A 40-Year Friendship Built on 'Gospel Music' Record producer Joel Dorn and photographer Lee Friedlander grew up listening to gospel and blues. Now they've put out a compilation of their favorite gospel songs from the 1950s and 1960s. They tell Debbie Elliott about Gospel Music.
NPR logo

A 40-Year Friendship Built on 'Gospel Music'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/5202677/5202740" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
A 40-Year Friendship Built on 'Gospel Music'

A 40-Year Friendship Built on 'Gospel Music'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/5202677/5202740" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

(Soundbite of Gospel song by Slim and the Supreme Angels)

Today is Sunday and we're gonna take you to church. That's the sound of Slim and the Supreme Angels, kicking off a new compilation called, simply, Gospel Music.

Joel Dorn and Lee Friedlander put this record together. They met 40 years ago at Atlantic Records, where Friedlander was photographing many of the artists Dorn produced. Joel Dorn and Lee Friedlander join us now from our New York Bureau. Welcome to the program, gentlemen.

Guests: Thank you, so happy to be here.

ELLIOT: So both of you say that you're not really religious men.

Mr. LEE FRIEDLANDER (Photographer, Record Producer): Yeah, well, I suppose if we were living in Bach's time, maybe we would have responded to that, but this is the spiritual life of music.

Mr. JOEL DORN (Record Producer): I mean when this music comes on, it is so compelling, it overwhelms you, or it overwhelms me and I think it would overwhelm a lot more people if they were exposed to it. It's a...gospel music from this time-frame, from the golden age of gospel, it doesn't even get exposed on the few stations that play gospel music. Now they play a modern kind of gospel music. But this is like the equivalent of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington and people like that. It's seminal music and it's, well I don't know how you resist it. I mean, this is something.

(Soundbite of gospel song)

ELLIOT: Now, you two didn't grow up with this music. When did you first hear it?

Mr. DORN: Obviously, we didn't grow up in black Baptist churches in the south, but we were big, big fans of all kinds of black music when we were kids in the 40s and into the 50s. And it kind of shaped our lives in many ways.

ELLIOT: You heard it on the radio?

Mr. FRIEDLANDER: Yeah, way over on the right side of the dial, I guess.

Mr. DORN: Those are the years when the black radio stations or the stations that played black music started about 1300 and went up to about 1600 on the AM dial, so we were fortunate enough to have come across those stations and not only heard gospel music, but blues and rhythm and blues and jazz and, you know, the early vestiges of rock and roll.

ELLIOT: Now what strikes me about a lot of this music is just how close it is to rock and roll. For example, let's listen to this track by the original Five Blind Boys of Alabama.

(Soundbite of song by the Five Blind Boys of Alabama)

Now I think I've heard that somewhere before.

(Soundbite of song by the Rolling Stones)

Mr. DORN: The Rolling Stones, they had that song, they stole it from the Blind Boys.

Mr. FRIEDLANDER: I'm not aware of the Rolling Stones.

Mr. DORN: Lee has purer tastes than I do, but listen, so much of American popular music, whether you want to call it rhythm and blues or rock and roll or even just straight up pop music, comes out of the black church. It's the music of the black church, kind of diluted or extended into American popular music.

Mr. FRIEDLANDER: And a lot of the great singers came out of the black church, too. That became popular singers, like Sam Cooke.

Mr. DORN: Like, for instance, we have a cut on this record called Last Mile of the Way and its listed as the Soul Stirrers, but the lead singer with the Soul Stirrers was Sam Cooke.

(Soundbite of Last Mile of the Way)

Some people are blessed with a voice that, I mean that old line about they could sing the telephone book. Sam Cooke was one of those guys, I mean he was a gigantic star in gospel music before he recorded You Send Me and then became a gigantic star in pop music. One of the toughest jobs we had and one of the few places where we had non-violent arguments was which song we were going to include. There are 18 songs in the collection called Gospel Music but we listened to close to 1500 songs before we narrowed it down to 18.

Mr. FRIEDLANDER: With pleasure.

Mr. DORN: Then, you know, I had some favorites from when I was a kid. Like, I knew that Motherless Child by the Harmonizing Four with that spectacular voice Jimmy Jones was going to be on it.

(Soundbite of Motherless Child)

ELLIOT: Now that is a voice.

Mr. DORN: And that's just the beginning. You ought to see what happens about fifty seconds from now when he gets to the deep part of his voice. It's amazing.

(Soundbite of Motherless Child)

Mr. DORN: I'll tell you. I remember the first time I heard that record. My father and I were driving from the suburbs of Philadelphia where we lived over to my grandmother's house who lived in West Philadelphia. We were driving on 50th street and I put the gospel program on. It was in the morning. And I heard that record and I had just gotten my drivers license and I almost drove off the street. I almost drove on the pavement. I had never heard a voice like that in my life.

ELLIOT: Of course no gospel compilation would be complete without Mahalia Jackson.

(Soundbite of song recorded by Mahalia Jackson)

Mr. DORN: I remember, I was in, I think, 9th grade. And Mahalia Jackson was coming to a synagogue in Philadelphia. The black churches would rent, for Mahalia Jackson, there wasn't a black church big enough, but there were other churches and it happened to be a synagogue one time--and I was there and it was me and two thousand of these fabulous black church ladies with these spectacular hats and it was something to see. I wish I was good enough to explain to you what that felt like.

ELLIOT: Did you get religion?

Mr. DORN: I didn't get religion, but I got something. There's a picture that Lee took in the CD, a picture he took of Mahalia Jackson. I mean, this is just my opinion, but it almost looks like if you could see the next second after this picture was taken that she would start to ascend.

(Soundbite of song recorded by Mahalia Jackson)

ELLIOT: Joel Dorn and photographer Lee Friedlander produced the new compilation, gospel music. Thanks gentlemen,

Guests: Thank you.

(Soundbite of song recorded by Mahalia Jackson)

Copyright © 2006 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.