Voices honed in the heart of Mississippi
A cappella gospel music refined in the churches, fields of Como
Tonight, a collection of citizens from Como, Miss., will travel to Memphis to take the stage of the Levitt Shell at Overton Park, to perform an evening of a cappella gospel music.
While many of the singers have long personal histories in music — having played or sung for most of their lives — they are, essentially, amateurs. They’ve never sought professional acclaim, the glare of the spotlight or a recording contract. Instead, they’ve honed their art in the churches and cotton fields of Como — and there’s something of that purity inherent in their voices and their songs.
For Michael Reilly, producer of the new compilation CD Como Now — which documents the city’s gospel scene — this was the allure of the project from the start.
A native Texan living in New York City, Reilly had dabbled in music and eventually pursued a professional career as a location sound man for film and TV productions. In the fall of 2004, he and a couple of filmmaker friends took a cross- country trip from the Big Apple to the South, hoping to make some Alan Lomax-style field recordings along the way. “We wanted to document the trip and hoped to visit with local musicians in small areas,” he says.
One place Reilly had marked on his map was Como — a town of 1,300 in Panola County, 45 miles south of Memphis. He’d been tipped about a group of teens there making a brand of country hip-hop, who were actually relatives of Miles Pratcher, a singer Lomax had encountered in the 1950s. “But when we got there, the kids were off at school, and so we got to talking to their mom and a couple of their aunts,” says Reilly. “Turns out they’d been singing all their lives as well.”
Turning his attention to this group of ladies — Ester Mae Smith, Angela Taylor and Della Daniels — Reilly saw an opportunity to follow up the thread that Lomax had started a half century earlier. “Often you go down searching for something, thinking the story is one place, and then it’s really just adjacent to it,” says Reilly. “After talking to them, I knew I wanted to come back down and do a proper audio recording and see if these ladies were interested.”
Reilly did eventually come back in the summer of 2005 and recorded the three ladies as a group, dubbing them the Como Mamas. Returning to New York with the tapes, Reilly says he was “awed” by their voices, and set about trying to interest a label in putting out the project.
Eventually, he hooked up with Brooklyn-based retro-soul label Daptone, which proposed sending Reilly back to Como to put out an open call for singers in order to capture more of the local talent, with an eye toward releasing a compilation CD of the results. “So in (2006) we put ads in the local paper and local radio to see who would come out to a recording we set up at the Mt. Moriah Church,” says Reilly. “It was kind of a shot in the dark. I didn’t know who would show up until I actually got to the church that day. But everybody that did show up is on the finished record — it was almost unbelievable how good everyone was.”
The results of the session, released in August by Daptone as Como Now: The Voices of Panola Co., Mississippi , are a remarkable document of the rich talent contained in the region — ranging from the sweet, sad vocal style of Mary Moore, to the harmonies of the Jones Sisters, to the dynamic Walker Family, which includes local octogenarian legends Brother Raymond and Sister Joella Walker and their son, the Rev. Robert Walker. “I’m still to this day kind of blown away that such a perfect cross-section and variety of singers showed up that day,” says Reilly.
Although he’s continued to return to Como to record more music, even Reilly hadn’t imagined bringing the Como singers to the public stage. Former Levitt Shell director Chip Pankey did, however, and booked the Como artists for a concert at the Overton Park, part of the venue’s “R&B, Gospel & Soul” music series. “He was totally sold on it, and as a result (the artists) got more and more excited about the possibilities of performing,” says Reilly, who will be in town to record the show. “If the (Memphis) show goes well, I’m hoping there will be more opportunities for them.”
Meantime, Reilly is readying further albums from the Como artists, including separate discs from the Como Mamas and the extended Walker family. He hopes that Daptone will continue to release the titles. “The label’s been great, and it’s really a risk on their part to put out a hardcore a cappella gospel record and expect it to sell,” says Reilly. “Hopefully, it will, but even if it doesn’t, I’m bound and determined to get the other stuff out even if I have to spend my own money. This music is just too good and important for people not to hear.”
—Bob Mehr: 529-2517
The Como Mamas have long, personal histories in the music of Como, Miss.