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VINYL RECORD REVIEW: The Hemphills – Celebration (1989)

The Hemphills – Celebration (1989)

After “Revival” was released in 1987, it would be 2 years before the Hemphills would release a new album.  During this time, the group left RiverSong Records and joined ranks with their friend Bill Traylor on his new label, Homeland Records.  With renewed excitement, “Celebration” was one of the first albums released on the new label and what a phenomenal album it was, as I feel this was one of the most exciting albums the Hemphills ever released.  I picked up my copy of the album when I saw them sing at a church here in Durham on July 9, 1989, and it definitely ranks as one of my absolute favorites by the group.

Produced and arranged by Lari Goss, with Trent Hemphill co-producing, the album definitely had that Lari Goss touch and feel, but it also was very different from any other album by the Hemphills.  The album became kind of a celebration of sorts of the past and present for the Hemphills, as their former piano player, Gary Smith (along with Lari Goss) played piano for the album, as well as Bruce Watkins, who played for the group during the 70’s, played banjo and fiddle.  Also, James Gordon Freeze and Eddy Bell, who were the bass player and drummer for the Hemphills at the time, both played on the album as well.  Musically, “Celebration” was pure ear candy to me, and the overall feel of the album was very bright and vibrant, as it offered some of Joel’s best and strongest songs to date and some of the best singing by the Hemphills.

I also want to mention to cover shot, which is one of my absolute favorite photos of the Hemphills.  The cover art was complimentary and tasteful, but the colorful cover shot of the group was simply magnificent.

With its unique electric guitar intro, the album kicks off with the exciting feel of “The Party’s Over”, which features Joel.  Musically, the song was a little different for the Hemphills, and as an added delight, the song features an accordion, which adds a unique feel to the song.  It must have worked because the song was a huge hit for the Hemphills, peaking at #4 in the Singing News chart for October and November 1989.  Despite its upbeat and happy feel, Joel was inspired to write the song as a warning to the sinner that the sin party was almost over and the celebration for the children of God was getting ready to start.  I was a DJ at the time, and I remember receiving the little 45 single in the mail at the radio station, and when I opened the package, it was filled with confetti, further driving home the song’s title, as well as the title of the album!

Slowing the pace down a bit, Candy steps up to sing this album’s “blood” song, “Paid in Full”, which was the second single from the album, peaking at #5 in May 1990.  With its country gospel feel featuring fiddle and steel guitar accents, this had that traditional Hemphill feel to it and was a highlight of the album.

LaBreeska picks up the pace for one of my personal favorites, “Testimony”.  LaBreeska had asked Joel to write a song for her about “blessings in disguise”, and with that thought in mind, he wrote this song.  I love the message in the song, “God will turn your test into a testimony, teach you that your trials may be blessings in disguise, your valley’s He’ll be filling with the fragrance of the Lily, ‘til on the mountain you can testify!”  The Greenes did a really great job with their version of the song on their “Testimony” recording from 1990.  The Greenes also re-recorded the song again 8 years later with TaRanda, on their “A Special Time” recording.

With its unique beat, Joey sings the up-tempo, “Look What’s Coming Down the Road”, which Joel co-wrote with Lari Goss before Joey and LaBreeska are featured on the comforting ballad, “Every Need Supplied”, which closes out the first side.  Including a bridge of the classic, “He’s All I Need” (many may remember LaBreeska referencing this song in her testimony from their “In Action” live album from 1973), the song is beautifully accented by strings and steel guitar and is a worshipful highlight of the album.  The James Blackwood Quartet recorded the song a couple of years later, on their 1992 recording, “Speak His Name”, and did a splendid job with their rendition of the song.

Kicking off the second side is the invigorating and exciting, “Holy Ghost Revival”, which features a nice piano turnaround before the second verse.  Highlighting that signature Hemphill sound with Joel taking the lead and then Candy kicking it up a notch on the final choruses, this was a highlight of the album.  The Hemphills were still enjoying great success with the song “Let’s Have a Revival”, and Joel never intended to write another “revival” song, but the idea came to Joel that we do not just need a revival, but we need a holy ghost-filled revival.  The song was popular for the group and almost became a radio single, but they opted to release “Paid in Full” instead.  The Bishops, a popular group during the late 80’s, 90’s, and early 2000’s, recorded a lively performance of the song on their highly acclaimed “Chapter X Live” recording from 1994.

Candy steps up next to deliver a powerful performance for the humbling message of the power ballad, “Could I Wish”, before Joel is featured next on the enjoyable, “Call Me Blessed”.  Written by Joel and Lari Goss and featuring a bit of a country swing, the song has a really cool guitar track and is a highlight of the album.  When I saw the Hemphills that summer day in 1989, this was the song that kicked off their set that morning.

Probably my favorite song on the whole album is the power anthem, “Let the Whole World Know”, which was written by Trent, and features both Joey and LaBreeska, with Candy taking it through the roof on the final chorus.  Bearing that classic Lari Goss touch, the song has a black gospel feel to it and the only thing missing is a black choir.  I remember the first time I heard the song, you had to peel me off the ceiling.  I always thought it was such a great song and wish it had made it to radio.

After that colossal song, the recording closes out with the ethereal feel of “The World Lost a Friend”.  Featuring Joel, the song, with its unique tempo and timing, was a wonderful and emotional tribute to his dad.  Joel recalls his dad as someone who took the troubles of the world to heart, as he would weep and pray for humanity, and when he died, the world truly lost a friend.  A fitting tribute and closing song for this remarkable album.

Around this same time, Candy joined her cousin, Tanya Goodman-Sykes along with Sheri Easter to form the female trio, Heirloom, and they released their first recording which featured the hit song, “There’s Still Power in the Blood”, which peaked at #5 in the Singing News chart for September 1989.  Ironically, the group recorded for RiverSong Records, (which is where Tanya and Sheri both had recording contracts) and they would go on to release 4 more recordings over the course of the next 6 years.  Due to each person’s touring schedules with their own respective groups and ministries, Heirloom wasn’t a “touring” group, but did manage to squeeze in a couple of dates here and there.

When “Celebration” was released, I was so excited to get my hands on this album and it truly lived up to the hype that surrounded it.  It truly was a remarkable and celebratory piece of work and I feel it was the Hemphills best-sounding album, as they were firing on all cylinders with this one.  It truly was a musical celebration and masterpiece, and with the Hinsons off the road at this point and all the changes with the Nelons that came the following year, the Hemphills were poised to become the #1 mixed group in the industry.  But alas, in January 1990, just as they were getting ready to embark on their busiest, most profitable, and most exciting year, the Hemphills made the decision to come off the road.  I was shocked and sad when I heard the news, and just could not believe it.  I was still reeling from the Hinsons coming off the road, and now the Hemphills were gone.  It truly was a huge loss for our genre, but as the old saying goes…all good things must come to an aend.  Though this would be their final album of new songs, they did release one more album that featured fresh recordings of some of their greatest hits, and we’ll talk about that unique recording next week, as we wrap up this series on the music of the Hemphills.

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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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