Professor Alex Bradford - vocals, piano
Jonathan Jackson - vocals
Kenneth Washington - vocals
Charles Campbell - vocals
Willie James McPhatter - piano, vocals
Professor Herman Stevens - organ
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.
For the fourth act of the day, the festival presented Professor Alex Bradford and the Bradford Specials. A great soloist and pianist, as well as a revered arranger and choir director, Bradford was a triple threat who would have significant impact on the entire gospel music scene as well as becoming an influence on artists such as Bob Marley and Ray Charles. Bradford's musical vision significantly helped bring about the mass choir movement in gospel.
Born in Bessemer, Alabama, and relocating to Chicago in 1947, Bradford first appeared on stage at age four and joined a children's gospel group at 13, soon obtaining his own radio show. In Chicago, Bradford gained valuable experience working with Roberta Martin and touring with Mahalia Jackson. He eventually struck out on his own, first with his group the Bradford Singers and then with Bradford Specials, who scored a huge 1953 hit with "Too Close To Heaven." The Bradford Specials, with whom he made his most important 1950s recordings, were the first male group to adopt the innovations brought to gospel by Roberta Martin and Clara Ward's female quartets. Over the course of the 1950s, Bradford experienced continued success, not only with his own recordings but also by writing hit material for Roberta Martin, Sallie Martin, and Mahalia Jackson, all of whom he also served as accompanist.
Bradford's five song set at the July 5, 1959 Gospel workshop raises the excitement level up a notch, beginning with captivating live performances of "God Searched The World," "Without A God," and the joyous "Lord You Been So Good To Me." A fantastic extended reading of his million selling hit, "I'm Too Close To Heaven," is also included, before capping the set off with "I've Got A Job." Throughout this performance, Bradford's flamboyant stage presence and energetic singing style, which ranges from a rough and husky bass to a whooping falsetto, is undeniably compelling and the Bradford Specials help propel this music higher and higher. Performances like these inspired many non-secular artists (Little Richard is a prime example) to imitate his style, and many others would follow, making Professor Alex Bradford one of the most influential male artists of gospel's post-WWII golden age.