Paul Liberatore, Marin Independent Journal
Thursday, March 2, 2017
For those of us who don’t get to hear traditional gospel quartets very often, if ever, the fact that the Sons of the Soul Revivers are breaking out of the four walls of the church to perform for secular audiences is something of a musical blessing.
The Vallejo-based group will be on stage at Rancho Nicasio on March 19 for a gospel dinner show that will be recorded live by the Little Village Foundation, a nonprofit founded by blues keyboardist Jim Pugh to put out music that would otherwise be overlooked by commercial record labels.
“Quartet singing and guitar playing are a major part of the fabric of American popular music,” Pugh explains, mentioning its influence on the likes of Percy Mayfield, Sam Cooke, the Temptations and, more recently, Raphael Saadiq, who was in the Gospel Hummingbirds before becoming the youthful standard bearer of old school R&B that he is now. Saadiq and other former members of the Oakland band Tony, Toni, Toné were such big fans of the Sons of the Soul Revivers that they named two of their albums after the quartet, “The Revival” in 1990 and “Sons of Soul” in 1993.
The Sons are an example of an authentic American roots music that, sadly, is in danger of becoming extinct.
“Unfortunately, quartet singing is a dying art form,” Pugh says. “It’s hard to do. It takes years to put together a gospel quartet.”
This is a return engagement for the Sons. I heard them when they were at Rancho Nicasio for its 75th anniversary celebration in November. I’m not a religious person, so I wasn’t sure about a night of church-based music. Much to my surprise, it turned out to be an experience bordering on an epiphany. The Sons set my spirit dancing that night.
Music that ‘moves’
“When we sing, people say, ‘I felt something,’ and they wonder what it is,” says the Sons’ Dwayne Morgan. “We tell them that some people call it energy, but we call it the Holy Spirit. And it moves. It touches people’s hearts.”
Traditional gospel quartets have a sound that’s distinct and quite different from contemporary Christian groups and choirs. Simply put, they rock.
“Quartets are down home with a groove that’s out of this world,” Morgan says. “When you get a good, driving fast song and that beat locks in, oh, my goodness, you can’t help but skip.”
Gospel quartets sing in three and four-part harmony — first and second tenor, baritone and bass. Dwayne, 45, and his older brothers, James Morgan, 50, and Walter Morgan Jr., 55, form the vocal core of the group. They’ve been singing together in church since they were kids.
“The three brothers say words with the same inflection and have the same vibrato in their voices,” Pugh says. “When they harmonize, it sounds almost like an organ.”
Walter Jr., who also plays guitar, founded the Sons in 1970 to continue the quartet tradition that the brothers’ father, Walter Sr., and his brothers started with the original Soul Revivers. The Sons are rounded out by Oliver “Petie” Calloway on drums and bassist “Q” Johnson.
Pugh, who started the Little Village Foundation in 2014, had gotten to know the group years ago when he was playing keys for Oakland’s Gospel Hummingbirds and co-producing their Grammy-nominated album “Steppin’ Out.” Over a 40-year career, he’s toured with Robert Cray, Van Morrison, B.B. King, John Lee Hooker and Etta James, among others, and has always been the kind of musician who has never been blinded by the bright light of fame. When he was in his early 20s, for instance, he played on “American Bandstand,” the popular TV show hosted by Dick Clark, then flew home later that day for a gig at an organ bar in Oakland.
“Both gigs had equal value to me,” he says. “And that’s how I see the music from Little Village. It’s of equal value even if most people don’t know about it — yet.”
He had been looking for a little-known gospel quartet to add to his roster of musicians and bands who are — as he puts it — “too often hidden in our towns and cities, far from the spotlight reserved for only the most famous of names.”
When Rancho Nicasio’s owners, Bob Brown and Angela Strehli, suggested recording the Sons show for a live album, Pugh was all in. The quartet’s record is one of the five albums Little Village will be releasing this year with financial help from the Bill Graham Foundation and a recent grant from Bonnie Raitt.
In July, the Sons will be performing for thousands of music fans at the 30th Waterfront Blues Festival in Portland, Oregon. With their new album and exposure to audiences outside the church, they’re hoping to follow the crossover success of gospel groups like Southern California’s Mighty Clouds of Joy, the Blind Boys of Alabama and the Dixie Hummingbirds, the quartet that sang backup on Paul Simon’s hit “Love Me Like a Rock.”
“We’re in our prime right now,” Morgan says. “Before we get any older, we want to get exposed to as many people as we can across the world. We’re broadening our horizons. Our dreams are coming true.”