Editor’s Note: The following is from the liner notes for ‘The Last Shall Be First: The JCR Records Story Vol. 1’ written by Michael Hurtt.
The Last Shall Be First: The JCR Records Story Vol. 1 is raw Memphis Gospel from the 1970s. None of the music contained on this album has been released on digital platforms or CD, not even cassette, and the original 45s were only released regionally.
Memphis, Tennessee, 1972: Seated behind a primitive mixing board in a tiny Quonset hut at 64 Flicker Street, just a stones’ throw from the Illinois Central railroad tracks, Pastor Juan D. Shipp crackles over the AM airwaves with an electrifying array of the latest and greatest in gospel quartet sounds. With an audience that spans the width and breadth of the Bluff City, from truck cabs to taxi stands, from Mid-Town to Orange Mound, from the Peabody Hotel to Payne’s Barbecue, if you’re a fan of Memphis’ thriving gospel scene, you’re locked into “Juan D” at K-WAM, “the Mighty 990,” the very station that — twenty years earlier, during its first incarnation as KWEM across the river in West Memphis, Arkansas — had first brought blues wizard Howlin’ Wolf to the ears of recording engineer Sam Phillips. Now, two decades later, having revolutionized the music world with Sun Records and its holy trinity of Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash, the Wolf still remained Phillips’ favorite. “This is where the soul of man never dies,” he’d memorably declared of the six-foot-six gravel-voiced force of nature, a description that could just as easily be applied to so many of the artists whose records Shipp is now spinning over the air.
The deeply satisfying music is rivaled only by a warm, on-air personality as powerful as the ten thousand watts that beam him all the way to Little Rock, Arkansas and deep into the Mississippi Delta. And his isn’t the usual pay-to-play program that so many folks — in fact, the Wolf himself and Johnny Cash not long afterward — have historically had to depend upon to stay on the air. Shipp is a payrolled employee of K-WAM; a salaried record spinner who doesn’t need to rely on recruited sponsorship for survival.
The young Air Force Veteran has done quite well for himself, beginning with marrying the woman of his dreams and building and pastoring a church in the neighborhood he grew up in. Yet there’s something that keeps bothering him, and he’s reminded of it every time he drops the needle on another locally-produced record. The disparity in sound and production quality between the big labels and the smaller, local ones is not only noticeable, it’s jaw-dropping. As he announces the upcoming gospel concert programs that feature a seemingly endless array of talented groups from the Memphis area, the voice keeps echoing through his head: “The local artists deserve a better sound.”
His friend and mentor, WDIA’s Theo “Bless My Bones” Wade, couldn’t agree more. “Cousin” Eugene Walton, Shipp’s program director at K-WAM, takes it even one step further: “You should start your own label, Juan D.” Then, one day Shipp is picking someone up at the Greyhound Bus Station downtown and he notices a hand-painted sign across Hernando Street that reads, “Tempo Recording Studio.” He inquires at the restaurant next door and meets the owner of both businesses, Clyde Leoppard, a former Sun Studio drummer whose band, the Snearly Ranch Boys, has served as a proving ground for Memphis rockabilly royalty Warren Smith, Barbara Pittman, Paul Burlison and Stan Kesler — to name just a few — since the early fifties and is still playing every weekend. He only uses the studio once in a while, Leoppard tells Shipp, and he’s always wanted to record a black gospel group. And just like that, the D-Vine Spirituals record label is born.
I guess I recorded about fifty or sixty groups here in the city. Then I started getting groups from Detroit, Chicago, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Arkansas. I even had a group that called me from California ‘cause they loved my sound. I said, ‘No, it would be too expensive for you to come here.’ But that’s how good our sound was. Clyde had one of the best studios in the city and he built it himself. It was a padded studio and when you’d talk in there — no echo. I mean, it was dead, completely dead, you had to talk loud to hear one another, it was just that dead. We put out the first record and from then on, through the help of ‘Bless My Bones’ Wade and ‘Cousin’ Eugene at K-WAM, others started hearing our sound as compared to the other sounds they were getting and then they started coming to me. And that’s how we got started.
We had a good sound but sometimes the artists didn’t make the grade. Now, I had a secondary label for those that just didn’t make the D-Vine cut and it was called JCR. If they were good, but they weren’t the best, I couldn’t put them on the D-Vine label. Because you can’t put everybody on your label — if they’re not good enough you don’t need to put ‘em there. But they want a record so you have to make them a record. So some friends of mine and I took the first initials of our names — mine was Juan, another fella’s name was Charles and another was Robert — and made the JCR label. – Juan D Shipp
As well as being two of Shipp’s best friends, Charles Jones and Robert Bowers were both members of early D-Vine group the Traveling Stars, and their names would appear as producers on various D-Vine productions over the years. And while JCR could be likened to the D-Vine Spirituals farm team, Shipp was never one to judge right away when he first heard a group. His democratic outlook and patient disposition meant that he left it up to the artists to decide what they wanted to do, always giving them the option of the more prestigious label if the proper amount of work was put in.
I don’t like to mislead anybody, I like to be fair. And I got to the point where I could tell a group — and I didn’t bite my tongue: ‘Now, you’re good and you can go on the D-Vine label,’ and I’d tell another group, ‘You’re not good enough to go on D-Vine now, but if you want to go home and work some more and get everything fine-tuned, you can do that. I can put a record out on you now but it won’t be on D-Vine, it’ll be on JCR. It’ll get played but it won’t have the texture that I want for it to be on D-Vine.’ Some would go back home and work on it till it got there and others would say, ‘Well, I just want a record out.’ So JCR, here you come.
Aside from their stellar audio and pressing qualities, Shipp’s productions — whether they were released on D-Vine or JCR — possessed something that’s even harder to achieve: their very own sound and style; a combination of distinctively deep and beautiful vocal harmonies, up-front guitar, grooving bass, explosive drums, and that ever-present overtone of rhythm and blues and country and western that swirled together under the roof of Stax Records just a few years earlier. From the very first singles by the Traveling Stars, the Exciting Legion Aires, Elizabeth King and the Gospel Souls and Elder Ward and the Gospel Four, it was crystal clear to anyone listening: a D-Vine disc wasn’t just ordinary gospel — it was the very essence of gospel soul at its finest. The JCR sides may have been a little more rough and ready, but records like the Silver Wings’ wah-wah-flavored “Call On Him” and the Calvary Nightingales’ insistent “Pushing For Jesus” were drawn from the same well and featured many of the same secret ingredients, beginning with teenage guitarist Wendell “Music Man” Moore. “The organ was manned by Thomas Knight and the piano was graced by Jessie Mae Shirley of the Shirley singers. Jack Stepter of the Stepter Four Singers would help with voice for groups that needed it.”
Hailing from the Mississippi towns of Senatobia and Corinth respectively, the Spiritual Harmonizers’ standout rendition of the traditional “Over The Hill” and the Pilgrimairs’ “Father, Guide Me, Teach Me” were the perfect hard-hitting melee of bluesy guitar, splashing crash cymbal and heart-wrenching vocals, while on the other end of the spectrum, the Dixieland Singers and the Hewlett Sisters contributed the haunting, piano-led “God’s Got His Eyes On You” and “The Last Day.” The musical hot point of nearby Holly Springs (the hometown of childhood friends Junior Kimbrough and Charlie Feathers) hatched both the female-led Vigil Lights, who turned in the intense, time-stopping “What A Meeting,” and the venerable Stars Of Faith, whose 2017 live album Go Tell Somebody featured a spirit-filled version of their JCR single, “Sitting Down.” The Masonic Travelers also kicked off a successful gospel career with their popular “Rock My Soul,” while the Southern Nightingales’ “Every Knee Must Bow,” the Johnson Sisters’ “You Can’t Hurry God” and the Gospel Travelers’ “Where Are You Going To Run” sounded at once archaic and modern, displaying the raw immediacy so adored by gospel quartet fans.
It was rare that a group made the transition from JCR to D-Vine but there were exceptions, most notably the Chosen Wonders and the Dixie Harmonizers.
Some of the groups made the jump, but once they hit the JCR label, that was usually where they stayed, because if they wanted to hit the D-Vine label, they’d go back home. Because I wasn’t in it for money, I was in it because I was trying to do something for the groups. There wasn’t a whole lot of money in it, so if they wanted to go back home and follow my advice and really work on their tones and everything, then they’d do that, and then when they’d come back they’d be D-Vine material.
But if they decided that they’d rather pay their own way through with a JCR custom pressing, that was alright, too, and as sure as D-Vine Spirituals represented the cream of the crop, JCR most certainly captured the raw talent that was incubating throughout Memphis and the Mid-South during this magically golden era of gospel music. His mission may have been to simply give the local groups a better sound, but along the way, Juan D. Shipp — like Sun’s Sam Phillips and Stax’s Jim Stewart before him — wound up doing so much more than that.
Once in a great while, all the stars align and talent, timing and technology come together in a musical miracle the likes of which haven’t been heard before and won’t be heard again. Such was the case with JCR Records, whose democratized vision couldn’t help but unwittingly document the sound of an entire region during a particularly musically fertile time and place. The benefit of hindsight has made this even more apparent, and a forthcoming D-Vine Spirituals triple album set will tell the whole remarkable story in full detail. But there are stories within the story, and after sorting through the Tempo tape archive, things presented themselves just as they did in Jesus’s teachings in the books of Mark, Luke and Matthew. JCR may have begun as D-Vine’s secondary label back in the seventies, but after all, most of these artists wanted a record out right away, so now, all these years later, the same principle has been applied. As the Savior once predicted: “The last shall be first!”