Gospel recordings go back to the 1920s, the beginning of commercial recording, when choirs and the likes of pioneering spiritual composer Thomas A. Dorsey and bluesman Charley Patton (singing under the pseudonym Elder J.J. Hadley) cut Christian fare for Vocalion, Paramount, and other labels. For roots fans interested in exploring African-American spirituals on CD, these albums span eight decades and a wealth of traditional styles:
THE GOLDEN GATE QUARTET | Swing Down, Chariot | Legacy | Formed in a Virginia barbershop during the Great Depression, this group influenced the Blind Boys and the Soul Stirrers and counted FDR among their fans. The sweet harmonies, syncopation, and up-tempo arrangements of these 1941-'51 tracks lead to the intersection of gospel and pop.
MAHALIA JACKSON | Recorded Live in Europe During Her Last Concert Tour | Legacy | This disc captures the world's greatest spiritual singer at her peak, when she ornamented the songbook — "Elijah Rock," "Didn't It Rain," "Down by the Riverside" — by improvising breathless whispers, soaring crescendos, and entire verses and turning rhythms elastic whenever the spirit moved her.
THE STAPLE SINGERS | The Best of the Vee-Jay Years | Vee-Jay | Before they were Stax hitmakers, the Staples were gospel's foremost family band, mixing Pops' guitar and raspy tenor with Mavis's stunning mezzo-soprano. These songs from 1956 to 1961, which include their classic "Uncloudy Day," capture that era.
REVEREND CHARLIE JACKSON | God's Got It | CaseQuarter | In the '70s, black Christian music assimilated the sounds of pop thanks to hits like the Staples' "I'll Take You There." But hellfire-and-brimstone singer preachers like Jackson defied the trend with old-school sermonizing.
THE SPIRITUALAIRES OF HURTSBORO, ALABAMA | Singing Songs of Praise | CaseQuarter | Although this disc was recorded in 2004-'05 at the Tuskegee radio station where this harmonizing sextet still perform on Sundays, it sounds as if they'd been dipped in amber 50 years ago, when they began. Raw, ragged, and heartfelt, like early Fat Possum blues albums.
MIKE FARRIS | Salvation in Lights | Sony | The former Screamin' Cheetah Wheelies frontman found redemption and captured its sound in his rockin' 2007 update of chestnuts like "Oh, Mary Don't You Weep" and "Can't No Grave Hold My Body Down." Proof that this style can cross lines of race, generation, and time.