Search-and-Rescue Mission for Gospel Music of Yesteryear Transforms Warped, Scratched and Worn-Smooth Records into Digital Downloads

March 22, 2010

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When Robert Darden was 6 years old, he discovered the music of Mahalia Jackson.

He never forgot it.

Decades later, he wrote a book about black gospel history. But while those he interviewed had many stories to tell about influential music, most of the recordings from the Golden Age of black gospel -- from 1945 to 1970 -- were not to be found. They were lost, never released, tossed into landfills or tied up in litigation, said Darden, an associate professor of journalism at Baylor University in Waco.

It was more than a shame; in Darden's view, it was a downright sin.

So he fired off a letter to The New York Times, printed in 2005 as an editorial. The next day, he was deluged with e-mail and phone messages from others concerned about vintage black gospel being lost to future generations. One of those who contacted Darden was Charles M. Royce, chairman of the board of TICC Capital Corp. in Greenwich, Conn.

Royce hopped aboard the gospel train with financial support, as did others. And collectors of old gospel music began lending or donating records or tapes so they could be preserved digitally through the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project, led by Darden at Baylor.

Now, because of the search-and-rescue mission, the music is reaching a wider audience, with such tunes as Ain't That Right, Great Get'n Up Morning and This Train is Bound for Glory, posted with Baylor University content on iTunes U.

"Records do no good sitting in boxes in a closet when they can be enjoyed by many more people," said Bob Marovich of Chicago, a project collaborator, in a telephone interview.

His packed walk-in closet holds more than 3,600 gospel 45s and 78s and more than 1,600 gospel LPs.

So Marovich, who blogs about gospel, was delighted when he learned he could share his musical treasure. While he and Darden have never met in person, they became friends via e-mail after the project began. Darden credits much of the project's success to Marovich's generosity with his collection.

Marovich said he became captivated by black gospel music while in his dorm room at Notre Dame one Sunday in January 1984, when he turned his radio dial to a Chicago station.

"I heard Dr. Charles G. Hayes and the Cosmopolitan Church of Prayer Choir sing Every Time I Hear the Spirit on their radio broadcast," he said. "That was it for me. I was hooked."

While albums by such legends as Mahalia Jackson are available on CD, music recorded by lesser known greats such as the Spirit of Memphis are hard to find, as Darden discovered while writing his book People Get Ready! A New History of Black Gospel Music.

Because of primitive technology and the expense, it was hard for many musicians to make live recordings, Darden said. They might save a small amount of money so they could go to a studio to record two sides on one take.

"They would be cheap pressings, and maybe somebody's daughter did the cover," Darden said.

But whether a recording is a scratched 45 or a greatly loved LP worn mirror-smooth from playing, the men think the music deserves a chance to be heard.

The Baylor University Libraries use creative digital technology to preserve the music. Recordings for iTunes U are "cleaned up," but archival copies remain intact with pops and hisses.

Marovich said he has seen some records so warped that they virtually dance on the turntable, but "the folks at Baylor can fix it" so that music emerges.

Some of Darden's favorite recordings are those that are "free, unpolished, unrestrained," he said.

"If a song needed to be sung for 10 minutes, they would take 10 minutes, as the Spirit moved," he said.

"Everything they're singing, they're doing for the glory of God. And whether anybody buys this or whether it's a hit, they were going to sing it the best they could."

ABOUT THE BAYLOR GOSPEL MUSIC RESTORATION PROJECT

The project's digitally recorded music is available for free download on Baylor University's content on iTunes U. The site includes an interview called A Gospel Journey, which Darden did with Dr. Gardner Campbell, director of the Academy for Teaching and Learning at Baylor; and Campbell's joint interviews with Darden and Marovich.

About 180 partial tracks are provided, and Baylor has obtained for preservation about 1,500 records and music in various taped formats from throughout the world for preservation. Ongoing project work includes a catalog of the most at-risk music from the black gospel music tradition. Those participating in the project also are compiling taped interviews, informal photos, music programs, newspaper clippings and sheet music.

For more information about Baylor's Black Gospel Music Restoration Project and how to loan or donate material for it, visit www.baylor.edu/lib/gospel To learn how to loan or donate material, visit www.baylor.edu/lib/gospel/index.php?id=57352

Contact: Terry Goodrich, Assistant Director of Media Communications, (254) 710-3321

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