This fall brings a new collection of some old spirituals and gospel music, first recorded back in the 1970s. The Last Shall Be First: The JCR Records Story, Vol. 1 aims to give a second life to some memorable performances that almost disappeared forever. It's a story that really begins with a close cousin of gospel music: the blues.
In the late 1940s and into the '50s, radio station KWEM in West Memphis, Ark., featured live broadcasts of future legends like B.B. King, Johnny Cash and Howlin' Wolf. Eventually the station changed its call letters to KWAM, moved across the river to Memphis, Tenn. and started tilting in a more heavenly direction.
In 1970, the station hired Pastor Juan D. Shipp, a clergyman from a local church that was known for its music. "Always wanted to be a DJ," Shipp now recalls. " I do have a music background: I was in the band in my high school and I sang in the choir. Music was just a part of my life."
Shipp had a daily show on KWAM — 2 p.m. until sunset — and depending on the vagaries of the atmosphere, The Gospel Train could sometimes be heard as far away as Detroit and New York. "Gospel quartets" is the name of the style Shipp like to play — though the groups weren't limited to just four people. The style features close harmonies, similar to doo wop.
At some point, Shipp, known on air as Juan D, noticed a disparity in the recordings he was playing: He realized that local bands were being shortchanged. The audio quality of those records — groups like The Spiritual Harmonizers, The Silver Wings and The Calvary Nightingales — didn't match that of the national acts.
So he went hunting for a good studio, where he could record area artists. One day, while picking someone up at the Greyhound bus station in Memphis, Shipp saw a hand-painted sign for Tempo Studios, owned by rockabilly drummer Clyde Leoppard.
"Up on the second floor, there was the most fantastic studio that I had ever seen," Shipp says. "The way he had it laid out, each individual had [their] own cubicle. And the padding of it was so tight you had to just about holler in order for a person to hear you inside of it. It was just that good."
Shipp already knew how to run a mixing board and produce, so he got busy. He says he pushed his artists: "They considered me a pretty hard taskmaster when I was in the studio. I was very nice outside the studio; they said I was the perfect person. But inside the studio I became a monster."
But Shipp was a monster who created a unique sound. "My signature thing was to put something in there that others didn't have, so we went into the 'wah wah' sound," he says. That distinctive effect, a bit controversial for church music at the time, became a signature of Wendell "Music Man" Moore, a guitar player Shipp met when the artist was around 16.
"It was just a different sound, and the people was loving it — me being a young kid, doing my thing," says Moore, now in his early 60s. "You know, you would have the older people — "What are you bringing up all that noise in here like that?" — but once they caught on, they loved it."
Shipp eventually developed a first and second team of artists to split between two record labels: The best groups ended up on the D-Vine Spirituals label, while the the second string appeared on the JCR label. The collection released this September, The Last Shall Be First, features just second stringers.
Music historian Michael Hurtt, who wrote the liner notes for The Last Shall Be First, says the album almost didn't happen, and these old recordings came within weeks of disappearing forever. "I feel like the whole thing was D-Vine intervention, as Pastor Shipp likes to say," he says.
Hurtt tracked Shipp down after stumbling upon some old D-Vine 45's and loving what he heard. In 2011, the two of them set out to find the original master tapes. Eventually they did, in an old shack behind a house in Olive Branch, Miss. "The roof was caving in and it was just a real mess — you know, when nature starts to take back over," Hurtt says. "But somehow or another, those tapes were in incredible shape."
The shack had been a studio for Leoppard, Shipp's old collaborator — and along with Leoppard's former house, it was about to be foreclosed upon. Had Hurtt and Shipp arrived just two weeks later, the tapes would have been lost for good, chucked out in the trash. Instead, there are now plans for many more releases of JCR and D-Vine artists.
As for Shipp, at 81 years old, he is back on the radio for the first time in more than 30 years, on WYXR in Memphis. "After all these years going back into radio, it's fantastic, he says, "I'm really excited about it."