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SR5023: Lift Me Up   -- Chicago Gospel Keyboard Masters



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On August 20, 2015, The Sirens Records gathered six keyboard masters and stewards of the Chicago gospel keyboard tradition: Richard Gibbs, Elsa Harris, Bryant Jones, Lavelle Lacy, Terry Moore, and Eric Thomas. Curtis Fondren handled all of the percussion duties. Donald Gay, Bryant Jones, DeAndre Patterson, and Dorothy Robertson added vocals on this disc. "Lift Me Up" engenders a spirited Sunday church service in the studio and moves each musician to play with fervor, so that their music reaches new, unprecedented heights. At times, songs on this disc will have the listener feeling spiritual and at other times the listener will be finger snapping, hand clapping, and foot tapping.

Steven B. Dolins, President of The Sirens Records
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Press / Music CD Reviews

"Lift Me Up" results from gathering of "six masters and stewards of the Chicago gospel keyboard tradition" in the studio on 20th August 2015. The aim was to achieve a sound akin to a full church service with various combinations of singers, pianists and organists all backed by drummer Curtis Fondren. The pianists are Richard Gibbs (son of Inez Andrews), Elsa Harris (a former backing singer for Chess Records), Bryant Jones, Lavelle Lacy, Terry Moore and Eric Thomas, with all except Harris and Lacy also playing organ; singers are Donald Gay, Bryant Jones, DeAndre Patterson and Dorothy Robertson, with Gregory Gay playing tambourine on two numbers. Many of these names should be familiar to those who have followed the label's earlier gospel releases, and this set is something of a gem. The instrumentals range from tightly controlled, reflective pieces like Richard Gibbs' solo organ piece

"I'll Overcome Someday" and Eric Thomas' "Holy Holy Medley" via Elsa Harris and Richard Gibbs' cool, bluesy "Walk With Me Lord" to an out-and-out church wrecker like "I'll Say Yes To The Lord" and the Lacy/Moore/Gibbs closing number, which hits an almighty groove. The vocals include Donald Gay's bluesy offering "Without God I Could Do Nothing", Bryant Jones soulful "I Am Redeemed", Roberta Martin's "From Out Of Nowhere" powerfully sung by DeAndre Patterson, as also is "Pray For Me", and Dorothy Robertson's "What A Friend We Have In Jesus". This kind of traditional gospel music seems to be gradually disappearing, which makes a release such as this all the more valuable.

Norman Darwen, Blues and Rhythm, October 2016
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… Besides keeping the blues, jazz and boogie-woogie alive, Dolins had the lofty goal of preserving Chicago's rich gospel tradition. With the release of their latest compilation, Lift Me Up, The Sirens has succeeded mightily.

This isn't Dolins' first foray into gospel. He has worked with a long roster of respected artists including Jessy Dixon, Geraldine Gay and Reverend Dwayne R. Mason. The Sirens has also released gospel compilations including In the Right Hands and Heavenly Keys. While the aforementioned releases relied on a smaller group of musicians, Lift Me Up brings together a slew of Chicago's finest gospel artists for the proverbial praise and worship. They all gathered at Steve Yates studio for a one-day recording session that Dolins described as "stressful, anxious, beautiful and inspiring."

The opening track, "Swing Down Chariot" sets things off on a joyful note with spirited interplay and considerable free styling on the piano and organ by Eric Thomas and Terry Moore. The sound quality on this track—and on all 13 to follow—is magnificent. Yates' state-of-the-art Yamaha C7 Conservatory Grand piano and Hammond organ are the perfect complement to this consortium of artists' considerable talents.

Donald Gay handles vocal duties on the next track, "Without God I Could Do Nothing." If the name Donald Gay rings a bell, it's because he toured as the three-year-old "Boy Preacher" with his siblings, "The Famous Gay Sisters." He appeared with Mahalia Jackson at the age of 7 and also matched wits as the first African-American child on "Joe Kelly's Quiz Kids" program. Gay has said that he performs "with the inspiration of the Spirit" and his devotion shines through on every note of this particular track. Richard Gibbs accompanies Gay on both the piano and organ.

Gibbs also has an impressive resume, with highlights that include serving as Aretha Franklin's pianist for the past 18 years and accompanying her at the White House, on the "Tonight Show" and more.

Gibbs returns to play piano and organ on the third track, the traditional "Walk with Me Lord." Elsa Harris, described as the "respected stateswoman" of the group, ably handles piano on this jazz-flavored number. In addition to her keyboard wizardry, Harris has done everything from providing backup vocals for Minnie Riperton to performing with the Jessy Dixon Singers for several years.

Indeed, Dixon's influence is prevalent throughout Lift Me Up, The next track, "I Am Redeemed" is a Dixon composition that is sung with great passion and feeling by Bryant Jones. Although he just turned 50, Jones has been immersed in Chicago-based churches and its many musical ministries for most of his life.

The rollicking "I'll Say Yes to the Lord" conjures up visions of a spirited come-to-Jesus meeting. While "camaraderie and collaboration" were the cornerstones of this one-day recording session, it's also easy to picture Terry Moore on the piano and Richard Gibbs on both organ and bass engaging in a bit of musical one-upmanship.

Heavy on percussion, the track has Curtis Fondren providing a strong backbeat to this up-tempo number with Gregory Gay keeping pace on the tambourine. Fondren is the drummer on 13 of the 14 tracks on "Lift Me Up." He has recorded with a long list of gospel luminaries, played in the famed Christian Tabernacle Church Choir and has appeared on a variety of well-known television shows.

The pace slows down a bit for the listener to focus on the smooth and soulful vocals provided by Pastor DeAndre Patterson who gives a pair of chill-inducing and impassioned performances on both "From Out of Nowhere" and "Pray for Me." Sandwiched between these two tracks is the traditional "Meet Me at the Judgment Day" with Terry Moore doing double-duty on both organ and piano.

"Pray for Me" marks Lavelle Lacy's first turn on the piano with Moore on organ. Lacy also comes from a spiritual and musical family. His grandmother, Isabelle Joseph Johnson was a noted gospel deejay on WVON. The energetic 60-year old Lacy has long been one of the city's most in-demand gospel keyboard players. He used his God-given talents to play these gigs while also working a day job in Chicago's Streets and Sanitation Department.

The jaunty and up-tempo "I'll Fly Away" sees "I Am Redeemed" vocalist Bryant showcasing his piano skills. Eric Thomas has his solo turn on the next track, the "Holy, Holy Medley." When it came to the song selection process for Lift Me Up. Dolins said, "Each artist chose what they wanted to perform. My only constraint was that it be traditional gospel music."

The Jones-Thomas tandem is at it again on the next gospel track, "He's My Everything," which provides a fitting build-up to the powerful "What a Friend We Have in Jesus." Here, Dorothy Robertson puts her own personal stamp on this well-known gospel number. She rightly holds center stage for this song with an operatic delivery that seems to soar high up into the heavens. Pianist Elsa Harris and Bryant Jones on organ provide the musical backdrop for this virtuoso performance.

Gibbs returns for an organ solo on "He's My Everything" before the energetic finale, "The Lord is Blessing Me." This high-spirited track is heavy on percussion and definitely fulfills Lift Me Up's stated mission of leaving the listener "finger snapping, hand clapping and foot tapping." In an era where liner notes are often puffed-up pieces of publicist-driven hyperbole, Lift Me Up lives up to its advance billing—and then some. It truly does "engender a spirited Sunday church service" and transports the listener to a higher level with each and every play.

Robin Zimmerman, Chicago Blues Guide
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Those who think traditional gospel music is dead, hapless victim of today's P&W and urban AC influences in sacred music, The Sirens' new release, Lift Me Up: Chicago Gospel Keyboard Masters, is proof that the music of Thomas Dorsey and Roberta Martin is as alive and bracing as ever.

On August 20, 2015, The Sirens Records owner Steven B. Dolins brought together a battery of the city's leading keyboard artists and singers: Pastor Bryant Jones, Richard Gibbs, Elsa Harris, Lavelle Lacy, Terry Moore, Pastor Eric Thomas; vocalists Pastor Donald Gay, Pastor DeAndre Patterson, and Dorothy Robertson; and percussionists Curtis Fondren and Gregory Gay. Recording various combinations of the artists on a repertory of classic gospels and hymns culled from the traditional canon, the result is Lift Me Up. It is a joyous and memory-evoking project, its mixture of instrumental and vocal classics sufficiently powerful to make the devil himself walk up for the altar call.

Pastor Donald Gay, a member of the Gay Singers and brother of the famed Gay Sisters, lends his expansive big band baritone on "Without God I Could Do Nothing," as Richard Gibbs doubles on piano and organ. Gibbs does his level best to emulate the Erroll Garner-esque work of Gay's former accompanist and sister, the late Geraldine Gay Hambric.

If Reverend Eric Thomas demonstrates his facility on piano for hard-driving pewburners, as on "Swing Down, Chariot," propelled zestfully by drummer Fondren, he is equally adept at interpreting meditative liturgical pieces, such as the lovely "Holy Holy Medley."

Gibbs evokes Pastor Maceo Woods's thoughtful organ work on the Tindley gospel hymn/Civil Rights anthem, "I'll Overcome Someday." He also channels jazz organ wizard Jimmy Smith's percussive gurgling organ on "Walk With Me Lord."

Dorothy Robertson, a protégé of Roberta Martin, renders her mentor's favorite hymn, "What a Friend We Have in Jesus," just as Bert did it, with a flatfooted delivery guaranteed to wreck a church. The song becomes a medley; Robertson continues with "I Need Thee Every Hour" and "Shine On Me," as Jones accompanies on organ. Jones demonstrates elements of Dorsey's barrelhouse piano on "I'll Fly Away," and sings "I Am Redeemed" as a slow burning church wrecker.

Speaking of Roberta Martin, Pastor DeAndre Patterson—a young man with an old soul—delivers "From Out of Nowhere" with characteristic spirituality and zest, a latter-day Roberta Martin Singer.

Jones and Thomas duet on piano and organ, respectively, on the classic though under-recorded "He's My Everything." I would have loved to hear Catherine Austin Baymon lend her vocals to this instrumental rendition, as it is her trademark solo.

Most striking about this album is the intuitive interplay between technique and inspiration, and how people can be moved by just keyboards, voice, drums, and tambourine (Gregory Gay encourages the ensemble with verve on the tambourine). As such, this CD is comparable to Anthony Heilbut's 1993 production of the surviving gospel legends, The Soul of Chicago. The lifelike production that has been the standard for all The Sirens is equally at work on Lift Me Up, placing the gospel musicians and singers in your living room. Or better yet, transporting you to a Chicago church gospel music program. Five of Five Stars

Bob Marovich, Journal of Gospel Music, September 10, 2016
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What better way to start 2017 than with a soaring CD entitled Lift Me Up? All of us could use a little wind beneath our wings to bolster our resolutions. Readers, if you'll recall, The Sirens Records released one of last year's masterpieces, Erwin Helfer's Last Call. This is another surefire winner from 2016, a recording of a studio session one year earlier than that. The back of the CD cover states, "On August 20, 2015, The Sirens Records gathered six keyboard masters and stewards of the Chicago gospel keyboard tradition…Lift Me Up engenders a spirited Sunday church service in the studio and moves each musician to play with fervor, so that their music reaches new, unprecedented heights." Indeed: One gripe from blues fans may be that this is not a blues album. Nevertheless, blues and gospel have always been fraternal twins: born from the same musical womb, with one being ‘light' and one ‘dark', the ‘black sheep' of the family. While gospel melodies praise the Lord, blues has often been called "the Devil's music." Like yin and yang, the two rest side by side in synergistic balance. You can't have one without the other. The "six keyboard masters" showcased here are Richard Gibbs (also on bass), Elsa Harris, Bryant Jones (also on vocals), Lavelle Lacy, Terry Moore, and Eric Thomas. Performing along with them are tambourine player Donald Gay, DeAndre Patterson, and Dorothy Robertson on vocals, Curtis Fondren on percussion, and Gregory Gay on tambourine. What is astounding about these keyboard virtuosos is their sheer artistry, both collective and individual. They can pack notes in like sardines, without having them seem all crammed together when they issue forth from their instruments. These wonders from the Windy City make their pianos and organs tell stories, specifically of a personal fall and redemption through Christ. The word "gospel" means "good news," and the high-energy, iridescent tones of the tunes here promote it. One will hear familiar favorites here, like "What a Friend We Have in Jesus" and "I'll Fly Away."

Out of the fourteen cover tracks on Lift Me Up, these three will propel listeners the highest.

Track 01: "Swing Down Chariot" – The album's opener, also known as "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," is usually played in a melancholy, contemplative way. Not this time. Descending on a trail of fire instead of tears, this "Chariot" blazes with high-tempo glory. Eric Thomas pounds his piano as if there were truly no tomorrow, and Terry Moore's outstanding organ follows suit.

Track 02: "Without God I Could Do Nothing" – According to most Christians, their Lord doesn't only provide salvation from sin. He is the motivating force behind all of life, as Donald Gay humbly sings. "Without God, I would be nothing. Without Him, I would fail. Without Him, my life, my life would be rugged, like a ship without a sail." Richard Gibbs stars on piano and organ during this medium-slow number. It doesn't plod, but it does give one ample time to reflect.

Track 11: "He's My Everything" – This instrumental goes from sweet and lilting to a hand-clapping, foot-tapping good time with the smoothest of transitions. Eric Thomas stars on organ, and Bryant Jones takes the lead on the ivories. Together, they're the perfect keyboard pair. Gospel and blues fans, if you're feeling down, tell these Chicago keyboard greats, Lift Me Up!

Rainey Wetnight, Blues Blast Magazine, January 8, 2017
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The Sirens Records, recording home of Blues greats Erwin Helfer and Barrelhouse Chuck celebrate the true sounds of Gospel Music in Chicago with the release of Lift Me Up: Chicago Gospel Keyboard Masters. The 14 track disc features the instrumental stylings of Chicago's own Richard Gibbs, Elsa Harris, Rev. Bryant Jones, Lavelle Lacy, Terry Moore and Rev. Eric Thomas offering musical praise to God via the piano and Hammond organ with Curtis Fondren on drums and guests Rev. Donald Gay, Rev. DeAndre Patterson and Dorothy Robertson lending vocals. Its a true Chicago Gospel celebration as Rev. Donald Gay (brother of the legendary Gospel group and pioneering Savoy recording artists The Gay Sisters) joins Richard Gibbs (son of the late Gospel icon and member of the world famous Caravans Inez Andrews and accompanist for the reigning Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin) for a rousing rendition of Without God, I Can Do Nothing.

Longtime accompanist for the famous Jessy Dixon Singers Elsa Harris takes to the piano and offers up a bluesy cover of Walk With Me (with Gibbs adding spice on the organ) in tribute to the famed Greater Harvest Baptist Church Sunday radio broadcast. Rev. Bryant Jones, former music director for Rev. Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Push Coalition, founder of Chicago singing aggregation Bryant Jones and Chosen and another Dixon protege pays homage to Dixon via a soulful rendition of I Am Redeemed as well as a Sunday morning tribute to Rev. Clay Evans' Fellowship Baptist Church (where he learned as his father Rev. Billy Jones served as choirmaster) with He's My Everything.

Celebrated songwriter and organist LaVelle Lacy (Chicago Mass Choir, Cosmopolitan Church of Prayer) gets a hand from the Crowned Prince of Gospel Music Rev. DeAndre Patterson for the Rev. Cleophus Robinson classic Pray for Me. Pastor of Chicago's iconic Greater Harvest Baptist Church Rev. Eric Thomas rounds out the disc with a majestic medley of hymns in the Holy Holy Holy medley as Hawkins Family accompanist Terry Moore gives us a taste of Sunday night radio broadcast in I'll Say Yes (to my Lord).

With the release of Lift Me Up, The Sirens Records President Steven Dolins continues the label's mission to preserve authentic Chicago Blues, Boogie Woogie, Gospel, and Jazz piano music. For additional information about this release and any other releases from The Sirens Records, visit their website at www.thesirensrecords.com and follow them on social media via their Facebook Page The Sirens Records

Life Me Up hits iTunes, Amazon and other digital retail outlets in mid August.

Timothy Yap, Hallels, July 29, 2016
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The Sirens Records, whose catalog includes memorable recordings from Gospel Legends Geraldine and Rev. Donald Gay, Rev. Dwayne Mason and Edward Robinson continues its delve into the revered Chicago Gospel sound with its latest release, Lift Me Up.

The CD pulls together some of Chicago's finest keyboard masters including Richard Gibbs (son of Inez Andrews and accompanist for Aretha Franklin), Elsa Harris (longtime member of the Jessy Dixon Singers), Rev. Bryant Jones, Lavelle Lacy, Terry Moore, and Rev. Eric Thomas with master drummer Curtis Fondren for a nostalgic yet spirited encounter with Sunday church music. Lending vocal assistance to the project are Rev. Donald Gay, Rev. DeAndre Patterson and Dorothy Robertson.

Lift Me Up is a continuation of the label's efforts to preserve authentic Chicago Blues, Boogie Woogie, Gospel, and Jazz piano music. The disc hits retail outlets during the month of August.

John Burton Jr., Gospelflava.com, July 29, 2016
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Though it's one of the precursors to jazz and soul, gospel music is its own distinct genre and gospel piano can produce a glorious sound, whether slow and majestic or full of prancing, finger-jamming chords. This CD is the third in a series by The Sirens label that spotlights various gospel artists in the Chicago area and it shows the variety of the form. There's a little bit of everything here, piano solos, piano and organ duets and hymns with vocals. The piano organ team of Eric Thomas and Terry Moore stomp furiously on "Swing Down Chariot" and Elsa Harris slyly injects a bit of soul into her boisterous cascades on "Walk With Me Lord" around Richard Gibbs' slippery organ. There's wild piano and organ playing by the combination of Moore and Gibbs on "I'll Say Yes To The Lord" and a swaying "Judgement Day" has Moore playing both instruments. There are a couple of solo piano features with Bryant Jones sounding mischievous on "I'll Fly Away" and Eric Thomas coming on very solemn on a medley of "Holy Holy Holy" and "This Is My Father's World". Richard Gibbs gets a shivery organ solo on "I'll Overcome Someday" with chilling, sacred energy while Lavelle Lacy rocks out on "The Lord Is Blessing Me". The vocal tracks are mostly dominated by the singers but you can still appreciate the blending of Harris' dramatic piano and Dorothy Robertson's swooping voice on "What A Friend We Have In Jesus" and Lacy's impish prancing around DeAndre Patterson's heavy sound on "From Out Of Nowhere". You can hear the kinship to a lot of jazz in this music even though improvisation is at a minimum and there are a lot of moments that still catch the ear whether or not you're a believer.

Jerome Wilson, Cadence Magazine, January-February 2017
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