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VINYL RECORD REVIEW: The Kingsmen – Chattanooga Live (1977)

I am exceptionally excited about this week’s article, as “Chattanooga Live” is the album that introduced me to the music of the Kingsmen.  It was around 1979/1980 (I was around 7 or 8 years old at the time), and a neighborhood friend of mine, who was aware of my newfound love of Southern Gospel Music, brought his dad’s copy of the Kingsmen’s “Chattanooga Live” to my house to listen, and it was love at first sound!  I vividly remember when I got my own copy of “Chattanooga Live” shortly thereafter, I put it on my record player and literally sat in a chair in my room and listened to that album multiple times, as I enjoyed a 3-4 hour listening session, just soaking in everything element of this live album.  If I had to nail down my all-time favorite album by the Kingsmen, “Chattanooga Live” would be it!

“Chattanooga Live” was several months in the making, as after signing with Heartwarming in October 1976, the Kingsmen had planned to record a live album a month later, on Thanksgiving night at a concert promoted by J. Bazzel Mull in Knoxville, Tennessee.  Those plans were scrapped, and in the summer of 1977 in Chattanooga, Tennessee, at another concert promoted by J. Bazzel Mull, the Kingsmen recorded “Chattanooga Live” in front of 4500 enthusiastic fans.  Along with the Kingsmen, the Blackwood Brothers, Jerry & the Goffs and Fay Sims & the Scenicland Boys were on the program that night.  This album goes down as one of the most exciting albums ever made and has become the standard by which all other live albums are measured.  What made this album so special goes far beyond just the outstanding musicality and exciting performance by the Kingsmen, the strong spiritual aspect of this live album sets it apart from all the others.  This album obviously resonated with the Gospel Music Association, as it won “Southern Gospel Album of the Year” honors at the 1978 Dove Awards!

Produced by Joe Huffman and Eldridge Fox (Foxie’s first album being credited as producer), the Kingsmen were in top form that night and recorded a perfect live album filled with fun and laughter, powerful performances, and moving testimonies…not to mention the true stars of the event…the audience.  One thing that always set live albums by the Kingsmen apart from all the others is the crowd participation, and the crowd in Chattanooga, Tennessee came to have church and they truly became an integral part of the performance that night!  One interesting technical tidbit about this album…Eldridge Fox’s 14-year-old son Greg, had joined the Kingsmen part-time as their drummer, and Joe Huffman, not fully confident in younger Fox’s ability on the drums, had set aside some tracks to redo the drums in the studio, but Greg delivered the goods that night, and the original drum tracks captured from the concert were left on the record.

The album begins with an iconic introduction by the legendary promotor and radio/television personality, J. Bazzel Mull.  I remember as a kid hearing it for the first time wondering, “Who is this guy with the gravelly voice?”  As I came to know the history of this music, I became aware of who he was and the amazing contributions he made to our genre.  Nonetheless, his iconic and rather humorous intro has always struck a chord with me, and to this day, at any appropriate time, I’ll break out in my best J. Bazzel voice…“Ain’t that right Mrs. Mull?”.

After Mull’s short, but historic intro, with Nick Bruno kicking things off and tickling the ivories, the Kingsmen hit the stage with all the excitement one can muster for the classic, “Traveling Home”, written by Luther Presley (writer of such classic tunes as “Crown Him King”, “I’ll Have a New Life” and “Gettin’ Ready to Leave this World”).  This was a perfect lead-off song, and it leads seamlessly into the Squire Parsons penned classic, “The Lovely Name of Jesus”, featuring Gary Dillard’s haunting steel guitar in the background.  Inspired by a chance encounter that Squire had with a hitchhiker that the Kingsmen picked up at a truck stop while out on a West Coast tour, this song has reached legendary status, and though it was never a single or chart song for the Kingsmen, in my opinion, it has become the song that embodies every element of this live album.  The song is a simple, yet dynamic song of praise, and after Squire testifies, he takes his time for the encore of the second verse and the Kingsmen join him on the chorus…the energy contained in this song goes through the roof as the group and audience alike simply have “church”…it’s one of my all-time favorite live performances.  Nearly 20 years later, you still feel the spirit in the song when they re-visited this song during the 1995 National Quartet Convention.  This particular incarnation of the Kingsmen reunited during the “Perfecting the Crown” live recording event, celebrating the Kingsmen’s 40th anniversary, and it’s my favorite moment on that entire reunion recording.

Without skipping a beat, the Kingsmen tear into a spirited rendition of the Mosie Lister penned classic, “When They Call My Name”, which the Kingsmen originally recorded on their 1972 album, “Johnny Parrack Out Front”.  Highlighting both Ray and Ernie, it’s an exciting quartet song, demanding an encore, which the Kingsmen quickly oblige!  The Mark Trammell Quartet recently recorded the song on their latest album titled, “Classic”, and are currently enjoying chart success with their rendition of this quartet classic.

As Jim Hamill introduces the next song, all the Kingsmen gather around the mics as they prepare to sing the Conrad Cook penned classic, “Is That the Old Ship of Zion”, which features Foxie, Ray, and Ernie.  Originally written as a ¾ time bluegrass-type song, Eldridge Fox took the song and re-arranged it himself, and the song took on a whole different sound, taking on a life of its own, becoming one of the biggest hits and best-loved songs in the Kingsmen’s repertoire.  Acapella singing had long been a part of gospel and spiritual singing, but this song was something very different for the Kingsmen and gospel music.  As they began singing, the crowd began taking hold of the song and its message, and they became unglued and an old-fashioned camp meeting began breaking out…even causing Ray to become quite emotional and lose his composure a bit during his verse.  As an 8-year-old kid hearing this song for the first time, I had not experienced anything like this and those in the audience who were shouting and carrying on during this song were merely outwardly expressing the exact emotions I was feeling on the inside!  I was enamored with this song…the singing, the emotions, the shouting, the message…it’s still unbelievably moving listening to this nearly 45 years later!  Despite the song being an acapella number, but also remembering the shouting from their first live album 4 years earlier, the Kingsmen and the record company believed in the song and decided to release it to radio.  The song resonated exceptionally well with listeners everywhere, and it did quite well on the charts, peaking at #6 in June 1978, during its nearly 20-month run in the charts.

Kicking off the second side is my favorite version of the Harold Lane classic, “I’m Standing on the Solid Rock”.  Starting off slow, by the time they get to the chorus, things get thrown into high gear as the Kingsmen ram through this song like a bull charging at a matador, and when they get to that encore, the energy level goes through the roof!  I can pinpoint hearing this song the first time as an 8-year-old kid being the exact moment that I became a Kingsmen fan, and if I had to narrow down my all-time favorite Kingsmen song, this is probably the song!  Though it was a #1 song for the Florida Boys (the Speers also enjoyed chart success with the song as well), Hamill took the song and arranged it to a whole new level and the Kingsmen’s exciting performance is the way this song was supposed to be sung.  In fact, the Kingsmen charted this version of the song, for one month only, in February 1978, logging in at #39.

One of my favorite parts of this live album is Hamill’s hilarious story of Ernie Phillips joining the Kingsmen.  When I first heard this story as a kid, I thought it was one of the most hilarious stories I’d ever heard, and even though I’ve heard it hundreds of times, it’s still funny to me and I can probably quote it word for word in my sleep!  After Hamill finishes picking on Ernie, the little giant shows off his chops as he dives into the song, “We Do Not Die”.  Slowing down the second verse, allowing Ernie the opportunity to take his time, he gives an unbelievable performance and nails that high note!  Though they originally recorded it on their “Just a Little Closer Home” album which was released earlier in the year, this performance definitely had more energy than the studio version, and actually charted for one month in February 1978, coming in at #40.

After Ernie’s thrilling performance, the crowd roars its approval, and as the applause finally begins to abate, Hamill gives us an exceptionally powerful performance of the classic hymn, “I Must Tell Jesus”, before leading the audience in the chorus of the song.  This is one of my all-time favorite Hamill performances, as it’s such a dynamic and genuine performance of the song.  The Kingsmen eventually revived this classic song several years later, on their 1994 recording, “Ridin’ High”.

As we come to the final moments of the album, Hamill transitions to the classic, “Learning to Lean”, and the album takes on a strong spirit of worship as Hamill leads the audience in singing the song, before he directs Squire to sing “The Solid Rock” and Squire blows it out of the ballpark, before they modulate back to “Learning to Lean”, which fades away to silence as the audience continues singing.

Emotionally, this album takes you to the highest point of jubilation, and then turns right around and brings you back down to a beautiful spirit of worship.  “Chattanooga Live” is a favorite of Ray and Squire’s, due in large part to the strong spiritual impact of the album, and because people were coming down to be saved during the recording of the live album.  In fact, James Blackwood (who was there with the Blackwood Brothers) came out from backstage to pray with people who come down to be saved.

This album is so special to me, as it was the album that introduced me to the Kingsmen.  “Chattanooga Live” has deeply affected me on many levels both musically and spiritually, and every second of this album is engrained into my heart, soul, and mind.  “Chattanooga Live” is not a live album you can just casually listen to, as it’s truly an experience that must be savored, and should actually be required listening for every Southern Gospel fan and historian.  When you compare “Chattanooga Live” with all the other live albums within our genre, you’d be hard-pressed to find another live album that can boast the fact that every single song on it is a bona fide classic!  With one listen, you too will be saying to yourself…“Ain’t that right Mrs. Mull?”!

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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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