Reliving 'Dylan's Gospel': Bob's Songs Transformed

In 1969, music producer Lou Adler assembled LA's top background singers for a gospel reading of Bob Dylan songs. NPR's Eric Westervelt speaks with Adler and Merry Clayton about the album's re-release.

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ERIC WESTERVELT, HOST:

Thanks for listening. If you're just joining us, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Eric Westervelt. On the topic of religion, Bob Dylan once told Rolling Stone that he, quote, "always thought there's a superior power and that this is not the real world and that there's a world to come." Dylan in the late '70s briefly became a born-again Christian. And as many fans like to say, he's now been saved from being saved but that spirituality has always informed Dylan's writing. Back in 1969, Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame producer Lou Adler experimented with that.

LOU ADLER: Even the songs that didn't feel lyrically religious in any way, there was a spiritual feeling to them. And as I'd continued to listen and within my mind's ear, started to put together what if this was done by a gospel group, it just fit so perfectly.

WESTERVELT: Adler combed through the Baptist churches of South Central Los Angeles and organized an all-star choir for an album called "Dylan's Gospel."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I SHALL BE RELEASED")

BROTHERS AND SISTERS: (Singing) ...come shining, from the west down to the east. Any day now, any day now I shall be released...

WESTERVELT: That album yielded 10 Dylan songs totally transformed. And almost as soon as it got released it vanished becoming a collector's item along the way. Now it's been refurbished and re-released. One of the singers Adler recruited back then was the incomparable Merry Clayton. As a backup vocalist, she lent her voice to some of rock's greatest tracks, for the Stones, the Who, Joe Cocker among many others.

MERRY CLAYTON: Most of the great, great songs that I have been on has been because of Lou. I think that was about the first time that we really worked together because it was Gene Page who gave me the call. Gene Page was a wonderful conductor. And the first song he played for me was "Times Are Changing." And I said, wow, I've heard this before but I've never heard it like, you know, the way Gene was playing it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE TIMES THEY ARE CHANGING")

SISTERS: (Singing) Come gather 'round people wherever you roam, and admit that the waters around you have grown...

WESTERVELT: Did any of them say, Dylan Gospel, no, crazy, or did they embrace it and say let's go for it?

CLAYTON: I think everybody embraced it because, first of all, we were just so happy to be together, you know, to be singing together. Oh my god.

ADLER: It was family.

CLAYTON: Yes.

ADLER: And happy to be doing it. In this case it's not a job but happy to (unintelligible), you know.

CLAYTON: And we yipped and we yapped and we talked and we kind of hung out. And Gene Page had a sister named Olivia and she was like holding the reins. When it was time to be quiet and do what you were supposed to do she's blow a whistle, you know.

ADLER: Which didn't always work.

CLAYTON: Right, right, it didn't always.

WESTERVELT: Blow the whistle, get back to work.

CLAYTON: Time to get back to work.

ADLER: And for the session we had changed the feel of the studio completely. We had benches that were very close so we were trying to make pews actually is what we were doing.

CLAYTON: Right, right.

WESTERVELT: Turned the studio into a little bit of a church.

CLAYTON: A little sanctuary, yeah.

ADLER: That's what we tried to do. It's also the reason that we stayed with just drums and piano, bass, organ, because that's what was going on in church.

CLAYTON: Right.

WESTERVELT: I got to thank the musical gods, Lou, you didn't add too much overdub of strings and stuff.

ADLER: Yeah, trombones.

WESTERVELT: We're really glad.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SISTERS: (Singing) Alleluia, to the children...

WESTERVELT: Lou, tell us what happened to this album. It was released in 1969 and then kind of disappeared and has been out of print, as I understand it for years and years.

ADLER: It has. At that particular time I had a deal with CBS Records which is now Sony. And for whatever reasons, I wasn't comfortable with it and had decided to end the relationship. And it was probably within weeks of the release of this album. So it was never really distributed. And then Light in the Attic, which is a terrific little label, approached and we were happy to make a deal to release it.

WESTERVELT: My guests are singer Merry Clayton and producer Lou Adler. Back in 1969, they recorded a series of Bob Dylan songs arranged as gospel numbers and they called the band the Brothers and Sisters. It's just been re-released. Merry, I think a lot of our listeners, like myself, you know, I got to know your incredible voice singing...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GIMME SHELTER")

ROLLING STONES: (Singing) ...rape, murder, it's just a shot away, away...

WESTERVELT: ...Rape Murder, it's just a shot away, one of rock's most iconic songs. You know, the Rolling Stones "Gimme Shelter." I mean, that seems a long way from the gospel church scene in South Central.

CLAYTON: Well, I was born in New Orleans and my father was a Baptist minister. So what's in your soul and your spirit, whenever it needs to come out it will come up, you know. So for me to sing rape, murder is just a shot away called at 11:30 at night saying come to the studio and I'm pregnant and in pajamas, you know, I just went and rape, murdered it and went home, you know. I raped and I murdered it and then I was gone after about three or four takes. You know, that was it for me.

WESTERVELT: Interesting. I mean, but this was a fairly hedonistic time, the late '60s in L.A. I mean, it feels, Merry, like you know, these people needed a little churching up with this music.

CLAYTON: Yeah well, we needed God. I mean, there was so much going on in the world at that time. You know, it was horrible racism, the war going on, lost a lot of our leaders during that time. With all of that stuff in my spirit I was saying, hey, we needed shelter at that time in the world, you know. And I found myself just, like, crying out, somebody help us. And that spirit came over me and I couldn't help but sing it the way I sung it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GIMME SHELTER")

STONES: (Singing) It's just a kiss away, kiss away, kiss away. Hey...

WESTERVELT: Merry, I'm trying to get at the core of what makes a great gospel song. Do you have a favorite?

CLAYTON: Yeah, His eyes on the sparrow and I know he watches me. You know, it's like, why should I feel discouraged and why should the shadows come? Why should my heart be lonely and long for heaven and home when Jesus is my portion and a constant friend is he. His eye is on a little bitty bird and I know he watches me.

WESTERVELT: But singing "The Times They are Changing," did it have a similar impact as these powerful lyrics you just mentioned?

CLAYTON: Absolutely. Come gather around people wherever you roam and admit that the waters around you have grown and accepted that soon you'll be drenched to the bone. For your time to you is worth saving. That was enough for me right there.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE TIMES THEY ARE CHANGING")

SISTERS: (Singing) ...then you better start swimming or you'll or you'll sink like a stone, for the times they a changing.

CLAYTON: To me those songs fit the old gospel. These are the old like almost a spiritual. Come gather 'round people wherever you roam. Gather around, gather around. That's the stuff that they did in my father's church when I was a little girl. So, it just - you know, I just loved it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE TIMES THEY ARE CHANGING")

SISTERS: (Singing) ...for the wheel's still in spin, and there's no telling who that it's namin'...

WESTERVELT: It's Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame producer Lou Adler and legendary singer Merry Clayton. Thanks so much for coming in.

CLAYTON: Our pleasure.

ADLER: It definitely was a pleasure. Thank you, Eric.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE TIMES THEY ARE CHANGING")

SISTERS: (Singing) ...for the times they are a changing.

WESTERVELT: And for Sunday, that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Eric Westervelt. Check out our weekly podcast. Look for Weekends on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED on iTunes or on the NPR app and follow us on Twitter at NPRWATC. I'm @ericnpr. Tonight, we say so long to our intern Steven Jackson. His enthusiasm and ideas will be missed. Best of luck, Steven. Arun Rath is back next weekend. Until then, thanks for listening and have a great night.

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