“So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen.”-Matthew 20:16
From Elvis Presley to Booker T. Jones to Juicy J (yes, really), Memphis musicians from virtually every genre and era point to one common genesis point in their musical journeys: gospel music. Despite gospel music’s undeniable role as the traditional bedrock of Memphis music, the genre has certainly seen better days, at least in terms of garnering the public’s attention.
Enter Bruce Watson and his Bible and Tire Recording Company, a label launched last year that aims to put Memphis gospel back into its proper place with releases from new artists such as The Sensational Barnes Brother, Dedicated Men of Zion, as well as uncovered gems from the city’s past like Elizabeth King and the Gospel Souls.
Watson, who founded the influential Mississippi-based indie label Fat Possum, decided to begin Bible & Tire after noticing a distinct lack of coverage of Memphis’ rich gospel history.
“When I moved to Memphis about five years ago, I looked around the landscape to see what was going on. I’ve obviously done the blues thing to death, the garage rock thing was being handled by Goner, and the soul thing is well-covered from several angles, so I decided to explore the wonderful history of gospel music in Memphis,” Watson explained. The newest leg of this deep exploration comes in the form of the compilation “Last Shall Be First: The JCR Records Story,” a collection of gritty and soulful gospel tunes recorded in the 1970s.
“My goal with Bible & Tire Records, if I have one, is to show that gospel music–especially this stuff–has everything. It’s the roots of rock ‘n’ roll, it’s the roots of soul, it’s the roots of hip-hop. It’s really the roots of modern music as we know it.”
The story of JCR Records begins with Pastor Juan D. Shipp, a popular radio DJ who served as the primary source for everything gospel related for thousands of Memphians before launching his own labels D-Vine Spirituals and JCR in the early ‘70s. While Shipp released music from his more professional and established artists on the D-Vine Spirituals label, JCR served as a testing ground for the artists with a more unpolished and raw sound. “That’s how JCR came about,” Watson said. “He wanted a place for these folks to be able to put out their records, but he just didn’t think they were up to the quality he expected for D-Vine Spirituals. Of course with my roots in deconstructed blues and stuff, it was the music from JCR that immediately jumped out to me.”
Watson first discovered the incredible array of music produced by Pastor Shipp while working on a compilation of gospel music from another unheralded Memphis label, Style Wooten’s vanity label Designer Records. “Mike Hurtt, who is a good friend of mine who did the liner notes for the Designer Records boxset, told me about D-Vine and JCR while we were working. He told me about all of these recordings he had, which he had stored at Scott Bomar’s studio…I may have spearheaded the project, but without Mike Hurtt saving those tapes and tracking down Pastor Shipp, nobody would have heard this stuff.”
While music and a documentary from the more burnished D-Vine Spirituals label are forthcoming, Watson knew that the JCR recordings needed to be released first. “I knew that the JCR recordings had to be part of the D-Vine Spirituals story that we wanted to tell and I thought of the bible quote ‘the last shall be first,’ which is the name Pastor Shipp and I settled on,” says Watson. “We decided that JCR could serve as a great springboard for the future D-Vine releases.”
After mulling over dozens of songs, the team settled on seventeen stand-outs for the album from acts such as The Seven Souls, The Gospel Travelers, and The Silver Wings, all of which convey the same rough soulfulness that made Memphis soul a cultural phenomenon just a few years prior to the launch of JCR. In fact, just as many of the city’s premier soul artists were deeply influenced by Memphis’ gospel tradition, it is just as likely that the artists who recorded for JCR were well-aware of the hits emanating from labels such as Stax, Hi, and Goldwax at the time. “How could you live in Memphis at this time and not be affected by the soul music?,” Watson asks rhetorically. “Thats why I think gospel music in Memphis is so special and different from everywhere else. It was definitely influenced by the music of Al Green and Otis, much like Detroit gospel has a clear Motown influence.”
As popular music continuously moves further from its gospel roots, Bible & Tire Records makes a compelling case that the genre remains deeply relevant, both as a contemporary genre and as a source for rediscovery. As Watson explains, “My goal with Bible & Tire Records, if I have one, is to show that gospel music–especially this stuff–has everything. It’s the roots of rock ‘n’ roll, it’s the roots of soul, it’s the roots of hip-hop. It’s really the roots of modern music as we know it.”
If last shall be first, then the past is certainly prologue.