Back in the late 1960’s and 1970’s, if you had in the vicinity of $469.50, you could become a genuine recording artist. For a price, Designer Records, located in Memphis Tennessee, would record two songs for an artist and print up some records. When those records sold, they would press a few more. Every once in a while they would sign an artist to the label but usually they went the pay as you go route.
Between 1967-1977, Designer produced close to 500 gospel singles and a few albums. Bus drivers, pastors, school teachers, farmers, and factory workers made the pilgrimage to Memphis for their shot at fame and fortune. Much of the music has been unavailable for years but now Big Legal Mess Records, which has acquired the rights to the catalogue, will release the four CD, 101 song box set titled The Soul Of Designer Records in late September.
This is gospel music at its most basic. The traditional combines with the psychedelic. They holler, they preach, they wail, they croon, and they chant. The music is passionate and is filled with raw emotion. Many of the artists gave up their dreams of stardom and quickly faded away. A few, such as the Jubilee Hummingbirds with future soul artists James Carr and O.V. Wright, went on to some commercial success.
The styles and sounds range from the sedate soul-flavored “I Thank You Jesus” by The Gospel Songbirds, to the boogie gospel of “Beautiful City” by the Dynamic Hughes Gospel Singers, to the psychedelic screaming guitar of Elgie Brown on “When Jesus Comes” and “A Helping Hand.”
The obscure combine with the really obscure. The Twilight Singers, the Jubilee Hummingbirds, The Gospel Songbirds, and the Dynamic Hughes Singers have careers that extend to the present day. On the other hand nothing is known about Alberta Powell other than she recorded “Trusted” and “The Same God” for the label. Both were original compositions that featured a powerful blues guitar sound.
The packaging is thorough and creative. The four discs are encased in a in a fold-out LP style container. The accompanying booklet is a historical masterpiece as it contains an overview of the label and recording process, plus a biography of many of the artists. The sound is better than one would expect from an independent studio of forty or so years ago.
It doesn’t get much more Americana than the artists who traveled to Memphis to plunk down their hard earned cash to record a couple of tunes. Gospel music reaches out into rock, soul, and the blues, and elements of all those styles can be found among the box sets 101 tracks.
The Soul Of Designer Records is a trip back in time. The material collected here presents a variety of styles and a lot of good music. It may not be music for the faint of heart or spirit but it is an excellent look into an often overlooked part of the American music scene.