Various - The Soul Of Designer Records
4CD set contains over 100 songs, packaged in a custom 12” jacket with 16-page booklet.
If passion and fervour were electricity, the performances on ‘The Soul Of Designer Records’ could put the glow in every neon sign in the city on the Mississippi River where they were recorded.
Between 1967 and 1977 Designer label founder Style Wooten and his studio main man Roland Janes, a heroic figure in Memphis music, produced between 400 and 500 gospel singles. Many of the artists they recorded came from Tennessee, Mississippi and Arkansas but as the label’s reputation grew they began arriving from more far flung locales - Chicago, St. Louis, Boston, Ohio, the Carolinas, Florida, California - sometimes literally waiting in line for their turn to cut at Janes’ Sonic Studios.
What’s astonishing is how seamlessly this set’s 101 songs by dozens of groups and solo acts lock together. That’s due to more than the unbridled sound of pure faith welling up in the varied voices of such largely obscure performers as Elizabeth King, who wails like Aretha on ‘Testify For Jesus’ and Rev. Leon Hammer, who howls like Blind Willie Johnson on ‘He Won’t Deny Me’.
Many of these numbers share a badass, wild-eyed energy - the same primitive, reverb-soaked mojo that drives the classic Memphis rockabilly, garage rock and blues that was Janes’ specialty.
The Designer singles also capture the evolution of Memphis blues and soul as reflected in their sanctified cousin of a genre. The musical timeline starts in 1963 with the traditional quartet approach of Grand Junction, Tennessee’s Gospel Songbirds, who telegraph call-and-response vocals over simple blues chord changes, followed by the hot Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland boogie of The Dynamic Hughes Gospel Singers’ ‘Beautiful City’. It climaxes in the Hendrix-fuelled six-string of Elgie Brown, whose 1975 ‘When Jesus Comes’ and ‘A Helping Hand’ navigate a psychedelic sea of wah-wah, phase shifter and distortion pedals.
What’s also astonishing is that none of this - the variety, the quality and durability of the material, the consistently impressive level of talent - was calculated. Designer was a ‘custom’ record label, a now-vanished musical equivalent of a vanity press. With few exceptions, the groups and artists who recorded for Designer paid owner Style Wooten a fee, advertised once in the 60s at $469.50, for cutting two sides in the studio. There were no fancy talent scouts involved.
‘The Soul Of Designer Records’ is also a tribute to Style Wooten and Roland Janes, who were truly mavericks in an industry, city and era known for iconoclasm.
By the early 1970s, Designer Records was one of the most successful independent gospel labels in the United States due largely to its sheer volume of releases and Style Wooten’s unmitigated willpower. While today many of the artists who took advantage of Designer’s services have given up performing and a good many have also given up the ghost, ‘The Soul Of Designer Records’ upholds Wooten’s promise that for a reasonable fee their musical pursuits will be immortalized.