Various Artists

Gospel: The Essential Album

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Thomas A. Dorsey adapted the term gospel for sacred songs he was writing in the 1920s (his "I Don't Know Why" is covered on this collection by Sister Katie Sankey), but the so-called Father of Gospel had a darker, secular side. As Georgia Tom, blues pianist, he spent his share of time in smoky blues joints accompanying the likes of Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith. This Saturday night/Sunday morning dichotomy, this tension between the sacred and the profane, between despair and salvation, became almost a template for black gospel singers (Sam Cooke, Al Green, Aretha Franklin) and is part of what gives black gospel its powerful urgency. Although not clearly labeled as such, Gospel: The Essential Album is a primer of modern black gospel music, and while no one disputes the artistry of the great white gospel quartets, none of them are found here. Highlights are frequent: the doo wop ease of the Pilgrim Travelers on "Did You Stop to Pray This Morning";" the fast, sprightly two-step pace of "Born Again" by the Original Five Blind Boys of Mississippi; and the incomparable Aretha Franklin's high energy romp through "Old Landmark." Al Green shines on his version of Curtis Mayfield's classic "People Get Ready." Pops Staple's eerie, reverb-laden guitar makes the two-part "I'm Coming Home" by the Staple Singers, well, reverberate. Sounds of blackness bring a contemporary urban hip-hop headphone approach to "Optimistic," managing to sound both roots and avant-garde at the same time. This is a fine introduction to a fascinating genre.

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