Last year on my music page on Facebook (James’ Music Page), I embarked on a journey to review each of the albums by my favorite group, the Happy Goodman Family. It was truly a labor of love for me, and I am deeply appreciative that David asked me to share these here each week.
They say the best place to start is the beginning…so here we go…
In this first installment, I’m going to review the group’s first 3 records in one review. “I’m Too Near Home”, “The Best of the Happy Goodmans” and “It’s a Wonderful Feelin’”, were all originally released on the Sims Record label, and they were later re-released on Canaan Records after the group signed with that label in 1965. All three albums are very similar in sound and feel, but they do a great job showcasing some very early semblances of what they would become and the sound that would strike a chord in many ‘a gospel music lover across the nation and the world! In these first three albums, you hear the group in their raw, Pentecostal element, displaying a fresh musical sound not yet heard in gospel music at the time. The musicians who played on these recordings were deeply entrenched in country music, thus giving the group a country sound and giving them a strong musical foundation from which to sing and project their brand of gospel music to the masses.
The lead off song and title song of their first album, “I’m Too Near Home”, showcased the group at their finest; as right off the bat, you hear the group in that convention style singing that would be a hallmark of the group’s sound. The group recorded several of these types of songs on these 3 albums…“I’m in a New World”, “The Old Gospel Ship”, “My Lord and I”, “This Little Light of Mine”, “Well Done My Child”, “When God Dips His Pen of Love” and others. These outstanding convention songs just scratch the surface compared to some of the songs they will give us in just a few short years! Many of these songs came right out of the Church of God hymnbook, often referred to as the Red Back Hymnbook. We’ll touch on that a lot more in the coming weeks.
Along with the convention style singing, the group was known for their exciting and jubilant performances and the “open up and let ’r fly” type of singing. We’re treated with several of those in these early albums with songs like “I Wouldn’t Take Nothing for my Journey Now”, “Will the Lord Be With Me” and “The Old Gospel Ship”. These songs gave us a look at the sheer excitement these 4 vocalists could bring to the stage and the powerful potential they held, as they would introduce many songs in this vein during the next 10-15 years.
Vestal gives us a glimpse at the powerhouse she would be with such songs as “Born to Serve the Lord”, “I Will Follow Thee”, “There’s Nothing My God Can’t Do”, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” (which really showcased that operatic sound from her youth), “Lord I Need You Again Today”, “Child of the King” and “I’m Nearer Home”. The song “I’m Nearer Home” was one of the first songs in a string of signature songs for Vestal and was a solid indicator of what was to come for her as a singer and communicator. With Vestal being a Pentecostal preacher, it affected her singing and delivery and I think it’s because of that, people were drawn to her.
Howard, a Pentecostal preacher as well, delivers the goods with his trademark soulful singing on such songs as “Give Up”, “Will the Lord Be With Me”, “Touch of His Hand on Mine” and “Nearer to Thee”, while also delivering a heartfelt performance on “I Don’t Regret a Mile”, which is one of the few songs he wrote (along with “Give Up”). Howard had a rather unadulterated way of singing and he sang with such soul. At times, he could almost pass for a black man on certain songs and he was always a joy to listen to.
Rusty hadn’t quite developed his signature style, but you easily see hints of the giant he would be with his performance on “Ten Thousand Angels”. He sings this song with such feeling and pathos, you can’t help but be moved. Also being a prolific songwriter, these first three albums also showcase some of his earliest songs…“The Answer’s on the Way”, “Touch the Hand of the Lord”, “It’s a Wonderful Feelin’” and the classic, that is forever identified with the Happy Goodman Family, “I Wouldn’t Take Nothing for my Journey Now”. Rusty developed a way of delivering tender ballads that would touch us deeply, but he also had a certain charisma with his voice, especially when delivering an up-tempo number. He had a multi-faceted voice and could sing many different styles of songs from country to traditional to contemporary. His songwriting reflected the same diversity, as he could pen wonderful ballads, exciting barnburners, as well as country sounding and contemporary songs that reached many different types of people. He wasn’t a quantity songwriter, but rather a quality songwriter, as many of his songs are true Southern Gospel classics.
Sam, whose high and loud tones were rarely at the forefront, had a voice that was crucial to their big sound and overall blend of the group. He has a few features on “I Saw the Light”, “It’s Gonna Rain”, “The Tore the Old Country Church Down” and his trademark recitation, “The Happy Goodman Family Story”. In fact, Sam’s niche would be recitations, as he could deliver them with great feeling and genuineness. In my opinion, they never sounded forced or contrived, and you felt as if he was sitting right in front of you and speaking directly to you. Very few people have been able to master the art of the recitation, and Sam owned the school.
Bobby didn’t get on board with the group until sometime in 1964 to play bass guitar. Along with playing bass, he joined the group on specialty numbers and provided us with some great songs through the years. On their final album for Sims, he was featured on the classic, “Peace in the Valley”, which was nicely done.
One thing I’d like to mention is something the group did from time to time. They would take a song and slow down the verses (or slow down the last verse for affect) and pick up the tempo on the chorus. You find this in such songs as “Jesus Use Me”, “When the Roll is Called Up Yonder”, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus”, “Ten Thousand Angels” and “The Homecoming Week”. They would revisit this practice a few more times throughout the 60s and 70s.
Although these were their earliest releases as the collective unit of Howard, Sam, Rusty and Vestal, you can foresee the giants they were to become within a few short years. These 4 very distinct voices, with very different styles came together to create a blend and a sound that really has never been duplicated. Many groups have come along that have tried to copy what the Goodmans did, but no one has been able to duplicate the sound and excitement these 4 voices could generate. It’s a formula that worked for them and made them one of the greatest groups to ever grace a gospel music stage.
I hope you enjoyed this first installment as we review their music. Coming up next week, we’ll dive into their first record on the newly formed Canaan Records. So, stay tuned!
By 1979, the Hemphills were really cookin’, and this latest album spurred their very first #1 song with “I’m in this Church”. Check it out!