The Last Shall Be First | Volume 1
9.18.20 | JCR Records
Juan D. Shipp
NPR’s Tiny Desk
Dedicated Men of Zion
Bio – The Last Shall Be First, Volume 1
The deeply satisfying music is rivaled only by a warm, on-air personality as powerful as the ten thousand watts that beam him all the way to Little Rock, Arkansas and deep into the Mississippi Delta. And his isn’t the usual pay-to-play program that so many folks — in fact, the Wolf himself and Johnny Cash not long afterward — have historically had to depend upon to stay on the air. Shipp is a payrolled employee of K-WAM; a salaried record spinner who doesn’t need to rely on recruited sponsorship for survival.
The young Air Force Veteran has done quite well for himself, beginning with marrying the woman of his dreams and building and pastoring a church in the neighborhood he grew up in. Yet there’s something that keeps bothering him, and he’s reminded of it every time he drops the needle on another locally-produced record. The disparity in sound and production quality between the big labels and the smaller, local ones is not only noticeable, it’s jaw-dropping. As he announces the upcoming gospel concert programs that feature a seemingly endless array of talented groups from the Memphis area, the voice keeps echoing through his head: “The local artists deserve a better sound.”
His friend and mentor, WDIA’s Theo “Bless My Bones” Wade, couldn’t agree more. “Cousin” Eugene Walton, Shipp’s program director at K-WAM, takes it even one step further: “You should start your own label, Juan D.” Then, one day Shipp is picking someone up at the Greyhound Bus Station downtown and he notices a hand-painted sign across Hernando Street that reads, “Tempo Recording Studio.” He inquires at the restaurant next door and meets the owner of both businesses, Clyde Leoppard, a former Sun Studio drummer whose band, the Snearly Ranch Boys, has served as a proving ground for Memphis rockabilly royalty Warren Smith, Barbara Pittman, Paul Burlison and Stan Kesler — to name just a few — since the early fifties and is still playing every weekend. He only uses the studio once in a while, Leoppard tells Shipp, and he’s always wanted to record a black gospel group. And just like that, the D-Vine Spirituals record label is born.
“I guess I recorded about fifty or sixty groups here in the city,” says Shipp. “Then I started getting groups from Detroit, Chicago, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Arkansas. I even had a group that called me from California ‘cause they loved my sound. I said, ‘No, it would be too expensive for you to come here.’ But that’s how good our sound was. Clyde had one of the best studios in the city and he built it himself. It was a padded studio and when you’d talk in there — no echo. I mean, it was dead, completely dead, you had to talk loud to hear one another, it was just that dead. We put out the first record and from then on, through the help of ‘Bless My Bones’ Wade and ‘Cousin’ Eugene at K-WAM, others started hearing our sound as compared to the other sounds they were getting and then they started coming to me. And that’s how we got started.
“We had a good sound but sometimes the artists didn’t make the grade. Now, I had a secondary label for those that just didn’t make the D-Vine cut and it was called JCR. If they were good, but they weren’t the best, I couldn’t put them on the D-Vine label. Because you can’t put everybody on your label — if they’re not good enough you don’t need to put ‘em there. But they want a record so you have to make them a record. So some friends of mine and I took the first initials of our names — mine was Juan, another fella’s name was Charles and another was Robert — and made the JCR label.”
As well as being two of Shipp’s best friends, Charles Jones and Robert Bowers were both members of early D-Vine group the Traveling Stars, and their names would appear as producers on various D-Vine productions over the years. And while JCR could be likened to the D-Vine Spirituals farm team, Shipp was never one to judge right away when he first heard a group. His democratic outlook and patient disposition meant that he left it up to the artists to decide what they wanted to do, always giving them the option of the more prestigious label if the proper amount of work was put in.
“I don’t like to mislead anybody, I like to be fair. And I got to the point where I could tell a group — and I didn’t bite my tongue: ‘Now, you’re good and you can go on the D-Vine label,’ and I’d tell another group, ‘You’re not good enough to go on D-Vine now, but if you want to go home and work some more and get everything fine-tuned, you can do that. I can put a record out on you now but it won’t be on D-Vine, it’ll be on JCR. It’ll get played but it won’t have the texture that I want for it to be on D-Vine.’ Some would go back home and work on it till it got there and others would say, ‘Well, I just want a record out.’ So JCR, here you come.”
Aside from their stellar audio and pressing qualities, Shipp’s productions — whether they were released on D-Vine or JCR — possessed something that’s even harder to achieve: their very own sound and style; a combination of distinctively deep and beautiful vocal harmonies, up-front guitar, grooving bass, explosive drums, and that ever-present overtone of rhythm and blues and country and western that swirled together under the roof of Stax Records just a few years earlier. From the very first singles by the Traveling Stars, the Exciting Legion Aires, Elizabeth King and the Gospel Souls and Elder Ward and the Gospel Four, it was crystal clear to anyone listening: a D-Vine disc wasn’t just ordinary gospel — it was the very essence of gospel soul at its finest. The JCR sides may have been a little more rough and ready, but records like the Silver Wings’ wah-wah-flavored “Call On Him” and the Calvary Nightingales’ insistent “Pushing For Jesus” were drawn from the same well and featured many of the same secret ingredients, beginning with teenage guitarist Wendell “Music Man” Moore. “The organ was manned by Thomas Knight and the piano was graced by Jessie Mae Shirley of the Shirley singers. Jack Stepter of the Stepter Four Singers would help with voice for groups that needed it.”
Hailing from the Mississippi towns of Senatobia and Corinth respectively, the Spiritual Harmonizers’ standout rendition of the traditional “Over The Hill” and the Pilgrimairs’ “Father, Guide Me, Teach Me” were the perfect hard-hitting melee of bluesy guitar, splashing crash cymbal and heart-wrenching vocals, while on the other end of the spectrum, the Dixieland Singers and the Hewlett Sisters contributed the haunting, piano-led “God’s Got His Eyes On You” and “The Last Day.” The musical hot point of nearby Holly Springs (the hometown of childhood friends Junior Kimbrough and Charlie Feathers) hatched both the female-led Vigil Lights, who turned in the intense, time-stopping “What A Meeting,” and the venerable Stars Of Faith, whose 2017 live album Go Tell Somebody featured a spirit-filled version of their JCR single, “Sitting Down.” The Masonic Travelers also kicked off a successful gospel career with their popular “Rock My Soul,” while the Southern Nightingales’ “Every Knee Must Bow,” the Johnson Sisters’ “You Can’t Hurry God” and the Gospel Travelers’ “Where Are You Going To Run” sounded at once archaic and modern, displaying the raw immediacy so adored by gospel quartet fans.
It was rare that a group made the transition from JCR to D-Vine but there were exceptions, most notably the Chosen Wonders and the Dixie Harmonizers. “Some of the groups made the jump, but once they hit the JCR label, that was usually where they stayed, because if they wanted to hit the D-Vine label, they’d go back home. Because I wasn’t in it for money, I was in it because I was trying to do something for the groups. There wasn’t a whole lot of money in it, so if they wanted to go back home and follow my advice and really work on their tones and everything, then they’d do that, and then when they’d come back they’d be D-Vine material.”
But if they decided that they’d rather pay their own way through with a JCR custom pressing, that was alright, too, and as sure as D-Vine Spirituals represented the cream of the crop, JCR most certainly captured the raw talent that was incubating throughout Memphis and the Mid-South during this magically golden era of gospel music. His mission may have been to simply give the local groups a better sound, but along the way, Juan D. Shipp — like Sun’s Sam Phillips and Stax’s Jim Stewart before him — wound up doing so much more than that.
Once in a great while, all the stars align and talent, timing and technology come together in a musical miracle the likes of which haven’t been heard before and won’t be heard again. Such was the case with JCR Records, whose democratized vision couldn’t help but unwittingly document the sound of an entire region during a particularly musically fertile time and place. The benefit of hindsight has made this even more apparent, and a forthcoming D-Vine Spirituals triple album set will tell the whole remarkable story in full detail. But there are stories within the story, and after sorting through the Tempo tape archive, things presented themselves just as they did in Jesus’s teachings in the books of Mark, Luke and Matthew. JCR may have begun as D-Vine’s secondary label back in the seventies, but after all, most of these artists wanted a record out right away, so now, all these years later, the same principle has been applied. As the Savior once predicted: “The last shall be first!”
Bio – Dedicated Men of Zion
The Dedicated Men of Zion came up out of this singing land of eastern North Carolina, around the city of Greenville and its small neighboring town of Farmville. Each trained in the church and the home, the group’s four vocalists – Anthony Daniels, Antwan Daniels, Dexter Weaver, and Marcus Sugg – share the bond of that upbringing and another more literal bond of kinship (they’re all family now through blood or marriage).
Theirs is a community dense with talent and legendary impact on the origins of gospel, funk, R&B, soul, and jazz; a place where the sounds of Saturday night and Sunday morning couldn’t help but jump their lanes. The group’s own backgrounds tell that story. Anthony Daniels, the eldest of the group, led a career in R&B down in Atlanta, backing up the likes of Bebe Winans, Toni Braxton, and Elton John. Antwan Daniels, the youngest member and son of Anthony, was playing keyboards and organ in church while simultaneously injecting his hip-hop production work with traditional gospel roots. But the church was always the backbone. Weaver, whose grandmother managed several gospel groups around Greenville, had sung with elder quartet groups for years, running into Anthony Daniels around the sacred soul circuit. When they both found themselves without a group, Weaver turned to Daniels and said “I don’t know what you’re gonna do but if you do something, I’m on board with you. I want to be with you.”
In 2014 Weaver and Daniels, with Antwan on keys, came together to form the Dedicated Men of Zion’s original iteration, along with singers Trevoris Newton and Darren Cannon. The group was quickly gaining a following in eastern North Carolina when Newton suddenly passed away in 2018. The loss of one member was soon followed by Cannon’s departure. The arrival of Marcus Sugg re-completed the group. Sugg, who had grown up singing in church choirs and a little on the side during a stint in the military, was soon to be Anthony Daniels’ son in law.
It was with this new vocal lineup that the Dedicated Men of Zion caught the attention of the Music Maker Relief Foundation while performing in a church concert organized by Music Maker and the Glorifying Vines Sisters, the longstanding Farmville gospel institution of Anthony Daniel’s mother and aunts. Joining Music Maker’s artist roster of roots musicians from across the South, the Dedicated Men of Zion began reaching new audiences not yet clued in to the rhythmic, electrified, sacred sounds of the rural southeast. Sacred Soul, being the music of personal and collective survival, even secular audiences were catching the spirit of joy and determination. The message, for Anthony Daniels, was always that “if He did it for me, He’ll do it for you. Just keep praying and love one another.” In troubled times, there’s a need for a hopeful word and a testimony that there is a way.
Through Music Maker, the group connected with the newly founded record label Bible & Tire Recording Co., helmed by producer Bruce Watson of Fat Possum Records. Watson had been listening to the hard-praising drive of country gospel coming straight from the church which he’d later coin as “sacred soul”. His new label was delivering that genuine soul sound beyond the church circuits from which it came. The gospel music coming out of those small rural Black churches was in fact the headwaters of much of the commercial music made over the last half century, and Watson was ready to bet that mass audiences, already familiar with the sounds of classic soul, would discover a hunger for gospel’s emotional truth and purposefulness.
The Dedicated Men of Zion’s, Can’t Turn Me Around, was recorded in Memphis at Watson’s Delta-Sonic Sound in 2019. Backed by Watson’s all-star studio band, the recordings bring great depth to the incredible harmonies that soar above. The album marks a moment of clarity for the group. By embracing their roots, they knew they were pointedly taking a right turn where some of their peers had veered left in a race to make gospel sound like anything other than what it was back in the day: soul music. Each track on Can’t Turn Me Around comes from that overflowing heritage of sacred soul. Tradition sets a high standard of excellence. What more can new artists pour into that cup? The Dedicated Men of Zion accepted that challenge with the seriousness of their raising and the joy of spiritual inspiration. With their second album they get back to where they came from – soul and the salvation of harmony. In Anthony Daniels’ own words, “You want to live, get to where the root is. Get close to the root.”
–ZOE VAN BUREN
Bio – Elizabeth King & the Gospel Souls
“Going through your trials, I guarantee you, trouble gonna come and you need something. Music soothe your mind. You still be in pain but you can sleep,” says Elizabeth King of the power of gospel music, during a conversation upstairs at producer Bruce Watson’s Delta-Sonic Studio in her hometown of Memphis, TN.
This first reissue from the D-Vine Spirituals Recordings showcases King, who has an incredible ability to simmer and then raise the heat. The gospel hit from King’s pen, “I Heard the Voice” is only the tip of the iceberg. Witness her intensity on “Jesus Is My Captain,” with a wah-wah guitar grooving, which also drives the funky “Wait on the Lord.” “Down Here Waiting” is the very definition of a Memphis backbeat. “I Found Him” finds her singing, “I found him to be my hellhound chaser. I found him to be my midnight rider.” The traditional “I’ll Fly Away” is done here a la Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene,” fast and joyful.
Born in Grenada, MS, King grew up in Charleston to a mother who taught her to sing. “I would sing hymn songs,” she says. Often ill as a child, she turned to song as a way to get through. As she grew up, she learned to interpret them in her own style. She laughs as she says, “I like to move when I sing.”
Married and moving to Memphis in 1960, followed by a short stint in Chicago (“I couldn’t get used to the weather or how they went to church”), then back to Memphis, King first joined the Gospel Souls in 1969 after seeing them in concert. (The male vocal band had previously been on Halo Records and Designer Records, the latter catalogue explored in several exemplary Big Legal Mess releases.) She had always envisioned being backed by male singers. She was told, “If they got jealous wives, I wouldn’t.” But it worked out. She says, “I stayed 33 years with them.”
Producer Juan D. Shipp, a gospel DJ-cum-label impresario, thought he would get a richer sound than the gospel music studios in common use in Memphis at the time when he stumbled on Tempo Studios downtown, which became his go-to. “It was a compact studio but boy did it sound good,” Shipp recalls, continuing, “You had to walk up the stairs to it.” He first recorded King and the Gospel Souls in 1972, issuing “I Heard The Voice” (which was later sub-leased to the Messenger label).
Shipp continues, “When you come to the studio, I worked the devil out of you to make it what it should be. We were working at ‘I Heard The Voice.’ I said, ‘Sing it like you making love to God.’ That song skyrocketed. It was 5½ years at #1. Nobody could sing it like the original!”
Shipp brought in Lynn Askew on guitar and musicians affiliated with Tempo Studios for the rhythm section and keys.
Working a day job for a florist, she was in a serious car accident that inspired “I Heard The Voice” B-side “Waiting on the Lord.” King says, “I had no feeling in my body. I couldn’t do nothing but pray. The fire department had to cut me out of it. I thought about it that day, that song.” She still has pain in her body every day.
When the single was released, it caught on quickly. “I was riding down Union Ave.,” says King. “Rev. Shipp, he was on [the radio]. I say, ‘What,’ turn up the radio real loud. A guy from Memphis was at the red light. I said, ‘It’s me!.’ Every day, look like every twenty minutes, they was playing it. The phone started to ring. It kept us going everywhere.”
In order for King and the Gospel Souls to tour, but keep their day jobs and church commitments in town, they would hit the road on weekends, playing Saturday night and Sunday evening, eating after each concert, and driving back to Memphis in time to be at work by 8AM Monday morning. Plus, King would attend church services during the weeknights and work on choir rehearsals on Tuesday nights.
The band was once asked to perform for inmates at the Tennessee State Prison farm near downtown Nashville, TN. “Everything was on lockdown ‘cause womens was fighting. I was so scared. You talk about somebody singing that day: I sang!,” says King.
The last two songs on this collection are sung by Walter Boone (on “So Soon”) and John Powell (“on This Man”), lead singers of the band before King joined. Even with her on board, they would take a solo or two at longer concerts.
King went on to raise 15 children and still sings in church, as well as on WMQM-AM Memphis on Saturday mornings around 10AM.
Askew later worked in construction, painting, and as a mechanic, but tragically died on the job.
King says she hopes this recording keeps people focused on the soul, saying, “You need joy. If you mind got joy, if you keep your mind set on Jesus, he give you perfect peace.”