Your Complete Guide to the Chicago Blues Scene
CHICAGO GOSPEL KEYBOARD MASTERS
Lift Me Up
The Sirens Records
by Robin Zimmerman
Back in 1975, a small, independent record label was launched on Chicago’s North Shore. Christened “The Sirens”, its goal was to keep blues music, boogie-woogie piano and other genres alive. Its fresh-faced founders were Steven Dolins, his brother Barry, and David Goldberg.
The teen-age Steven Dolins was well versed in pre-World War II blues after raiding big brother, Barry’s record collection. He was also a bit obsessed with 1930s-era piano. He especially idolized Erwin Helfer and even took lessons from him. So it’s not surprising to find that Helfer was a member of the “piano dream team” immortalized in The Sirens first recording entitled, Heavy Timbre—Chicago Boogie Piano.
Besides keeping the blues, jazz and boogie-woogie alive, Dolins had the lofty goal of preserving Chicago’s rich gospel tradition. With the release of their latest compilation, Lift Me Up, The Sirens has succeeded mightily.
This isn’t Dolin’s first foray into gospel. He has worked with a long roster of respected artists including Jessy Dixon, Geraldine Gay and Reverend Dwayne R. Mason. The Sirens has also released gospel compilations including In the Right Hands and Heavenly Keys.
While the aforementioned releases relied on a smaller group of musicians, Lift Me Up brings together a slew of Chicago’s finest gospel artists for the proverbial praise and worship. They all gathered at Steve Yates studio for a one-day recording session that Dolins described as “stressful, anxious, beautiful and inspiring.”
The opening track, “Swing Down Chariot” sets things off on a joyful note with spirited interplay and considerable free styling on the piano and organ by Eric Thomas and Terry Moore. The sound quality on this track—and on all 13 to follow—is magnificent. Yates’ state-of-the-art Yamaha C7 Conservatory Grand piano and Hammond organ are the perfect complement to this consortium of artists’ considerable talents.
Donald Gay handles vocal duties on the next track, “Without God I Could Do Nothing.” If the name Donald Gay rings a bell, it’s because he toured as the three-year-old “Boy Preacher” with his siblings, “The Famous Gay Sisters.” He appeared with Mahalia Jackson at the age of 7 and also matched wits as the first African-American child on “Joe Kelly’s Quiz Kids” program.
Gay has said that he performs “with the inspiration of the Spirit” and his devotion shines through on every note of this particular track. Richard Gibbs accompanies Gay on both the piano and organ.
Gibbs also has an impressive resume, with highlights that include
serving as Aretha Franklin’s pianist for the past 18 years and
accompanying her at the White House, on the “Tonight Show” and more.
Gibbs returns to play piano and organ on the third track, the traditional “Walk with Me Lord.” Elsa Harris, described as the “respected stateswoman” of the group, ably handles piano on this jazz-flavored number. In addition to her keyboard wizardry, Harris has done everything from providing backup vocals for Minnie Riperton to performing with the Jessy Dixon Singers for several years.
Indeed, Dixon’s influence is prevalent throughout Lift Me Up, The next track, “I Am Redeemed” is a Dixon composition that is sung with great passion and feeling by Bryant Jones. Although he just turned 50, Jones has been immersed in Chicago-based churches and its many musical ministries for most of his life.
The rollicking “I’ll Say Yes to the Lord” conjures up visions of a spirited come-to-Jesus meeting. While “camaraderie and collaboration” were the cornerstones of this one-day recording session, it’s also easy to picture Terry Moore on the piano and Richard Gibbs on both organ and bass engaging in a bit of musical one-upmanship.
Heavy on percussion, the track has Curtis Fondren providing a strong backbeat to this up-tempo number with Gerald Gay keeping pace on the tambourine. Fondren is the drummer on 13 of the 14 tracks on “Lift Me Up.” He has recorded with a long list of gospel luminaries, played in the famed Christian Tabernacle Church Choir and has appeared on a variety of well-known television shows.
The pace slows down a bit for the listener to focus on the smooth and soulful vocals provided by Pastor DeAndre Patterson who gives a pair of chill-inducing and impassioned performances on both “From Out of Nowhere” and “Pray for Me.”
Sandwiched between these two tracks is the traditional “Meet Me at the Judgment Day” with Terry Moore doing double-duty on both organ and piano.
“Pray for Me” marks Lavelle Lacy’s first turn on the piano with Moore on organ. Lacy also comes from a spiritual and musical family. His grandmother, Isabelle Joseph Johnson was a noted gospel deejay on WVON.
The energetic 60-year old Lacy has long been one of the city’s most in-demand gospel keyboard players. He used his God-given talents to play these gigs while also working a day job in Chicago’s Streets and Sanitation Department.
The jaunty and up-tempo “I’ll Fly Away” sees ‘I Am Redeemed” vocalist Bryant showcasing his piano skills. Eric Thomas has his solo turn on the next track, the “Holy, Holy Medley.” When it came to the song selection process for Lift Me Up. Dolins said, “Each artist chose what they wanted to perform. My only constraint was that it be traditional gospel music.”
The Jones-Thomas tandem is at it again on the next gospel track, “He’s My Everything,” which provides a fitting build-up to the powerful “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” Here, Dorothy Robertson puts her own personal stamp on this well-known gospel number. She rightly holds center stage for this song with an operatic delivery that seems to soar high up into the heavens. Pianist Elsa Harris and Bryant Jones on organ provide the musical backdrop for this virtuoso performance.
Gibbs returns for an organ solo on “He’s My Everything” before the energetic finale, “The Lord is Blessing Me.” This high-spirited track is heavy on percussion and definitely fulfills Lift Me Up’s stated mission of leaving the listener “finger snapping, hand clapping and foot tapping.”
In an era where liner notes are often puffed-up pieces of publicist-driven hyperbole, Lift Me Up lives up to its advance billing—and then some. It truly does “engender a spirited Sunday church service” and transports the listener to a higher level with each and every play.