As lead singer of The Manhattans Gerald Alston has sung some of the finest soul ballads ever recorded. Now he is returning to his gospel roots with his latest solo album.
This past year has been a particular sad one for fans of the seventies soul group The Manhattans. The group, famed for songs such as ‘Hurt’, ‘Shining Star’, and the UK-fan favourite ‘Crazy’, lost original members Edward ‘Sonny’ Bivins, Winfred ‘Blue’ Lovett, and Kenneth ‘Wally’ Kelly all passed away in the space of less than three months, leaving lead singer Gerald Alston the last surviving member of the group from their hey-day. The group formed in 1962 with original lead singer George Smith, but tragedy struck Smith in 1970 when he suffered a fall down a flight of stairs leaving him unable to perform. In search of a new lead the group turned to Gerald Alston, a man of incredible vocal ability, to take over.
In 1973 the group released the worldwide smash ‘Kiss And Say Goodbye’, cementing the group in R&B and soul music history as well as highlighting the sophisticated soulful nature of Alston’s lead. The group would go through the turmoil that many R&B groups would go through; today Alston fronts a revamped version of the group (and are sounding good from clips we’ve seen) featuring the talents of Dave Tyson, brother of none other than long time Temptations tenor Ron Tyson, Troy May, and Dwight Fields. In addition to touring, Alston has recently released a very enjoyable new gospel album entitled True Gospel that he has kindly sent us here at The Funk & Soul Revue.
The decision to release a gospel is perhaps not surprising given Alston’s upbringing in the church: his dad was the Reverend J.B Alston, and his uncle was Johnny Fields of the gospel super-group the Five Blind Boys of Alabama. Like so many of the great soul vocalists, Alston grew up singing gospel with his group the New Imperials which also performed as the Gospel Jubilee. Now, more than four decades later, Alston has released this incredible new album True Gospel. Even if you’re not religious you can still find great enjoyment and comfort in gospel music; some of the best voices can be found on the gospel scene, and many of the greats learnt their vocal craft performing gospel songs. If you’ve never listened to gospel music there’s probably no better place to start than with True Gospel: this brilliant new collection shows Alston to be in fine voice, it is beautifully produced, mixing that familiar Manhattans R&B/soul sound with Alston’s love of gospel.
The opener ‘Back To Basics’ is brilliant: featuring Mel Holder on saxophone, it has a smooth jazz, smooth soul feel to it, and its wonderful. Alston still has his voice, sounding elegant as ever. The song re-traces Alston’s upbringing in the church, pleading to the listener ‘to go back to the basics’, back to the time of worship and prayer. It’s very well produced and Holder’s saxophone is nothing short of delicious. ‘I’m Glad’ begins like a classic Blind Boys of Alabama track would, leading into a great horn arrangement, great background vocals, and some more vocal magic by Alston. Anyone who doubts whether Alston still has it should put this track on immediately.
Another highlight from this outstanding album is Alston’s take on ‘Jesus Gave Me Water’, a real foot-stomping rendition of the song made famous by The Soul Stirrers and Sam Cooke. The inclusion of a gospel choir as well is impressive, and they back up Alston’s soulful lead gorgeously. Once again, Alston demonstrates on this one that he has lost none of his range over the years, reaching the highs and lows throughout his take on this classic.
Other vocalists join Alston on True Gospel: on ‘Irreplaceable’ Alston is joined by Grammy-Award winner Regina Belle, another vocalist of immense talent, and on ‘Yes, God is Real’ his son joins in a particularly emotional and poignant reading of the song. His son has clearly has inherited much of his father’s musical ability. Most impressively is the inclusion of the ‘Prince of Sophisticated Soul’ Will Downing on ‘Jesus Is A Friend of Mine’. This collaboration is a match made in musical heaven, with Downing bringing his unique brand of classy neo-soul to the album. Downing’s incredible smooth and silky voice contrasts stunningly with Alston’s gruffer voice, both complimenting each other rather than trying to out-sing each other. There’s even a nod to the Manhattans with the brilliant inclusion of ‘Shining Star’ at the bridge. This is definitely the highlight of the album.
All in all, True Gospel is a stunning album from Gerald Alston and deserves much more attention than it’s currently receiving. That however is the tragedy of the modern music business: whilst Alston can draw thousands of people to see The Manhattans perform their classic hits, he will struggle to get the attention and sales that this album deserves. In part this is the fault of the record companies who chase trends rather than good quality music, but it is also partially the fault of the fans that too often dismiss new releases by such legendary artists, preferring to stick with what they know. On True Gospel Alston has proven that such artists can still produce brilliant music, and has set a great example to his contemporaries who might consider releasing new music in the future. We can only urge all soul music fans reading this to check this superb album out.
(On a personal note, The Manhattans were one the groups that hooked us to soul music. As a teenager Haff acquired/stole his parents record collection, and one record in particular caught his interest: a 12” single of The Manhattan’s ‘Crazy’, backed with ‘Kiss And Say Goodbye’, ‘Hurt’ and ‘Shining Star’. The Manhattans quickly became one of his favourite ‘70s groups, and he spent an inordinate amount of time tracking down a copy of their excellent Forever By Your Side album on vinyl. Now to be in contact with Mr Alston and for him to be so generous with his new release means a lot to us here at The Funk & Soul Revue, and we thank him for his kindness and wish him all the success he deserves with True Gospel and with The Manhattans.)