(Written by James Herndon)
By the middle of 1962, Berry Gordy had managed to inaugurate no less than four new labels – Gordy and Mel-o-dy for R&B, Workshop Jazz for, er, jazz, and now Divinity for gospel.
Attracted less by the social brownie points to be had, and more by the relatively easy and predictably steady (if unspectacular) cash to be made from putting out overtly religious music, Motown had already released a number of gospel singles – the Golden Harmoneers’ I Am Bound, the Gospel Stars’ He Lifted Me, Rev. Columbus Mann’s They Shall Be Mine – and now that the “main” Motown labels were starting to pick up a reputation for crossover R&B hits, it was decided that gospel really needed its own outlet away from all that noisy secular stuff.
Alas, although the Divinity Records project was greenlit at a time when Berry Gordy was still hedging his bets, looking for hits in every direction and going after audiences from all walks of life, by the time the first single came to be released, priorities had shifted somewhat. With the Marvelettes, Miracles, Mary Wells and Marvin Gaye (plus some other acts not starting with “M”) all striking chart gold, there really wasn’t the need to chase the steady trickle of sales, and subsequent financial security, that gospel brought. Divinity Records lasted less than a year, and put out a grand total of four records.
Still, things started out promisingly enough with this entertaining pair of sides, which are undoubtedly the best two gospel records Motown had thus far released. This A-side isn’t a patch on the B-side for my money, but they’re both still rather fine.
Motown writer and organist George Fowler, once a writing partner of Brian Holland (most notably on the excellently-named Henry Lumpkin’s splendid I’ve Got A Notion), had been put in charge of the Divinity imprint; his Motown career never really recovered. Despite Motown having previously recorded the well-known and experienced Gospel Stars (indeed, they’d been one of the first groups ever to release a Motown album, 1961’s The Great Gospel Stars), the first record Fowler lined up for release was by The Wright Specials, who happened to feature his brother Ernest on piano.
There’s no nepotism here, though. Sponsored by the legendary Rev. James Cleveland, the King of Gospel himself (the “Wright” in the title was for their manager, Thomas Wright, not their preacher and mentor), and heavily associated with the Caravans, another group legendary in gospel circles, the Wright Specials had bona fide gospel credentials.
Of rather more historical interest to Motown nerds like me is the fact that the group also featured one Agatha Weston, a teenage vocalist later signed to Motown in her own right under the name “Kim Weston” (and later still Mrs Mickey Stevenson into the bargain). Maddeningly, though, it seems almost certain Kim didn’t actually record with the Wright Specials, only appearing in live performances, meaning that although both That’s What He Is To Me and the B-side feature a young female vocalist with a ferocious voice that could stop traffic at seventy paces, historians don’t seem to know who she is.
It’s infuriating, because she’s the most striking thing on both sides of this record, whoever she is. She’s given more of a lead here than on the B-side, but she’s also less disciplined, more strident, almost out of control in places, ultimately to the detriment of the record. Still, the moments when she completely lets go – check out the full-on scream of YEAH!!! at 1:53 – are positively hair-raising.
It’s a good little record, this. Lyrically, it falls into the “praise be to God” category of gospel songs, an exploration of the singer’s personal relationship with the Almighty that seems curiously ill-suited to the communal experience of a group vocal. Still, it has a simple, enjoyable tune, which does what it wants to do and gets the reaction it’s looking for, and the power of that woman’s voice means it’s certainly sold well enough. It’s also brisk – the song is just over two minutes long, but whizzes by at such a lick that it feels barely half of that.
Nice enough, clumsy in places, surprisingly powerful in others – but still the best of Motown’s gospel efforts so far.
Caravans pianist James Herndon is credited with writing both sides of this, but the B-side is definitely a public domain spiritual, and so I’m not sure whether this is an original song or just a riff on an existing standard.
(Oh yeah, collectors and nerds beware: the catalogue number implies this should be the fourth release on the Divinity label, but it was in fact the first; numbers 99001 through 99003 were never assigned.)
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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“It Hurt Me Too”
|The Wright Specials
“Pilgrim Of Sorrow”