Thursday, July 7, 2011

They put the soul into gospel

A lingering look at the world of gospel music.
Until I saw the documentary Rejoice and Shout, I'd never heard of Claude Jeter,* a gospel singer who plied his inspirational trade with at least two estimable groups, The Swan Silvertones and The Dixie Hummingbirds. Jeter, who died in 2009 at the age of 94, sang in a beautiful falsetto voice that can't be listened to without thinking of another master of the upper registers, Al Green.

Jeter is seen giving a spectacular performance in Rejoice and Shout, which introduces the uninitiated to a variety of major gospel singers and groups, trying not to shortchange either musical or faith perspectives.

The movie opens with Smokey Robinson (of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles) professing his faith, perhaps to remind us that gospel -- which often sounds very much like secular R&B -- is rooted in spirituality and that those who perform it or listen to it can be transported to near ecstatic states.

Director Don McGlynn's greatest achievement involves the "performance" footage he has assembled from gospel all-stars such as Sister Rosetta Thorpe, The Five Blind Boys of Mississippi, The Blind Boys of Alabama, Mahalia Jackson, The Clara Ward Singers and The Staple Singers.

Interviews from experts -- Bill Carpenter, Anthony Heilbut and Jacquie Gales Webb -- are punctuated with comments from singers Mavis Staples, Ira Tucker (of The Dixie Hummingbirds) and others.

McGlynn's documentary could have benefited from a little more social context; it's really a kind of annotated concert film, but it should help spread the word about gospel music in all its soul stirring varieties.

*Since I wrote this brief review, a friend who knows more about music than I'll ever know told me that I actually might have encountered Jeter before. He said Jeter and The Hummingbirds worked with Paul Simon on a couple of tunes: Loves Me Like a Rock and Take Me to the Mardi Gras. Jeter also provided some of the inspiration for Simon's Bridge Over Troubled Waters.

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