March 10th, 2020 9pm Stage 2
Harlem Gospel Travelers Residency
The Harlem Gospel Travelers are not actually from Harlem. They came to Harlem, however, from far-flung corners of the five boroughs of New York City, and it was in Harlem, that legendary center of African-American culture, that they found their voices. As students of of the music-education program Gospel For teens, Thomas Gatling, Asher Bethune, Stephen Pedley and George Marage spent many hours on the subway or the bus to ultimately end up at an unassuming brownstone on W. 126th St. They walked through the red door at the parlor level and inside they found a world of music. Gospel music.
Gospel For Teens was born in 2006 when writer, producer and radio personality Vy Higginsen saw a distinct piece missing from her daughter’s musical education. She felt that African-American youth were not being taught the importance of their musical heritage and especially the importance of gospel and its influence on contemporary music. Never one to sit around and complain, she turned her family’s Harlem Brownstone into a school for gospel music, recruiting teenagers by word-of-mouth and through church bulletins to come and see for themselves what it was all about. Since then Gospel For Teens has grown to be a highly respected and influential source of education and self-development for underserved youth from around the New York area and it has been featured on 60 Minutes and in The New York Times. The program initially focused only on choirs and the large group sound that has been dominant in gospel music since the 1970s. That all changed when Eli “Paperboy” Reed first walked through that red door in 2013.
A chance set of circumstances led Reed to Harlem and to Higginsen, but they immediately hit it off. A singer, songwriter and recording artist then signed to Warner Bros. Records, Reed had been obsessed with gospel music from an early age, but it wasn’t the choirs that interested in him, it was the small groups and the quartets. Higginsen had been looking to do something within her program that was specifically designed for young African-American men and boys, who she describes as an “endangered species.” The soloists in Gospel choirs are often female with the men relegated to singing tenor and baritone background parts. In “quartet” music (quartet is in quotes because many groups have up to seven members), however, men sing all the voices, from bass all the way up to falsetto. Some of the greatest male singers of the 20th century including Sam Cooke and Wilson Pickett emerged out of the gospel quartet tradition.
Reed and Higginsen devised a plan to start a quartet from within the ranks of the current Gospel For Teens students. Initially a trial summer program, the quartet class quickly became a semester long, with Reed scheduling his own tours and recording sessions around the Gospel For Teens calendar. The students, who had already auditioned for GFT, auditioned again for Reed and Higginsen to be admitted in to the quartet. Reed devised a curriculum that focused on the masters; The Soul Stirrers, The Swan Silvertones, The Violinaires and The Swanee Quintet and these young men, really boys at the time, soaked it all in.
They quickly moved from imitation to creation, writing their own songs and building original arrangements of traditional material from the ground up. They honed and tightened their harmonies. They learned when to shout and when to whisper. They went from a group of teenage students to a full-fledged gospel quartet. What you have before you is the distillation of all their hard work; the first full-length album from the Harlem Gospel Travelers.
Each member of the group gets a chance to lead here, and each gets to showcase his unique and individual voice. Their styles are already fully formed at such an early age (the youngest member is 19, the oldest just 22) and they use them here to great effect. Asher Bethune, now 22, grew up in the Bronx and started singing in church at eight years old. He took his first solo with his church choir at 12 singing “Because of Who You Are” and he remembers realizing then that he could really do it. Asher’s turn to lead on this album, “Shine on Me” is also the oldest song featured here, dating back close to 100 years. Asher’s poignant testimony at the start of the song recalls his grandmother singing it. These young men speak often of the songs they heard their parents and grandparents sing, a testament to the continued importance of oral traditions in gospel music. Asher also plays tambourine on the whole album, bringing the incredible polyrhythms of the Black church to the forefront.
George Marage, also now 22, grew up on Staten Island and started singing at age 6. Like Asher, he remembers his own “aha” moment when he discovered he could sing. For George it was his 8th grade talent show. George’s three leads on this album, “Do You Know Him”, “Motherless Child” and “He’s On Time” showcase an uncommon confidence and remarkable range. George can move effortlessly from the lowest baritone notes to the clearest bell-like falsetto as shown in his powerhouse rendition of “Motherless Child”, a song that he arranged for the group. His performance on the title track (written by group member Thomas Gatling) makes for an instant classic of Gospel for the dance floor; the perfect intersection of Saturday night and Sunday morning.
Stephen Pedley, 20, grew up in East Flatbush, Brooklyn and started singing in church at the ripe old age of three. He clearly remembers singing an a-capella rendition of “Lean on Me” at his pre-k graduation. Stephen’s idols are modern singers like Jonathan McReynolds, but he can easily conjure up the older sound of hard singing quartet leads like Clarence Fountain and Julius Cheeks. Stephen is on fire with his music as evidenced by his performance on the album opener “Oh Yes He Will.” Originally recorded by the Augusta, GA based Swanee Quintet, the Stephen and The Travelers take the song and turn up both the tempo and the intensity. Tough and aggressive as a lead, Stephen, however will surprise you when he’s in the background. It’s him singing the sweet and airy high harmonies on “If You Can’t Make it Through a Storm.”
Thomas Gatling may lead the most songs on this album, but he’s the baby of the group. The only Traveler to be born in this millennium and still just 19, Thomas’s poise, confidence and all-around talent are hard to miss. He was such a precocious singer (like Stephen, he started singing in church at age three) that he joined Gospel For Teens at age 9, a full four years early. Thomas grew up on Long Island, but like many transplants, Sunday mornings saw him back in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn singing in the church that his mother later became pastor of. Thomas was the first group member to start writing songs and he has four originals featured here. “Wash Me, Lord” and “Am I Doing Enough” sound like lost Soul Stirrers classics and while the influence of Sam Cooke is undeniable, Thomas’ voice and style are already his own. His performance on “If You Can’t Make it Through a Storm” may be the sleeper of this LP. Thomas learned the song from hearing his grandfather sing it with his own quartet, but the harmony here is wholly reimagined to create a performance that is almost otherworldly and destined to become a classic of the genre.
The Travelers are ably supported on this LP by an all-star band including drummer Aaron Frazer (Durand Jones & The Indications), bassist Jake Leckie and Eli “Paperboy” Reed himself on guitar. Reed also sat in the producer’s chair, working with engineer Loren Humphrey (Arctic Monkeys, Adam Green) at his Stockholm Syndrome Sound Studio in Bushwick, Brooklyn. The album was recorded mostly live to eight track analog tape and was finished in just shy of four days. In contrast to many contemporary gospel recordings, the unfussy nature of the recording is lively and refreshing.
The artwork for “He’s on Time”, illustrated by Matt Chinworth, is itself a nod to gospel history. Inspired by the great Savoy Records albums of the 1960s that were painted by enigmatic artist “Harvey” (whose true identity was only recently discovered), the celestial hourglass design is a perfect pairing for the heavenly music contained within. Each song here has a purpose, but as a whole this album is an uplifting antidote for the troubled world of today. Drop the needle on the first track and you’ll realize immediately that The Harlem Gospel Travelers are right on time.