Rev. Willingham and His Swanees: That’s The Spirit/Try Me Father (Federal 45-12542, 1966)

Why did I buy this record? James Brown is taking us to church. Despite drawing heavily on the gospel tradition, James Brown stuck to secular music. Except for this foray into R&B-gospel, which as far as I know is the only gospel record he ever cut. These two sides were recorded during a period where the Swanee Quintet was part of the James Brown Revue. And pretty much everyone in the Revue ended up in the studio with Brown at some point in time.

DJ Gunga's Copy of
That’s The Spirit – 1966 U.S. Release

The songs here are re-workings of previous James Brown records.  The B-side is a re-working of Brown’s doo-wop hit “Try Me”, with an intense soulful vocal turn by Johnny Jones.  But  you buy your ticket for the A-side: a re-working of “Ain’t That A Groove”, a Brown hit from earlier in 1966. Brown and his orchestra provide the “R&B” element. The band sounds tighter on “Spirit” compared to “Groove”, playing with unobtrusive purpose and steady pacing. Brown leads the way on organ (in place of the piano on “Groove”). All the band’s elements are utilized straightaway on “Spirit”, whereas on “Groove” each section moves in and out as the energy level dictates. The groove he lays down is toe-tapping catchy. The horn riff is there too, but in “Spirit” it serves as a bridge from chorus to verse instead of an element of emphasis.

Brown wisely leaves the emphasis to Reuben Willingham who provides the “Gospel” element. The Swanee Quintet, by this time 15-year veterans, provide better call-and-response than the backing singers on “Groove”. Here, the call-and-response is more of a mirror of Willingham’s cues, giving extra emphasis to his preaching. Willingham was not yet a true reverend (that would come a few years later), but that does not stop him from full-on-sermonizing. And testify the man does. If you are seeking restraint, this is not the record for you. In the best Southern gospel tradition, Willingham shouts, he screams, he cajoles, he preaches up a lather of down-home gospel.  Can you feel the Holy Spirit, he asks us?

“That’s The Spirit” – 1967 U.S. Re-issue.

James Brown did. Do you hear how much of an influence Southern gospel singers like Reuben Willingham were on Brown’s own vocal stylings? It is no mere coincidence that The Swanee Quintet was part of the Revue. As a kid, Brown shined shoes in front of the studio where the Swanees produced their daily radio show. Willingham was a major influence on Brown. Legend has it that Brown was returning the favor to the Swanees during a time their career was on a bit of a wain. The record was not a hit, and soon after its release Willingham left the Swanees to enter the ministry and strike out on his own.  The recording was eventually leased to Nashboro Records, which held the recording contract of The Swanee Quintet, where it saw low but steady sales as a back catalog record.

Overall, this spiritual re-working of a secular hit is a showcase not just for Willingham, but for Brown too. He takes a song that was already good and re-works it into something better. Smokey Robinson is the only other performer of that period who comes to mind as an artist that could pull off such a feat of tinkering without ruining what makes a song good in the first place. What a swan song for Rev. Willingham and The Swanee Quintet. No pun intended.


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