apparent. One such point of reference was the three-disc Fire in My Bones: Raw + Rare + Otherworldly African-American Gospel (1944–2007) released by the Tompkins Square label in 2009. That compendium was put together by Mike McGonigal, publisher of Yeti, and he and Tompkins Square have now followed up that set with another three-CD volume, This May Be My Last Time Singing.
Taken entirely from 45s which were often released by congregations or by small regional labels, the comp is sprinkled with actual sermons. But tracks like “Supernatural Prayer,” credited to The Pastor That Lives Faith, and “Walk with God,” by Elder Robert McMurray, posses a certain rhythmic musicality, with the latter just being a bass player and a horn section (and perhaps a bit of lasciviousness) away from being a James Brown cut. Such postulating will surely make you believer—not so much in the almighty, but in the relationship between the pulpit and the rock stage.
Still it is This May Be’s funkier moments that are the most thrilling. It’s just a few evolutionary steps from The Mighty Wings’ “When He Called My Name” to “Tutti Frutti,” while if you close your eyes, The Fantastic Angels’ “Jesus Been Good” could just as well be The Jackson 5. Elsewhere, Rev. R. Henderson’s “Stop Living On Me” is a dusty slice of blues that could have once been released by Fat Possum, and “Put Your Hand in the Hand,” with its wah-wah’ed guitar, is not so unlike some acid-rock B-side.
There are some curiosities here too. Sounds of Soul’s “Perfect Like the Angels,” with its rudimentary drum-machine beat, no doubt sprung from the latter portion of the comp’s span, but the soulful vocals overcome its instrumental shortcomings. Meanwhile, the sentiments on “God Don’t Take No Vacation,” by Bro. Smith & His Stars of Harmony, are a little corny, but again the conviction of the performance elevates the song.
In large part, though, This May Be is made up of soul and R&B on par with the secular music of the same era. One has to wonder what stars could have been in the making had these same singers decided to take on more popular subjects (sex, love, dancing, etc.) and crossed over. As it is, McGonigal and Thompson Square reveal there was plenty of talent hidden in hallowed halls, and luckily for whatever reason, someone had the urge to capture it on wax. Even amongst the recent dearth of gospel re-appreciation (I’m guessing the profit margins are pretty good on these records), this one, thank God, sticks out for the sheer vitality it conveys.