Saturday, February 21, 2009

glisten: The Work of the Father 3

More info on my father and the background on how this piece came to be is available here.

I'm pleased to be able to play host to this piece; an exploration of the mostly unknown musical ties that bind The Golden Gate Quartet and Elvis Presley and a peek into the complex history of the traditional spiritual ‘Swing Low Sweet Chariot’. Dad promises more on the latter in a future post.

Again, here's Pops.

a few words on THE GOLDEN GATES and ELVIS

In the course of conversations with Orlandus "Dad" Wilson, the great Golden Gate Quartet bass singer, I was surprised to learn of an impromptu backstage jam session the Golden Gates had with Elvis Presley at the Casino de Paris early in 1960, and the reverberations from that encounter in Elvis's subsequent recorded repertoire. For example, "Elvis Is Back!," Elvis's first LP following his military service, includes a version of the Golden Gates' secular hit "I Will Be Home Again," recorded as a duet with Jordanaires' tenor Charlie Hodge.

The lead singer on the Gates' original 1945 version of "I Will Be Home Again" is Alton Bradley, Willie Johnson's post-WWII replacement. Pianist Conrad Frederick and guitarist Abe Green provide a dreamy accompaniment to this rather atypical Golden Gates' smooth ballad. In a 1982 interview with Ray Funk, Conrad Frederick said "I Will Be Home Again" was "the biggest record that [the Gates] had. In fact that was the only record that moved in a broader area than the spirituals."

left to right: Orlandus Wilson, Alton Bradley, Henry Owens, Clyde Riddick

Orlandus Wilson reunited with Conrad Frederick, The Gates’ old piano accompanist, at U.G.H.A. Hall of Fame ceremony (NY, April 1994)

The Golden Gate Quartet - ’I Will Be Home Again’ (Okeh 6741)

Elv1s Pres1ey – ‘I Will Be Home Again’

The following excerpt from a 1995 interview with Dad Wilson is, unfortunately, somewhat disjointed. A rough transcription follows with Mr. Wilson's comments italicized and my own in bold; you can listen to the original recording of our conversation by clicking on the link.

"Do you remember what dates it was that Elvis visited you in Europe? Was it soon after you'd moved to Europe?"

"Yeah… It must have been in the beginning of the spring of 1960. He came on leave to Paris, from the military. He was doing his military duty in Germany. He came on leave to Paris, weekend leave. And as I understood it, he said he was walking down the street and he saw this theater and on it he saw "Golden Gate Quartet," and he saw the photos that were displayed, you know. He walked in and he asked if he could see the Golden Gate Quartet, if he could meet the Golden Gate Quartet. So they said, 'Well, no, because the show is on and it's almost finished now, so you can't see them.' So at the time the husband of Line Renaud, Loulou Gaste, he heard the conversation. Because the people didn't understand him [Elvis] plainly, because the people didn't speak English very well. But Loulou Gaste overheard what he was saying, and so he walked over and he said 'Do you know the Golden Gate?' He said that Elvis Presley told him, said 'Well, I know them very well, because they are my professor.' He said, 'Your professor? Well, the show is going to be finished in a few minutes. If you want to, I'll take you back and you can meet…'"

"He didn't know he was talking to Elvis Presley at the time?"

"No. He said, 'You can meet my wife, because my wife is the star of the show.' … After the show finished he brought him back. First he carried him to her [Line Renaud] room you know. He was talking with her, because she spoke very good English too. He was talking with her. He had two men with him. Then he [Loulou Gaste] said, 'Oh you want to meet the Golden Gates. OK, I'll get them and bring them down.' So, we had changed clothes and everything. And he brought us down to Line's dressing room and he said 'This is a young men, he said he know you,' and so forth. So we said, 'Well, yeah. This is Elvis Presley.'"

"You hadn't met him before?"

"Oh yeah, we had met Elvis before, yeah. Oh sure, we had met him before. Sure. Because when we was with Wally Fowler and we would come here to Nashville sometimes he would come to see us, you know. Yes, we knew him. We had met him."

"But just met him casually?"

"Yeah, just casually, yeah. So, then we sat down and we started talking. And he said, 'You guys, oh man, imagine! What are you doing here?' He was trying to find out what we were doing there. So they were surprised, 'You mean the Elvis Presley?' Loulou Gaste, he plays guitar so he had his guitar setting over in the corner. So Elvis picked up the guitar, said 'Oh, that's nice guitar,' started strumming the guitar. And then we started to reminiscing on spirituals, you know. This was about quarter past midnight. And then, we stayed in her [Line Renaud's] dressing room singing and talking and singing and talking until six o'clock in the morning. And so, we didn't see Elvis anymore then until finally, after, I think it was about '65 or something like this, this record came out with things like 'Swing Down Chariot.' "

While it may have been several years before Dad Wilson heard it, Elvis and the Jordanaires recorded "Swing Down Sweet Chariot" about six months after his Paris jam session with the Golden Gate Quartet. Wilson judged their rendition: "very well done… close to the Golden Gate Quartet. If you're not sharp enough, when you hear it you think it's the Gates."

One of Elvis's most endearing artistic qualities was his identification with southern vernacular music and his genuine appreciation of African American musicians. While some of the phrasing and inflection in his renditions of songs originally recorded by black artists sometimes approaches outright mimicry, Elvis's methods seem practically reverential, and never descend into parody or minstrel-mockery. This sensitivity and association-by-sound is evident in Elvis's adaptation of "Swing Down Chariot," including the Jordanaires' quartet backing.

The lead singer on the Golden Gate Quartet's 1946 Columbia 78rpm release of "Swing Down Chariot" is Bill Johnson, except the last verse, which is sung by Henry Owens.

Elv1s Pres1ey – ‘Swing Down Sweet Chariot’ (RCA Victor LSP-2328)

The Golden Gate Quartet – ‘Swing Down Chariot’ (Columbia 38387)

With the kind cooperation and assistance of my friend Alan Stoker, I recently had the opportunity to interview Alan's famous father, Gordon Stoker, pianist and tenor for the Jordanaires, who is heard playing piano and/or singing tenor on most of Elvis's recordings, including "I Will Be Home Again" and "Swing Down Chariot."

The Jordanaires at their 2001 induction into The Country Music Hall of Fame. Gordon Stoker is second from the left.

ALAN STOKER: Did Elvis ever mention a meeting with the Golden Gate Quartet in Paris?

GORDON STOKER: I'm sure he did. I don't remember particularly that he did, but I'm sure he did. Seems like I can kind of remember he mentioned it. I know he met some with the Harmonizing Four, because he liked their records too. But he liked the Golden Gates better. He couldn't quite understand why the Golden Gates couldn't make a living here, that they moved to Paris. Didn't they?

Yeah. The group is still active. There's a branch of the group that's still active in Paris.

GORDON STOKER: It's extremely hard for a black group to make good money here… Because first of all, gospel has changed so much. Of course, all music has changed, but I think gospel has changed even more than country, hasn't it?

ALAN STOKER: Well, there's a new genre of gospel, contemporary Christian they call it.

GORDON STOKER: Who was it that told me, "I don't call it 'contemporary,' I call it 'temporary'." It's only temporary, I can assure you.

Well, they gave away a lot of good songs, a whole lot of good songs are not used anymore, that were used for generations.

GORDON STOKER: Yeah. Well we still sing "Swing Down Chariot" on the stage in the things we do. We [the modern edition of the Jordanaires] do several appearances a year, mainly in casinos. And they love, even in casinos they love to hear us sing "Swing Down Chariot."

The Jordanaires' personnel heard on this 1951 recording consisted of Bill Matthews, first tenor; Monty Matthews, second tenor; Bob Hubbard, baritone; Cully Holt, bass; Gordon Stoker, piano.

The Jordanaires – ‘Swing Down, Sweet Chariot’ (Decca 14555, 1951)

Early in 1980 I spoke to Willie (Bill) Johnson, the man most responsible for "Swing Down Chariot."

"Something I've been thinking about; seems like a lot of songs that got popular in later days were sort of transposed from old spirituals. For instance the one that got real popular during the '40s, 'Swing Down Chariot, stop and let me ride.'"

Now we made that version of it, yeah.

"Well it seems to me that that's got to be related to 'Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.'"

"No, it was a song about Ezekiel. It had nothing to do with 'Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.' Well the general idea was the same - like 'swing low, sweet chariot, coming to carry me home.' But the 'Swing Down Chariot' we just simply took it and put some more lyrics to it. Then we put in, added Ezekiel into it, then it became a whole different song, period."

"A jubilee song. The Dixie-Aires had a nice version of 'Swing Down Chariot.'"

"Oh yeah. Um hmm. Everybody jumped on it after we sang it. I heard some choirs… I hear them singing it now, that's amazing. 'Swing Down Chariot.' [sings some of it], because the beat's nice, you know?"

"There was a group up in Chicago that titled that thing 'Rockin' Lord.'"

"Well I'll be darned. They took the title from the middle. Which was 'Rock me Lord, rock me Lord, calm and easy."

A 1947 version of "Swing Down, Chariot," recorded by ‘The Seven Melody Men’ of St. Louis, also known as ‘The Four-A Melody Men Quartet’

At The Café Society a New-York, 1938; left to right: Orlandus Wilson, Henry Owens, Willie Johnson, Clyde Riddick

Years later, I was able to ask again about this song, this time to Orlandus Wilson.

"I have a question about the song 'Swing Down Chariot.' The Gates didn't record it until 1946. Johnson was not with the group when you recorded that?"

"Johnson was with the group when we put that song together. 'Swing Down Chariot' was put together, I would say in 1940 or 1941, but we just didn't record it on record until Johnson and I finished our military. But we were singing it in Café Society, when we was working at Café Society. But it was just that we didn't have it on record, we didn't record it until that period. If you will notice, the arrangement, we have two renditions of 'Swing Down Chariot.' One rendition we have, with the slow part [sings, demonstrating the two variations of the song opening]… We had two versions of that, you know."

"For any particular reason?"

"No. Really we did things like that, with two versions, because at the time we would think, 'Maybe we should try to do something different. Why don't we try to do this with it,' or something like that. And we would change the versions just that way, because Willie Johnson was always searching for ideas of what to do."

"Well then again, it worked so well both ways."

"Yeah, it worked both ways. Because we could all agree that one version came out better than the other. So we was all agreeable with the fact that we could change the arrangement and give it a different flavor."

"That song, I think that's perhaps the Gates' greatest song, in my mind."

"Yeah. Well, 'Swing Down Chariot' it was one of our great favorites too. Because… every time we did 'Swing Down Chariot' you could see on the face expressions that there was something really special with this."

"And so many other groups recorded it. It almost wiped out 'Swing Low, Sweet Chariot' as a popular song."

"Well yeah. This is true."

"And that's the other thing about that song, that I think makes it singularly important. Because when I think about what the Gates did, bringing rhythm to the spiritual, bringing the percussive beat to the spiritual and the upbeat arrangements to the slow meter spirituals, that song is a transformation of the most important of all Negro Spirituals."

"Sure. It was; yes. Definitely, it was."

"I asked (Bill) Johnson, about it. At the time I was just starting to get my thoughts together about it. And I asked him 'Was this like a rhythmic version, or update of 'Swing Low, Sweet Chariot'? And his first response was 'No, no. It was a song about Ezekiel.' And then he thought about it a little while and he said 'Well yeah, I guess it was.'"

"I think in the beginning it turned out to be so fantastic because Willie Johnson in one way was trying to think up a story that he could put in rhythm with this. And that' s why we would say, [sings] 'Why don't you swing down sweet chariot, stop and let me ride, swing down chariot stop and let me ride, rock me Lord, rock me Lord, calm and easy, I've got a home on the other side.' Then it was time for Bill Johnson to come in. So, to give him time to think of what he was going to do, he said [sings] 'Well, well, looky yonder children. Well, well well.' Then he got the story together. 'Well, Ezekiel went down in the middle of the…'"

"Oh, you're not saying that he composed that on the spur of the moment?"

"Yeah. He did a lot of things like that… On the spur of the moment, and then afterward he'd say, 'I think that's going to work.' And we would say 'Yeah.'"

"Oh, in rehearsal you mean?"

"Yeah. When we really put it together, we kept it that way. Because it was so fantastically done. So we kept it that way. And this is what happened in 'Swing Down Chariot.' Because he was really trying to think of a story, and he was just fumbling around with it. [Sings] 'Well, well. Little children looky yonder.' And then he started [sings]: 'Oh yes, well, Ezekiel went down…'"

The Golden Gate Quartet's commercial recording of "Swing Down Chariot" dates from the brief period after WWII when Bill Johnson reunited with the Gates, before leaving in dissatisfaction to join the Jubalaires. Bill Johnson was making his last session with the Golden Gate Quartet when they recorded "Swing Down Chariot," June 5, 1946. It was also the Gates' last Columbia session. They recorded next for Mercury.

We have recordings of both versions of the Gates' "Swing Down Chariot," with the two different beginnings Dad Wilson demonstrated in the interview. Both versions include a modulated, slow meter passage from "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot." Nevertheless, the two beginnings are very different. This "second" version of "Swing Down, Chariot" has Henry Owens singing "Look over yonder, what I see. Seems like the chariot coming after me," etc., pretty much as Dad demonstrated it. No discographical information is to-hand on this "second" version, reissued on a recent compilation.

The Golden Gate Quartet – ‘Swing Down, Sweet Chariot’

According to Dad Wilson, Elvis and the Gates first met backstage at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, at one of Wally Fowler's (white) southern gospel shows, or "All Night Sings." I'm kicking myself because I didn't question Wilson further about this. Thus far, I've been unable to uncover anything more about the Golden Gates' involvement with Wally Fowler.

In addition to the kindness of the interviewees, I want to acknowledge the generous assistance of Alan Stoker, David Evans and Roby Cogswell.

the most important clicky you'll make today

RUN, don't walk, over to NYC's public television station, Thirteen's SOUL! website to see mind bogglingly awesome full-length performances from Earth Wind and Fire, Rahsaan Roland Kirk and Max Roach, to name a few.

It's part of the equally must-see Broadcasting While Black site that features THIS heart-stopper.