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New Anthology Revisits Brief History Of The Gospel Truth Label

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In 1972, the famous Memphis soul label Stax Records created a gospel music subsidiary named The Gospel Truth. Over the next three years, the new label would release dozens of singles and albums that combined gospel-inspired songwriting with Stax's penchant for cutting-edge R&B. A new anthology, "The Gospel Truth: The Complete Singles Collection," revisits its brief but memorable moment in gospel-soul history. Oliver Wang has our review.

OLIVER WANG, BYLINE: The 1970s were a golden era for gospel-soul crossovers, especially with Aretha Franklin selling over 2 million units of her 1972 album "Amazing Grace."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PRECIOUS LORD, TAKE MY HAND/YOU’VE GOT A FRIEND")

ARETHA FRANKLIN: (Singing) Yeah, you got a friend in Jesus. You got a friend. You got a friend, you got a friend in Jesus. Yes, you do. You got a friend.

WANG: Stax Records was paying attention. It had actually tried to launch a spinoff gospel label in the mid-'60s with the very short-lived Chalice Records. By the early '70s, the label was eager to try again, this time with The Gospel Truth, one of the most ambitious attempts by a major soul label to develop a devotional music roster. It recruited talented gospel artists and held them to a standard of production consistent with Stax's reputation. One of its best-known acts was led by Detroit's Reverend Rance Allen, who just passed away at the end of last month.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JUST MY SALVATION")

THE RANCE ALLEN GROUP: (Singing) It was just my salvation - oh, yes, it was - burning inside of me. Yeah, yeah, yeah. It was just my salvation burning inside of me. Yeah. (Vocalizing).

WANG: The line between devotional and secular often became blurred. Take this 1973 single by accomplished singer-songwriter Joshie Jo Armstead, "I Got The Vibes." Her lyrics may have been inspired by Sunday morning service, but the groove sounds more like "Saturday Night Fever."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I GOT THE VIBES")

JOSHIE JO ARMSTEAD: (Singing) Ooh, I got the vibes you're sending with your eyes. You're no stranger, though I never saw you before. Baby, come on in through my heart's open door. Come on in through my heart's open door.

WANG: The label even expanded its conception of religious music beyond the Christian tradition by releasing a single by the folksy rock band Blue Aquarius, who are followers of the Indian guru Prem Rawat.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KNOW HIM WHILE YOU CAN")

BLUE AQUARIUS: (Singing) Know him while you can. Know him while you can. Before time will run you down, you got to turn around. (Vocalizing).

WANG: Unfortunately, the spiritual uplift offered by The Gospel Truth couldn't survive its parent label's economic downturn. In 1972, the same year Stax launched its gospel subsidiary, it also struck what proved to be a disastrous deal with CBS Records. Just three years later, Stax had to declare bankruptcy and shutter all of its labels, so the new complete singles collection only gives us a glimpse of what might have been had to label survived longer. Still, the anthology does a marvelous job of at least showcasing The Gospel Truth's mission statement of carrying the message of today's gospel on the street.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KEEP MY BABY WARM")

ANNETTE MAY THOMAS: (Singing) I'll keep my baby warm.

SHAPIRO: The album is called "The Gospel Truth: The Complete Singles Collection." Our reviewer is Oliver Wang, a professor of sociology at Cal State Long Beach and the co-host of the music interview podcast "Heat Rocks."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KEEP MY BABY WARM")

THOMAS: (Singing) I'll withstand a windy storm and keep him from all harm just to keep my baby strong and protect him from all wrong. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.