Tony Cummings looks at the music and history of the groundbreaking group SPIRIT OF MEMPHIS QUARTET
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In June 1952 WDIA's daily radio format began to include live broadcasts during the morning hours sponsored by Gold Medal Flour. The Spirit Of Memphis regularly filled the 10:00 to 10:15am slot. Such live presentations continued well into the 1950s. The station also sponsored the Hallelujah Jubilee Caravan. Stellar groups like the Spirit Of Memphis were bussed down to Mississippi or up to Tennessee to perform at a hall or auditorium. Theo served as MC and WDIA would lease the bus and pay for barbecue box lunches.
The group's final King session was set for 10th July 1952. Six titles were conveyed to tape. These included the infectious "Jesus Brought Me" and the spirit-moving "Just To Behold His Face" which touches the soul with its sympathetic narrative. On 7th October 1952 the Spirit Of Memphis were recorded at the 7,000 seat Mason's Temple in Memphis. Shortly before Christmas that same year King Records issued the live "Lord Jesus" in two parts. King Records again took a gamble by issuing not a gospel song as such by a quartet known for its vocal dynamics but a live sermon supported by little except the old church moan. But Syd Nathan needed not to have worried as the release caught notice and sold well in gospel markets nationwide. Demand for the Spirit Of Memphis recordings brought additional work which interfered with their radio commitments. They often had to cancel conflicting radio programmes in favour of well-paying gigs.
Recording-wise though the Spirit Of Memphis were being woefully exploited. Syd Nathan paid the group a small up-front fee for each recording session but no royalties. In late 1952 Spirit Of Memphis signed with Duke/Peacock Records, the Houston-based label run by black entrepreneur Don Robey. The association with Pacock and Robey proved to be long and fruitful, lasting from 1953 until their final 1967 session. The first two years proved to be their brightest period as the group recorded such strong selections as "Surely, Surely, Amen, Come And Go With Me", "Doctor Jesus" and "Storm Of Life". The Spirit Of Memphis continued to revise older hymns and spirituals such as the rubato "When Mother's Gone" which echoes "Motherless Children Have A Hard Time".
By 1956 the popularity of the classic quartets were beginning to wane. Silas Steele and Little Axe Broadnax had left the group and though they found in Joe Hinton a superlative new high tenor. Artistically though Spirit Of Memphis could still cut it. The high tenor of Joe Hinton (who'd previously sung with the Blair Gospel Singers and Chosen Gospel Quartet) was employed to exemplary effect on 45s like "In The Garden" and "Lost In Sin" (the latter a Christianised re-write of the old Spaniels doowop hit "Peace Of Mind"). But in 1958 Duke/Peacock's Don Robey had persuaded Hinton to chase the paydirt of R&B/pop. At first it seemed a bad mistake. Singles on the Backbeat label like "I Know" and "Pretty Little Mama" didn't sell and it wasn't until 1963 after touring with Junior Parker and Bobby Bland that he had his first local hit with "You Know It Ain't Right". A year later Hinton had a huge hit (number one in the US R&B charts, 13 on the Billboard Hot 100) with a stunning rendition of Willie Nelson's country ballad "Funny How Time Slips Away". Hinton's entry in Wikipedia comments how the million seller "culminates in one of the most remarkable falsetto notes ever captured on disc." Sadly, Hinton wasn't to enjoy the music big time for long. He died, of skin cancer, in August 1968.
The Spirit Of Memphis continued to record throughout the '60s but by the '70s had all but retired. They were poised for a major comeback when they were scheduled to record some tunes with Elvis Presley before he fell ill in 1977. They resurfaced in the 1980s as an eight- or nine-member ensemble and re-recorded for David Evans's High Water label.
James Darline, founder and originator of the Spirit Of Memphis, passed away on 12th April 1985 at his home in Riverside, California. Earl "the great pumper" D Malone died in Memphis during July 1987. The formidable Little Axe, who was in fact a man living as a woman, died on 1st June 1992 in Philadelphia. The two remaining, Jethro 'Jet' Bledsoe Snr and Robert J Reed, journeyed on until 1993. Jet dies in Memphis on 24th February and Robert departed this earth (also in Memphis) on 22nd November.
In 2005 a new version of Spirit Of Memphis led by Melvin Mosley cut a live vanity CD recording in Michigan. The independent album offers fine and exciting retreads of "You Better Run", "I John Saw" and "On The Battlefield" plus a number of other equally fired-up familiar gospels. The set is supported by a tough, solid rhythm section that does not once detract from the old, well known recreated harmonies.
Whatever the merits of the revived Spirit Of Memphis, it's their classic recordings made for King Records between 1949 and 1952 which will forever stand as some of the greatest African American religious music ever recorded. As author Anthony Heilbut enthused, "Among the most beautiful quartet records were those issued in the early '50s by the Spirit Of Memphis Quartet. Steele's thunderous baritone could shake a church, the subdued lead of Jet Bledsoe and the ringing tenor of Willie 'Little Axe' Broadnax blended gloriously with his roars. Often James Darling, the group's baritone, would improvise a melodic counterpoint to Steele's lead, while Earl D Malone's bass 'boom-de-boomed' in accustomed style." Classic gospel indeed.The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.
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