Your Complete Guide to the Chicago Blues Scene
Classic Moments in Jubilee Showcase
Staple Singers, Andrae Crouch, Soul Stirrers, Jessy Dixon, Inez
Andrews & more
Staple Singers, Andrae Crouch, Soul Stirrers, Jessy Dixon, Inez Andrews & more
By Linda Cain
Gospel music, like blues, is root music that has influenced most every genre of the American musical landscape. R&B, soul, rock, country, bluegrass, folk, pop, jazz and yes, even rap and hip-hop all share origins with this rhythmic, sanctified sound which rose from the church.
In Chicago, the sweet sound of gospel music wasn’t confined to houses of worship. Thanks to the popular TV show Jubilee Showcase, produced and hosted by Sid Ordower, the sacred realm was brought to the secular world over the airwaves of Ch. 7, WLS/ABC-TV each Sunday morning from 1963 to 1984. From local church and youth choirs to the most famous gospel artists of each era, Jubilee Showcase presented a wide variety of inspirational music to a vast audience that considered the program to be like going to “church before church.”
Gospel pioneers such as Chicago’s “father of gospel music” Thomas Dorsey, Albertina Walker, the Barrett Sisters, Rev. James Cleveland and The Caravans all performed on this landmark series, which won an Emmy for a Pioneering Project in television broadcasting.
Classic Moments in Jubilee Showcase on DVD is a time capsule of gospel music, featuring series highlights in four episodes that span the years from 1964 to 1975. The joyous performances will make you want to get up off your couch to sing, sway and clap along!
This show depicts Jubilee’s early days and is filmed in B&W in a stark studio with a small audience seated in folding chairs. It’s the performers that bring the color and excitement to the screen.
It’s a real treat to see a youthful Mavis Staples belting out “Wish I Had Answered” in her deep throaty alto, accompanied by her brother and sister on backup vocals. Hearing Pops play his trademark tremolo toned guitar reminds one of the origins of a unique style that has influenced decades of guitar players, including Ry Cooder and Rick Holmstrom, both of whom have backed up Mavis in recent times.
Upon hearing the Soul Stirrers, it is evident from the first note where Sam Cooke got his musical style which helped propel him to pop stardom. The group’s electric guitar and bass rhythms, heavenly four-part harmonies, catchy melodies and two wailing soloists on “Must Jesus Bear The Cross Alone?” display the roots of several styles of secular music. The band originated in Texas in the 1930s and provided a launching pad for many talented singers such as Chicago’s Cooke.
The Norfleet Brothers, five singers and a guitarist, specialized in old-timey spirituals and jubilee songs, similar to the Blind Boys of Alabama. With two lead singers trading solos, backed by complex four-part harmonies on bouncy numbers like “My Lord Is Riding All the Time,” the brothers’ style recalls Southern a cappella spirituals from a time when congregations couldn’t afford instruments. Thus, the talented singers supplied the notes, chords, melody, percussion, bass and rhythm with their voices -- a remarkable feat that the Norfleets did so well.
This show, now in color, opens with a rousing number from a huge local choir, the New Friendship Inspirational Choir of Chicago. Soloist Inez Andrews, formerly of famed gospel group Caravan, displays the kind of vocal majesty, drama and emotion that Aretha Franklin took from the church to secular stardom. Not to mention the fact that Inez could likely break a glass when she wailed on the high notes!
For the final number, Inez joins the Soul Stirrers, backed by the huge choir, for a house rockin’ version of “Peter, Don’t Be Afraid.”
This show displays how much Jubilee Showcase had progressed in just one decade, both musically and production wise. L.A.’s Andrae Crouch was already a worldwide gospel phenom at this point, who had crossed over to play for audiences of all ages, races and creeds. His integrated, nine-piece band included instruments not often heard in churches at the time, such as flute and trumpet. Crouch’s sophisticated compositions, which mixed in pop and jazz idioms, helped usher in an era of contemporary gospel music that is far more polished than its humble origins. Members of Crouch’s hip-attired band were allowed to solo, creating a jazzy vibe, while delivering a serious message about faith.
Pianist/composer Jessy Dixon and his three female back-up singers get down with the same type of call-and-response vocals that Ray Charles and The Raelettes took from gospel music, making for an exciting Jubilee segment. Not only that, but Dixon’s incredible vocal range includes high-falsetto screams that could make Little Richard blush.
The Salem Travelers, founded in the 1960s at the Greater Salem Baptist Church in Chicago, featured two soloists, three-part harmonies and one hot band that could easily have backed up Magic Sam on the West Side, especially the bluesy lead guitarist. Dressed in Nehru jackets and orange satin shirts, the Travelers could have passed for the Temptations to anyone channel surfing.
Gene Viale, a handsome young Italian American singer from Southern California who was raised in his grandparents’ church, displays his passionate soul-gospel singing for Jubilee’s African-American audience and wows them.
For the show’s exciting grand finale, Viale, the Salem Travelers, Jessy Dixon and bands jam together, with all the superb singers taking solo turns and improvising on “I Know What Prayer Can Do.” This final number on the DVD exemplifies the diversity and unity that Ordower and Jubilee Showcase strived to achieve over the years.
The DVD also features a Learn About The Artist segment with recent interviews with several surviving performers and brief histories of their bands, including Mavis Staples, Jessy Dixon, Willie Rogers of the Soul Stirrers, Andrae Crouch and members of the Salem Travelers.
Watching this very special DVD is to see an art form evolve. From the folksy Southern spirituals of the Staple Singers, to the masterful four-part harmonies and rhythms of the Soul Stirrers that evolved into doo wop and R&B, to the jazzy, sophisticated musical stylings of Andrae Crouch, Jubilee Showcase documented the history of modern gospel music as it changed with the times.
And it becomes apparent that not only was this long running TV show a part of Chicago music and gospel history; it is a reflection of social progress in areas of equal rights and integration.
Producer Sid Ordower, a progressive WWII veteran with a media background, was known for his volunteer work with many charitable and social causes. In the early ‘60s, he began working alongside the African-American Christian community in Chicago to create a dignified platform for a deeply spiritual music that cried out for hope and faith in turbulent times. The fact that the profound lyrics were accompanied by heavenly choirs, soaring harmonies, soulful clapping, irresistible rhythms and danceable backbeats made the music all the more compelling to a widespread audience.
Ordower also hosted the program, introducing the acts while slipping in little sermonettes, in which he would allude to current events, praising the performers and their message of hope in “this confused and troubled world”.
The legacy of this groundbreaking TV show is more than simply presenting entertaining and outstanding musical talent. The unwavering faith, sincerity and conviction of the performers is palpable. Their uplifting, inspiring message and rousing, celebratory music can be enjoyed by people of all faiths.
The Jubilee Showcase DVD is certainly a “must have” for gospel and roots music fans, music history buffs, and nostalgic Chicagoans who grew up watching the show on local TV. Let’s hope that more of the Jubilee shows will be released to the public in the future.
The DVD packaging does not include a booklet, liner notes or a table of contents. Fortunately there is a treasure trove of information and photos about Ordower, the artists and Jubilee’s history online.
Visit the website (where you can also purchase the DVD) at: http://www.jubileeshowcase.com