(Written by Mae Gooch)
After sixty-four secular sides, we finally find the first overtly religious Motown record. Gospel music may never have been likely to storm the charts, but – as Berry Gordy Jr. knew full well – it was always good for steady sales to customers, often older customers, who wouldn’t normally buy pop records, let alone go anywhere near a Henry Lumpkin or Barrett Strong.
Immune from the ebb and flow of pop trends, gospel also had an added appeal for small independent labels – it was cheap. The artists didn’t want a lot of money, there wasn’t a lot of complex instrumentation to sort out, and the songwriting royalties were minimal at most; since the majority of gospel groups had honed their live act in an environment arguably more demanding than Michigan’s dark and smoky clubs, recording gospel sides was usually just a matter of bringing a group from their church to the studio and recording them doing what they’d normally do for the congregation.
It was a proven strategy, and it never failed. If no gospel record was ever going to sell a million copies, nonetheless the steady flow of solid if unspectacular sales helped to keep the lights on at any number of small labels during lean times. Motown was no exception and Gordy was grateful for the income. Eventually, Motown would form a specialist subsidiary label, Divinity Records, purely to handle gospel releases. That was more than a year away, though, and so instead this first Motown gospel single was issued on Tamla, where it sits next to the Supremes’ debut single in the catalogue.
The Gospel Stars (no modesty in the naming there) were a Detroit church group whose leader, Mae Gooch, wrote and arranged this song. The group earned a place in Motown history, albeit as a footnote, by recording the first ever non-compilation Motown LP, The Great Gospel Stars (left). According to the liner notes to that album, the lead vocal here was provided by Elizabeth Davis, though the liner notes to The Complete Motown Singles: Volume 1 credit Mae Gooch herself as providing the lead.
Anyway. This one is a straight-down-the-line Southern spiritual, with a pounding piano, a tempo slow as molasses (you could speed this up so that it went twice as fast, and it would still sound slow), and a full-on female lead vocal so powerful it sounds like it could knock a can off a wall from fifty yards. The brushed drums are the only concession to what Motown was doing at the time; otherwise, this is yet another early-Sixties oddity which has almost nothing in common with the rest of Motown’s output.
Which isn’t to say it’s not good. Despite the fact most gospel records only come in three flavours – “heavy handed Biblical allegory”, “It’s not too late, God can still save you” and this one, “I was a sinner but God saved me” – I’m not averse to a bit of gospel when it’s done with proper verve and feeling; I tend to group records in my head by sound rather than subject matter, and good gospel is no different than any other pop music done with real conviction, with the effort and dedication which comes from a labour of love and which so often leads to exceptional records. Here, Ms Gooch (or Davis) is really, really going for it, and her vocal delivery (or, more accurately, the strength and enthusiasm of her vocal delivery, really) carries an otherwise weak song.
It’s still not really something you’d choose to listen to over and over again, mind; an exceptional voice can only take you so far. In fact, the most memorable thing about it is the way it opens. Oddly, He Lifted Me starts out with the lead singer hitting a long, strong note with the first word of the song (“from…”) which is, bizarrely, identical to the long, strong opening note sung by Jean Terrell on the Supremes’ amazing Stoned Love almost a decade later.
Anyway. Listenable, and nowhere near as awful as you might have imagined a record by a group called “The Gospel Stars” to be.
MOTOWN JUNKIES VERDICT
(I’ve had MY say, now it’s your turn. Agree? Disagree? Leave a comment, or click the thumbs at the bottom there. Dissent is encouraged!)
You’re reading Motown Junkies, an attempt to review every Motown A- and B-side ever released. Click on the “previous” and “next” buttons below to go back and forth through the catalogue, or visit the Master Index for a full list of reviews so far.
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|The Gospel Stars
“Behold The Saints Of God”