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The Lasting Truth of Stax Records’ Gospel Imprint

Read an excerpt from the liner notes for the ‘Truth Is Where It’s At: The Best of Gospel Truth’

On February 21, 2023

VMP’s Truth Is Where It’s At: The Best of Gospel Truth marks the first reissues of six LPs from Stax Records’ gospel imprint meant to “bridge the gap between the street corner and the church pew.” Read below for an excerpt from the box set’s liner notes, written by Memphis journalist Jared “Jay B.” Boyd, and click here to learn more about Truth Is Where It’s At.

By 1972, Stax Records had spent the previous decade in Memphis, Tennessee, cementing itself as a stronghold in Black popular music, only to forcefully break itself apart and build again. The company began as a white fiddle player’s rural hobbyist enterprise in 1957. However, principal Jim Stewart’s plan for the company transformed. Soon, his sister Estelle Axton would buy in, and the duo moved the operation into the city, where they would discover a true destiny. Stax had little choice but to harness the collective voices and vision of a Black youth movement happening around them in the early 1960s. 

Musicianship for Stax’s new neighbors at 926 E. McLemore Avenue in the South Memphis neighborhood they turned into Soulsville, U.S.A., involved a confluence of rhythm and blues, jazz, marching band and gospel that joined generations in harmony. In this small universe, the most gifted and dedicated youngsters regularly practiced their instruments at school, went home and played with friends, participated in church, moonlighted in nightclub orchestras and entertained their parents’ friends around the punchbowl during weekend soirées. With a population of seasoned adult performers guiding them and the social responsibilities of the Civil Rights Movement lingering, the significance of music as a unifying activity and a vehicle to disseminate vital cultural information placed greater importance on the venues where music and message were to be consumed. 

Be it the dissolution of the label’s distribution agreement with Atlantic Records, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. or the tragic death of the label’s undeniable biggest star, Otis Redding, Stax began the 1970s in desperate need of redirection. Promotions man Al Bell stepped up, effectively supplanting Stewart, Axton and a decade worth of hitmaking artists, producers and songwriters as the chief creative force within Stax’s leadership. His charge deemphasized the in-house, down-home camaraderie fueling earlier successes like Sam & Dave, Carla Thomas, William Bell and Eddie Floyd in favor of an all-encompassing imagining of “The Memphis Sound,” which dictated that all genres, races and cities could be catered to under the Stax umbrella. To look forward, though, Bell also chose to look back to the churches and revival tents that helped develop the soul music sensibility Stax had served up to the globe.

The Gospel Truth wasn’t Stax’s first foray into gospel music. Almost immediately after joining the Stax staff in 1965, Bell stood up an imprint called Chalice for spiritual music, yielding very little return in the way of commercial success in its two years of activity, although local soul yeoman Ollie Nightingale represented the label as the lead singer of the Dixie Nightingales. The group released three singles under the Chalice banner before turning secular and becoming Ollie & The Nightingales. 

In an attempt to enhance his chances at good fortune on his second attempt at fostering a sanctified subsidiary at Stax, Bell deputized longtime promotions man Dave Clark, whose extended travels required him to push records for Decca, Duke/Peacock and Chess, among a list of other marquee Black music organizations of the mid-20th century. 

Launching The Gospel Truth in 1972, Bell, Clark and Stax sought to capitalize on the promise of “message music” patented by The Staple Singers, a family band formerly known for straight-ahead gospel until Bell refashioned their sound for a crossover audience. The experiment proved an opportunity in the marketplace to mend the gap between the church pew and the street corner, acknowledging that many households in Black America were comprised of consumers who knew what it meant to stay out all night partying on Saturday before waking up to attend church on Sunday. Press materials for the launch of the label stated that Clark would “[encouch] traditional gospel lyric in the tempo and instrumentation of today’s rock music,” while “bridging the gap and filling the need for meaningful communication.”

Even today, no act in music has so seamlessly implemented this mix of disparate virtues in the manner of The Gospel Truth’s debuting act, The Rance Allen Group. And, while the label would grow to include traditional gospel from the likes of Maceo Woods, the more milquetoast Southern hymns of Bob Hemphill & The Commanders, and the distinctly non-Christian spiritual philosophies of the Blue Aquarius band, the majority of its lineup held true to that initial declaration.

Clark scouted unreleased materials, largely born from sessions recorded in the Detroit area he called home, refurbished them and placed them on store shelves with the visual sheen and marketing might afforded to many of Stax’s mid-tier soul artists. In short succession, acts like The Henry Jackson Company, Sons of Truth, Rev. T.L. Barrett, Marion Gaines Singers and Howard Lemon Singers entered the gospel realm fortified by funk and unabashed rock showmanship. Apart from Rance Allen, whose star in the gospel world continued to rise well after Stax closed its doors, nearly all the albums and singles released on the label continue a life as the object of cult obsession. But the ripple effect of The Gospel Truth and its penchant for pairing secular with sacred lives on in gospel acts unafraid to reach beyond the doors of the church to find musical inspiration.

Profile Picture of Jared "Jay B." Boyd
Jared "Jay B." Boyd

Jared "Jay B." Boyd is a Memphis-based music columnist for The Daily Memphian, DJ, and program manager for WYXR 91.7 FM. The budding Stax and Memphis soul music historian began his research on the topic in tribute to his late cousin, Memphis Horns and The Mar-Keys saxophonist, Andrew Love.

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