Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Since I've never worked up much enthusiasm for gospel music, the fan--a newcomer turned on by the Dorothy Love Coates compilation Dave Marsh plugged here recently, say--may find my opinions irrelevant if not sacriligeous. But some new Columbia/Legacy reissues may well suit listeners who, like me, are vaguely put off by gospel's passionate but narrow world-view even though they respect the moral force of the African-American church and get off on the occasional whoop or holler,

Except for the Abyssinian Baptist Choir's whooping, hollering Shakin' the Rafters (try Said I Wasn't Gonna Tell Nobody), most of this music is very cool. I don't mean CD-boxed totem Mahalia Jackson--too often, she's just dignified, or sanctimonious. But the Golden Gate Quartet's Swing Down, Chariot elaborates the old close-harmony jubilee tradition, like their key influences the Mills Brothers without pop schlock. Bending Biblical homilies into progressive parables over light instrumentation that gives them room to swing, they're more about gospel than of it. The verve and control of their vocal interplay is beauty made for this earth.

Recorded in the '60s, just before they went pop, the Staple Singers' Freedom Highway is cool in a less sophisticated way. Mavis Staples can soul-shout with the best of them, but it's the modest wisdom of Pops's vocals and the out-front virtuosity of his blues guitar that defines the sound. If you like their hits, you'll love what came before.

Playboy, Aug. 1991

July 1991 Sept. 1991