#tbt Throwback Thursday: Gaither Vocal Band – “Testify”

by Kyle Boreing | June 14, 2018 1:50 PM

Testify
Produced by Bill Gaither, Michael English, Michael Sykes
Chapel Records
Original Formats: CD & Cassette
Original Release Date: 1994

SONG TITLES: John The Revelator (Rusty Goodman) / Lord, Feed Your Children (David Binion) / I Shall Wear A Crown (Traditional) / I’m Free (Bill Gaither/Gloria Gaither) / Born Again (Traditional) / Build An Ark (Paul Evans) / Mountains Of Mercy (Reggie Hamm/Joel Lindsey/Pam Thum) / Home (Tanya Goodman-Sykes/Rusty Goodman/Aaron Willburn) / Testify (Michael English/Michael Sykes) / Send It On Down (Geron Davis) / (Whenever I Think Of You) I Thank My God (Gloria Gaither/Dony McGuire)

In 1994, the Gaither Vocal Band was going through a transition. After several years as a pseudo-contemporary group (and riding on the new-found success of their Homecoming album), the then-quartet was evolving into a southern gospel act, albeit with a still contemporary sound, thanks in part to lead vocalist, Michael English.

The year prior the GVB released two albums that were essentially polar opposites: Peace Of The Rock and Southern Classics. POTR was primarily a contemporary offering, while SC, as the title indicates, was a recording of southern gospel favorites. The story goes that Gaither took SC to their label at the time, StarSong, and it was rejected for being “too southern gospel,” prompting Gaither to distribute it independently through Benson Records and partially leading to the creation of Chapel Records (which eventually evolved into Spring Hill Music Group, and is today known simply as Gaither Music Group).

Then came two major changes. English, who’d been with the group for nearly a decade, stepped down to focus on a solo career. Terry Franklin, who’d only been with the group for about a year, but who had a long history in the industry and had quickly built his own following within the group, also stepped down. To fill the gaps, Bill Gaither hired former Imperials member, Jonathan Pierce Hildreth, to sing tenor, and Buddy Mullins (who had seen success both as a songwriter and as a member of his family’s group) to fill the lead singer shoes. Stability was found in Mark Lowry, who stayed on with the group not just as a familiar vocalist, but as an integral part of the stage show.

In the midst of this transition, the group recorded and released Testify. The album was the first to be released by Gaither’s newly-formed Chapel Records, which gave Gaither complete creative control. It was also co-produced by Gaither, Michael Sykes, and English, establishing an identifiable sound not just for the group, but for Sykes as the go-to SG producer at the time.

The album itself is a bit of a hybrid between POTR and SC. There are notable southern gospel standards such as “John The Revelator,” “I’m Free,” and “I Shall Wear A Crown” (a modern take on the Nelons’ “We Shall Wear a Robe and Crown”) coupled with some new compositions like the title cut and “Mountains Of Mercy.” All of the songs are arranged with a hint of contemporary flavor, but with southern gospel roots, creating a unique sound that would carry the group for the next decade.

Although no longer a group member at this point, Michael English’s influence is all over this record. “John The Revelator” and “Home” are both Rusty Goodman compositions that English sang during his tenure with the family group. The vocal arrangements not only have a lot of English’s stylings, but astute listeners will actually hear English himself singing backing vocals throughout the album (most noticeable on the title cut), creating an interesting bridge between lineups.

Pierce’s style is obviously the more contemporary of the group, and seems to have been recruited to help fill the space left by English. He actually gets quite a few leads on the album, including “Mountains Of Mercy,” a stand-out track that I really with Wes Hampton would resurrect with the current lineup. He can shift between styles fairly easily, and while not a traditional tenor in the same vein as Franklin or Jim Murray, can still cover the part just fine.

Pierce would remain with the group for a couple more albums, but this is the only GVB studio recording to feature Buddy Mullins on lead. He would be replaced in 1995 by Guy Penrod, who helped solidify the group’s newfound southern gospel status with his more country vocals. Mullins, to his credit, falls more in line with English’s contemporary sound, even if his vocal range isn’t as high. He still turns in some impressive performances on “I’m Free,” “Build An Ark,” and “I Shall Wear A Crown.” In fact, when Penrod sang “Crown” on a later video, I found myself missing Mullins’ original take, which was much more fluid.

The production of Gaither, English, and Sykes would become the industry standard for southern gospel music in the 1990’s, and yet, it’s not as big here as one would think. There are no heavily-orchestrated ballads here (the closest they get is “I’m Free”), and the instrumentation for the most part is kept simple. It’s what they do with the limited approach that makes this work so well. “Mountains Of Mercy,” for example, is a power ballad that consists of a simple rhythm section and carried by the vocals. “Build An Ark,” which was recorded by the GVB for the second time here, likewise has a more simple, laid back arrangement, especially when compared with their third take from 2008 that includes a full horn line.

If you ask fans today to name their favorite GVB albums, many will list Testify among them. While it didn’t necessarily generate the type of buzz that Southern Classics did, it still served a purpose at a time of transition. I’d even say that it benefited from it; with a new lineup, there weren’t any defined expectations from this album, so they were free to do as they pleased with it. The result is a unique album in the GVB catalog – one that is solid in its own right, but also a preview (and a foundation) of what would come in the next several years for the group. If you’ve not heard it, it’s available on all digital and streaming platforms and well worth a listen.

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