The Rance Allen Group – 1975 – A Soulful Experience
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A couple of decades before such stylistic melding would became popular among gospel artists, Rance Allen and his brothers merged the dynamics of soulful rhythms, gospel lyrics, and Rance’s testimonial lead vocals. This effort was produced by acclaimed Stax alumnus David Porter, who also co-wrote seven of the selections. The highlight from this album is the proverbial lyric and stirring rhythms of “Ain’t No Need of Crying“. Rance’s versatile vocals sail up and down the register from squeals and cries to riffs and sighs without forsaking solid, cohesive vocals throughout the verses and chorus. The gospel gem peaked on the Billboard R&B charts at 61 after a nine weeks. On “Talk That Talk” Rance utilizes his vast vocal reportoire to personify a riveting guitar. The Michigan native slows his delivery on the introspective “Just Found Me“. The Allen brothers are consistently excellent on every selection.
The ultimate gospel/soul crossover with a touch of Memphis magic.
Records was alive with possibilities in the early 70s. Johnnie Taylor was in the midst of a string of big hits, Isaac Hayes had reinvented the marketing of black music by becoming a solo star on the back of massive album sales, and with the arrival of Respect Yourself, label boss Al Bell had solved a three year problem of how to utilise the Staple Singers. The Staples had been working for the best part of a decade on the cusp of a secularised gospel music – their church roots welded to a universal message. They had scored in 1967 on Epic with Why Am I Treated So Bad, and a move to Stax the following year had seen them work with various in house producers in an attempt to hit once more. Despite some fabulous records nothing worked until Al Bell took over the producer’s chair.
Bell had a particular love of gospel and in a classic case of lateral thinking, he took the view that if the Staple Singers could hit with gospelised pop songs, then the new label could reverse the process adding a religious message to pop songs. For instance Marion Gaines recorded a version of the Temptations’ Message From A Black Man and the label’s figurehead outfit the Rance Allen Group recorded some of the finest gospel.
Guitar playing Rance Allen, alongside brothers Tom on drums and Steve on bass, came to Stax in 1971 after being spotted in a gospel talent contest in their native Detroit by veteran promotions man Dave Clark. He, alongside Toby Jackson, cut an album with the band immediately and brought it to Stax. Once again a Temptations number was given the treatment. A lush reworking of Just My Imagination as Just My Salvation lay down the marker for what was to come over on the band’s first three albums The Rance Allen Group, “Truth Is Where It’s At and Brothers “and a handful of early 45s. There were transformations of Stevie Wonder’s For Once In My Life, Ocean’s pop hit Put Your Hand In The Hand and one of the group’s most popular outings with soul collectors, a rousing gospelisation of Archie Bell’s There’s Gonna Be A Showdown. This latter in particular is a showcase for Rance’s impressive vocal range which rises to an astonishing falsetto. This can also be glimpsed on God Is Wonderful which was described by Barney Hoskyns as one of the most awesome falsetto performances ever recorded”.
Stax showed what it could do by promoting these albums as it would its secular acts, charting some of the recordings and arranging for Rance to appear on large scale shows with people including Isaac Hayes, and arranging for them to play at the massive Wattstax concerts.
For the fourth album for Stax it seems a decision was made to cross the group over. The album: A Soulful Experience is one of the finest albums ever released by Stax, a blend of soul and gospel as good as anything recorded by the Staple Singers. Unfortunately for everyone involved, the project was doomed by the perilous state of the Stax empire in 1975, hounded by creditors, in dispute with its major distributor and on the verge of bankruptcy, and so the LP never got the level of push that would have made it a major hit.
The group briefly left Stax at this point to record: Time Is Marching On (released through Capitol) which built upon the sound of A Soulful Experience. The group then returned to Stax releasing: Straight From The Heart produced by Motown veteran Henry Cosby, (then hitting big with Sylvester) and hits in the R&B charts followed including I Belong To You and Smile. They cut three albums at this residency at Stax, before moving off to the specialist gospel label Myrrh and later on to Al Bell’s Bellmark label.
The Rance Allen group were one of the pioneers of the gospel/soul crossover. Their influence on the gospel world is massive, especially on the next generation of gospel to come out of their native Detroit, the Clark Sisters, the Winans and others. As such when Be Be Winans topped the pop charts with Eternal (as he did a couple of years back), or appears with house producers Masters At Work, as he has on this years monster floor-filler Lean On Me, Rance Allen’s presence is being felt.
You can also enjoy Rance Allen Group – 1972 – Truth Is Where It’s At in our back pages here