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'Gospel Train' Original 1937-1942 Recordings

More than any other vocal group, the Golden Gate Quartet wasresponsible for combining traditional spirituals with secular musical forms ina way that was commercially appealing to the record buying public during thelate 1930s and 1940s. Although there were other groups on the scene at thetime, the \Gates'" sound permeated the popular music field with its successfulblend of spirituals, barbershop harmonies, and hot jazz in a career that hasendured for seventy years, despite wars, the changing tastes in popular music,and the inevitable turnover of personnel that is expected with long survivinggroups.

It was in 1934 that the original quartet, consisting offirst tenor A.C. "Eddie" Griffin, second tenor Henry Owens, baritone WillieJohnson, and bass Robert "Peg" Ford, began performing together in the Tidewaterregion of Norfolk, Virginia. Griffin, who ran a Norfolk barbershop, formed thegroup with Ford, who got his nickname due to the unfortunate loss of one leg.Together, they recruited the other two members, Owens and Johnson, who had beensinging with the Booker T. Washington High School glee club. Their plan was toperform spirituals in the new "jubilee" style that was sweeping Virginiachurches in the early 1930s.

The term "jubilee" had its origins in 1871 when the JubileeSingers of Fisk University, the first professional black vocal group inAmerica, began a nationwide tour, performing spirituals to raise money fortheir college. Jubilee came from the Old Testament, when a "year of jubilee" wasused to indicate a time when slaves would be emancipated. Eventually, thesuccess of the Fisk group caused the term "jubilee" to be generic, used toidentify the groups as well as the material used in their repertoire. By theearly part of the twentieth century, this term was expanded to include groupsthat performed not just spirituals and hymns, but gospel and even secularmaterial. Early examples of these include the Norfolk Jubilee Quartet, theUtica Jubilee Singers, and the Tuskegee Institute Singers. Configurations ranthe gamut, and included choirs as well as quartets, the latter becoming moreprevalent due to the combination of jubilee with the popular barbershop quartetformat, consisting of two tenors, baritone, and bass.

Their name, the Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet, had been usedby a number of other groups dating back to the 1890s in Baltimore, makingreference to the "golden gate" of heaven, and not the famous Golden Gate Bridgein San Francisco Bay, which had began construction in 1933 and was completedaround the time of the quartet's first sessions in 1937.

The GGJQ's repertoire initially consisted of Negrospirituals, but soon expanded to include composed gospel music by such writersas Thomas A. Dorsey, Lucie Campbell, and Charles Albert Tindley. Its style wasan innovative combination of a variety of influences; most notably, the highlyrhythmic small band sound of the Mills Brothers. Whereas the Mills Brothersused their individual voices to emulate the sounds of riff-driven horns (trumpet,trombone, saxophone), the Gates went a step further by adding a self-propulsiverhythm based on the repetition of words and syllables lying underneath the leadvocal, which group member Willie Johnson called "vocal percussion."  Although the chords the Gates sang ontheir songs were simple, the percussive element was anything but. Precision andsyncopation, both elements integral to the Swing Era, were their hallmarks,taking the group's sound far beyond that of secular groups like the MillsBrothers and the Three Keys.

The quartet's personal appearances began shortly after theirinception and by 1935, they were performing at churches in Virginia as well asparts of the Carolinas. Griffin did not want to jeopardize his barbershopbusiness during the Depression, so he left the group to be replaced by a tenorfrom Portsmouth named William Langford. The following summer, Robert Ford alsoleft, and was replaced by Orlandus (sometimes spelled Arlandus) Wilson. Fordwas older than the others and not physically well enough to assume the rigoroustravel schedule the group was adopting. Wilson, on the other hand, was anambitious sixteen-year-old bass singer who would often fill in for Ford whenthe latter was ill. The three other members had to convince Wilson's parents ofthe idea of bringing Wilson on as a permanent member.

With the addition of Wilson, the quartet's youthful lineupbegan expanding beyond the traditional spiritual repertoire established byGriffin. Baritone Willie Johnson served as their arranger, and infused theirmusic with innovative and complex rhythms patterned after the Mills Brothers'recordings, which had become hugely popular. Johnson incorporated not onlyelements from the Mills Brothers, but also from the jazz hipster style madefamous by Cab Calloway. Johnson's is the voice heard most often on thenarrative pieces, such as Noah, in which the Biblical story of the Great Floodis told through Johnson's syncopated, jazzy chanting.

William Langford was the virtuoso of the group, having a widerange that enabled him to effortlessly slide from baritone to a falsettosoprano. Henry Owens had a vocal versatility that enabled him to adapt towhoever was singing lead, while Wilson, who would become the group's director,utilized a bouncing, rhythmic bass accompaniment that gave the quartet's soundits verve and sense of swing.

With tenor Clyde Riddick serving as an able replacement, thegroup became a sensation while performing on radio stations WIS in Columbia,South Carolina, and WBT in Charlotte, North Carolina. In late 1935, they beganperforming on The Magic Key Hour for NBC over WBT, a 50,000 watt station thatreached much of the eastern United States.

The next year saw them begin making appearances on WIS aftermaking a bold proposal to sing on the station. After performing three or foursongs, the station was inundated by enthusiastic phone calls, leading to aregular weekday programme. The shows stimulated requests from local churches tohave the Gates perform concerts, despite objections by pastors who complainedthat despite the group's richness in sound and strictly religious-basedrepertoire, their approach was too "eccentric" and rhythmic. These pleas wentunheeded and the Gates' fame grew exponentially.

Eventually, this brought them to the attention of Victor'ssavvy director of artists and repertoire Eli Oberstein, who signed them torecord for the label's Bluebird subsidiary. Their first session took place atCharlotte's Pope Hotel on 4 August 1937, resulting in fourteen recordings cutin a whirlwind two hour session.

One of their most popular numbers was cut at this session.Golden Gate Gospel Train featured train effects, horn imitations, and thesyncopated accompaniment by the lower voices to simulate the sound of the trainchugging along. Story-songs, with Willie Johnson serving as narrator,drama-tized events in the Bible, such as the saga of the Great Flood in Noah.Two decades later, folk singer Harry Belafonte used the Gates' recording as amodel for his own version of the song.

In December 1938, impresario John Hammond brought the Gatesto New York where they appeared in the historic From Spirituals to Swingconcert at Carnegie Hall. After seeing the concert, Barney Josephson, owner ofthe Cafe Society nightclub in Greenwich Village, signed the group to appear inhis club, thus introducing them to one of New York's most fashionable wateringholes.
Item number 8120731
Barcode 636943273128
Release date 04/01/2004
Category Nostalgia
Label Naxos Jazz Legends
Media type CD
Number of units 1
Composers MacGimsey, Robert
Johnson, Willie
MacGimsey, Robert
Johnson, Willie
Orchestras The Golden Gate Quartet
The Golden Gate Quartet
Producers Lennick, David
Lennick, David
Disc: 1
Time's Winding Up
1 Golden Gate Gospel Train
2 Gabriel Blows His Horn
3 Preacher and the Bear
4 Take Your Burdens to God
5 To the Rock
6 Noah
7 Travelin' Shoes
8 I'm a Pilgrim
9 Sampson
10 When the Saints Go Marching Home
11 You'd Better Mind
12 What a Time
13 He Said He Would Calm the Ocean
14 The Valley of Time
15 Jonah in the Whale
16 Anyhow
17 Dip Your Fingers in the Water
18 Blind Barnabas
19 He Never Said a Mumblin' Word
20 Didn't it Rain
21 The Sun Didn't Shine
22 Time's Winding Up
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