Tony Cummings chronicles the lives and music of Sullivan and Iola Pugh, better known as THE CONSOLERS
The death in December of 85 year old gospel singer and guitarist Sullivan Pugh brought to a close one of the most fascinating stories in post war gospel music history. With his wife Iola, Sullivan formed half of The Consolers, a best selling act in gospel music if an unlikely one. For when The Consolers were at their most popular in the '50s and '60s outselling the majority of gospel artists their recordings, their raw, rural sound was already a musical anachronism, light years from the increasingly sophisticated gospel of the modern age. Yet as described in Bil Carpenter's Uncloudy Days: The Gospel Music Encyclopedia, "With just a guitar and two roughshod vocals, this married duo provided the public with an array of plaintive sermonettes, praise tunes and guilt-laden songs about wayward children."
Sullivan was born on 1st October 1925 in Morehaven, Florida. When his mother was killed in the 1926 Lake Okeechobee hurricane, Sullivan and his five siblings were adopted by James and Virginia Pugh in the community of Punta Gorda. He began singing as a child soloist at the First Born Church Of The Living God in Miami. As an adult Pugh moved to Miami to find work.
Iola Lewis Pugh, the third of four daughters, was born in Cottonton, Alabama on 22nd July 1926. Her mother died when Iola was three years old; she was then raised by her maternal grandmother. Iola moved to Columbus, Georgia, where she completed high school. Then she attended Claflin College in Orangeburg, South Carolina. Later she moved to Miami and met Sullivan in 1949.
Sullivan told Bil Carpenter how he met his future wife. "We met at a church. It was a tent service that was going on. I went there and I used to play the piano a little, so the pastor let me play the piano for the services. So I kept going back nightly to play and one night she came to the service and that's when we met." Although he said it wasn't love at first sight, it eventually evolved into love. "It was a good thing for both of us." The couple married on 11th March 1950. Within a year Sullivan, Iola and Pearl Nance-Rayford had formed a gospel trio, calling themselves the Miami Soul Stirrers. Two singles were made, "My Soul Couldn't Rest Contented" and "For Ever And Ever", on Glory Records. Neither sold and Pearl left. The Pughs continued on as a duo.
Bil Carpenter commented on the duo's raw "country" sound. "From the beginning, their singing style possessed more commonality with a revival tent meeting than with technical singing. Sullivan's rough, ragged baritone was loud and upfront in equal competition with Iola's field-holler alto. On many of their songs, it's as if they are literally yelling the lyrics more than singing them."
Equally distinctive was Sullivan's unusual guitar playing. In the Encyclopedia Of American Gospel Music Sherry Sherrod DuPree wrote about Sullivan's guitar style which he said was his gift from God. "He plays extended passages on a single string and uses legato, double-stops and endings incorporating artificial harmonics. He has a distinct African American flavour. He uses percussive, rhythmic chords to accent the backbeat. he imitates the vocal style with his guitar, or slurs multi-note phrases."
The husband and wife team played churches along the Eastern seaboard. Remembered Sullivan, "We were calling ourselves the Consolators when we first started out. We were told by a deejay up in New York - this is before we made any records, we went up there and were singing - he said the proper word to use [grammatically] would be The Consolers. So we took his advice and changed it."
In fact, the billing on the duo's first single, a folky rendition of "Wade In The Water" and a Pugh composition "How Long Has It Been Since You've Been Here", was The Spiritual Consolers. Released on DeLuxe it was, like the Miami Soul Stirrers singles on Glory, recorded by Henry Stone who had moved to Miami and launched his Seminole Distribution Company. Using an Apex reel-to-reel tape machine, Stone made a bunch of low cost recordings of artists ranging from Ray Charles and John Lee Hooker to The Consolers. "He was trying to record a lot of the local gospel singers," Pugh explained. "We heard about it and got in touch with him. We did a couple of songs on that label."
"Wade In The Water/How Long Has It Been Since You've Been Here" didn't sell particularly well though the latter song became a firm favourite in the duo's repertoire with a re-recording of the song being released in 1961 on The Consolers' first album. Pugh spoke of "How Long Has It Been": "That was my very first song I ever wrote. It was a part of my life. I was very close to my family and they were close to me. That was the story."
Henry Stone (who in the '90s was to earn a fortune with Miami soul and pop acts like George McCrae, KC & The Sunshine Band and Betty Wright) decided to drop The Consolers. Remembered Sullivan, "We had signed a contract with him. When that fell through he told me, 'Well, I'm not going to try to hold you to the contract. Why don't you try and get with a record label that's already established? I wish you much luck.' We had heard about Nashboro Records and they were very good. They were one of the companies we wrote to and it wasn't very hard at all. We sent a letter and Nashboro asked us to send a demo and that's what we did."
The duo, now known as just The Consolers, signed with Nashboro who in 1955 released the duo's first single, "Give Me My Flowers". It turned out to be a huge gospel hit. What made Nashboro one of the major labels in gospel was that it was run by Ernie Young, an entrepreneur with good connections to radio station WLAC in Nashville. As Steve Turner wrote in An Illustrated History Of Gospel, "WLAC in Nashville was a 50,000-watt station that targeted the black populace with its choice of music and its advertising for baby chicks, hair pomade, skin-lighteners, choir gowns and funeral parlours. However, its reach extended way beyond Nashville. There were listeners in the East and Midwest and, if reception was clear at night, it could be picked up in Canada and Mexico and the Caribbean islands. At its peak it was said that WLAC was listened to by 65 pr cent of America's black population."
Although all WLAC's deejays Gene Nobles, John R, Hermon Grizzard and Hoss Allen were white, they all played blues, the emergent rhythm and blues and gospel. As Turner wrote, "Although they would all play gospel tracks, and John R - whose show was sponsored by Nashboro Records' Ernie Young - had a Sunday morning gospel show, it was Hoss Allen who became particularly identified with spiritual music. Known to his listeners as the Hossman, Allen had joined WLAC in the late 1940s and would deputize for Gene Nobles whenever he was off air. He became so integrated with the gospel music scene that he would host local gospel concerts and would eventually present a programme of music and meditations, Early Morning Gospel Time With The Hossman.
The Hossman gave extensive play to The Consolers' first Nashboro single. Sullivan spoke about the origins of "Give Me My Flowers". "I was told a story many years ago about a lady that was going to a funeral and she took some food. And everybody was laughing at her because she took food to the funeral and everybody else was taking cards and flowers. She got a little upset with them and said, 'If our deceased friend can see those flowers you got there, then she can eat my soup.' So that's where I got the idea to write that song."
"Give Me My Flowers" certainly connected with WLAC's massive church going listenership though historian Horace Clarence Boyer is guilty of overstatement in his assertion that "'Give me My Flowers' brought superstar fame to The Consolers" it is true that the single's big sales set up the duo as nationally renowned gospel hitmakers.
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