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VINYL RECORD REVIEW: The Kingsmen – Big and Live (1973)


Who would have thought that when 1973 began, the Kingsmen would end the year with the release of what would become one of the most iconic live albums ever made?  I’m sure Foxie had dreams of all the things that “could be” when he forged through re-building the Kingsmen just a couple of years prior, but I don’t know if he, or the Kingsmen, were prepared for what was going to happen when this album hit the marketplace in December 1973!

By the time “Big & Live” was recorded, this vocal iteration of the Kingsmen had been together for about 2 years.  During the latter half of 1973, the group had signed with Canaan Records, joining a hefty roster of artists that included the Inspirations, Happy Goodmans and Florida Boys.  Recorded live in Gadsden, Alabama in November 1973 and released by year’s end, “Big & Live” would go down as one of the most celebrated live albums in our genre…even taking home the highly coveted Dove Award for Album of the Year in 1974.

Produced by Marvin Norcross, “Big & Live” showcased the Kingsmen in their element…in front of a live audience, thus beginning their rich legacy of live albums and their reign as the “kings” of live recordings!  The Dixie Echoes also recorded their own historic live album that same night, which featured the classics, “I Want to See Jesus” and “Trouble in my Way”.  It truly was an electrifying and magical evening where everything seemed to fall into place for a perfect live recording.

If there was ever a live shot you can “hear”, the cover shot for this album is it!  It’s a great live action shot and in his typical fashion, Hamill already shed his coat and tie (probably tossed out in the audience somewhere), but did you know it’s not a shot from the Gadsden concert?  It was actually taken at the War Memorial Auditorium in Nashville, TN, likely during the National Quartet Convention just a month or so prior to when this live album was recorded.  In fact, Nick Bruno confirmed that is not him sitting at the piano on the cover shot.  About 3 weeks before “Big & Live” was recorded, Nick joined the Kingsmen, replacing Charles Abee.  Nick played for the Rebels during the time Jim Hamill was a member, and he was most recently playing piano for JD Sumner & the Stamps just prior to joining the Kingsmen.  Also, Leonard Hollifield had departed the group earlier in the year, leaving the Kingsmen without a guitar player.  It is my understanding, that a young Gary Dillard lent his talents by playing steel guitar for this album.  He was still in high school, and it would be another year before he would join the Kingsmen full-time.

After an enthusiastic introduction by legendary Southern Gospel DJ, Sid Hughes, the Kingsmen hit the stage with the Joel Hemphill penned, “Ready to Leave”, which was a perfect lead-off song.  This was my initial introduction to this classic tune, and this exciting performance is one of my all-time favorite renditions of the song.

Immediately slowing things down, Johnny Parrack steps up to sing the Squire Parsons penned, “Look for Me at Jesus’ Feet”.  A song Squire wrote as a love song to his wife, it became an instant Kingsmen classic and Southern Gospel standard.  The song saw a huge resurgence when the Booth Brothers recorded it some 30 years later, taking home “Song of the Year” honors at the 2008 Singing News Fan Awards.  This was one of two songs the Kingsmen picked up from the Calvarymen, who had originally recorded the song a couple of years earlier.  The Calvarymen was a group based out of West Virginia that Squire was singing with at the time, along with another famed songwriter, Conrad Cook.  Squire and Conrad (along with the rest of the Calvarymen) were sitting in the audience that night, and in fact, this is when a series of conversations began which would eventually lead Squire to join the Kingsmen within a couple of years.  One interesting tid bit the casual listener may not catch, as Johnny was singing the second verse, he sang the wrong words, and it was left on the record.  On the second verse he sings…“Perhaps you’d like to meet me down here, when my race is run” instead of “When my race down here is run”.  Also, the song was originally titled, “Wait for Me at Jesus’ Feet”, but over time was eventually changed to “Look for Me at Jesus’ Feet”.  On this song, we are also introduced to Sonny Duke, who lives forever in the grooves of this record as the “shouter”; but more about him later.

Waiting for the applause to die down, Nick Bruno kicks off the intro for the Marion Easterling classic, “When I Wake Up to Sleep No More”.  Funny story about that piano intro… as I already mentioned, Nick joined the Kingsmen 3 weeks before this album was recorded, and after he joined, they started rehearsing immediately for the live album.  During the rehearsal, Hamill asked Nick to give him a good “Southern Gospel” intro for the song.  Nick thought for a second and played an intro he thought was perfect, but Hamill didn’t like it and thought it was terrible.  After a while, they took a break for coffee and donuts, and Nick stayed at the piano trying to work out an intro for the song and out of desperation, he played the exact intro he originally played that Hamill initially didn’t like.  Immediately, Hamill yells across the room, “Now Bruno, that’s the intro I was looking for right there!”.  Though the song became a #1 hit for the Inspirations in 1974, the Kingsmen also enjoyed a nice run in the charts with it as well, as their version of the song peaked at #5 in November 1974.  As one of my all-time favorite Southern Gospel classics, the Kingsmen’s version from this album, complete with 2 encores, is still my absolute favorite!

As the tempo slows back down for the final song on this side, Hamill takes the lead on his signature performance of the classic hymn, “Love Lifted Me”.  As what became standard when performing the song, Jim would sing the verse by himself, then lead the audience to sing along on the chorus before the Kingsmen cap it off with the big ending.  It’s a captivating performance, filled with emotion from the group as well as from the audience, especially for one member of the audience.  Though we’d heard him earlier, the constant shouting by Sonny Duke can be heard loud and clear throughout the song.  Later on in the recording, Hamill shares the story of that gentleman being saved while in prison several years prior, as the prison choir was singing, “Love Lifted Me”.  The shouting by Sonny on the album almost ended the Kingsmen’s relationship with Canaan Records, as the record company didn’t feel it sounded very professional having that kind of shouting on a professional live album, but the Kingsmen were dogmatic about keeping it on there and basically told them if they took the shouting off the record, then they can take the Kingsmen off too!  I guess we know who won that dispute!

Side 2 kicks off with the high energy excitement of the concert favorite, “So High”.  Elvis Presley popularized the song during the 60’s, but the song is actually an adaptation of an old Negro spiritual (“My God is So High”), and after Elvis recorded it in 1967, the song made the rounds with several groups including JD Sumner & the Stamps, LeFevres, as well as the Kingsmen, who truly made the song their own.  I remember when I first heard this album, I would listen to this song constantly, just being mesmerized at how Johnny Parrack could sing so high, which is pretty impressive, as Johnny was just coming off a really bad cold when they recorded this album.  Johnny had then given it to Hamill, who was just starting to get sick.  Nonetheless, it’s an exciting moment and was the perfect song to kick off the second half!

At the time the Kingsmen recorded this live album, they were riding high in the charts with “The Apple Tree”, and it’s appropriate the song is included on this monumental live recording and it’s a perfect performance.  I’ve never been a huge fan of recitations, but this is one of the few that I truly enjoy, and it gets to me every time.  With it being a live album, Hamill is able to take his time telling the emotional story, and when Johnny steps up to sing the final tag of “Lord, I’m Coming Home”…it’s truly a breathtaking and moving moment caught on tape for all eternity.

As the applause dies down, the steel guitar kicks off the intro for the up-tempo, convention sounding tune, “What a Happy Time”, and before the Kingsmen even start singing the first note, the crowd is already clapping along, enjoying the tempo of this happy tune.  Featuring both Johnny and Ray on the chorus, the song has “Kangsmen” written all over it!

Next, Hamill takes a moment to introduce the song, “Glory Road”, a song written by Conrad Cook, the second song the Kingsmen picked up from the Calvarymen.  Let me interject here, that the Calvarymen were an important component in Southern Gospel history, as through the music of this quartet and the songwriting of Conrad Cook and Squire Parsons, they introduced many popular classics in the early 70’s.  Though the song wasn’t a chart topper for the Kingsmen, only peaking at #22 in October 1974, it has become a Kingsmen classic and widely accepted as a hugely popular quartet standard, having been sung and recorded too numerous to even try to count.

Hamill then takes a moment to testify before they jump into an exciting performance of, “Love Will Roll the Clouds Away”, which features Johnny Parrack on the harmonica.  This version of the song charted for the Kingsmen, but for only one month at #40 in September 1974.  This was intended to be the final song for the album, but Hamill felt something in the air and though he doesn’t mention him by name, Hamill shares the story of Sonny Duke, who had been shouting throughout the album.  Then at the last moment, Hamill calls out “I’d Rather Be an Old Time Christian”, and the Kingsmen are off and running, much to the delight of the crowd.  Complete with an encore, it’s an exciting conclusion to a glorious live album!  I can’t imagine this album without this song!

As with any live album, there are always songs I wish they had included, and I would have loved to have heard them tear into “The Eastern Gate”.  My understanding is the song was considered for recording that night, but due to timing and space available on tape (the album did clock in at almost 47 minutes, which was pretty lengthy at the time), it was decided not to do it.

One thing that makes “Big & Live” so unique from any other live album is that it has taken on a life of its own, spurring a sequel (“Not Quite as Big, But Just as Live”, released in 1999) as well as yearly reunions in Gadsden with the Kingsmen and their friends from all over.  In fact, another “Big & Live Gospel Music Festival” event is slated to take place in April of this year (!

When listing the greatest live albums in our genre, “Big & Live” is always at the top of the list.  Fans and artists alike both agree this album is legendary, historic and is truly iconic.  All the elements were there…a lively crowd, great songs, outstanding performances, and perfectly timed songs coupled with excellent emcee work, all came together to make “Big & Live”, truly BIG and absolutely LIVE!

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James Hales

James Hales, from Durham, North Carolina, has been a writer for since 2000. James is our featured reviewer and also contributes to monthly features periodically.
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