I Heard The Angels Singing: Electrifying Black Gospel from the Nashboro Label (1951-83)

The story of the Nashboro record label shines a light at the intersection of music, commerce and faith. Founder Ernest L. Young started his business providing records (today, we would call this “content”) for jukeboxes. Seeing an opportunity, he opened a retail space from which to sell the same records he supplied to the jukeboxes. After opening Ernie’s Record Mart in Nashville, the idea struck him that he could expand his source material by making his own recordings. So from the back room of his store, Nashboro Records as born, with the Excello subsidiary soon to follow.

Young’s Nashboro label specialized in gospel records while after a time, Excello focused on R&B sides. Through a close associations with the Ryman Auditorium, where many Nashboro artists played, as well as the radio show put on by Rev. Dr. Morgan Babb out of the front window of Young’s storefront, the legend and influence of the Nashboro label continued to grow. Young would eventually sell the label to the Crescent Company in 1966, but not before making it a force in the gospel music world, with all of the energy and soul of the larger and more well-known labels Sun and Chess.

It’s quite a task to distill a four-disc compilation down to its essence, so a tour of Nashboro’s biggest stars is instructive. The Pilgrim Jubilees (“He Brought Joy To Soul”) bring a swaying guitar and organ-based vibe that would find echoes in the music of Sam Cooke. The Swanee Quintet (“It’s Hard To Get Along”) delivered their message on the strength of shouts and tight vocal harmonies. The layered vocal interactions presented during “Run To The Rock” by The Supreme Angels reminds the ear of a more wholesome version of Doo Wop, while the Reverend Morgan Babb lays down the blues for “Wonder How Long.”

As the years went by, many of the sides took on a heavier R&B feel, so we have the foot-stomping passion of the Reverend Cleophus Robinson (“Wrapped Up, Tied Up, Tangled Up”), a Curtis Mayfield-esque “Movin’ On” by the Salem Travelers, “Jesus Is My Keeper” by The Morning Stars of Savannah (I think Mr. Springsteen might have heard this before recording “My City Of Ruins”), and the soul-drenched lament of The Brooklyn Allstars during “I Stood On The Banks of Jordan.” Great stuff.

I might have to send folk singer Greg Brown a royalty check for again using his definition of modern “praise music,” but it’s a chance I’ll have to take. He said that so much of it sounds like “Praise the Lord, let’s go the the mall.” Well, there’s not a single hint of that in this entire set. Instead, you’ll find sincere displays of faith, fortified by the blues and R&B. At four discs, you might think that’s too much of a good thing. No, it’s not enough.

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Mark Saleski

Mark Saleski is a writer and music obsessive based out of the woods of central New Hampshire. A past contributor to Jazz.com, Blogcritics.org and Salon, he writes several weekly features including the Friday Morning Listen, (Cross the) Heartland, WTF! Wednesday, and Sparks Fly on E Street. Follow him on Twitter: @msaleski. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.