Essential Christmas Music: SG and Non-SG

Yes it’s been forever, but I have been in the Christmas spirit and still swamped at a new job.  I’m thankful for both of those things, but blogging time has still been slim.  I don’t want to go without posting SOMETHING for you for Christmas, so I decided I’d join the crowd and post my essential Christmas music.  Here’s a list of essential SG albums, and essential non-SG Christmas albums, trying hard to balance classics with “hidden gems” in both lists.

5 Essential SG Christmas Albums:

5. Ball Brothers – Christmas
4. Martins – Light Of The World
3. Gaither Vocal Band – Still The Greatest Story Ever Told
2. Gold City – Voices Of Christmas
1. Cathedrals – A Cathedral Christmas, Acappella

5 Essential Non SG Christmas Albums

5. Take 6 – He Is Christmas
4. Imperials – Christmas With The Imperials
3. Michael Buble – Christmas
2. 4Him – Season Of Love
1. Carpenters – Christmas Collection

Whatever your taste, I hope you’ve enjoyed the Christmas Season, and I wish you all a very Merry Christmas!  I have a special Christmas post in the queue for tomorrow that I hope you will all enjoy.

MERRY CHRISTMAS FROM THE BURKE FAMILY!!!!!

Multi-Group Reunions

Any readers in the Nashville area, you have an opportunity tonight and tomorrow to check out some mini-reunions of several groups, including the Singing Americans (Danny Funderburk, Scott Whitener, Ed Hill, and Dewayne Burke), and the Stamps (Bill Baize, Donnie Sumner, Ed HIll, with Gene McDonald filling JD’s part) tonight.  Then tomorrow afternoon there is a matinee headlined by a Prophets reunion with Ed Hill, Chico Nix, Carl Sanders, Butch Sanders, Gary Scott, and Nick Bruno.  Tomorrow night is headlined by an Imperials reunion featuring Armond Morales, Jim Murray, David Will, and Jeff Walker (who sounded like a young Russ Taff when he was with the group in the mid 90s).

All this is happening in Goodlettsville, TN.  You can find more information at www.gospellegendsreunion.com.  It definitely sounds intriguing!

The Definitives: “If That Isn’t Love”

This is one of Dottie Rambo’s most popular songs, and it has been recorded countless times by numerous artists.  When the song was current, there were several great versions, not the least of which was done by the Rambos themselves.  The Downings also had a great cut of the song on This Is How It Is…Live.  In later years the song has been recut by the Brian/Ivan/Mike era Gold City, and John Rulapaugh recorded a fantastic version with the Dove Brothers.

The definitive version of this song, however, comes from this classic 1970 live album by The Imperials.  Jim Murray, Terry Blackwood, Roger Wiles, Armond Morales, and Joe Moscheo on piano created an arrangement of this song that has not been equaled.  The song starts with a guitar dominated intro before the group enters on the first verse singing the first line or so in two part harmony.  The group splits into full four part harmony on the phrase “lonely hill of Golgotha” and the cascading harmonies just sweep you away.  The key changes and Jim Murray takes the second verse as a solo, with the quartet rejoining him on the last line of the verse.

The arrangement of the chorus is what really sets this version apart.  The first line contains an echo of the first phrase, then the chord progression on the phrase “the ocean is dry” is unlike any version you’ve heard.  Armond walks down the scale repeating that phrase.  Then there is a thrilling cascade downward of harmonies on the word “sky” in the next line.  The second half of the chorus repeats this pattern, before the group tags the song with some beautiful vocal work repeating the phrase “It had to be love” twice.

My suspicion is that Joe Moscheo Terry Blackwood was responsible for this arrangement, and it is the most exquisite, creative arrangement that I’ve heard from him.  If you have this album, listen to this track again and try not to be wowed by it’s splendor.  If you don’t have this album, find someone that does and have them play this song for you.  It’s magnificent, gorgeous, shimmering, and any other term denoting beauty you’d like to use.

Hidden Gems: Jake Hess and The Imperials – “I’ve Got It”

In the long, storied history of the Imperials, you can be sure that there are many “hidden gems” just waiting to be rediscovered.  One of the more forgotten eras of the group, strangely enough, is the period with Jake Hess.  This particular tune comes from 1967’s To Sing Is The Thing, which was Hess’s last as a regular group member.  Personnel on this song are Jim Murray – Tenor, Jake Hess – Lead, Gary McSpadden – Baritone, Armond Morales – Bass, and Joe Moscheo – Piano.

While the next album, New Dimensions, went farther in pushing the Imperials toward the contemporary edge of Gospel music, this cut was a nice foreshadowing of what was to come.  The preceding cut, “To Be With God” was a soft, smooth ballad featuring McSpadden.  What comes from the grooves next is a stinging electric guitar with heavy percussion that sounds like something off a British Invasion group’s LP from a couple years prior.  Hess sings a lyric that talks about getting saved and having similar faith to Biblical heroes.

In these later years the thought of Hess singing a pop-ish tune seems far-fetched, but in fact liner notes to an old Statesmen album make the claim that Hess could have had a career in popular music, and this song proves that claim true.  There’s some nice harmony from the group on the song, and Jim Murray’s smooth tenor helps sell the tune, along with some nice step in bass lines from Morales.  The song ends with Hess repeating “I’ve got it!” with some harmonized “oohs” from the other vocalists while the electric guitar plays some nice licks while the track fades out.  If you’ve got this LP, or the CD version that Armond and the Imperials re-released several years ago, pull this track up.  It’s very atypical for this era of the group, and it’s a lot of fun!

Thrift Store Finds

I had 45 minutes or so to kill Friday afternoon before I met my wife and kids for a birthday party for one of my son’s friends.  Down the street from where the party was being held, I came across a thrift store that had a name like “Hands of God Thrift Store” or something similar.  I figured I could look around for a while, and I’m glad I did!  I ended up walking out of the store with the following:

  • Booth Brothers – Harmony still sealed CD ($1)
  • Brian Free and Assurance – Requests cassette (the ultra rare original trio project, $0.50)
  • Gold City – Requested Hymns vol 1-3 cassettes (Brian Free/Ivan Parker/Steve Lacey lineup, $0.50 each)
  • Imperials – Now LP ($1)
  • A various artists LP from the early – mid 60s ($1)

The various artists LP is a bit intriguing, it’s a HeartWarming album, but on an early budget label.  It includes songs from Ira Stanphill, Dottie Rambo, The Gospel Echoes (Rambos, I’m guessing), the Imperials, the Plainsmen, and several other well known names.  More on that album when I get a chance to rip it to mp3.  Thrift stores have always been good to me!

Southern Gospel Shows Up In The Most Unlikely Places

If you’ve read my blog for any length of time at all, you will know that I am a big fan of jazz music.  I was ripping a Buddy Rich jazz LP from 1972 to mp3 when a familiar tune came on.  Sure enough, the song was “That’s Enough” which was recorded back in the mid ’60s by Jake Hess and The Imperials.  Jake later recorded the song with Terry Bradshaw and also with the Talley Trio.  This recording by Buddy Rich and his big band actually features a female vocal trio, led by Buddy’s daughter Kathy.  It’s a pure big band jazz arrangement, and it’s VERY VERY good.  You just never know where a SG song will turn up!

Forgotten Albums: Imperials – Gospel’s Alive And Well

These days, if you ask most people about the Imperials, they will immediately think of either the Terry Blackwood/Sherman Andrus lineup or the Russ Taff-Paul Smith/David Will era of the group.  However, I’ve always considered the lineup that preceded Terry and Sherman by a couple years as their best.  That group featured Jim Murray on tenor, Terry Blackwood on lead, Roger Wiles on baritone, Armond Morales on bass, and Joe Moscheo at the piano and serving as the group’s MC.

This album is a live album featuring the aforementioned iteration of the Imperials from 1970.  The very first song on the album, the quartet classic “First Day In Heaven”, showcases what an incredibly smooth blend the group possessed and how well the four voices fit with each other.  It’s amazingly difficult to distinguish between Terry Blackwood and Roger Wiles, they nearly sound like the same voice overdubbed.  It’s interesting to hear “The Old Rugged Cross Made The Difference” being introduced as “a new song”, and their version, while minus the vocal acrobatics of the Gaither Vocal Band’s later take, is incredible.  Harmony drenched in more harmony can be found in “Let There Be Peace On Earth”, “If That Isn’t Love” (with an arrangement like you’ve never heard before), “Sheltered In The Arms Of God”, and the album closing “Sweet Sweet Spirit.”  The group covers one of their recent hits, “God Speaking To You”, which was actually pulled from a Broadway play, if I’m not mistaken.  That’s not the only cut with a secular source, which is interesting since at this time the Imperials were still riding the Southern Gospel circuit.  If you’ve never heard Jim Murray tackle “Bridge Over Troubled Water”, you’ve missed out.  He gives a great performance on this album.

Making its first appearance on this album is the Joe Moscheo led “Oh Happy Day”, but in this incarnation it is the second song of a 2-song medley, and is immediately preceded by a stunning performance of “When We All Get Together With The Lord.”  This song is Exhibit A in my case that these four voices had the single most impressive blend that we’ve ever seen in Southern Gospel music, and the harmonies are impeccable.

When the question makes its rounds every once in a while about the all time greatest live albums, I always make sure to posit this album as belonging near the top of the list.  There isn’t even an average song on the album, the singing is without fault, the arrangements, while dated 41 years after the fact, were incredibly progressive for the time, the blend flawless, and Joe Moscheo is easily the most underrated and forgotten MC in SG history.  His self-deprecating, witty humor, and yet his ability to exude sincerity and humbleness when the concert turns more serious is amazing to behold.  If you’ve got a copy of this album, pull it out and spin it up.  If you don’t, this is one worth scouring flea markets, antique stores, and eBay to find.

Christmas Classics Corner: The Imperials – Christmas With The Imperials

Since it is the Christmas season, and I previously did a series of Christmas “Hidden Gems”, I thought I’d do a classics corner on a very solid, yet sometimes forgotten Christmas album.  Released in 1980 (and re-released in 2000 on CD), this album features the Imperials lineup of Jim Murray, David Will, Russ Taff, and Armond Morales.  While by this time the Imperials were firmly entrenched on the forefront of the CCM scene, they still retained a significant following among SG circles as well.

Tracks:

  1. Child Of Love – The album starts off with a “new” Christmas song that gently flows with a bit of a classical feel.  Jim Murray sings the verses in a minor key, with a shift to the major key for the chorus and some really nice harmony from the group.  The chorus also has more of a “contemporary” ballad feel to it.  A very enjoyable opening track that showcases this group’s ability to blend.
  2. It Came Upon A Midnight Clear – Another slow, flowing ballad arrangement on this song that features Jim Murray on the Christmas classic.  When the entire group joins, David Will takes over the lead part and Murray jumps to the tenor above him.  There’s a nice key change at the end of the first verse that leads to an instrumental break with some beautiful “oohs” from the group that is the Imperials at their vocal best.  While still a ballad, the tempo doesn’t drag, but instead moves along at a nice leisurely clip.  Some more “oohs” tag the song quite beautifully.
  3. Mary’s Boy Child – David Will steps up to sing this classic tune that includes some female background vocals in addition to the quartet.  It’s a bouncy arrangment that features some nice percussion and lets the acoustic guitars drive the verses.  It’s a nice arrangement, but as with the others, almost seems too effortless.
  4. Immanuel – This tune starts out with just piano and Russ Taff singing a very slow deliberate verse.  The orchestra comes in slowly, then in the middle of the verse tempo speeds up some and the rhythm changes to a more pop based rhythm.  The second verse returns to a ballad style and again returns to the pop style in the middle.  It’s definitely a much more complex arrangement, and is one of the highlights of the disc.  The chorus builds the intensity of the pop style
  5. O Come All Ye Faithful – There isn’t a clear division between this song and “Immanuel”, which makes me think it was originally intended to be a medley.  It’s a fairly traditional, straight forward rendition of the first verse and chorus.  The chorus is then repeated with the “For He alone is worthy” lyric, and then the pop feel somewhat returns for the power tag led by Russ Taff.  Great song, especially considered as a medley.
  6. Christmas Praise – This song was penned by Jim Murray, and returns to the flowing classical feel of the first couple of tracks.  The chorus features some smooth swirling harmonies.  It’s a very pretty song with some really great lyrics.
  7. Silent Night – The intro to this song features some more breathtaking “oohs” from the group, then Armond Morales comes in for the first verse.  Again, this is a fairly traditional rendering that features some nice background vocals behind Armond’s lead.  These guys could really sing well.  The oohs are repeated after the first verse including a key change with some cascading style harmonies.  Russ Taff sings the next verse.  The oohs are repeated to tag the song.  Again, a very pretty song.
  8. What Child Is This? – The most unique arrangement of this song you will ever hear.  It’s given a pop/jazz arrangement and sung very soulfully by Russ Taff.  It is almost unrecognizable from the typical variation of “Greensleeves”, but it is also the single best track on the album.  The track is basically a Russ Taff solo, but it’s absolutely incredible.
  9. O Little Town Of Bethlehem – David Will comes back to sing this very mellow arrangement of the timeless carol.  There is some smooth harmony behind Will’s lead vocal on the first verse, as well as some nice group harmony on the second verse.  There’s a brief appearance by a choir on the second verse as well.  This one is short and sweet.
  10. O Holy Night – This song again features some female background harmony adding to the quartet with Jim Murray singing this great song.  Murray has the classical sounding voice that fits this arrangement perfectly.  While it isn’t stratospherically high, Murray’s vocal is outstanding.  This is the style song that his voice was made to sing.  A great way to end the disc.

Summary: Outside of “Immanuel” and “What Child Is This?”, there aren’t a lot of risks taken in the arrangements on this album, but that isn’t to say the arrangements aren’t solid, nor the disc boring.  Quite the opposite, actually, this is a perfect album to play to really get into the Christmas spirit.  The vocals are top notch, the harmonies immaculate, and the two aforementioned tracks are placed perfectly to spice up the album.  These four guys could really sing well.  Russ Taff and Jim Murray both really shine on this disc in particular.  If you have the LP or CD, pull it out, give it a spin, and just try not to be swept up in the Christmas spirit by the smooth harmonies of the Imperials in their heyday!

Hidden Gems: Imperials – “Light At The End Of The Darkness”

This song comes from 1975 and the No Shortage album with Jim Murray, Terry Blackwood, Sherman Andrus, Armond Morales, and Joe Moscheo.  I believe this song was written by Larry Gatlin.  Terry Blackwood sings lead throughout the song.  Even though The Imperials were firmly entrenching themselves at the forefront of the emerging genre of Contemporary Christian Music by this time, this song hearkens back to their Southern Gospel roots and is a classic SG style ballad.  This song has a great message of hope for anyone going through a tough time.  Terry Blackwood’s lead vocal is great, and the group harmonies are spot on.  Sherman Andrus really shows his blending ability as a baritone on this song as well.  This is just an all around great song, and I’d love to see someone bring this one back.

Hidden Gems: Jake Hess and The Imperials – “It’s Worth More Than Anything”

From 1965’s Slaughter Writes, Imperials Sing album on Heartwarming you will find this bouncy little tune.  Personnel on this recording were the original lineup of the group:  Sherrill Nielson – Tenor, Jake Hess – Lead, Gary McSpadden – Baritone, and Armond Morales – Bass.  Jake is featured on the lead throughout the song until the tag, where Sherrill takes the melody after a key change and some group vocals.  There are two things about this cut that make it stand out.  First, Jake’s lead vocal is quintessential Jake Hess.  If someone who only knew Jake from the Gaither videos wanted to hear what made him so popular, this would be a perfect cut to play for them.  Secondly, the background harmonies that surround Jake’s lead vocal are impeccable, there’s a lot of modern harmony interspersed throughout the song that really make it musically interesting.  This is a very short song, about 1:55, but it’s definitely a gem.  Spin up your copy and see if you agree!

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