Rating: ***** (Excellent)

Many of you know that the Cathedrals are my all-time favorite group. I just purchased several more albums in my quest to obtain a complete set of their projects. (I have all but seven: With Strings, I Saw the Light, Seniors in Season, Smooth as Silk, Land of the Living, Camp Meeting, and Worship His Glory–and their two trio projects. If any of you have copies you’re willing to part with at a reasonable price, or even an unreasonable price, post in the comments and I’ll send you an email.)

One of the albums I just purchased, Keep on Singing (1979), arrived in yesterday’s mail.

Compared to most retrospective reviews of classic albums, this is unique since I’m writing it as I listen to the album for the first time. I thought it would be interesting to try to capture my interaction with the music as I hear a classic album for the first time.

The album starts with a rendition of the Rambos’ classic “I’ve Never Been this Homesick Before.” Though I had never perceived this song as a bass solo, George Younce redefined my perception of the song in thirty seconds, putting in one of his career finest solos with his rendition.

Kirk Talley takes the lead on the second song, “Consider the Lilies.” On the chorus, Talley solos on the first and third lines; the harmony is inverted on the even lines, with Younce carrying the melody. This is the smoothest bass / tenor handoff on alternating lines I’ve heard in quite a while, and it’s simply a joy to hear.

Glen Payne leads the third song, “Won’t it Be Worth it My Child.” This uptempo song showcases an energetic Payne at his peak, at his best. Younce has some fairly high echo lines at the end before sliding down into a low ending.

The fourth song, “I Never Shall Forget the Day,” is an uptempo piano instrumental. It’s not immediately clear who is playing the piano, since the group’s lineup was unsettled when this album was produced. It could be any of the group’s 1979 pianists–Lorne Matthews, Steve Lee, or Roger Bennett–or even a studio musician. In some ways it just seems like an early Bennett song, but I don’t want to hazard a guess since I’m not familiar with Lee’s piano style.

Glen Payne sings the first verse on the fifth song, “He Will Row You Over the Tide”; George Younce sings the second. The group sings the second chorus gently before building to a big finish. Unlike many big orchestral finishes in vogue today, this finish is sustained more on their raw vocal power than on the song’s barebones piano/guitar/drums instrumentation.

The second half of the album starts out with an uptempo version of “I Want to Be Like My Lord.” This is so good that I am tempted to say that the Cathedrals were never better than at this moment in history, but then I think of the majesty of their final years, and I forbear. Nonetheless, Younce turns in a splendid performance that should go down as one of his all-time best bass leads. The pianist also turns in a memorably excellent performance.

The seventh song, “I’ve Come Too Far,” features George Younce in one of his lower leads. I’m writing this review as I listen to the album for the first time, so I don’t have a keyboard at hand, but I’d have to guess it’s keyed somewhere around D, with some low As thrown in for good measure.

Glen Payne has the lead on the eighth song on the project, “I’ve Come to Calvary.”

The group’s mystery baritone makes his first appearance on the ninth song, “Thank You Lord for Your Blessing.” It’s certainly not Mark Trammell, who didn’t join until the next year. I don’t think it sounds like George Amon Webster, so that means it was probably Steve Lee. The identity of the group’s baritone is actually one of the mysteries surrounding this particular project; it’s been a topic of discussion on various message boards.

Kirk Talley has the solo on the final song, “Holy is Thy Name.” This rendition was closely followed by Legacy Five on their 2003 London project, so anyone who has heard that project can go in reverse and get a good feel for the vocal arrangement on this song. The accompaniment is a solo piano without any other instrumentation, but it works so well that that–to reverse the analogy once again–the orchestra on Legacy Five’s rendition doesn’t match what the Cathedrals could do with just a piano and four voices.

This album was interesting since it captures the Cathedral’s sound at the roughest point in their history. Just when they thought they had a winning formula, a solid lineup consisting of George Younce, Glen Payne, Lorne Matthews, Roy Tremble, and George Amon Webster, a concert promoter convinced the three younger members to leave and form a trio of their own, “The Brothers.” Glen and George were so devastated by the sudden loss of 3/5 of their group that they considered retiring; Todd Payne once said that his father, Glen, was moved to tears by the blow.

Payne was in the office, working on an upcoming record, when he heard the news of the split. It’s not known for sure which of the group’s 1979 releases he was working on, but it has been mentioned that this particular album may have been the one. This is partly because of the album’s song selection and vocal arrangements. Unlike nearly every other Cathedrals album, where Payne shared lead duties with the baritone and sang baritone harmony parts on several songs, Payne carries the lead almost exclusively on this project. The baritone is given only one solo; Younce and Payne both sing parts that under other circumstances could well have been soloed by the baritone.

Expert ears have listened to the project and said that it sounds as though George Amon Webster may have laid down some of the baritone vocals for the project, while Steve Lee apparently did others. (In fact, as I was listening to a few songs, most notably “I’ve Been to Calvary,” I couldn’t help but wonder if Glen Payne had doubled parts in a few places as well.)

Kirk Talley laid down all the tenor vocals for the project, thus suggesting that he was the first firm replacement the Cathedrals settled on. But on the other hand, since a tenor’s harmony parts are more prominent, all the tenor parts would have to be replaced, while some of the baritone parts could be permitted to slip by.

This is one of only a handful of Cathedrals albums without a group picture on the front cover. Most of the others also came during times of lineup uncertainty. The uncertainty is also reflected in the album title, “Keep on Singing”–which is an affirmation of optimism through the uncertainty.

I say all of this to illustrate a larger point. Except perhaps for a few bargain-basement albums in the early 70s, the Cathedrals probably never produced an album under more difficult circumstances. Yet this album proves that the Cathedrals’ greatness wasn’t limited to win things were going well for them. Even when the polishing process wasn’t complete, the Cathedrals were unmistakably a jewel.

One final thought. This album features some of George Younce’s career best bass solos, ranking with his solos on A Little Bit of Everything (1970), Everything’s Alright (1971), Plain Ole Gospel (1975), I’ve Just Started Living (1989), and a few special appearances toward the end of his life. As I listened to this 1979 album, it occurred to me that a common thread ties each of these performances together. They each came at the toughest points in his career.

In 1970 and 1971, the group was going through personnel as fast as the Dixie Melody Boys and Mercy’s Mark are right now. They had gone from performing to an appreciative TV audience with Rex Humbard to scraping to make ends meet. Then in 1974 and 1975, though they’d assembled a more steady lineup, Canaan threatened to drop them unless they started selling more records. This 1979 project came after a group split that nearly led them to disband the group and cancel this project. His 1988 and 1989 performances came after a heart attack that nearly killed him and took him off the road for months. His final performances in 2002 and 2003 were after his health had declined so far he could barely walk.

Something about this level of stress and pressure caused Younce to turn in his career best performances. This album shows that the same goes for the rest of the group.

It would not be a stretch to say that this album–along with several produced under similarly trying circumstances–holds the secret to the Cathedrals’ greatness. Even when they were faced with challenges that made many lesser quartets throw in the towel, this humble table project proves that Glen Payne and George Younce still gave their audience everything they had.