Monday, March 14, 2005

A photo of a Methodist Episcopalian Church in Demopolis, Alabama; circa 1908

glisten: old gold

The Gospel Harmonettes of Demopolis, Alabama -
"Stop By Here"

First, listen to the song.

Queue this up, turn up the headphones a bit and, before we talk, listen.

Better yet, don't listen. Feel.

Let the soft, wet cloth-and-washboard slap of the gently relentless handclaps rock you back and forth in your office chair. Reach out to the grandma's hands of Lessie Sanders, the soloist on "Stop by Here", as she picks you up, stands you up straight, rubs a speck of dirt off your neck with a spit-wet thumb and sends you off to do right. Open your eyes wide and let your jaw hang at the marvelously sublime choral harmonies of the Gospel Harmonettes of Demopolis, Alabama; that held note of "HEEEEERE" resonates with the sweet precision of a string orchestra. Gasp at the arresting finish; the moment the song ends, there's the illusion of exaggerated silence that marks a storm passing.

Hearing this music is hearing words and notes given the flawless power of birdsong, of thunder. It is the truest and most honest expression of the human soul given wings; it is as they say in the South, the sound of testifying that we are more than what we are.

And now that you've felt it, you must want to know: Who ARE these women?

The Gospel Harmonettes of Demopolis, Alabama -
"Live So God Can Use You"

Better we should start with who they are not.

They are not the "Original Gospel Harmonettes", the venerable Southern spiritual group fronted by Dorothy Love Coates. Coates band was founded in the forties and toured into the early 1970's, when the Demopolis Harmonettes were just forming. The name was chosen in honor of Ms. Coates, a fellow Alabaman. Having clarified that point, for the sake of brevity we'll refer hereafter to the Gospel Harmonettes of Demopolis, Alabama simply as "the Harmonettes".

The Harmonettes are not musicians by profession; all the members of the group you hear on these recordings are still performing, but none of them sing for a living. Neither are they musical dilettantes. "I started singing when I was sixteen years old with the Red Roses Gospel Singers," says Lessie Sanders. "I wasn't ever trained; I just always loved singing. Mama used to have to tell me to stop." That's Leslie you hear doing the solo work on "Live So God Can Use You".

These days, Lessie Sanders does her singing with another Demopolis church group, The Voices of Deliverance. "I try to stay in the background with this band. I'm needed to hold up the back end." When I ask her if she plans on recording any time in the future, she replies plainly: "I really can't say, due to my job. It's a hard thing to get somebody to stand in with them."

Stand in with who?

"With the mentally retarded. I stay up with them, sit with them from midnight to eight in the morning. I also work for a hotel. It's hard to get away."

I ask Ms. Sanders if she ever entertained the notion of singing popular music.

"Around here, gospel IS popular music. I only sung gospel. Never anything else. I've heard the blues and I really can't sing the blues. I don't sound good singing it. When I'm at the hotel, I turn on the radio and listen to gospel when I work. Everybody there knows that's who I am, that's what I do."

They are not voices from a distant time. All of the members are alive and well. Furthermore, they are not necessarily trafficking to deeply in antiquated styles. "These songs are not traditional songs; none of these date back to the nineteen-thirties," says Doug Seroff, one of the producers of the tracks you're listening to. "They certainly make them SOUND more traditional by their treatment and arrangements. They incorporate the phrasing, themes and conventions of older tunes."

Seroff wrote the liner notes for the Harmonettes' one and only album release and continues to stay on friendly terms with the members of the band.

"The Harmonettes were totally unique in that they came out of no musical training and out of indigenous circumstances with a quality of harmony that was astonishingly professional; they were easily above and beyond the typical group that you would find in this setting. What was really impressive was the way that audiences took to the group. It's important to understand that they performed exclusively at church programs, church services and nonsecular functions in Alabama. There's a grand tradition of this sort of music in that setting and the people that heard them were very sophisticated, very learned when it came to the subject of harmony singing. Even so, the Harmonettes were a cut above and they were appreciated as such."

"That group was as good at close harmony as any group I've ever had the opportunity to hear in person and I've been listening to this style of music for about thirty years. I've heard a lot of groups and they were one of the very best. That's why it was really tragic that they broke up. It's been over seven years and people still talk about them and ask if they'll get back together."

The Gospel Harmonettes of Demopolis, Alabama -
"Thank You, Sir"

The Harmonettes were organized in 1974 in Demopolis, Alabama. The lineup you hear on these tracks is an all-female quartet: Ms. Lessie Sanders at alto and lead vocals, Ms. Annie Wilks on soprano and lead vocals (Annie is the lead on "Thank You Sir", "Whiter Than Snow" and "We Decided to Make Jesus Our Choice"), Annie's daughter Linda Wilks on alto and lead vocals and Rose Smith as the ensemble soprano. There have been many changes in personnel with the band over the years; the number of members has run as high as seven and there have been some male singers. The Harmonettes were always a close-knit group; Annie's husband Lue, an excellent tenor in his own right who sang with Linda in another quartet, was the manager of the band for some time.

"Thank You" is, in fact, only three voices; Annie is on lead, Rose on soprano and Lessie is on alto. You may well hear a great many other voices chiming in appreciatively; many of the tracks the Harmonettes did record are live performances before a church audience. This is appropriate; until 1987, this was the only audience the Harmonettes had.

The Gospel Harmonettes of Demopolis, Alabama -
"We Decided to Make Jesus Our Choice"

In '87, the Harmonettes attended an anniversary show for the Henry Holston branch of the Sterling Jubilee Singers in Bessemer, Alabama. Seroff was in attendance.

"I had never heard of them, so I wasn't expecting much. They absolutely tore the place up. They were walking out into the audience singing and the crowd was jubilant. They were fantastic."

Following that anniversary program, the Harmonettes sang at a University of Alabama function. It was their first time performing in a secular environment. The audience at that University show was not very large, but it comprised a great many important people in the business and art of gospel music. Soon after and throughout the early nineties, the Harmonettes began to get booked at festivals and concerts around the Southern US.

The Gospel Harmonettes of Demopolis, Alabama -
"Whiter Than Snow"

These tracks were released in 1991 and were recorded in 1990 at the Bethel Rock A.M.E. Church in Demopolis, located alongside the Black Warrior River. The Bethel Rock was the Harmonettes' church and the recordings were made on the occasion of the band's sixteenth anniversary. Seroff, along with Tony and Judy Backhouse, produced the tracks; Bruce Nemerov handled the sound recording.

"The space that we had to record in was hardly perfect," recalls Seroff. "The church was hardly soundproof and we had a very limited time frame to get the taping done. There were other minor hassles; Linda had to bring her children with her, so we had to try and keep them quiet as well." That's Linda's kid you hear on "Live So My God Can Use You" at 2:20 on the track. Personally, I find the ambient noise grants a certain degree of authenticity and rustic charm to these cuts, but I can certainly understand a desire to obtain at least one clean recording from this band.

"We ended up recording a considerable number of songs during their anniversary program; you hear a lot of audience interaction and there are even a few tracks where, as they were wont to do, they walk away from the microphones and into the audience."

"Even so, if we didn't get down there and record them then, it was pretty likely that they never would have been recorded at all."

The album was produced for about fifteen hundred dollars and was published by a small label called Global Village. It was only ever released as an audio tape. These tracks are taken from Nemerov's master tapes of the recording.

The Gospel Harmonettes of Demopolis, Alabama -
"Father, I Stretch My Hand to Thee"

The soloist on "Father I Stretch My Hand to Thee" is the youngest member of the group, Linda Wilks. Her voice is somewhat less refined and mature than the rest of the quartet, but it is eccentrically beautiful and wildly emotional. "Father" has tremendous soul and power behind it.

In 1992, the Harmonettes split up over interpersonal issues and went their separate ways. "Sadly, groups that come out of rural communities often run into problems when money and attention is involved," says Seroff. "It causes them to reconsider the goal and motivation of the art in their daily life and it can be very difficult for them to adjust under the spotlight. I've seen it do damage to other bands and it did damage to the Gospel Harmonettes."

The sole album they recorded remains out of print.

The Black Warrior River, Demopolis AL
(pictures taken from this collection of Alabama postcards

Special thanks to Lessie Sanders and Doug Seroff for being so generous with their time.

a few parting shots

There are six MORE songs on the Gospel Harmonettes' tragically inaccessible album and they're basically just as good as what you've heard here. Those of you who appreciate this with the same wild enthusiasm that I do are welcome to contact me and we'll see if we can't work something out.
If you liked Doug Seroff in the Gospel Harmonettes piece, you're in luck. Y'see, he's my Pops. He, along with my Moms and my sister, will be weighing in on a number of family oriented tracks to be posted on the Hut starting this Wednesday on the "FAMILY CD" series.

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