I’m primarily a jazz critic but I go off campus in my listening habits all the time; it’s a necessity. And every now and then a non jazz release crosses my desk that I can write about with authority. About once a year, I persuade my editors to let me.
One of the best aspects of popular music from the Woodstock era is that the genre barriers were lower, and this is particularly evident in gospel music. Not only was gospel’s influence profound on the R&B chart toppers of the day, but gospel acts had hits of their own. “Oh Happy Day” by the Edwin Hawkins Singers reached No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 Singles chart in May 1969. A few years later, the Staple Singers had a string of spiritually inflected top-40 songs after a decade of stardom in the niche.
Yet not all gospel acts were warmly received by the music industry or even the smaller labels that served the genre. Even though the music on the new compilation “The Time for Peace Is Now” (Luaka Bop, out now) was very much of its moment—highlights include gritty vocals, scratchy guitar riffs offset by smooth vocal harmonies, and lyrics that advocate social justice and unity alongside religious devotion—most of the 14 songs were released by the artists themselves and fell into obscurity. The recording is the second volume of a series that the David Byrne-founded label calls World Spirituality Classics; the first, released in 2017, focused on the music of Alice Coltrane. This release offers a vivid portrait of the black community in the years between the waning of the civil-rights movement and the intensifying of the war on drugs.
Most of the songs on the compilation are unmistakably of that era, but the first track, “Time for Peace” by the Little Shadows, has contemporary and international flair. While its lyrics—which optimistically dwell on an end to fighting, stealing and hating—are very much of their time, the softly lilting song features bright, pinging guitar lines; catchy, locomotive bass; and soft, grainy vocals: more akin to East African or Caribbean guitar-based music than early ’70s soul.
Part of the pleasure of the album is in its echoes of often overlooked soul greats. “It’s Hard to Live in This Old World” by the Rev. Harvey Gates and “We Are in Need” by James Bynum recall the crooner Billy Paul. “That’s a Sign of the Times” by the Floyd Family Singers brings to mind the signature, pre-disco sound of the Philadelphia International label in general and of the O’Jays in particular. The up-tempo but relaxed grooves of “Keep Your Faith to the Sky” by Willie Scott and the Birmingham Spirituals evoke Archie Bell & the Drells. The male vocal harmonies of “Condition the World Is In” by the Religious Souls are reminiscent of Bloodstone and the Chi-Lites. Not without reason do the simmering blues of “We Got a Race to Run” remind me of the Staple Singers. The song is by a group called Staples Jr. Singers—not out of family ties, but stylistic admiration; that is also a reminder that the ’70s were far less litigious than today.