For the Downings’ third and final album for 1969 (and the last album of the original group), things really seemed to be gelling nicely for the Downings, as they released a very cohesive sounding album. Produced by Bob MacKenzie, the album has a really nice feel to it and shows tremendous growth in the group’s depth of sound. In a very short period of time (less than a year!), the group had grown by leaps and bounds, and this album demonstrates that in a marvelous way. There is no credit given regarding who played on the album, but the instrumentation is similar to their previous two albums, with maybe a few more instruments added, but no orchestrations yet. While other groups on the Heartwarming label were using lots of orchestrations on their albums, my hunch is that the Downings were such a new group at the time, their recording budget was sizably smaller than the more established groups.
The album features a really nice cover shot of the group and when you open the gatefold cover, there is fun shot of the group inside, which is one of my personal favorite shots of the Downings. The liner notes inside the cover talks about the Downings’ first appearance at the 1969 National Quartet Convention. Being a fan of those album liner notes, I found it to be a great read and very insightful. Overall, it’s a very well-done cover design with great pictures of the group and conveys a very happy time for the Downings…after all, things were looking up for the Downings and this album became their big “break out” album! Lots of great things were going on for the group, and as the title implies, they were indeed being, “Sheltered in the Arms of God”!
With a simple intro on the electric guitar, the Dottie Rambo penned, “Sheltered in the Arms of God” starts the record off and the song became the Downings first and only #1 song. Spending almost 2 years in the charts, the song took the top spot in October 1970. Compared to the Rambos beautifully orchestrated version, the Downings’ interpretation is rather modest and unassuming, but I love how the Downings’ version builds with intensity, and that modulation on the last chorus really sets it off. The Downings rendition seemed to really resonate with their audiences and the song became one of the Downings greatest hits and solidified Ann’s effectiveness as a communicator and a singer.
Starting out slow, but gaining speed halfway through the song, “Gettin’ Ready Today” became one of the Downings most popular songs, charting briefly in mid-1971. With its lilting piano intro, the song became a very exciting part of their program and remained part of their repertoire for just about the entire 8 years they were on the road. Ann brought the song back for her 1995, “Sheltered” solo recording and did a really good job with her updated arrangement of the song, which actually charted in the Top 20 in late 1995.
The tempo slows back down for a nice rendition of the Bill Gaither classic, “He Touched Me”. The song starts with the group singing the first verse together, then Paul steps up as he thoughtfully sings the second verse. It’s a perfect culmination of lyric, music and vocal delivery and is a highlight of the recording before Sue steps up to deliver a fabulous performance on the Rusty Goodman classic, “Until You’ve Known the Love of God”. I love how they slow down the first part of the second verse down, and halfway through, the tempo picks back up with the group backing Sue up to a final crescendo for the last chorus. Outside of the Happy Goodmans’ rendition, the Downings version is my favorite of this song. As a side note, both aforementioned songs are perfect examples of how the Downings could deliver emotionally riveting lyrics in a classy and genuine way, which became one of their biggest hallmarks.
The tempo picks up for the Gaither penned, “I Believe What the Bible Says”, which features Ann. This peppy tune charted briefly for the Downings in early 1970, and is a highly enjoyable little ditty that is one of my favorites from this album, before this side ends with the song, “That Moment He Was There”. Written by and featuring Paul, it’s one of my personal favorites from this album and it’s a deeply moving reflective tune of faith and reliance on Jesus and reiterates the fact that He will never leave nor forsake us.
One of the hottest songs at the time was the James McFall penned, “Thank God I’m Free” and the Happy Goodmans topped the chart with the song in 1970 and the Hemphills also enjoyed immense success with the song as well. Here, the Downings rendered their own version of the song; featuring Paul on the first verse and Greg on the second verse, it’s different from the Goodmans and Hemphills versions, and the Downings truly made the song their own. It’s worth mentioning that the song is still quite popular today on the campmeeting circuit, often being sung in revivals and evangelistic meetings across the country.
The tempo slows down for a nice, peaceful rendition of the Bill Gaither penned, “I Will Serve Thee”. With the feel of a lullaby and featuring some flawless harmony, it’s a very nice rendering of this Gaither classic before breaking into another highly popular Gaither penned tune, “I’m Free”, which keeps the tempo in slow mode as Sue delivers a nice performance of the song.
The tempo is kicked back up for the spiritual, “Searching”, which features a nice guitar track. This song made the rounds with various groups during the late 60’s and early 70’s including Rosie Rozell & the Searchers, Nancy Harmon & the Victory Voices and Vestal Goodman. The song then pretty much laid dormant for about 25 years or so, but made a resurgence back in 2000 when the Talleys took it to the top of the charts with their highly energetic version of the song, where they were joined by Jason Crabb. It’s a great song, and great songs never die!
The recording closes out with the medium tempo, “Even So”, which features Ann. The song is a plea that in these troublesome times…“even so, come Lord Jesus, for it’s You and only You who knows the way, please come quickly Lord Jesus, we are waiting, longing for that glorious day”. It’s a great ending for the recording, closing things out as a prayer.
While their first album was very upbeat album and their second album being more slower paced, this album is a nice mix of tempos and was their most diverse of their first three albums. You saw glimpses of some contemporary stylings sneaking in here and there, and the group seemed to find a niche with those heartfelt slower numbers that became very prevalent in their performance repertoire. They were still tweaking their sound and style, but it seemed to really solidify tremendously with this album.
This was a highly popular album for the Downings, and it capped off a very busy and exciting first year for the group; but changes were on the horizon, and the following couple of years would find the Downings changing and evolving as they try to gel with new members, while also trying to redefine their sound, building on the musical foundation they had already built during 1969.
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