In the firmament of independently financed gospel LPs, the stock album jacket would become as much a commonplace as any of the most obligatory hymns, from "Amazing Grace" to "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot." Decorating that stock jacket pantheon is a familiar collection of nature’s most graceful images of everyday awe-inspiration—foamy waves crashing over rocks or sand, rainbows spilling from passing clouds, sunset-backlit trees deep in shadow. Lighthouses and hands cupped in prayer abound, as do clip-art praying hands superimposed over those same lighthouse, cloud, and shoreline scenes. Photographic representation of the performers on a given LP product was most often left to an afterthought group portrait, pasted off-center into a back cover’s bottom corner, with names and instruments listed in plain black type.
Among the dozens of stock cover concerns vying for the attentions of a nation teeming with small-time music makers, Century Records of Saugus, California, turned out a lion’s share of the imagery options, which today turn up with the frequency of pebbles in a stream. Illinois Christian folksters the Sixth Station
took to the twilit midwestern sundown meadow of Century’s Cover Option #229 for their contemplative and offbeat Deep Night
cassette. That same #229 cover would do its service for the Gospel Imperials, the Jubilaires II, and the Sensational Friendly Four of Selma, Alabama...who made themselves a sensational pair of #229 LPs. The cascading waterfall tumult of Century cover #333 made good sense for the Original Soul Stirrers, but the Gospel Clouds of Joy also chose it, apparently for its mostly obscured clouds. Louise Richardson, the Golden Keys, and the Elison Family, to name just a few from far-flung parts unknown, headed for the sun-kissed mountain radiance of #317. And the litany of groups who selected the pastel-colored pre-dusk beachscape of #CS202 might truly be eternal; its golds and blues have been stamped in block type by names including—but nowhere near limited to—the Traveling Souls, Song Birds of the South, and the Flying Eagles Gospel Singers....though there was nary a seagull aloft on the day that #CS202’s film got exposed.
For King James Records
proprietor and repeat stock-cover customer James Bullard, choosing covers was creative only in the most minimal sense. "I tried to select 'em so that they would coincide with the title of the content in the package. When I was starting out, I didn't have access to art directors, there wasn't any in Cleveland that I was aware of." Bullard's report is echoed by the Supreme Jubilees' Leonard Sanders: "The title of our album was It'll All Be Over
. When I saw that photo of the sun setting into the ocean, it seemed to express everything we were trying to say." The same held true for the vast majority of the tens of thousands of gospel tracks distributed on LP between two sheets of stock-cover cardboard. But what of the exceptions?
By the dawn of the 1970s, the popular canon of gospel standards had grown full-on grey and stately. "Just A Closer Walk With Thee," "Blessed Assurance," and "Wade In The Water” were ending their long march out of the sharecropping 1800s, while "Stand By Me" and "We'll Understand It Better By And By" sounded increasingly like turn-of-the-century relics. Even the pre-war silver on Thomas Dorsey's "Take My Hand, Precious Lord" and "Peace In The Valley" had tarnished some, as a new generation of musical holy rollers tried on the everyman spiritualism of the Civil Rights movement. Meanwhile, the spiritual’s oral tradition approached obsolescence with the advance of modern recording technology and inexpensive means of physically replicating a sung message. Predictably, this new era witnessed gospel readings in their multitudes on chart hits like “Ain’t No Sunshine” and “People Get Ready.” But for every instant-classic Bill Withers or Curtis Mayfield composition refracted through recorded gospel’s stained-glass prism, thousands of original hymns were etched into perhaps 1000—and often fewer—pieces of vinyl and then promptly left to the care of a tiny congregation. Of those hordes of recordings, only a precious few—given new context by time and the whims of taste—announce themselves to today's ears, standing fully apart from the innocuous reverence of the stock-cover imagery that, to our eyes, drags them toward the light.
Collected here are 19 Apocryphal Hymns, a slim new gospel songbook, penned powerfully by lesser-known disciples. Though some were housed by a prosaic Cover Option #293 or #397, their delivery of the Word was anything but ordinary.
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