45: “Right On Be Free” b/w “No No No” by The Voices of East Harlem. Elektra EKM- 45705. Recorded in 1970.

Image courtesy of The Rodgers & Hammerstein Archive of Recorded Sound.

Image courtesy of The Rodgers & Hammerstein Archive of Recorded Sound.

The Voices of East Harlem was a community choir comprised of twenty members that ranged in age from 12 to 21; they were formed in 1969. Lead vocalists Gerri Griffin and Monica Burress sang lead vocals with authority, but the real power came from having all twenty voices come at your ears as one big sound.

Usually, a gospel choir will give you a sense of where they’re coming from with their name—a christian denomination or a local church will be right there. The same is true with The Voices of East Harlem—they were voicing the political, rather than spiritual, struggle of the people of their community. Gospel intensity was mixed with R&B and soul to create a platform that, while certainly not anti-religious, was more engaged with personal struggles and larger social issues.

All of which sounds very admirable, well-intentioned, and unfortunately, preachy. Lucky for you, dear reader, it’s really just high quality music. Dig.

 

While not quite as stirring as the A side, “No No No” still gets its groove on.

To get a full sense of the group’s power, though, it helps to turn to the live recordings. Here they are performing Richie Havens’ “Run Shaker Life”  in Ghana, 1971. This bill also included Ike and Tina, Santana, and Wilson Pickett. It must have been one hell of a show.

The Voices of East Harlem performed for the inmates at Sing Sing in 1972. Here is their take on “To Be Young, Gifted and Black.”

Their cover of Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” is incredible. I can only imagine that Stephen Stills was flattered by the interpretation, in the same way that the Bee Gees were when Al Green covered “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart.”

The Voices of East Harlem recorded four albums before disbanding in 1975. It’s hard to find much information about them; which is a shame. This music is powerful stuff, and more people should hear it.

Image courtesy of The Rodgers & Hammerstein Archive of Recorded Sound.

Image courtesy of The Rodgers & Hammerstein Archive of Recorded Sound.

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