Memphis soul gospel queen Elizabeth King recorded her first single in 1970, and if all had gone as planned, she would have made her first album a few years later. Instead, it took another half century, but Living In The Last Days, the latest sacred soul long player from Memphis’s Bible and Tire imprint, captures King at the height of her powers, with the intervening decades only serving to stoke the flames of one of the most memorable voices in modern gospel music.
Bible and Tire’s third release, 2019’s The D-Vine Spirituals Recordings, collected a handful of King’s singles, beginning with her biggest hit, 1972’s instantly infectious“I Heard The Voice,” and served as an inspiration for the new album in more ways than one. “When we went in and did ‘I Heard The Voice,’ we recorded sixteen songs,” says King. But lack of sponsorship — often the lynchpin for commercial success in the gospel world — kept King and her group the Gospel Souls solidly in the singles field.
In 1973, having made her name with “I Heard The Voice” as well as a pair of earlier singles on the Designer label, King won the Gospel Gold Cup, a prestigious award presented by the city’s gospel disc jockeys, one of whom was D-Vine founder Juan D. Shipp. King and the Gospel Souls were soon headlining a concert at Memphis’s legendary Overton Park Shell that starred D-Vine label mates the Traveling Stars, the Steptor Four and Willie Harris and the Sensational Six, who would take the Cup five years later.
The Overton Park program was but a tiny testament to the incredible array of talent that Shipp had taken under his wing when he started the label in 1972, in the wake of spinning one too many Style Wooten-produced Designer records. The problem wasn’t the spirit, it was the sub-standard sound. “When Reverend Shipp took over from Style Wooten everybody was coming to him,” details King. The two producers contrasted not only in quality control but in production values. “With Style you’d do one or two takes and that was it. But Reverend Shipp would make you stay in there all night. If it was in you, he was gonna get it.”
“I want you to sing it like you’re making love to God!” Shipp once thunderously urged King. She did just that on her four D-Vine singles and the same spirit permeates Living In The Last Days, co-produced by Shipp and Bible and Tire founder Bruce Watson. It’s the first in a series of albums spawned by the label’s exploration of the D-Vine Spirituals catalog, and a rebirth not only for King but for Shipp as well. When he deactivated D-Vine, Shipp explains, it wasn’t because he no longer wanted to produce records. “It got from the point of singing for the Lord to singing for money. And I said, ‘That’s too much for me.’ But Liz King wouldn’t go nowhere. Many companies tried to get her to sign with them, but she wouldn’t budge.”
Shipp and King were of a piece, she explains, it was just that simple. “If he wasn’t gonna do nothing, I wasn’t gonna do nothing — I just wasn’t gonna record with anybody else.” Shipp had been just begun to expand into the album world when he closed up shop in 1986, and King’s LP would have been one of the first ones to be released. Twenty-five years later music historian Michael Hurtt was in the midst of writing liner notes for Watson’s ninety-nine track compilation The Soul Of Designer Records when he tracked down Shipp. Together, the pair recovered the D-Vine master tapes from a moldering shed in Olive Branch, Mississippi, intent on bringing them to life again.
While the Designer project had been a fulfilling four disc set that finally brought the late Style Wooten’s activities into some focus, Shipp was not only alive but active and ever-ready to spring back into action: an even more expansive approach to telling the D-Vine story seemed a foregone conclusion. Over the next few years, as Watson built a new studio in Memphis, he became increasingly interested in recording what he termed the “sacred soul” of the Mid-South. As one half of Fat Possum Records, he’d brought the grit of the juke joint back into the Delta blues; perhaps he could bring the soul back to the forefront of the spiritual music of Memphis.
In 2019, Watson threw down the gauntlet, establishing the Bible and Tire imprint with the Sensational Barnes Brothers’ Nobody’s Fault But My Own, a stirring blend of warm, inspiring old school singing delivered by two young siblings and backed skillfully by the Sacred Soul Sound Section, a percolating trio anchored by guitarist Will Sexton. Meanwhile, as Watson and Shipp began to transfer the D-Vine tape archive, Shipp detailed the current status of the incredible voices that filled Watson’s Delta Sonic Sound Studio. Not only were many of his artists still around, but Elizabeth King was still singing on the radio every week. A phone call later, she was singing live in the studio.
Living In The Last Days is a triumph from the very first intimate vocal notes of the arresting opening track, “No Ways Tired,” to the similarly moving closer, “You’ve Got To Move,” dual studies in intensity that each build to a burning climax, bookending a searing selection of songs burnished by the down-home grooves of the Sacred Soul Sound Section. Additionally, the Sensational Barnes Brothers are on board for harmony vocals as are King’s old D-Vine Spirituals label mates the Vaughn Sisters and the D-Vine Spiritualettes.
King switches gears seamlessly between the moody, almost minor key swing of “Mighty Good God” to the horn-heavy Stax-style “Call On Him” to the roof-raising gospel rocker “Reach Out And Touch Me.” In between, she reimagines a trio of her Designer sides (“Testify,” “A Long Journey” and “Walk With Me”) with D-Vine’s trademark wah-wah guitar, lays down a tremelo-drenched treatment of the Shaw Singers’ trance-like “He Touched Me” and demonstrates how hauntingly apropos the eternally timely lyrics of the title track (originally adapted from an old hymnal spiritual by the Hewlett Sisters on D-Vine subsidiary JCR) are today. The entirely acappella “Blessed Be The Name Of The Lord” comes straight “from the book of Job,” says King. “The verses came strictly from the Bible.”
She couldn’t be happier with the way things turned out, and that includes an unexpected tour of France in the midst of recording. “There was a lady in Corinth, Mississippi, Nannie Dammons, who wrote a song called ‘It’s Amazing What God Can Do’ — it was about a tornado that came through Corinth and killed four people. She called Style Wooten and she wanted me to sing the song, so she sent the song to Style and he called us in and I did the song. It just brought it back to my mind what the lady had wrote — ‘It’s Amazing What God Can Do.’ Because after all these years at my age I never thought I would have another chance. It gives me the chance to tell people it’s never too late. I never dreamed that I’d be able to go to Paris. Me? But you never know what God is gonna do for you. So just keep striving.”