An Evening of Sacred Soul with Elizabeth King and Elder Jack Ward

Dec 3, 2021
7:00pm to 8:30pm

$25

Crosstown Theater
1350 Concourse Ave.
Memphis, TN 38104
United States

Description:

A special evening showcasing Memphis sacred soul from the late 1960s to present day at Crosstown Theater. With an exclusive showing of The D-Vine Spirituals story documentary followed by performances by Elizabeth King and Elder Jack Ward, supported by the Sacred Soul Sound Section. A meet-and-greet/record signing with the artists will be held at Memphis Listening Lab prior to the show.

TICKETS: $25

Doors at 6 pm | Show at 7 pm

About Elizabeth King:
Memphis soul gospel queen Elizabeth King recorded her first single in 1970, and if all had gone as planned, she would have made her first album a few years later. Instead, it took another half century, but Living In The Last Days, the latest sacred soul long player from Memphis’ Bible and Tire imprint, captures King at the height of her powers, with the intervening decades only serving to stoke the flames of one of the most memorable voices in modern gospel music.

Bible and Tire’s third release, 2019’s The D-Vine Spirituals Recordings, collected a handful of King’s singles, beginning with her biggest hit, 1972’s instantly infectious “I Heard The Voice,” and served as an inspiration for the new album in more ways than one. “When we went in and did ‘I Heard The Voice,’ we recorded sixteen songs,” says King. But lack of sponsorship — often the lynchpin for commercial success in the gospel world — kept King and her group the Gospel Souls solidly in the singles field.

In 1973, having made her name with “I Heard The Voice,” as well as a pair of earlier singles on the Designer label, King won the Gospel Gold Cup, a prestigious award presented by the city’s gospel disc jockeys, one of whom was D-Vine founder Juan D. Shipp. King and the Gospel Souls were soon headlining a concert at Memphis’ legendary Overton Park Shell that starred D-Vine label mates the Traveling Stars, the Steptor Four, and Willie Harris and the Sensational Six, who would take the Cup five years later.

The Overton Park program was but a tiny testament to the incredible array of talent that Shipp had taken under his wing when he started the label in 1972, in the wake of spinning one too many Style Wooten-produced Designer records. The problem wasn’t the spirit; it was the sub-standard sound. “When Reverend Shipp took over from Style Wooten, everybody was coming to him,” details King. The two producers contrasted not only in quality control but in production values. “With Style, you’d do one or two takes and that was it. But Reverend Shipp would make you stay in there all night. If it was in you, he was gonna get it.”

“I want you to sing it like you’re making love to God!” Shipp once thunderously urged King. She did just that on her four D-Vine singles, and the same spirit permeates Living In The Last Days, co-produced by Shipp and Bible and Tire founder Bruce Watson. It’s the first in a series of albums spawned by the label’s exploration of the D-Vine Spirituals catalog and a rebirth not only for King but for Shipp as well. When he deactivated D-Vine, Shipp explains, it wasn’t because he no longer wanted to produce records. “It got from the point of singing for the Lord to singing for money. And I said, ‘That’s too much for me.’ But Liz King wouldn’t go nowhere. Many companies tried to get her to sign with them, but she wouldn’t budge.”

Shipp and King were of a piece, she explains, it was just that simple. “If he wasn’t gonna do nothing, I wasn’t gonna do nothing. I just wasn’t gonna record with anybody else.” Shipp had been just begun to expand into the album world when he closed up shop in 1986, and King’s LP would have been one of the first ones to be released. Twenty-five years later, music historian Michael Hurtt was in the midst of writing liner notes for Watson’s ninety-nine track compilation, The Soul Of Designer Records, when he tracked down Shipp. Together, the pair recovered the D-Vine master tapes from a moldering shed in Olive Branch, Mississippi, intent on bringing them to life again.

While the Designer project had been a fulfilling four-disc set that finally brought the late Style Wooten’s activities into some focus, Shipp was not only alive but active and ever-ready to spring back into action: an even more expansive approach to telling the D-Vine story seemed a foregone conclusion. Over the next few years, as Watson built a new studio in Memphis, he became increasingly interested in recording what he termed the “sacred soul” of the Mid-South. As one half of Fat Possum Records, he’d brought the grit of the juke joint back into the Delta blues; perhaps he could bring the soul back to the forefront of the spiritual music of Memphis.

In 2019, Watson threw down the gauntlet, establishing the Bible and Tire imprint with the Sensational Barnes Brothers’ Nobody’s Fault But My Own, a stirring blend of warm, inspiring old-school singing delivered by two young siblings and backed skillfully by the Sacred Soul Sound Section, a percolating trio anchored by guitarist Will Sexton. Meanwhile, as Watson and Shipp began to transfer the D-Vine tape archive, Shipp detailed the current status of the incredible voices that filled Watson’s Delta Sonic Sound Studio. Not only were many of his artists still around, but Elizabeth King was still singing on the radio every week. A phone call later, she was singing live in the studio.

Living In The Last Days is a triumph from the very first intimate vocal notes of the arresting opening track, “No Ways Tired,” to the similarly moving closer, “You’ve Got To Move,” dual studies in intensity that each build to a burning climax, bookending a searing selection of songs burnished by the down-home grooves of the Sacred Soul Sound Section. Additionally, the Sensational Barnes Brothers are on board for harmony vocals as are King’s old D-Vine Spirituals label mates the Vaughn Sisters and the D-Vine Spiritualettes.

King switches gears seamlessly between the moody, almost minor key swing of “Mighty Good God” to the horn-heavy Stax-style “Call On Him” to the roof-raising gospel rocker “Reach Out And Touch Me.” In between, she reimagines a trio of her Designer sides (“Testify,” “A Long Journey,” and “Walk With Me”) with D-Vine’s trademark wah-wah guitar, lays down a tremelo-drenched treatment of the Shaw Singers’ trance-like “He Touched Me” and demonstrates how hauntingly apropos the eternally timely lyrics of the title track (originally adapted from an old hymnal spiritual by the Hewlett Sisters on D-Vine subsidiary JCR) are today. The entirely a cappella “Blessed Be The Name Of The Lord” comes straight “from the book of Job,” says King. “The verses came strictly from the Bible.”

She couldn’t be happier with the way things turned out, and that includes an unexpected tour of France in the midst of recording. “There was a lady in Corinth, Mississippi, Nannie Dammons, who wrote a song called ‘It’s Amazing What God Can Do.’ It was about a tornado that came through Corinth and killed four people. She called Style Wooten, and she wanted me to sing the song, so she sent the song to Style, and he called us in and I did the song. It just brought it back to my mind what the lady had wrote — ‘It’s Amazing What God Can Do.’ Because after all these years, at my age, I never thought I would have another chance. It gives me the chance to tell people it’s never too late. I never dreamed that I’d be able to go to Paris. Me? But you never know what God is gonna do for you. So just keep striving.”

About Elder Jack Ward:
Memphis gospel singer Elder Jack Ward was born in the land where the blues began, the often mythologized Mississippi Delta, but as his new Bible and Tire album Already Made aptly demonstrates, the area’s gospel heritage is every bit as rich as its secular counterpart. “I was born in the country, and I would hear Elmore James, John Lee Hooker, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Howlin’ Wolf, all of them guys, and I used to patronize them, and sing like them a little bit, but I came back to my roots. I used to do a lot of blues singing but I broke from that and got into the gospel.

“I grew up around Itta Bena, Mississippi. That’s about six miles from Greenwood, and I used to sing with a group there called the Kings Of The South. I did a lot of singing, but I was a farm boy, worked on the farm. I chopped cotton, picked cotton, drove mules with a one row planter. But music’s been in me since I was about seven or eight years old when I first tried to sing. My mother, my father ,and my two sisters would be in the cotton field, and I did a little song called ‘I Woke Up This Morning.’ I didn’t know how to put it together but my mother said, ‘Hey, boy! I don’t want you singin’ no blues.’”

What she couldn’t have known then was that a journey to Memphis when Ward was a teenager would inadvertently ensure that he would take the right road. “My mom came up here to see her grandmother. I was sixteen at the time. And I said to myself, ‘When I turn eighteen I’m coming back to Memphis and make me a hit record.’ And I did.”

That disc was 1964’s “Don’t Need No Doctor” by the Christian Harmonizers, a group comprised of old friends from Ward’s hometown. “I knew the Brooks brothers, who organized the Christian Harmonizers, from Itta Bena,” he explains. “And I had my mind set to come to Memphis to sing blues or rock ’n’ roll. But I found them and they said, ‘Look, man, we need you to sing gospel.’ Ward got down to business with the brothers and even briefly replaced soul sensation O.V. Wright in the Sunset Travelers during one of Wright’s secular sabbaticals. Nicknamed Jumping Jack Ward for his in-the-anointing antics, he soon came to the attention of Stax Records, and the Christian Harmonizers christened Chalice, Soulsville’s sacred subsidiary, with its debut record. Isaac Hayes was on piano and Ward was on lead vocals.

“Don’t Need No Doctor,” in Ward’s words, “went every whichaway. That record was on the chart for two years. Oris Mays was a producer in Memphis and he said, ‘Jack, I’m gonna put you on a big label.’ He told us to get a couple of songs together and we did a thing called ‘Another Day’s Journey,’ then we did another record, ‘God’s Going To Blow Out The Sun.’ The singles were released on Peacock Records’ Song Bird imprint. “We just went to bigger things, higher exaltations.”

In 1968, Ward and David Hart formed the Gospel Four, whose haunting harmonies were bolstered by the grooving guitar and bass of brothers George and Robert Dean. Memphis disc jockey Juan D. Shipp soon approached them about recording for his newly-founded D-Vine Spirituals label. “I knew him from the broadcast,” says Ward of Shipp, “and he knew some of my former material. And so I went and we sat down and talked and he said, ‘How would you like to record with D-Vine?’” The results, as soulful as they were sacred, were among the absolute highlights of Shipp’s ever-impressive catalog. The Gospel Four had an altogether different sound and style than the Christian Harmonizers, as exemplified by the gripping testimonial “The Last Road” and the mid-tempo, minor-keyed “A Change Is Gonna Come.”

Breaking new ground, it seems, is a Ward hallmark and Already Made — which focuses on Ward front and center — is no exception. But like Elizabeth King’s critically acclaimed Living In The Last Days, it’s a direct outgrowth of D-Vine’s heyday. Bible and Tire’s Bruce Watson was transferring Shipp’s tape archive for an ambitious D-Vine Spirituals reissue project when he asked Shipp how many of the artists from his old label were still around and active. Aside from King, Elder Jack Ward was one of the first he named. King’s Living In The Last Days was the first result of that conversation; now Ward’s Already Made takes its rightful place as the second. Produced by Watson and Sacred Soul Sound Section leader Will Sexton at Memphis’s Delta-Sonic Sound Studio, the ten-song program features the warmly recorded winning ingredients that are becoming a trademark of Bible and Tire’s patented Sacred Soul sound, from Ward’s spirited vocals to the crack studio band laying down the grooves behind him.

The title track sets the mood with Ward’s daughters providing background harmony and — along with Bible and Tire label mates the Sensational Barnes Brothers — they make several encore appearances, adding an inextricable magic to the proceedings. “I trained them starting when they were about six or seven years old,” says Ward, adding how much he enjoyed working with guitarists Will Sexton and Matt Ross-Spang, who switch styles seamlessly from the distorted crunch of “He’s Got Great Things” to the splashy reverb of “Shout Trouble’s Over” to the shimmering vibrato of “God’s Love.” While the album has its share of pile-driving uptempo numbers, its slow-burning ballads are particularly moving, and a bridge seems crossed once Ward breaks into his quiet falsetto midway through “Someone Who Is Greater Than Me.” The songs’ Muscle Shoals-style country soul vibe sets up a remaining trio of ballads, closing with Ward’s favorite, the redemptively autobiographical “I Feel Better Since I Prayed.”

Watson feels that Already Made is one of the best albums he’s ever produced, and after re-defining the dismal blues scene of the ‘90s with the Delta juke joint sounds of R.L Burnside and Junior Kimbrough for Fat Possum Records, that’s saying quite a bit. Ward might have been right there with them were it not for that trip to Memphis back in the late ’50s. “I have pretty good talent, I can just about sing anything anyone else sings. I never bragged on myself but this was a gift from God and the Bible says, ‘A gift comes without repentance.’ In other words, you don’t have to be a Christian to be able to sing. If you’ve got that God-given gift you can do it — your choice if you want to sing rock ’n’ roll, blues, gospel — but I choose the right side.” And thank God he did.

Michael Hurtt – March 2021