Professor Herman Stevens - organ, piano; Dorothy McLeod - vocals; Herbert Carson - vocals; Helen Bryant - vocals; Evelyn Archer - vocals; Master of Ceremonies - Doc Wheeler
George Wein, the jazz impresario behind the Newport Jazz Festival and the Newport Folk Festival (which began in 1954 and 1959 respectively), is responsible for showcasing younger, older, and rediscovered jazz, blues, and folk musicians alike. However, his vision also included adding complementary elements to the festivals, which presented leading and lesser-known figures from the regular Newport Festival programs at morning and afternoon workshops on the festival grounds.
By the time of the 1959 festivals (the year the Newport Folk Festival was launched) one of these complementary elements had become a Sunday morning workshop spotlighting gospel music. Prior to this, the richest expression of gospel music had primarily been relegated to churches and was intrinsically bound in the development of fundamentalist religion within the southern Afro-American communities. The Newport workshops broke ground by presenting gospel music in a non-secular environment.
Although many of the artists featured were strictly gospel singers, crossover performers like the Swan Silvertone Singers and Dorothy Love Coates were also included, exposing the young, primarily northern white audience to the primarily southern black gospel artists in an intimate setting. In doing so, the festivals provided many northern white listeners with their first exposure to traditional gospel music.
With the help of legendary producer John Hammond and with respected musician and popular disc jockey, Doc Wheeler serving as master of ceremonies, they gathered many of the most impressive gospel singers on a single stage. At a time when soul music hadn't yet developed into a genre of its own, the energy, earthiness, and earnestness of these gospel performances made for an enthralling listening experience.
Here, we present in near entirety, the Sunday, July 5th Gospel Workshop presented at the 1959 Newport Jazz Festival. Not only did the 1959 presentation feature a world-class overview of gospel singers, but it also included Professor Herman Stevens accompanying all the acts on organ. One of the best organists in gospel, having served on countless Savoy Records recording sessions, Stevens' presence adds continuity and authenticity to the already impressive lineup.
The first set begins with a welcome from legendary producer John Hammond who then turns things over to master of ceremonies, Doc Wheeler. Prior to introducing the first performers, New York City's the Stevens Singers, Wheeler delivers an educational monologue about the evolution of gospel music to lay the foundation and set the stage for the impressive lineup to come.
The first performance begins with Professor Herman Stevens and the Stevens Singers, delivering a heartfelt set of traditional gospel music, beginning with a spirited reading of "Swing Down Sweet Chariot." Following a brief introduction of the Stevens Singers, the set continues with four numbers that showcase the passion and strength of these vocalists. In addition to his keyboard prowess, Stevens was well known for his showmanship and vocal acrobatics (He could sing a falsetto note three octaves above middle C). Despite the lack of visuals, the passion of these singers clearly comes across on the recordings, particularly Dorothy McLeod, whose voice often soars above the fray. Her powerful reading of "Peace In The Valley" is a highlight of this set. The first of seven gospel acts, Professor Herman Stevens & the Stevens Singers kick things off with passion and style, proving that the most resilient features of rock, R&B, and soul music (the beat, the drama, the effect on an audience) all can be traced back to gospel music. This opening set immediately sets a high standard for all to follow.