Reviewed by Mike Rimmer
This 22-track compilation features recordings from a wide variety of sources and though released in 2000 remains the definitive celebration of one of gospel's greatest singers. When it comes to female gospel singers ministering in the mid 20th century, Mahalia Jackson seems to have cornered the market in terms of strong songs and performances marked by finesse and sophistication. But a recent comment in Mojo magazine alerted readers to the voice of Bessie Griffin, rated as a singer as fine as Mahalia and yet without the same commercial success. You can read all about Bessie's small triumphs and major disappointments in a Cross Rhythms article but before you do so, you might want to investigate this album put together by the author of the seminal The Gospel Sound book, Anthony Heilbut. Even a cursory listen will demonstrate that Griffin's voice was outstanding, a deep resonant contralto able to leap into improvised cadences at will. With recordings spanning 40 years, the production quality here is obviously patchy. But Bessie's bluesy singing, even with the most primitive of accompaniments, is never less than marvellous. Standouts for me include the bluesy "Christ Is All" and, from the '80s, her acappella version of "Old Time Moan". There's also the diva's 1958 Specialty recording of "Move Upstairs" which was never released at the time while her "Someday, Somewhere", recorded in 1948 for the King label, is another gem. Bessie's label hopping was, of course, one of her problems. Griffin moved from label to label without ever managing to achieve musical or commercial consistency. Still, this lovingly compiled celebration of a great singer makes it an essential listen for all those interested in gospel's rich history.
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