The Cougarettes- vocals; Professor Herman Stevens - piano; 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 third act of the day, the festival presented a young aspiring group of gospel singers known as the Cougarettes (pronounced Co-jer-ets). Little is known about the Cougarettes, other than they were a vocal quintet comprised of five high school students from Mount Vernon, New York. Discovered by Doc Wheeler at a gospel recital several weeks prior to the festival, he invited them to perform during the Sunday festivities at Newport.
Accompanied by Professor Herman Stevens on piano, the Cougarettes bridge the gap between young and old and serve up two numbers that showcase remarkable five-part harmony singing in a more contemporary style that still remains reverent to traditional gospel music. On both of these numbers, "Love Is The Way" and "Make It To The City," these young women show exactly what captivated Doc Wheeler—tight vocal arrangements, compelling material, and the ability to hit high octave notes in unison with remarkable clarity and power.