This is the first time I've posted a full-album link that I found elsewhere, but I came across an utterly amazing record today, a gospel band covering Dylan.
The long out-of-print Dylan's Gospel comes from the group Brothers & Sisters of Los Angeles, and I'll be damned if I can dig up much, other than the fact that they put out this album in 1969. It was a five-piece band with a nearly 30-person choir. It was produced by Lou Adler, who co-wrote Sam Cooke's "Wonderful World," and arranged and conducted by Gene Page, who has worked with Marvin Gaye, The Temptations and The Four Tops, among many, many others.
Apparently Mojo magazine put this on a list of musical buried treasures a few years back and there was some stir then, but interest seems to have diminished. There was a CD reissue in the UK in 1990 and later in Japan, but this has been an LP-only release in the U.S. There's a bit more detail here.
I've been a ravenous and dedicated listener, seeker and appreciator of Dylan covers for quite some time (with close to 800 different cover versions of Dylan songs in the iTunes library) and I've never heard anything quite like it: an album-length series of reinventions that ignite these songs with an entirely new fire. There's nothing in the sound of this album to suggest that these are re-appropriated songs instead of traditional spirituals, or originals from a multi-singer choir and band that knows how to bring the house down.
Usually covers like these - in which the performers completely transform and own the song in their own right - show up one at a time. Hendrix doing "All Along the Watchtower." Nico doing "I'll Keep It With Mine." Nina Simone doing "I Shall Be Released."
I have full albums of Dylan covers from Odetta, Joan Baez, Jerry Garcia, the Dead and The Byrds, and while there are great moments scattered throughout those records, they're almost all the type of performances that are fully expected.
This gospel group breaks through on every song, with a heavily percussive and organ-based treatment that just gives this multitude of voices the chance to soar. A lot of it sounds so much like a precursor to Dylan's own Christian/gospel-rock period that I can't help but think he heard this album and and brought some elements into his own recording sessions.
"Just Like A Woman" opens with a steady and stately organ, then builds and builds, with several singers taking time to "ooh" and "ahh" as the drummer pounds out fills as the music swells to bring back the chorus, all the voices tying together, with a call-and-response developing as the men throw back "Yes she does."
On "I Shall Be Released" I can't help but think at times of the all-star group during The Last Waltz, that sort of swaying, arm-in-arm joyousness that this song brings out so well.
There's an extra R&B touch to "The Mighty Quinn," but what I love most is how the lead singer - who can belt out a song as well as any I've ever heard - adds in a "Hallelelujah!" to the end of the line "When Quinn the Eskimo gets here, everybody's gonna jump for joy." It sounds like it belongs because it does.
Brothers & Sisters - The Mighty Quinn (Bob Dylan cover)
and click through to Cousin Mike for the full album