By Jen Eide
No one seems to know much about Famous L. Renfroe's Children, including Fat Possum--the label that's issuing it--they've even misspelled Renfroe's name on their own website. I first heard of this great lost soul/gospel album through the efforts of legendary zinester and gospel music afficianado Mike McGonigal, who even went to the trouble of contacting gospel music scholars in hopes of finding more information, and turned up...nothing.
All we have to go on is this artist's statement: "A long time ago I used to hear beautiful spiritual singers singing beautiful spiritual songs and I wanted to be a singer too. I first started my musical career by singing in small local groups in my hometown of Memphis, Tennessee. In the year 1968, I came to Seattle Washington and started singing with local groups but failed to find one that was stable enough to record so I decided to cut an album by myself. The music was written and produced by myself who except for the drum parts, done the entire record." Intrigued yet?
Children--apparently cut in 1969 in Memphis--features funky guitar vamps and idiosyncratic gospel quartet styled harmonies that apparently are all sung by Renfroe himself. I've spoken about my love for African-American gospel music before in a previous blog post. Now, I tend to favor the period between World War II and the mid-sixties--before the assassinations of MLK, RFK and Malcolm X--when vocal quartets and quintets reigned supreme and the whole genre served as a tremendous metaphor for the civil rights movement. For me, gospel music from the mid-to-late sixties on got a little less interesting, with the trend moving towards massive, bloated choirs and the addition of electric instruments. It also seemed that the profound sense of disappointment following these assassinations and perhaps some loss of momentum in the movement seemed to make the metaphor in the music a bit more diffuse and more focused on the spiritual side of the message.
These things make me all the more surprised that I'm enjoying Children so much--it's even made my short list for Best of 2008. Renfroe references some of the great soul artists of the time--check out "It's So, " a loose, funky (if somewhat out of tune) Booker T. & the MG's styled guitar instrumental--and he also recreates some of the fervered gospel quartet harmonies that I'm so fond of.
"Why Not I, " "Circle" and "Tell" feature such lengthy vocal refrains--with some inspired soul shoutin' on top--that you find that you've almost achieved some sort of mystical trance state by the end of the songs. At times Children is a pot-boiler, it's music that's set at a slow simmer and frequently boils over and catches fire. Other times it's just real funky, like on this track, "Believe."
If I had to guess, the master tapes to this recording have long since been lost. It's been cleaned up fairly well from one of the few albums in existence--you'll hear some surface noise and a few pops--but it's what you might expect from archival material that is about forty years old.
Children is raw, it's mysterious and it's so inspired that it makes you catch the spirit whether you're so inclined or not. One of the guys on staff here mentioned to me the other day that he was so glad that he's heard this album--if he were lying on his death bed, this is what he'd want playing in the background. Not a bad way to go out. I have a feeling that Children will slip under almost everyone's radar this year, but make sure that you don't miss out. I've got a play copy--be sure to ask to hear it next time you're in the store.
Tuesday, July 8, 2008
By Jen Eide