Dorsey, their primary forebear, revolutionized religious music by creating it anew, rather than relying on psalms or ancient hymns handed down and honed over ages. Just as Sam Cooke would trade “Jesus” in for “Baby” a quarter century later, the success of Dorsey’s gospel originals ﬂowed from their fresh everyman simplicity, the way they’d jump to life from the deep Delta or the bustle of Tin Pan Alley, depending upon your proximity. With Mahalia Jackson as a saleswoman for Dorsey’s songs, gospel music became a booming enterprise. And Chicago became the company headquarters.
Most of the records collected here came from Chicago, and not by accident. Dorsey’s cottage industry caught on, leading to no less than twelve gospel publishing concerns in the Bronzeville neighborhood alone. There was already an infrastructure of Chicago-based record labels at the birth of gospel. Mayo “Ink” Williams was an American Pro Football Association athlete who moved to Chicago in 1921 and revolutionized the marketing of “race” records for Paramount, Decca, and his own Black Patti, the ﬁrst black-owned label in the country. He helped make Chicago a mecca for black performers, even as the Great Migration was making it a destination for the disenfranchised south.
The post-war boom of recording technology advances was good for a new breed of small-time entrepreneurs running little labels and willing to give anything a go. It was common in Chicago for R&B and blues labels to record spiritual groups in hopes of taking advantage of a small, committed market. Chance, Parrott, and VeeJay all dabbled in gospel, setting the stage for the next generation of underground operators. Offe Reese got his start in the mid-1960s running a store at 1818 S. Kedzie, spinning a handful of labels off in the process, including Skyway, Black Giant, One-Way, and Reese. Sunny Sawyer bought the Apex studio and pressing plant at 69th & Damen in the mid-1960s, running Church and Hummingbird alongside secular labels Apex, Palos, and Betty. Further west, Gene Cash issued countless gospel, country, and R&B 45s on his Cash, Courtn’, C.R.A., and Jade labels. Ed Cody’s Odyssey Studios and corresponding vanity label Sonic followed this same path into the mid-80s, providing full service recording and manufacturing services for a fee. Jim Stanton’s Champ studio and label would use this business model to create one of the largest black gospel concerns, using their rock-bottom pricing to attract artists from all over the country to 1705 Church Street in Nashville. Pull back from the map, and you’ll hit Jackson, Mississippi’s J&B family of labels, Detroit’s House Of Beauty, Style Wooten’s Designer in Memphis, Nashville’s sprawling Nashboro concern, Don Robey and his Peacock stable in Houston, and the ever necessary Savoy company in New Jersey. Move in tighter, and you risk stumbling over micro-imprints Crumco, Halo, HLF, Messenger, Whirl Hill, and a hundred more.
Beyond any given gospel music’s sonic character or the address on its label, there are the common threads that tie the tradition tightly to its practitioners. Gospel is, after all, more culture than genre. Quartets, quintets, and choirs often become neighborhood and church traditions and, for the members, can be more like social clubs or close family units than “bands.” Just like the churches they perform in, groups can be institutions, lasting many decades and routinely handed down from generation to generation. Passed down as well is the repertoire. Modiﬁed hymns and bible tales, fossils of jubilee groups, shape note works, even modern gospel songbook items as originated by Thomas Dorsey. Some took hits of the day and interpolated them with religious messages. The best found a way to sneak a few originals in for good measure.
If the central premise of A Gospel Funk Hymnal was to grapple with a “funky” trend in gospel, forgive us for staring perhaps a bit too intently at the collision of sacred and profane we thought we saw on those LPs and 45s. This music was always sacred, and decidedly so. Born Again Funk lends new ears to a joyful strain of American composers and performers unafraid of expressing their devotion with both inspiration and invention. They were faithful to a spirit, not to an ordained sound.