Various Artists

I Heard the Angels Singing: Electrifying Black Gospel from the Nashboro Label 1951-1983

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Ernest L. Young learned the music business from the ground up, starting in the jukebox operating field, and soon became one of the largest suppliers in the Nashville area. He opened Ernie's Record Mart on Third Avenue North in Nashville as a means to move more records, and realizing the advantages in making his own product, he built a small studio in the back of the store, later expanding into a larger space on the third floor of his shipping department building, finally opening the pioneering gospel label Nashboro Records in 1951. Young launched a secular subsidiary label, the more famous Excello Records, four years later in 1955. Always hands-on, Young oversaw every phase of making records at his labels, and gospel artists responded by giving Young's Nashboro imprint one of the finest rosters of gospel in the genre's history, while his roster for the Excello blues and R&B subsidiary was pretty singular too -- but that's another story. This four-disc set, which comes complete in a gatefold LP-sized package, surveys Nashboro's gospel output chronologically from 1951 to 1983, and it's an eye-opening, explosive anthology of gritty, exuberant black gospel from a label that had as much to do with shaping the sound of pop music in the latter part of the 20th century as more famous labels like Sun and Chess Records did. The roots of soul and so much more are heard here, and with the way the set is assembled, one can hear the decades build forward through the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s into the full-band, funky and R&B-influenced tracks from the 1970s and 1980s. The whole anthology is a delight, and there are some familiar names here, like the Fairfield Four, for one, but there are just as many or more obscure artists here making powerful musical statements. A particular high point is the husband-and-wife duo the Consolers' 1957 version of "This May Be the Last Time," a song the Rolling Stones had a secular hit with in the mid-'60s (under the title "The Last Time"). In the Consolers' hands, the song seems so much brighter, jangly and more alive, and it speaks to deeper and wider concerns than the Stones' version does. It's just one example of the many powerful tracks collected in this set. Bravo to Tompkins Square for spotlighting the best little gospel label that ever was.

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