(Written by Herbert Pickard)
The Gospel Stars have a couple of places in Motown history reserved just for them; not only were they the first Motown act to release an overtly religious record (He Lifted Me, the company’s first gospel single, back in March of 1961), but they were also the first Motown act ever to release an album – the little-heard The Great Gospel Stars. Take that, pub trivia buffs.
Between then and the summer of ’63, though, a lot had changed – both at Motown, and in the greater musical landscape of America. As I’ve noted before on this site, gospel music had helped many a small independent label survive in the Forties and Fifties: cheap to record, cheap to market, and always in demand, a steady way of paying the bills with its reliable if unspectacular drip of sales. No gospel record would ever sell a million copies, but nor would any reasonable-quality gospel cut be left unsold on Christian bookshop shelves.
This, more than any notion of eclectic musical policy, had seen Motown release a number of gospel sides back when times were hard. But by July 1963, Berry Gordy’s ever-growing company was no black indie imprint living a hand-to-mouth existence; with two #1 hits on the pop charts and eight R&B chart-toppers, that trickle of gospel sales just wasn’t impressive any more.
Divinity Records, Motown’s gospel-only subsidiary label, had been intended to be an arm’s-length operation distanced from the rowdy R&B/pop stuff, an insurance policy in case of dried-up sales, and a statement of moral intent should anyone accuse Gordy of corrupting or misrepresenting black America with his secular music. Now, though, Motown’s finances looked bulletproof, and so the roles had switched; now the R&B and pop music was bankrolling the low-selling gospel sides, and the writing was on the wall. Divinity Records’ planned slate of releases for the autumn and winter of ’63, including a number of already-finished recordings from local gospel groups, was summarily cancelled. This was the last record ever released on the label.
It’s not even new; this was the product of a Gospel Stars session from back in the winter of 1961, not long after the LP had been completed; ominously, it was then held in the can for more than a year and a half before eventually finding its belated way to a low-key release.
I tell you what, though, it’s no afterthought, this. On listening to it, Give God A Chance is perhaps the most musically-ambitious of all Motown’s gospel releases in the early Sixties, a long, multi-part mini-epic with unexpected key and tempo changes. That’s not to say it’s the best of those contemporary Motown gospel outings (since you asked, that would be the Wright Specials’ startling Pilgrim Of Sorrow, for my money anyway), but it’s definitely the most intriguing. Like the Golden Harmoneers’ Precious Memories and Reverend Columbus Mann’s Jesus Loves (both B-sides, like Pilgrim Of Sorrow), there are musical boundaries being pushed here.
Starting out with a tack piano pounding out a waltz tempo with almost jaunty abandon, Give God A Chance spends its first two and a half minutes in a rigid pattern, a female-led choir of backing vocals anchoring the tune whilst a charismatic male lead singer (possibly Herbert Pickard, the writer of the song) gives a surprisingly good vocal; his restrained, almost wounded delivery has more than a hint of Marvin Gaye about him. This first section is all based around a central lyrical conceit – if things in your life are going wrong, you could do worse than going to church. It stays (surprisingly) clear of hectoring evangelism; the tone is friendly rather than didactic, and the pleasing hook (Why not give God a chance?) forms a mini-chorus after each pair of lines.
There’s almost no deviation until just before the two-minute mark, when the backing vocals take over for the middle eight (Why not? Why not?) and our lead vocalist does very little but hum and exhort melismatically over the top. But then, just before two and a half minutes are up, the song seamlessly moves into a sort of clipped loop, playing the first couple of notes of the chorus over and over and over again without moving on (Why not? Why not? Why not? Why not?), catching the ear and giving the whole thing an eerie minor-key tint, and the lead Gospel Star starts pumping out short statements mixed with the same rhetorical exhortation: “you’ve tried the doctor, you’ve tried the lawyer, you’ve tried medicine… why not?”
Then, it sounds as if the song’s about to finish as we reach three minutes, but instead there’s a false ending, and everything just comes crashing down – the drumbeat and piano stop altogether, and instead there’s a distinctly unsettling moment of silence, broken by some near-acapella operatic female solo lines on backing vocals; the male lead again croons melismatically but without structure, wavering all over the scale, while in the background there are tinkling scales and arpeggios of piano and rumbling drums, crashing like waves on a shore, as well as the choir hooting their approval and a randomly-bashed tambourine that just adds to the weirdness.
This goes on for nearly another whole minute, and it’s mightily disconcerting; finally, the lead guy pulls it all back together by shouting “I wanna ask you one more time!” and everything starts up again just as it had in the first verse, ready for the big finish.
Impressively ambitious, if not necessarily something you’d come back to over and over again, this was a respectable high note upon which to end Motown’s first flirtation with the gospel market. They’d be back, although the Gospel Stars’ Motown story was over.
MOTOWN JUNKIES VERDICT
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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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“A Love Like Yours (Don’t Come Knocking Everyday)”
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“Have You Any Time For Jesus”
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