CULT CLASSIC: BROTHERS AND SISTERS-DYLAN’S GOSPEL.

Cult Classic: Brothers and Sisters-Dylan’s Gospel.

For too long, backing singers have been the forgotten heroes of music and that has been the case since the sixties. Mostly, they were largely anonymous figures and their raison d’être was to make the stars sound good. Backing singers, like session musicians, were hired guns and everyday, they found themselves working with different artists. So they had to be versatile and able to adapt. They could be singing soul today jazz tomorrow working on a rock album the next again day. The best back vocalists took this in their stride and often,  were called upon time and time again by producers. 

This included The Sweethearts of Sigma and The Sweet Inspirations who were among the creme de la creme of backing vocalists. So were Merry Clayton, Gloria Jones, Sherlie Matthews, Ed Wallace and Fred Willis who during the sixties, all worked with songwriter and producer Lou Adler. 

He had established a reputation as one of Los Angeles’ top producers and worked with the great and the good of music. Who Lou Adler didn’t know, wasn’t worth knowing. This also included the best session musicians and  backing vocalists LA had to offer.

When producing a session he always called upon the same backing vocalists who he had formed a good relationship with. So much so, that Lou Adler decided he wanted to make an album where the backing vocalists would play a starring role. The only problem was, by 1969, the songwriter, producer and artist manager was without a record label. Despite that, he decided now was the time to make the album with backing vocalists. He knew he would find a record company willing to release the album.

The result was Dylan’s Gospel the debut album from Brothers and Sisters, which featured some of the LA’s top backing vocalists.   In total, twenty-seven session singers appeared on Dylan’s Gospel. Among them are Merry Clayton, Ruby Johnson, Shirley Matthews, Clydie King, Patrice Holloway, Julia Tillman. So too did Edna Wright of The Honeycones and Gloria Jones who recorded the original version of Tainted Love in 1965. It was an all-star lineup that gathered at Sound Recorders Studios.

When the recording sessions at Sound Recorders Studios in L.A, Lou had drafted Gene Page, who arranged Dylan’s Gospel. Ten of Bob Dylan’s finest songs were chosen to be recorded by Brothers and Sisters. Accompanying Brothers and Sisters were some of L.A’s best session players. The rhythm section included bassist Jerry Scheff and drummer Gene Pello. Evelyn Freeman played organ, Gene Page piano and percussionist Joe H. Vaerga. Producing Dylan’s Gospel was Lou Adler. The Dylan’s Gospel sessions weren’t like most other sessions Lou Adler had produced.

Looking back, many who were present at the recording sessions at Sound Recorders Studios in Hollywood, remember the sessions as akin to a four-day party. The great and the good of music swung by. Carole King came to hear the  Brothers and Sisters. So did Peggy Lipton and Papa John Phillips. Then there cousins, mothers, partners and friends of the Brothers and Sisters. They ate, drank and enjoyed listening to what  was gospel rock ’n’ style. The sessions were like a four day party where the Brothers and Sisters transformed ten Bob Dylan tracks. 

Sadly, when Dylan’s Gospel was released on Ode Records in 1969, the album passed most people by. This unique album wasn’t a commercial success. For once, Lou Adler’s Midas touch failed him. Dylan’s Gospel joined the ranks of great albums never to be heard by a wider audience.  

The Times They Are A Changing opens Brothers and Sisters’ debut album Dylan’s Gospel. Just an organ and piano combine to create an authentic gospel backdrop for Merry Clayton’s vocal powerhouse. She unleashes a vocal that’s equal parts power, passion and emotion. She brings hope to the lyrics that “The Times They Are A Changing.” Meanwhile, harmonies, coo, sweep and soar while the drums add to the drama. Seamlessly, a Bob Dylan classic is transformed into a  hopeful, stirring, gospel track.

Just a lone piano opens I Shall Be Released. It’s joined by a rumbling bass and a heartfelt soaring vocal. Backing vocalists reply to the vocal. Meanwhile a wailing Hammond organ, piano and subtle drums provide the perfect backdrop. It never overpowers the vocal or harmonies. They’re at the heart of the track’s success. The vocal is a fusion of sincerity and emotion. So much so, that the lyrics take on a new meaning. Joyous describes the swaying, soaring harmonies which are the finishing touch to this reinvention of I Shall Be Released.

Edna Wright takes charge of lead vocals on Lay Lady Lay.  A bubbling bass, drums played with hands and harmonies accompany her tender vocal. Soon, a piano enters as the Brothers and Sisters kick loose.  Soulful and needy describes Edna’s vocal. She’s accompanied by cooing harmonies. They soar above the arrangement and later she combines gospel, soul and jazz and as she  kicks loose her vocal becomes sultry and sensual, as she delivers a vocal masterclass.

Distant harmonies and a gospel tinged piano make their way towards you. Then a rousing, stirring version of Mr. Tambourine Man unfolds. The song is totally transformed. Partly that’s down to the lead vocal which ensures the song swings. Then there’s the rousing harmonies and the tight talented band who transform this Bob Dylan classic which becomes a stirring, rousing celebration.

All Along The Watchtower is right up there with the best songs Bob Dylan has written. Here, new life and meaning is breathed into a familiar song. Atmospheric and dramatic describes the arrangement as the rhythm section, stabs of piano and washes of Hammond organ accompany soaring, swaying harmonies and handclaps. The lead vocal is a combination of controlled power, emotion and passion. This inspires the rest of the Brothers and Sisters as they clap their hands, stomp their feet and unleash some of their finest harmonies as they reach new heights on the album. 

Of all the songs on Dylan’s Gospel, The Mighty Quinn is the one that really takes on new life having been given a gospel makeover. The Brothers and Sisters throw themselves into the song and their rousing harmonies and handclaps are joined by a wailing Hammond organ, rhythm  section and rasping horn. Then there’s Merry Clayton’s joyous and celebratory vocal, which later becomes a vamp. It takes the song to new places and results in the song Bob Dylan had always hoped for.

Ethereal harmonies open Chimes Of Freedom and heavenwards. Then when they drop out, an impassioned lead vocal enters. It oozes emotion and so does the female vocal that picks up the baton. When they join together, they’re accompanied by a gospel piano, probing bass and washes of Hammond organ. They add to the spiritual sound of a track that Bob Dylan started and the Brothers and Sisters finished.

For many people, Gloria Jones’ name will be forever synonymous with Tainted Love. That’s until they’ve heard her vocal tour de force on I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight. As she kicks loose, swaying, soaring and joyous harmonies join a jangling piano that accompanies Gloria as she lays claim to the song, her vocal a mixture of sass and neediness.

Piano and drums combine as My Back Pages unfolds and a tender, wistful vocal is accompanied by rousing gospel harmonies. They coo above the arrangement, while the unmistakable sound of a Hammond organ is dropped in. Lou Adler’s timing is perfect and it adds to the emotion and is the perfect accompaniment to the Brothers and Sisters on this emotive opus.

Without doubt, Just Like A Woman is one of Bob Dylan’s finest hours. That’s why it’s a fitting way to close Dylan’s Gospel. Replacing the familiar harmonica in the introduction is a church organ. This sets the scene for the massed ranks of Brothers and Sisters. They throw themselves into the song. The twenty-seven Brothers and Sisters become one and it’s an impressive and powerful combination that is emotionally overpowering. In the midst of Brothers and Sisters, someone hollers “Yes She Should” while spontaneous vamps are unleashed. It sounds as if the Brothers and Sisters are having the time of their lives while making some of the best covers of Bob Dylan songs you’ll ever hear.

That’s no exaggeration. Bob Dylan songs are some of the most covered in the history of popular music. However, Brothers and Sisters’ ten covers of Bob Dylan songs are some of the best you’ll ever hear. The ten tracks ooze emotion, meaning, joy, hope and happiness. That’s thanks to some of the finest backing vocalists of the sixties.

They reinvent some of the tracks, especially The Mighty Quinn, Chimes Of Freedom and My Back Pages. These are tracks that Bob Dylan started and the Brothers and Sisters finished. They made this trio of tracks their own and their unique brand of gospel is tailor made for these songs. That’s the case with the rest of the ten tracks on Dylan’s Gospel. The songs literally, take on new meaning in the hands of the Brothers and Sisters. As a result, the music is rousing, stirring, joyous, celebratory and emotive. It was a session that nobody who witnessed it would ever forget.

It’s been described as a four-day part, where the great and the good of music swung by to hear the Brothers and Sisters. Carole King, Peggy Lipton and Papa John Phillips  were present and so were countless cousins, mothers, partners and friends of the Brothers and Sisters. They ate, drank and were merry as they witness gospel rock ’n’ style. The sessions were like a four day party where the Brothers and Sisters transformed ten Bob Dylan tracks. During the sessions, the onlookers must have thought that Dylan’s Gospel was bound to be a commercial success.

Sadly, when Dylan’s Gospel was released on Ode Records, in 1969, it wasn’t a commercial success. There was absolutely nothing wrong with the music which oozes quality. Maybe the problem was that Lou Adler signed the Brothers and Sisters to the wrong label? Ode Records was too small and didn’t have the funds and personnel to promote Dylan’s Gospel. A major label like Columbia Records or A&M would. If either of these labels had released Dylan’s Gospel, it would’ve been a huge commercial success and the album would’ve been hailed an innovative, modern classic. Sadly, that wasn’t the case and it was a case of what might have been the for Brothers and Sisters’ debut album Dylan’s Gospel.

Belatedly, Brothers and Sisters’ cult classic Dylan’s Gospel is starting to find a wider audience, and a now new generation of record buyers are  hearing some of the finest Bob Dylan covers ever recorded.

Cult Classic: Brothers and Sisters-Dylan’s Gospel.

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6 Comments

  1. Very pleased to see a favourite of mine celebrated so fully.

    Regards Thom

  2. Good to see some backing singers getting the praise and publicity that they deserve.

    • It’s sad that the backing singers and session players don’t get the credit that they deserve. I like to mention them in articles as they play such an important part in the sound and sucess of the music. MFSB and the Sweethearts of Sigma played a huge part in the Philly Soul sound and it was a similar case with the Motown, Stax and Hi Records’ house bands.

      Maybe you could do an episode of The Happening with the backing singers and session players who went on to release albums?

      • Good idea. I’ll will work on it for a future episode. Thanks for the suggestion.

  3. Suggestion: you ought to consider doing “Lo and Behold” by Coulson Dean McGuinness, Flint some day.

    • Hi Frank,

      That’s a good suggestion. I’ll see if I can pick up a copy on Discogs and do a piece on it. Thanks for the suggestion.

      Take care.

      Kind Regards,
      Derek.

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