How They Got Over
Otis Clay, Clarence Fountain, John Anantua
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…a straight-up joy to watch…
In Mid-Century USA, a capella gospel groups were an escalating form of popular entertainment within the African American culture of the south. Vocal groups would pile their numbers into old ‘yank tanks’ and cruise state-to-state, singing ‘programs’ (concerts) at local churches and community halls. They’d be billeted by local churchgoers and given food and board for the duration of their stay. Groups would stay in town for extended periods and perform nightly for the local congregations.
The extreme competition between these groups (and there were many: The Happy Land Jubilee Singers, The Blind Boys of Alabama, The Dixie Hummingbirds, The Gospelaires and The Holy Wonders with Lou Rawls to name but a few) meant that bands with ‘an edge’ would be more in demand and therefore have a chance to get even more work and perhaps even a recording contract. This ‘edge’ took the form of impassioned theatrics and stagecraft or an electric guitar. This ended up being a game changer; it was the beginning of Soul and R&B with acts like Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, Mahalia Jackson, Sister Rosetta Tharp, Rev. Julius Cheeks and the most well-known of the gospel vocalists deemed by the gospel community to have ‘crossed over’ to the godless world of secular music: Sam Cooke.
The warmth and emotion of gospel music, the on-stage theatrics (switching leads, emotive vocal performances that James Brown would eventually make his signature) combined with reworked lyrical refrains (‘Lord’ changes to ‘baby’) and the addition of drum and bass, would create a new music form and latch itself into popular consciousness. This documentary by filmmaker Robert Clem is a straight-up joy to watch: the music is terrific, it’s well researched and as it’s an aspect of American music that hasn’t really been given its due in documentary film, it greatly rewards the uninitiated. Go see.