Della Reese

Amen!/What Do You Know About Love?

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This two-fer from Collectors' Choice Music gathers a pair of Della Reese's late-'50s long-players for the New York-based Jubilee imprint. Up first is Amen (1958) -- her third for the label and also her first to embrace a program of sacred selections. As apparent from her natural vocal command, the Detroit native had served a substantial tenure as a gospel singer. After leading the Olivet Baptist Church Choir, it was an invitation by the First Lady of Gospel, Mahalia Jackson -- to temporarily trade places with Jackson's ailing soprano soloist -- that led Reese to tour with the First Lady of Gospel briefly during the summer of 1944. Several years later, as a congregation member at New Liberty Baptist Church, Reese encountered the talents of Earnestine Rundless. The two formed the Meditation Singers and nearly a decade later -- for the Amen recordings -- the artist would be reunited with not only Rundless, but also daughter-in-law Laura Lee Newton. Interestingly, it was Newton who had replaced Reese in the Meditation Singers and the similarities can be heard, especially on the bright and optimistic "Jesus" as the two banter about lines in a call-and-response fashion. Producer and arranger Morty Palitz takes very few liberties, nor does he embellish the spiritual selections. Rather, he wisely maintained a hands-off approach and allowed Reese -- who is accompanied instrumentally by piano, organ, and the intermittent robust choir -- to organically unveil her inimitable magic. Among the standouts are the opening title track, "Jesus Will Answer Your Prayer" and "Rock a My Soul" -- both of which are rousing outlets for Reese and company -- as well as the considerably introspective "Last Mile of the Way," "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen," "I Know the Lord Has Laid His Hand on Me," and a thoroughly exalted cover of Sister Rosetta Tharpe's "Up Above My Head I Hear Music in the Air." By contrast, the Reg Owens directed and scored What Do You Know About Love? (1959) could not be more dissimilar. The dozen torch ballads are primarily taken from the prolific pages of the Great American Songbook. However, the dozen tunes rarely allow for Reese to stray too far from the arrangements or to interject her own unique and occasionally animated persona. Instead she relies on faultless timing and a robust sonic presence to create what is an excellent, if not somewhat reserved outing. "When I Fall in Love," and the stylish "You Better Go Now" are uniformly recommended. The latter is among the best examples of the real Reese shining through. As is the bluesy "I Never Knew" that even allows room for the artist to provide the occasional improvised scat vocal that is definitely a forbearer of things to come. Similarly, "I Thought of You" is bolstered by the dramatic sensibilities that would deliver Reese into the burgeoning medium of film -- as she had already starred in the Teensploitation flick Let's Rock (1958). That same attitude can be heard on "You Don't Know What Love Is," "I'm Thru with Love," and the purposefully standoffish "That's All There Is."

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