The Happy Goodman Family – The Happy Gospel of the Happy Goodmans (1968)

The Happy Goodman Family – The Happy Gospel of the Happy Goodmans (1968)

As we begin this week, for those who may be unfamiliar with the group and their history prior to 1963, I want to take a moment and give a very brief history and catch us up to where we are now. The group started as a large family unit in the Sand Mountain area of Alabama, and at one point included all the Goodman brothers and sisters (totaling 8 siblings). The group traveled during the 1940s and into the 1950s, and by the latter part of the 1950s, they stop traveling as the brothers and sisters went their separate ways due to family obligations, military service, etc. Howard and Vestal though, continued singing and preaching in revivals across the country. Their niece, LaBreeska (who eventually married Joel Hemphill) traveled with them to some of these revivals and campmeetings as well. Howard and Vestal eventually moved to Madisonville, Kentucky to start a church there called Life Temple. Over time Sam, Rusty and Bobby moved to Madisonville as well, and by 1963, Howard, Sam, Rusty and Vestal (and Bobby who came along a year or two later) were singing together again as the Happy Goodman Family.

The time leading up to this particular album was an exciting time for the Goodmans. By 1968, they had been back on the road for about 5 years or so, released 6 albums (3 of which were exclusively on Canaan Records), they were crisscrossing the country singing on countless concert stages and churches, on television each week on the Gospel Singing Jubilee, and their music was selling like hotcakes! In addition to their busy lives as gospel singers, Howard and Vestal were busy pastoring at their church (the rest of the group were active in the church as well), which was growing by leaps and bounds because everybody wanted to attend the Goodman’s church in Madisonville, Kentucky. As mentioned in the liner notes of this album, they had just moved into a beautiful new sanctuary and were enjoying the fruits of their labor. They were not just singing the gospel, they were preaching the gospel as well…thus, we have the title of this album, “The Happy Gospel of the Happy Goodmans”. The cover picture, which I think is really cool, shows the group in action, live and on stage from somewhere in the USA. The back-cover has concert shots as well, but they appear to be from a different concert. Always being the curious one, I’d love to know where these pictures were taken.

As has been done on their previous 6 records, the group barrels out of the gate with an invigorating convention song entitled, “Hallelujah”. With its happy piano intro, the song is very similar in feel to “When Morning Sweeps the Eastern Sky”, and it too was a concert favorite and goes down as one of their most popular songs. It’s one of those songs you can’t help but smile as they are singing it; after all, it’s a jubilant song of praise and sung as only the Goodmans can do it.

On the next song, the pace slows down as Vestal sings the Ike Davis/Ray Heady classic, “The One Who Died For Me”. The tempo starts out slow, but by the end of the first verse, the pace picks up as Vestal declares, “…I long to see the One who died for me!”. It’s a great song of affirmation, done only as Vestal can do!

Rusty steps up next to sing Joel Hemphill’s beautiful masterpiece, “Pity the Man”. This song was a big hit for the Goodmans and Rusty delivers one of his finest performances ever, before Howard steps up to sing the hauntingly beautiful, “The Keys to the Kingdom”. Previously recorded by the Blackwood Brothers nearly 15 years prior, the Goodmans make the song their own as they slow the tempo down even further as Vestal ad libs the last couple of lines of the song. It’s a highlight of the album, as is Vestal’s rendition of “Welcome Home”, written by Les Beasley of the Florida Boys. This is a wonderful testimony song of finding Christ and “coming home” to Christ.

The tempo finally picks back up for another trademark Goodman tune, “When They Ring the Bells of Heaven”, which wraps side 1 up on a great note. In the mid-90s, the Goodmans made a come-back (Howard & Vestal along with former Goodman pianist from the 70s, Johnny Minick) and this was one of the first songs they brought back and recorded on their 1996 recording, “Always”. It’s a great song and always a fun song to listen to.

Side 2 ramps up with the soulful strains of the up-tempo, “Great is the Lord”. Occasionally, one of the Goodmans would step out and do a song as a soloist, and here Vestal sings this song all the way through by herself, and she carries it like the champion she is. I’ve always thought that it would have been really cool to have a black choir (or maybe even their choir from Life Temple) backing Vestal on the song!

The up-tempo “I See the Light”, written by Ray Lewis, follows and it’s a spirited number that features Bobby. Bobby was usually featured on slower numbers, but here we are treated to a delightful tune that sticks with you long after the music stops.

As the tempo slows back down, Vestal steps back up to sing the beautiful song of consecration entitled, “I’m Willing Lord” (one of my all-time favorites), before Rusty, Sam, Howard and Vestal each take a verse on the old-time classic, “O Come Angel Band”. It’s truly a special song and you can tell the group took special care to present the song in a classy way. Vestal would later bring this classic song back, on her first “Vestal & Friends” recording in 1999, where country legend, George Jones joins her on the song for a duet.

Vestal comes back to sing the Mosie Lister classic, “Savior, Gently Take Me Home” (another grand performance) before Sam closes things out with the rousing, “Joy For Your Soul”, written by Little David Young.

One interesting thing to note is that this is the first album to feature NO songs from the Red Back Hymnal. Most of their albums had at least one song from that sacred hymnbook, but it wasn’t to be on this album…or the next one! Another thing I’ve always thought was interesting…an album titled “Happy Gospel” has so many slow songs on it, plus they’re all bunched together in the middle of side 1 and side 2, with the up-tempo songs at the beginning and end of each side. Just an observation from avid fan and active listener.

Vestal fans (like myself) definitely get their money’s worth out of this album, as she has features on 7 songs (5 of which she is the only featured singer). Rusty, Sam and Bobby have one full song each and Howard is only featured on one verse of two songs. The remaining songs are convention songs where it’s every man for himself and doesn’t really feature any one vocalist; but no matter how it all lines up, this was a very successful album for the group. In fact, this album won the Goodmans their very first Grammy Award in 1968 for “Best Gospel Performance”. It was a very well-deserved honor, and another 10 years would pass before they would win another Grammy for their music.

Finally, as mentioned in my last review, Dwayne Friend had left the group shortly after their last album was released, and with this album, we officially welcome Ernie Maxwell as their new guitarist, as he is pictured with the group on the cover shot. Also, it appears that sometime around 1967/1968, Rusty and Sam picked up guitars as well (Sam played the rhythm guitar and Rusty played the acoustic or electric guitar), which gave them an even more robust sound on stage. So, in addition to Howard playing piano, Bobby picking the bass and Ernie Maxwell on guitar, we have Sam and Rusty playing guitars, totaling 5 instruments on stage, backing 4 powerful vocalists. Eventually, Howard and Vestal’s son, Rick, would join the group on drums to complete the band, making it a 6-piece band, creating that distinct “Goodman” wall of sound, that would play a huge part in their exciting concert appearances.


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