by James Hales | November 2, 2022 10:19 AM
Welcome to our latest series as we review the music of the Rambos. Since the Rambos/Gospel Echoes recorded over 25+ records, I decided the take the first couple of weeks to review some of their earlier albums together. This week I am reviewing the 2 albums they recorded for Warner Brothers. Jake Hess and Big Chief, of the Statesmen Quartet, were instrumental in getting the Gospel Echoes a recording contract with Warner Brothers, and the group released 2 albums with the label prior to signing with Heartwarming Records. Back during this time, Warner Brothers dabbled in gospel music as the Oak Ridge Boys and the Couriers Quartet both recorded excellent albums under the label. Ironically, both groups only did 2 albums each with Warner Brothers as well.
The Rambos originally began as The Gospel Echoes in the 1950’s, and originally consisted of Buck and Dottie along with a young lady named Judy Russell. By 1960, Judy had departed the group and Shirley Bivins had joined to replace her. Along with Buck and Dottie singing and playing guitars, Shirley played the accordion and piano, and sang soprano. With Shirley, they had a unique blend that would set the precedence for that classic Rambo sound.
Prior to signing with Warner Brothers, they had already recorded 2 independent albums that were released in the early 60s entitled, “Draw Me Near” and “Get on Board”. The latter title featured the Gospel Echoes on side 1 and another group called the Christian Chapel Trio, who was featured on side 2. After they signed with Warner Brothers in 1963, they began work on a unique album that featured only songs that were written by Jim “Big Chief” Wetherington, appropriately titled, “The Gospel Echoes Sing the Songs of Jim “Chief” Wetherington of the Statesmen Quartet”. What is odd to me about this album, is that although still a young writer, Dottie was already becoming known for her songwriting talents, but Warner Brothers decided to showcase songs written by “Big Chief” for their first album with the label. Nonetheless, the group took those songs (in some cases, they were fragments of songs) and arranged them to fit their inimitable style. The first song on the album, “I Need Thee Every Day” showcases their unique style and harmonies they were becoming known for, and the song is a highlight of that first album, and it’s easily one of my favorites. Other songs that really showcase that inimitable Rambo style include “I’m the Least of the Kingdom” and “My Lord It’s Been a Long Time” (one of my personal favorites from this album). Some of the other enjoyable songs include, “Have You Followed After Jesus”, “Wake Me, Shake me Lord” (which the Statesmen went on to record a couple years later), “When My Race on Earth is Run”, “By His Stripes You Are Healed” and “The Future Looks Brighter to Me” (Shirley is featured on this song, and it sounds amazingly similar to the future Rambos with Reba). Throughout the album, you hear that unique inverted harmony the Rambos became known for.
The following year in 1964, they released their second album on Warner Brothers entitled, “Warner Brothers Presents the Gospel Echoes”. Unlike the previous album, this album featured 7 songs written by Dottie…“Somebody Else Will”, “I Tell My Secrets to the Lord”, “He Must Die”, “Made Up Mind”, “My Visit to Heaven” and most notably, “Come Spring” and “There’s Nothing My God Can’t Do”, which Dottie wrote just a few weeks prior to Reba being diagnosed with meningitis. God miraculously healed Reba and the song served as a reminder that there was nothing God couldn’t do. The Happy Goodman Family recorded the song the previous year on their first album, “I’m Too Near Home”, and they were the first group to record one of Dottie’s songs. The Goodmans and Rambos enjoyed a unique friendship, especially Dottie and Vestal, who were like sisters. Both groups lived in the same area of Kentucky, they both had a strong Pentecostal background, and both had a lively delivery and stage presentation. Throughout the 60s, both groups would go on to record each other’s songs. And too, by the late 1960s, both Dottie and Vestal were sporting competing beehive hairdos; Vestal would be the reigning queen and keep it going for about 9-10 more years, as Dottie opted to do away with the beehive and wear her hair long by 1969. But I digress, back to the album at hand…
Songs like the bouncy “Someone Else Will”, the vivid, “My Visit to Heaven” and the classic, “Come Spring” were typical of some of Dottie’s early writings, as she wrote several songs during the 60’s that told a story or painted an illustration. The dramatic, “He Must Die”, the purposeful resolve found in “Made Up Mind” and the medium tempo “I Tell My Secrets to the Lord” were indicative of Dottie’s later writings and are songs I could easily see the group singing during late 60s and early 70s. Other mentionable songs include “It’s Sweet to Look Beyond” (which sounds like something the Chuck Wagon Gang or Wendy Bagwell & The Sunliters would have sung) and the lively, banjo infused, “Freedom After While”, which is one of my personal favorites from this album.
Though they hadn’t quite perfected their familiar style, both Warner Brothers albums are quite good, with the second one having a bit more continuity to it than their first Warner Brothers album. They had a really nice blend with Shirley, and at times gave a strong indication of how they would sound with Reba, as their blend with Shirley was very similar. The instrumentation for both albums is pretty simple, highlighted mostly by guitar and accordion along with piano, organ, bass and drums.
Warner Brothers really loved what the Gospel Echoes were doing, but there was a push for the group to focus on the mainstream folk scene, but the group wanted to stay with gospel. Their early sound lent itself strongly to the folk genre, and the group would have excelled in that field, had they chosen that route. The group would eventually sign with Heartwarming Records sometime in late 1964/early 1965 and as their popularity grew in the later 60s, Heartwarming eventually re-released both Warner Brothers albums as “Presenting the Singing Rambos” (aka-“Sing the Songs of Big Chief…”) and “There’s Nothing My God Can’t Do” (aka-“Warner Brothers Presents…”). During their first year under Heartwarming, the group would undergo several changes in group members, which would affect their overall sound. They would also undergo a name change as well…but we’ll cover that next week when we review their first 3 Heartwarming albums.
Those who may only be familiar with the Rambos of the late 60s, 70s and beyond, should really check out these early recordings of the group. They are easily found on CD as well as on You Tube, or you can try to obtain your own vinyl copies. These two recordings offer some unique insight into the early sounds of the group, and you definitely hear glimpses of the greatness that was to come. Dottie was still a young writer, so it’s really neat to hear some of her earliest recorded songs. There was yet a lifetime to live from which her well of songs would spring from…many painful times, some joyful times and sometimes just living life. But it all would come together to create some truly magical…and yes, truly anointed…lyrics that would literally reach millions of people. But here, on these 2 Warner Brothers albums, they were just getting started!
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