In the press release which accompanied the arrival of Craft Recordings’ new compilation, Jesus Rocked the Jukebox, the label makes the point that the 40 tracks on the three vinyl records represent “the roots of American popular music,” just as much as they honor “esteemed gospel groups.” Those are phrases, which — to non-music nerds — might get folks nervous.
“Esteemed gospel groups who are the roots of American popular music” sounds like something more akin to homework than anything one would listen to for enjoyment, but fear not: there is abundant joy in these songs, which have just as much, if not more, soul than the secular recordings contemporaneous to them.
Craft’s triple LP set focuses rather tightly on a specific set of gospel artists and songs. The sonic qualities are readily apparent to anyone who drops the needle on any given track: it’s the fact that these songs are definitely about Jesus, but the production and performance puts them squarely in the realm of the secular sound.
Listen to that guitar tone Pop Staples has on “Uncloudy Day,” and marvel at the fact it’s from 1956. Every guitarist worth their salt playing blues rock in the ‘70s would kill for what Pop was rocking 15 years prior. The same goes for listening to the track which starts off the second side of the first LP, “God Has Not Promised,” by The Highway QC’s. If you’re not following along on the tracklisting, you’d think the lead vocal was again Sam Cooke. It’s not, but it’s so uncannily close that one can’t help but wonder exactly what it was in the church at the time, leading to this sweet vocal delivery.
The liner notes by the editor-in-chief of the Journal of Gospel Music, Robert M. Marovich, really makes an excellent case as to why these tracks matter historically, especially in relation to one another. Several of the artists in performance on these three records would go on to fame in the wider pop world — most notably, the Soul Stirrers’ Sam Cooke and the Staples Singers — but others, as the promo materials note, “stayed with the flock and declined to make the move to secular music, and often, in turn, stardom.”
It’s especially curious in context of the many tracks by the Swan Silvertones, which really demonstrate where Sam Cooke or Nat King Cole would be on the pop charts just several years later. Marovich argues in his notes, “every perspiration-drenched performance by a soul singer [and] every shouting improvisation from a rock-and-roll vocalist evokes the exuberance of black preachers, church singers, and church musicians in the throes of the spirit,” and it’s 100 percent accurate.
The final track of the compilation is really the most striking, because it’s sort of unlike any of the 39 songs which preceded it, yet it perfectly sums up the heart of Jesus Rocked the Jukebox. “The Lord’s Prayer,” as recorded by The Swan Silvertones, is a doo-wop number. Kind of. It’s just the group, sans any sort of instrumentation, singing the Lord’s Prayer, but the phrasing is so unique and so memorable, that even without any extra words or sounds to sweeten it up — it swings. It swings hard. It moves you, as a listener, even if you’re not Jeezy Creezy in the slightest.
That’s how Jesus Rocked the Jukebox works: these are songs that, even if you’ve never stepped foot in a Christian church, even if you’ve no concept of the religious tradition from which these performances sprang (those liner notes will give you a nice crash course, though), you’ll be moved by the performances alone. It’s impressive stuff.
The music jumps right out of the speakers, as if the singers were there in the room with you. The engineers at Vee-Jay and Specialty (from where the majority of the music was drawn) knew what they were doing, and the mastering for this compilation by Paul Blakemore only pulls everything together. There’s no tinkering or trickery — just excellent music, treated with love and respect.
The triple gatefold jacket is adorned with amazing artwork which homages the ‘50s and ‘60s era of the recordings, while also looking timeless. There’s some cross imagery which is both clever and understated — much like the recordings on the three LPs inside. The gatefold spread has those excellent Marovich liner notes, along with pictures of the artists and the center labels of some of the singles. It’s historical, but still visually impressive. The liner notes also detail the singles’ recording dates and other information.