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.

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