Talk about run the gamut of styles. Dylan cover albums of the sixties – we’ve had folk, jazz, instrumental, spoken word, classical, surf guitar, 12 string guitar, string quartet, pop, Euro, and now gospel. And of all of those, I’m thinking at last, something truly rewarding. This is easily one of the most consistently listenable and enjoyable of the lot. I’ve played it a lot and I keep coming back to it. There are five main musicians and twenty-seven ‘brother and sister’ singers. Other versions of this album are often credited to ‘The Brothers and Sisters of L.A.’
What can I say? New and notable covers here include ‘Lay Lady Lay,’ ‘All Along The Watchtower,’ ‘Chimes of Freedom’ and ‘My Back Pages.’ The arrangements are sublime, the singing smooth, the backing choir always adding exciting flourishes to the vocal melody. There’s usually a main singer—Merry Clayton, who lent her soaring vocal chords to the Rolling Stones Gimme Shelter apparently—leading the chorus, while the choir provides gospel-style back up. They manage to remain fairly faithful to the originals however—they never go too far out on any limbs, which is to say they probably could have been a bit more wild and free, but hey, we’ll forgive ‘em. If we could narrow it down any further, I guess I would call this ‘pop gospel’ because it retains a laidback soul-pop atmosphere and a strong sense of melody throughout.
Note the song selection. These tracks have all been chosen for a specific reason. Being ‘gospel’, there are moments here where the meaning of the lyrics seems transformed into something entirely different, something doctrinal; “When Quinn the Eskimo gets here / Everybody’s going to jump for joy.” Take it away, Alan.
The Times They Are A Changin’…opens with a church organ, then Miss Merry Clayton takes it away with her rich rhythm ‘n’ blues voice doing a loud “Mmmm” before kicking it into the first verse. The organ, which is pretty thin, wild and mercurial, continues sailing away in the background, while the choir support Clayton on the chorus. It’s all over quite quickly though.
I Shall Be Released…piano opening, quietly; “They say everything can be replaced,” while the choir echo the second half of the line behind Merry. The choir becomes like a second voice here, alternating lines with the singer, while another section “oooohs” in the background. It’s quite a slow version. “I see my light (come shining) / From the west down to the east / Any day now (any day now)” and they all join together for “I shall be released.” Merry has an awesome voice. This version is much less poppy however than most other covers of this I’ve heard. The instrumentation is quite sparse which makes it sound a little impotent. It does sound much better turned up loud.
Lay Lady Lay…the vocals here are in a much smoother r’n’b style, with piano providing main accompaniment. And then the choir joins with an angelic ‘Ooooooh’ and again on the chorus “Lay lady lay / Across that big brass bed.” Occasionally the choir is separated into male and female parts here which is a neat touch. Again, despite the contrapuntal interweaving of voice and chorus, this can only be described as really mellow. Towards the end, the piano gets jazzier and the whole thing heats up with more interplay between choir and main vocal. Just beautiful.
Mr. Tambourine Man…fades in really quietly and slowly with the choir chanting “In the jingle jangle morning” and then the choir and lead vocal both sing ‘lead’ together but just out of sync with each other. This changes the tune a little because of the way they repeat “In the jingle jangle morning” which leads to a jubilant “I’ll be following you.” Tambourine being bashed regularly throughout. Not sure if this is the same lead singer as earlier. This girl has a sharper, more tangy kind of voice. This is the first time they’ve really let loose on the gospel thing in such a way as to change the tune to something a little different, although, at the same time the vibe is really relaxed. This swings in brilliant synergy with the lyrical content, although the version here is only four minutes long so they cut most of the original verses out and concentrate on the chorus.
All Along The Watchtower…a much more upfront, smooth honey vocal, with piano and soft rock rhythm. Of course this kind of singing pre-figures Dylan’s preachy period with his soul singers on tracks like the brilliant ‘Pressing On’ from Saved. “And the wind / Began to howl” and there’s a kind of ‘rounds’ going on with “All along the watch tower” mixed with the “The wind began to howl.” Easily the best song here so far. This is great, but then it’s already a truly great song. Would’ve been a disaster if they’d messed up but the contrapuntal, syncopated vocal is just beautiful.
The Mighty Quinn (sic)… bouncy piano opening and light-rock rhythm behind Merry’s lone vocal, until she gets to the huge chorus, and because the original already worked with a choir/lead vocal thing, it sounds great. Her vocal seems stronger and freer than ever here. The choir keep hummin’ along. “Everybody!! (come all without) / Say it children!! (come all within) / I’ll tell y’all now!! / (You ain’t heard nothing like the Mighty Quinn).” Repeat, with handclaps, a wailing soul vocal repeating “Quinn, Quinn, Quinn, my man Quinn.” Awesome
Chimes Of Freedom…opens with a capella female choir singing the chorus, pause, male choir takes over the first verse, while the women “ooooh” in the background, then Clayton joins the men and the background “oohs” build. The only musical backing is a bass line. “Flashing for the warriors / Whose strength is not to fight.” There’s a solo male vocal taking turns with Clayton to share lines in the chorus. So great to hear this being covered for the first time. One of the longest songs here, they seem to be intent on singing all the lyrics for a change. The music gets hotter, the piano joins in and the vocals seem to start competing for volume, with gospel-style hollers and interjections. They really capture the ‘monumental’ nature of this song, background storm, pealing bells, lighting bolts and thunder crashes. Great stuff.
I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight…another from John Wesley Harding, this is much rockier with strong forward momentum. Lead female vocal, and lots of syncing in and out with the female choir. Despite all that, it doesn’t sound a whole lot dissimilar to the original. “I’ll be your baby tonight” in real soul diva style gets thrashed out just before the song fades.
My Back Pages…piano, drums, bass and a strong r’n’b vocal, all played quite slowly, with a loud choir offering support on the main chorus line. This is a fairly chilled out song. Organ comes on. I suppose this is the first one to sound not wholly necessary, like we’re in a holding pattern or something. They make it work as gospel well, but I’ve never been a big fan of the tune here, I guess. “My pathway led by confusion boats / Mutiny from stern to bow / But I was so much older then / I’m younger than that now.”
Just Like A Woman…back to the real church-organ sound, and it’s the whole gospel choir this time singing the chorus and lead vocal together. “She makes love just like a woman / (And she does!)” They capture the tune beautifully here. You can’t not enjoy this. “Nobody has to guess / That baby can’t be blessed / Till she sees finally she’s just like all the rest.” This is followed by the chorus with some pretty wild vocal interplay between lead male and lead female, some wild hollerin’ and hootin’ in the rafters.
So, it’s a funny sort of record. Sound-wise, it’s catchy and exuberant, but rhythm-wise, it’s quite low key, sort of chilled out and laidback. Best appreciated with the volume turned right up.
The producer here is Lou Adler who co-wrote Sam Cooke’s ‘Wonderful World,’ while arranger and conductor is Gene Page, who worked with numerous old school Motown acts of the sixties such as Marvin Gaye and the Temptations. Dylan’s Gospel was reissued on CD in 1990. This is about as much as I can glean on this quite wonderful record from the tail end of the sixties.
Postscript: This is being reissued on vinyl by Light In The Attic some time in the first half of 2014.