Interview by Josiah Titus | Photos by Eilon Paz
efore commercial radio, before the first 78s were pressed, if you wanted to hear music, your best bet might have been to find a church. From rural chapels to urban cathedrals, from hymns to spirituals to chants, church and music have always gone hand in hand, made common not by genre but by purpose.
Today, one of the most popular styles of religious music is gospel. Born out of the evangelical South, gospel music helped shape—and was then shaped by—R&B and soul. The proliferation of vanity presses and independent record labels in the ’60s and ’70s made it possible for thousands of church bands and choirs to be heard outside of the congregation and helped establish gospel music’s revered place in the annals of recorded music.
Greg Belson has become an authority on the subject. He’s been unearthing rare and forgotten gospel records for over 25 years and he’s on a mission to share them with the world. His latest compilation Divine Disco was released last summer by Cultures of Soul Records and his monthly radio show The Divine Chord Gospel Show is now in its sixth year. Dust & Grooves sat down with Belson in his Los Angeles home, where he walked us through how he puts a show together and talked to us about his life as a crate-digger.
Introduce yourself. Who is Greg Belson?
I was born in late 1969 in Kingston Upon Thames, which is about sixteen miles South of London Town, UK. I’ve been a record collector of all things soulful for the last 30 years. I moved my base to California over 10 years ago and DJ around the globe on a regular basis.
What do you look for in a record?
I pay attention to the drums and vocals first and foremost. Drum production fascinates me so I always keep an ear out for the way tracks are produced and manufactured given the ever-changing tools available in a studio. And then I focus on heavy melodies, chord changes, arrangements . . . anything that has a particularly soulful feel. As long as there’s a feel I can relate to, the music itself doesn’t have to be genre specific.
What kind of music was playing in your house growing up? Did your parents have records?
My folks weren’t really into records. I remember a small stack of UK-pressed LPs underneath the stereo in the living room, which included Creedence Clearwater Revival, Elvis and a few platters by Dolly Parton. I do have a fond memory of my Mum owning a reel-to-reel tape machine and listening to the one and only tape she had. The most memorable of all the tunes included on the tape was Arthur Brown’s “Fire.”
Do you remember your first record?
The first record I owned was bought for me by my folks when I was really sick one year. It was The Bay City Rollers Once Upon a Star. I think they might’ve been secret fans themselves because they bought me another LP by them a few months later.
One of the first tunes I bought with my own money was a 3-pack special from Records & Tapes in Tolworth, UK, that included Adam & the Ants “Stand and Deliver,” “Car Trouble” and “Zerox.”
When did you start thinking of yourself as a record collector?
In my early teens, I’d been buying the odd record here and there as my hometown had a few well-stocked record stores. When I was about fifteen I bought two Parliament Funkadelic LPs (One Nation Under a Groove and The Electric Spanking of War Babies) from the store Books, Bits & Bobs, and it was there that the owner told me about a big record fair in London. So, one month circa 1987, I plucked up the courage, scraped some money together and set off to the Big Smoke. The first time I walked through those doors, clutching my tiny pencil-written wants list, was the day I became a collector!
A box containing a stack of 45’s from each major label. This is the filing system I adopt within my collection for the labels that had a decent sized catalog.
How did you get into gospel music?
I started paying close attention to it ‘round about 1993. As an avid collector of soul and funk, I’d already picked up a few gospel tunes related to various labels and suchlike, but I’d never really bought wholesale into the genre. I went on a buying trip in mid ’94 and started looking through the gospel sections from then onwards. And then I’d say it kicked into some kinda high-gear obsession from 2000 onwards.
Willis Canada – ‘Look at the nail scarred hands’ (Maiden.) A sublime, ethereal ballad performance by Willis Canada, complete with a picture sleeve. A very cool collectible item, f’sure!
When disco and modern soul were extremely popular, churches seized the opportunity to spread their message by recording records that plagiarized grooves and riffs from secular songs.
Was there a specific gospel record that started this?
The gospel album that really launched my passion was Clarence Smith’s Whatever Happened to Love, featuring “Sometimes I feel Like A Motherless Child.” The legendary DJ Snowboy was playing it in the club where I was promoting and he announced it on the mic as his brand new discovery. I went home that night and went through all my record lists looking for a copy. This was the days before the internet, so I was receiving mailouts via the post. I came out lucky with my friend Martin Davies’ “Soul Explosion” list.
Clarence Smith – ‘Whatever happened to love’ (Gospel Truth.) This is the first LP that really sparked my interest in gospel and its soulful potential. It contains one of the funkiest versions of the staple ‘Sometimes I feel like a motherless child’, and is an essential recommendation to explore this fascinating genre.
How did The Divine Chord Gospel Show get started?
The show is now well into its sixth year, having launched on June 30, 2011. The amazing LA creative hub that is Dublab approached me with designs to broadcast a live show and join their ever expanding roster of DJs. Needless to say it was an honor to be asked, and it’s been an awesome ride so far, with listeners tuning in worldwide.
Can you walk us through how you put a show together?
Almost every show has three parts: uptempo, downtempo, and then something more DJ-focused, say R&B, modern soul, funk, disco and suchlike. About seven 45s per section will produce a show. I put the records in order, then go in and broadcast it live at the studio.
The key to each show is that there are no duplicate plays from broadcast to broadcast. The one exception is the end-of-year-recap show; that’s the only time you’ll hear a tune played twice. The key is to keep the listener on the same journey as myself, always on the edge of discovery, experiencing tunes for the first time. We like to advertise it as “Soul music you might not have heard before.”
C.K.. Brady & Avent Singers – “Do it for the Lord” (Valberst.) Straight out of Chicago comes the furious funk cut with some of the hardest, blazing drums I’ve heard. It’s a riff rip of Isaac Hayes’ “Do your thing” re-dubbed “Do it for the Lord”….heavy, heavy stuff.
C.K. Brady & Avent Singers – “Do it for the Lord” (Valberst) & The Mighty Christian Soldiers – “Do it for the Lord” (Goodie Train.) Another funky “gospelization” of Mr Hayes’ tune. This time, the label location is from Los Angeles and recorded for the minorly successful Goodie Train label.
How did the Divine Disco compilation come together? How deep of a pool is gospel-disco?
Divine Disco as a concept came together circa 2014 when Jeff Swallom from Cultures of Soul approached me to work with him on a compilation. The process started out as a simple idea: put together some tracks that would make a great set and go from there. The licensing, however, was far from simple. Cultures of Soul really worked hard to clear some amazing music, but there were a few casualties along the way. Keep in mind that a lot of these recordings were funded by the church and recorded by members of the church, so it wasn’t exactly a straightforward or traditional business arrangement. In some cases, the church kept the profits and the artists argued that this wasn’t fair. The conclusion was often to have the stock destroyed. Jeff came across a few artists that absolutely didn’t want to relive this memory. He could have been searching for six months to locate the rights holder only to be met with a flat “no.” There was a lot of time involved in getting everything legally sorted out. The amazing news is that the release was met with great critical acclaim around the globe and a Volume 2 is scheduled for release in the near future.
You don’t have to be religious to understand the feel, power and pure emotion delivered by gospel musicians and artists.
The Fabulous Golden Wings – ‘I got a friend’ (Designer.) One of the finest sweet soul records period, that crosses over into secular territory. Designer was a label that often suffered with quality, but when it’s good, it’s astounding!
The Sensational Seven Angels – ‘So many years’ (Coastal Recordings.) An astonishing piece of vocal harmony music, verging on sweet soul territory. A huge rarity by all accounts, out of the Carolinas.
Gospel as a whole is a massive genre with many sub genres, disco being one. When disco and modern soul were extremely popular, churches seized the opportunity to spread their message by recording records that plagiarized grooves and riffs from secular songs. It broadened the accessibility and the appeal of the church with a younger audience. From 1974 to 1984, the output was quite intense, and it feels like we’ve only just started to scratch the surface of finding these records.
Do you ever get funny reactions to playing gospel in clubs?
Surprisingly, yes! Back in 2015 at a Soul Weekender, the first track I played was a rare take of “Wade in the Water” by Annette Briggs and the Voices of Soul. It’s a great version, super dance-floor friendly and leads in with this killer open kick drum. Once the rhythm and melody dropped, one guy charged the decks yelling, “You know this is soul night, right!?” I cheerfully pointed to the full dancefloor which he had just barged through. That’s the one and only time I’ve had a problem, and I’d say he alone was having the problem. Strange thing is, Marlena Shaw’s version of “Wade” is considered a classic at that particular club, so go figure.
Moton Records, Inc. – “It’s a beautiful world” (Moton Records.) Here’s a recent gospel modern soul re-edit friend of mine…it re-interprets the body of the main track beautifully and works any dancefloor like a champ! ‘It’s a beautiful world’ indeed.
Are you religious?
I don’t profess to any religion per se. I believe it’s up to the individual to make their own decisions regarding religion. I usually try and move away from that type of question as this is all about my personal journey through this music. You don’t have to be religious to understand the feel, power and pure emotion delivered by gospel musicians and artists.
Have you ever attended a church simply to experience gospel played live?
Actually, no, I haven’t. It is something I need to do, though, and I’d say it’s on my bucket list!
Are gospel artists themselves always religious?
That’s a difficult question for me to answer because it would be based purely on speculation on my part. I would assume yes as many gospel records were recorded by pastors or reverends with groups formed by members of their church. I doubt there was very much call for secular artists to feign being religious, certainly when it came to being a popular recording artist. But the question isn’t for me to answer.
The D.C. Christian Harmonizers of Washington, D.C. – ‘I’m a pilgrim’ (Pinewood.) Without doubt, Pinewood is another label worth seeking out. The catalog is rich in diversity and rarely dips away from top quality. Here, from the funkier side of their catalog, is one such offering.
Is there such a thing as British gospel?
A: Yes there is, and there are some amazing recordings around to seek out. The fantastic Paradise band released LPs in the early ’70s and Kainos, who doubled as a reggae band, produced some great gospel music. Out of those bands came vocalists like Paul Johnson and Mica Paris, as well as artists like Vivienne McKone and the Escofferys. These days, the House Gospel Choir are playing regularly, performing gospel takes of modern day house and garage cuts. Really quite the spectacle!
Would you consider yourself to be an archivist of gospel music? Do you think of your own collection as a preservation of gospel history?
A: Absolutely. Many DJs have documented regional music from different eras and regions, places like Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit and so on, and discographies for labels are another integral part of researching the history and heritage of music history. It’s natural that the guys searching for the obscure records day in day out will often be the people that make the new discovery, and in my opinion, it’s essential to document these works whenever possible. Many gospel artists have gone years with limited recognition or none whatsoever, so when I broadcast my Divine Chord Gospel Show, I provide full track listings for all the tunes I play.
Truth & Devotion – Heaven at last (Tyscot.) One from the 1980’s and almost every track is a killer! If you need a recommendation for a complete listen from uptempo dance grooves to slower cuts with a touch of soulful boogie, then look no further this excellent LP.
What distinguishes gospel from soul? Do the genres overlap?
Yes, they absolutely overlap. The very roots of soul come directly from gospel and that can be verified by following the careers of many secular soul artists that started their singing careers in their local church. The basic gospel rhythm is more formulaic and less freeform than your stereotypical secular beat, but the vocal performances remain pretty much the same. The emotion is what carries a tune, and that is the one key area that the genres intertwine.
How do you organize your collection?
The smaller labels are kept together, alphabetized by artist. The larger labels I keep separate and in alphabetical order.
A box containing a stack of 45’s from each major label. This is the filing system I adopt within my collection for the labels that had a decent sized catalog.
Do you have any record collecting philosophies? A price you won’t pay, maybe, or a total number of records you won’t go past? Do you buy reissues?
My philosophy is “If I want it, I’ll work out a way to own it.” I’ll either offer trades or sell some items to make up the value that is being asked. So far price hasn’t really entered into the equation for me, but I’ve got a pretty high threshold next to a lot of people. I’ve been collecting a long time, and I like to think I’m pretty good at knowing market values and availability. If something comes along that I think is too expensive for that particular tune, then I’ll pass, no problem. I also need to make sure everything is quality before I bring it home. I don’t like making huge bulk buys if most of it is junk. I’ll go quality over quantity all day.
As for reissues, everything I bring into my collection, with the exception of maybe a few items that I’ve had sent to me from labels, are original pressings.
During the oil shortage in the US in the ’70s, alternatives to vinyl were explored to fulfill the increasing demand for records. Real vinyl has a long shelf life and finding alternatives that were just as durable proved to be a tough undertaking.
Can you give us a couple of examples of gospel 45s with interesting stories or that are particularly important?
A: Premium Fortenberry, “All of God’s Children Got Shoes.” It’s one of the rarest releases on Booker label, which is known for its spiritual releases. They had a distinct, low-budget sound, often with only a single voice and a guitar, usually bare and stripped down. It’s all about the delivery, the projection of the vocals. It’s pure soul that exemplifies what I look for in a record. I’d known about this record for some time from fellow gospel collector Joe Louis, and when one popped up on eBay a while back, I had to pull the trigger.
Premium Fortenberry – “All God’s children got shoes” (Booker.) Gospel at arguably its purest form. One voice and a guitar….another disc from the highly desirable Booker stable.
Another would be Willie Dale, “Let Your Light Shine.” The first batch of eight copies were discovered by collector Alex Rodriguez somewhere in Bakersfield, CA. What’s special about this record is the mystery that surrounds it. For starters, the artist’s name is fake, the street address is fake–nothing useful is given away on the label–and we have no account of what happened to the rest of the copies that might’ve been pressed. Lovie D owned the label and he has sadly passed away. The only person connected to it that we know of who’s still alive is Willie Dale’s sister and she didn’t want anything to do with it. I find all of this to be totally intriguing. It adds to my enjoyment of collecting these amazing records when there’s an air of mystery surrounding them.
Some of your records weren’t pressed on actual vinyl. Was there a push to find alternatives?
During the oil shortage in the US in the ’70s, alternatives to vinyl were explored to fulfill the increasing demand for records. Real vinyl has a long shelf life and finding alternatives that were just as durable proved to be a tough undertaking. The industry turned to polystyrene records, which are far inferior in terms of longevity and audio quality. They have a much shorter number of plays in them. Experiments were conducted with all kinds of alternatives, including Dynaflex, which predominantly found a brief home in the LP market. The material itself was quite flimsy, but cheap to make, and it was often married to the new audio technology of Quadraphonic Sound, so the audio reproduction was actually quite good. Unfortunately, Dynaflex was too easy to scratch and damage, so it didn’t last particularly long, at least in comparison to vinyl.
Highlighting the playing surface difference between a styrene disc and a vinyl record. Also note that the styrene disc in the foreground has the label glued on….the vinyl record at the back of the shot, has the labels baked on, as the material is resistant to higher temperatures.
Any memorable digging moments?
There’ve been many over the years, from unreal dollar bin hollers to small quantities of records that were being covered up on the soul scene at the time. The most memorable digging moments are really more about the locations than the digs themselves. One particular standout was visiting the legendary Coachman’s record store in downtown Detroit, a few years before he passed. The Coachman was a legend in Detroit, a blues DJ who many regarded as royalty. His store was on the dark side of town. As my friend and I walked into his store, we were literally surrounded by clerks who wanted to know what business we had being there. I saw this guy sitting in the back room wearing a blue shell suit holding court to a few folks. When he heard our English accents, he jumped out of his chair, came to the front of the store and welcomed us with open arms. He said, “Yeah, I’m the Coachman!” He instructed a couple of his workforce to go stand outside and guard the car whilst we were scouring his store. What I didn’t realize was my buddy had made friends with the Coachman during an earlier visit. Quite an amazing day that went from “are we gonna get outta here safely?” to the warmest of welcomes whilst shootin’ the breeze, digging for records. Those are the kind of digging experiences I hold dear. R.I.P. The Coachman.
What about rarest dollar bin find?
I’ve had so many dollar bin finds over the years, so I guess I’ll say the most special was my first big gospel 45, the one that really turned me onto the genre in a serious way. I paid 25 cents for a mint copy of “The Elements” by The Lover’s of God (Shur-Tinga) in an antique store in Duluth, MN.
The Lover’s of God – “The Elements” (Shur-Tinga.) One of my favorite 45’s simply because it was my first serious gospel find out in the field and it cost no more than 25 cents. Both sides are exquisite in vocal and musical delivery so I was amazed when I pulled this out of a record stack in the mid west. The record itself was recorded by the legendary Ted Brinson in Los Angeles, which was a surprise to say the least!
What about recent finds? Anything notable?
I’ve just come back from a three-day digging trip and picked up some nice 45s and LPs. There’s a few things in there that could easily be big records for me, both on the radio show and for DJing. So for the uptempo DJ nights, I’ll say the Gospel Travelers “Call Him Up” (Praise). Just a furious funk-fueled dancer that could be a massive sound in clubland. And on the slower side “Sweet Land” by The Mighty Pearlie Gates (JSB), who are from Chalburn, NC. It has those exquisite vocal harmonies and somber mournful melodies. Simply brilliant!
Is there a cut-off year to the records you’re interested in?
I’ve found my boundaries have expanded while researching gospel. I’d say it’s generally anywhere between 1960 and 1990. The glorious thing about gospel, though, is that a tune could be performed in the ’80s but recorded on equipment from the ’60s, so sometimes tunes can sound earlier than their actual date of creation. The ’90s ushered in a more digital sound and that’s the kind of stuff that I tend to ignore, but if I hear a recording from ’91 that appeals to my ear, I’m not going to skip it.
Any favorite labels?
One of the most collectable labels in gospel is Champ and it’s a path fairly well trodden by serious collectors these days. Aside from that, labels like HSE, Su-Ann, One-Way, Prestige (the small label from Birmingham, Alabama), Hummingbird, Memorial, Designer, etc. These are always worth investigating. They’re the connection between the major labels like Savoy, Peacock & Nashboro and the smaller, privately-pressed labels. Ultimately, I like collecting the independently-pressed music on tiny labels that may only have released a handful of titles. Those labels are especially important to catalogue. Dorothy Glass – New Creature (Champ.) One of the best LP’s on the legendary Champ label….Dorothy Glass and her ‘New Creature’ offering. Beautiful vocals with yet another amazing promo shot.
Dusty finger diggin’ is absolutely essential for any serious collector of vintage records.
How has collecting changed over the years? Is the internet good or bad for records?
I started casually buying records in 1985 and the learning process was a long and individual road. I had to go clubbing or tune into local and pirate radio stations to discover the music I was looking for. Finding the records themselves came from studying the mailed-out lists of rare records from companies like Soul Bowl, Soul Explosion, Hot Biscuit, Virgo Vibes and Soul Brother Records. Beyond those lists, it was all about making personal connections. The internet has changed that, and in some ways it’s great that it’s so much easier now to discover new music. From a personal standpoint, internet digging is something I enjoy and has helped me increase my knowledge of rare records and labels. I often read how some folks that started collecting pre-internet feel like the net assists in fast-tracking collectors that haven’t done their homework, which hinders their journey and provides too many shortcuts. Personally, I feel it’s an individual process and entirely up to you how you want to build your collection. Just do what feels right. Soul Liberation – Soul Liberation (Creative Arts.) They released two LP’s and this is their earliest from 1977. Very solid uptempo soul with jazzy overtones….but it’s the signed promo shot that really sweetened the deal the day I brought this home!
Do you still dig?
I dig all the time, both out in the field and online. Dusty finger diggin’ is absolutely essential for any serious collector of vintage records. There’s still a lot to discover, so getting out there and delving into the crates is a daily operation. There’s no real guide as to how to dig and how frequently to get out into the wild. Most of the time it’s pure luck on what’s out in the racks when you hit your locations. So persistence is the key, along with an ever-growing knowledge. If I’m not out and about, then I’ll be digging online. These days, it’s an essential tool to a digger’s arsenal, so I spend hours every day scouring what the internet has to offer.
Is there sampling in gospel music?
This question can be answered twofold. Nowadays, there’s a raft of producers scouring the gospel cuts for samples. Beatheads like The Purist, Beatnick D and The Alchemist are just a few spearheading this movement. Reaching back into earlier years, a lot of gospel borrowed hooks from secular recordings. The main riff of Aretha Franklin’s “Chain of Fools” was lifted and became the hookline for Rev. E. Fair’s “Pains of Life.” Instead of “Chain, chain, chain” the lyrics are adjusted to “Pain, pain, pain.” Isaac Hayes’ rhythms were borrowed frequently. “Do Your Thing” was lifted by CK Brady Avent Singers in “Do it for the Lord.” The Mighty Christian Soldiers also turned it into “Do it for the Lord.” This practice of borrowing secular riffs from secular tunes became quite common, probably in an attempt to extend the religious message outside of the church and appeal to a wider, younger audience. If the music sounded familiar then the message might stand a chance of finding new ears.
Do you have any favorite non-gospel records in your collection?
I’d like to throw in a curveball here. It’s a track that’s nestled away on a forgotten LP called I’ve Made Up My Mind by Herman Adelsohn, recorded for the Brunswick label. Specifically, it’s the tune “Take a Look at Me” that I find myself listening to over and over again. The most amazing thing about this record is that it was produced by soul legends Carl Davis and Eugene Record and directed by Willie Henderson. That’s a whole lotta soul on a cut that’s very much under everyone’s radar. Seek it out. The string section alone will wash you away.
The Universal Jubileers – ‘We are the Universal Jubileers’ (HLF.) Rare exciting gospel funk out of Chicago. Essential dancefloor business!
Do you have a comfort record? Something you can always come back to?
If I was to choose a gospel 45, I’d have to go with Little Shadows “On Judgement Day” (Mission). It has that sublime vocal performance that makes me stop everything and listen. Clear winner for a gospel LP would be the Supreme Jubilees It’ll All Be Over (S & K). It features some of the most stone cold grooves you could ever hear. Simply beautiful. Away from gospel, there’s so much I’d turn to out of the LP crates, but on the regular, I always come back to Charles Stepney productions, but I’d also be happy on a desert island with my David Axelrod stack and a whole bunch of Gil Scott Heron too, no doubt!
Do you have any tips for people just starting out? Tricks of the trade? Rookie mistakes to avoid?
Don’t be afraid to make your collection personal. Cultivate your own taste and explore as many genres as you want to. My choice is my own and I can remember what I bought, where I bought it, and what each track means to me. There isn’t a single solitary collector or historian that knows everything, so definitely start by looking at playlists of DJ’s that you admire or what other diggers are collecting, but from that root, plant your own seeds. Make your taste your own but most importantly, enjoy the ride. Music is emotion, so make sure you’re feeling it and getting the most out of your collection decisions that you can.
Who would you like to see next on Dust & Grooves?
On the gospel sides of the tracks, I’d love to see Kevin Nutt, the DJ/presenter behind the jaw droppingly good Sinner’s Crossroads on WFMU. It’s an essential point of reference for me and many others that collect the genre. I’d also like to see DJ Snowboy’s collection, who I’ve known for years. He was part of the original “Deep Funk” club night crew, and he has just a phenomenal knowledge of all things related to jazz. Plus, he’s even got a penchant for Rockabilly, so it would be fascinating to see the depth of what resides on his shelves.
Greg hosts four radio shows to share his collection: The Divine Chord Gospel Show, 45 Live and Time-Less, all broadcast on Dublab.com (Los Angeles, CA), and Divine Soul on Mi-Soul Connoisseurs (London, UK).
Greg and many other vinyl collectors are featured on the Dust & Grooves: Adventures in Record Collecting book.
Please consider purchasing the book and continue your support of the Dust & Grooves project.