Press / Music CD Reviews
In the 1950s and 60s, the Gay Sisters – vocalist Mildred, vocalist and pianist Evelyn, and pianist Geraldine – used their spirited singing and keyboard work to set the atmosphere for the brimstone – scorched imprecations of their younger brother Donald, then known as “The Boy Preacher.” Geraldine dubbed “The Errol Garner of Gospel,” is credited with pioneering the infusion of elements borrowed from jazz and R&B into modern-day gospel piano, much as Sister Rosetta Tharpe updated the guitar during more or less the same era. In 2004, the Chicago-based label The Sirens released In The Right Hands, which featured Geraldine, Jessy Dixon, and Nash Shaffer Jr., along with Donald and the Gays' nephew Gregory Gay Jr. That disc re-ignited interest in the Gays, and Geraldine and Donald – who hadn't recorded together since 1967 – have begun to perform more frequently in the wake of its success.
Geraldine's two-fisted dexterity is virtually undiminished; her brother's voice, though it may have lost some of its youthful fire, remains sure and deeply expressive. On this set, which consists primarily of well-known gospel standards, they sound relaxed and confident; they convey as much fervor with subtle nuance as others do with housewrecking emotionalism. And it's all delivered with an irrepressibly good-humored elan, aided by the easy-rolling swing of drummer Curtis Fondren and alternately, bassists Yosef Ben Israel and Anderson Edwards.
Traditionalists raised on sterner faith might raise their eyebrows at that hip swagger; this is about as far from fire and brimstone as gospel music can get. Eyes Have Not Seen, originally a solemn admonition to remain spiritually steadfast in the face of worldly disappointment, sounds here almost like a Depression-era “better days are coming” pop bauble; the Gays even recast the harrowing admonition There Is A Fountain (“there is a fountain filled with blood”) as a gently propulsive, almost lilting testimonial.
But theirs is a faith born of compassion and understanding, rather than judgement; it acknowledges this life as gracefully as it promises eternal blessings in the next. As such it provides a welcome corrective to the moralizing that too often passes for mainstream religious discourse these days. In its own low-key way, the return of the Gays as a gospel powerhouse is proving to be as historic and inspiring as the resurgence of Jody Williams was in the blues world a few years ago.
Like all true gospel legends, gifted pianist Geraldine Gay and her brother minister Donald with his strong, compassionate baritone offer pointed suggestions about how we should manage our lives and look for heavenly reward. Change the lyrics from religious to secular and you'd have a vastly entertaining blues act, including bass and drums, that might be as popular as the Blind Boys of Alabama.
Soulful Sounds (The Sirens 5016) presents the gospel sounds of Geraldine and Donald Gay. Most songs feature drums, bass, and Geraldine's brilliant piano; Donald sings. The imaginative presentation should attract an audience beyond the core gospel crowd: The Gays' “You've Got To Move” suggests Nat “King” Cole swing more than Mississippi Fred McDowell grit; “Sing On My Singer,” dedicated to Mahalia Jackson, has a jazzy lilt; and “just Another Day” falls somewhere in Ray Charles country. Wonderful.
If you don't know about the Gay Family, you don't know gospel.
The Chicago-based Gays – Mildred, Evelyn, Geraldine, and Donald in particular – are products of the Church of God in Christ and have been on the frontline of gospel music for decades. The original Gay Sisters (Mildred, Geraldine and Evelyn) had a monster gospel hit in 1951 with “God Will Take Care of You.” They recorded enough singles for Savoy in 1951 to fill an album later in the decade. Evelyn even accompanied Mahalia Jackson on piano from time to time.
Far from being one-hit wonders, the Gays were sought after to participate on gospel programs in Chicago and throughout the country. They continued to record long after their Savoy sessions, delivering the goods for labels such as Decca, Chess, Rush, Faith, B & F, Davis, and Hummingbird. Donald “Preacher” grew up and joined the group in the late 1950s and 1960s, when it was known as the Gay Singers.
Since Evelyn and Mildred have passed on, Donald and Geraldine are the ones who represent the family on Soulful Sounds. And it isn't the first time The Sirens has featured the brother and sister duo. The Gays made their The Sirens debut on In the Right Hands, a Chicago gospel keyboard project that also featured Jessy Dixon and Nash Shaffer, Jr. Clearly, their talent warranted an entire project.
What will strike you while listening to Soulful Sounds is how tenuous are the marketing monikers that slice and dice music into categories. For example, on the opening track, “This May Be the Last Time,” Geraldine plays as if she were with a jazz combo, and Donald sounds like blues shouters Joe Williams and Jimmy Rushing. In reality, what we hear on Soulful Sounds is gospel as a youngster in the 1930s and 1940s, a time when some criticized gospel musicians for “jazzing the hymns.” Listen to some of Sallie Martin's late '40s recordings for Capitol and you'll hear the same kind of sophisticated jazz combo backing.
Also noteworthy is how Donald's distinctive voice hasn't changed with time. He sounds the same on this CD as he did on singles he and Evelyn recorded in the 1960s.
The song selection on Soulful Sounds is entirely old school, with classics such as “Eyes Have Not Seen,” “Tell The Angels,” “There is a Fountain,” and “If I Could Hear My Mother Pray Again.” Pay special attention to the strutting “Sing On My Singer,” included here as a tribute to Mahalia Jackson. Donald's vocals go with Geraldine's barrelhouse piano style like bacon and eggs. It's the finest cut on the CD.
The Gays are accompanied by Yosef Ben Israel, Gregory Gay (the next generation), Donald “Bozie” Hambric, Anderson Edwards, and Curtis Fondren, the latter who puts his Fellowship M.B. Church training to work by giving the Gays a pulsing backbeat when the music and the spirit dictate.
What a treat it is to hear great musicians from a legendary gospel family given The Sirens' trademark crystal clear production. It's as if you are sitting in a church, enjoying a Sunday afternoon musicale on Chicago's south side.
Geraldine and Donald Gay are gospel royalty. As part of the Gay Sisters Trio, Geraldine scored several hits during the 1950s. Soon after, along with brother Donald, they appeared with Mahalia Jackson at the first gospel concert hosted by Carnegie Hall. Sam Cooke and Sonny Rollins adored them. Chess recorded the Gays in the late '60s. Yet their fame should loom larger. Both are natural performers – Geraldine rattles piano ivories with impeccable pacing and spontaneous technique; Donald's singing is infused with preacher instincts and bluesy tones. This is an album release show for the duo's aptly titled "Soulful Sounds" (The Sirens), whose spirited emotions confirm that these locals know how to work a room.
If you have any doubt about the link between gospel music and the blues, check out Soulful Sounds, the latest release by the Chicago-based record label, The Sirens Records.
The CD features the music of Geraldine and Donald Gay, members of a legendary gospel family that had several hit records in the 1940s and 50s. A self-taught pianist, Geraldine once performed with the Gay Sisters Trio. She and younger brother Donald, a singer, were invited by Mahalia Jackson to perform at the first gospel concert ever held at Carnegie Hall in New York City. Though much younger than his sisters, Donald often sang with them recorded with the trio a few songs for Chess and Checker Records in the mid-1960s.
These days Donald is pastor of the Prayer Center Church of God in Christ on the south side of Chicago. Geraldine serves as music minister there and plays every Sunday. In 2004, the siblings participated in a compilation of gospel piano music for The Sirens called In the Right Hands - Chicago Gospel Keyboard Pioneers. A flurry of recognition followed, including a feature story about Geraldine earlier this year on ABC Channel 7 Chicago. (Click on the video at that link to see Geraldine in action.)
Soulful Sounds presents Geraldine and Donald Day performing 11 tracks of mostly traditional gospel songs. You'll hear Donald's rich baritone booming out such songs as "This May Be the Last Time," "Tell the Angels," "God Has Been Good to Me," and "Sing on My Singer," dedicated to Mahalia Jackson. In every song, you'll hear Geraldine's melodic piano riffs. The sound is simple and intimate, almost as if you're in a room with them and they're performing exclusively for you. The bare-boned bass-and-drums rhythm section is felt more than it's heard. And, if you're a blues fan, you'll recognize the sounds of the blues Donald's melodies and in Geraldine's keyboard work. Only the religious lyrics set this music apart from the blues.
A second generation of Gays contribute to the album. Geraldine's son, Donald "Bozie" Hambric, plays guitar on one track, and Donald's son, Gregory Gay, sings a duet with his father on "There Is a Fountain." Other featured musicians are Curtis Fondren on drums and Anderson Edwards and Yosef Ben Israel on bass.
You can tell this is going to be a great record the first time Geraldine Gay starts ad-libbing and urging on her younger brother Donald–off-mike. Geraldine basically does her thing on piano while Donald handles the vocals (even getting off a good duet with his son Gregory on “There Is a Fountain”). But when Geraldine feels the spirit (on more than one song) and starts spontaneously harmonizing in the distant background, the set really catches fire.
In the 1950s, Geraldine was a member of Savoy recording artists the Gay Sisters, who were a seminal group during what's now known as the Golden Age of Chicago gospel. While Geraldine is the only surviving member, she continues to perform with her bro at the Prayer Center Church of God in Christ on Chicago's South Side (where Donald is pastor). Geraldine and Donald don't try to knock you down with religious fervor, but the songs jolt you before you have time to notice. There's a subtle jazz influence here–Geraldine isn't compared to pianist Erroll Garner for nothing, and Donald belts out the lyrics like Count Basie Orchestra crooner Joe Williams. Things come to a close with a marathon ten-minute version of the gospel standard “God Has Been Good to Me,” and the first five minutes and change are devoted to Geraldine riffing away on the keyboard. Those five minutes fly by quickly.
Like a lot of traditional music, gospel is one of those idioms in which any kind of alteration or updating could fall flat in the wrong hands. If Geraldine and Donald's bluesy jazz touches get over, it's because the two remember that gospel is ground zero.
The Gay Sisters were a popular Gospel act in the forties and fifties, recording for Savoy, and pianist Geraldine is now the sole survivor from the original line-up. Singer Donald is the much younger brother – he recorded with his sisters in the sixties, most notably for Checker, and he and Geraldine now carry on the family tradition, having recorded for The Sirens in 2004 (“In The Right Hands – Chicago Gospel Keyboard Pioneers”, The Sirens SR 5010). It is nice to note that the next generation also plays its part on this set too, with Geraldine's son Donald “Bozie” Hambric adding guitar to one track and Donald's son Gregory duetting with his father on “There Is A Fountain”.
At the first few notes, as the piano takes up the theme, Ramsey Lewis and “Wade In The Water” came to mind – but that is as modern as things get. For the rest of the time these are sounds of an earlier era, generally the fifties, but occasionally, as on “Eyes Have Not Seen”, Donald employs a swinging vocal style that recalls the forties very strongly. At other times, he can be as melismatic as the best of them, though always keeping a sense of what is appropriate, and several times his bluesy approach made me think of Ray Charles – although we all know Brother Ray's style came straight from church. Geraldine's playing reaches back to almost ragtime in one or two places, but she is most often compared to Errol Garner, and although I am no Garner expert, I have heard enough to recognise that the allusion is valid. She improvises endlessly and often with a strong rhythmic basis, also quietly adding vocal feeds and reinforcement to her brother. I must also note the presence of drummer Curtis Fondren on most numbers, his straight-ahead socking of the skins almost a forgotten art these days.
Releases like this come along less and less frequently these days. If your interests include vintage gospel, this is certainly one to get.
Concerning (1) [Soulful Sounds], I will say that I grew up away from gospel tradition as possible, unless you could count a late admiration for Mahalia Jackson's immense soulfulness a redemptive act. I had not heard of the Gay Sisters, who had accompanied that same Mahalia and Sam Cooke. I knew nothing of pianist Geraldine Gay (taught by her mother and by Kate Bell Nubin, mother of Sister Rosetta Tharpe) or of her brother Donald, pastor of the Prayer Center Church of God in Christ in Chicago. Thus, I had some trepidation as I began listening to the almost ten-minute performance of God Has Been Good To Me. But this quickly turned to admiration, as what starts out as a moody piano improvisation grows deeper and more intense in a Ray Bryant-Errol Garner manner before Donald Gay adds a sinewy voice. If I Could Hear My Mother Pray Again, which appears in James Baldwin's Sonny's Blues, finds a funky, rocking momentum that is simple yet compelling. This format – a substantial piano solo that turns into a vocal-plus-rhythm selection, building through repetition of vocal and instrumental patterns, can be hypnotic. … even gospel skeptics will find much to admire.”