The Case for the Cathedrals Greatness

(I of III)
I’ve been thinking a lot these past few days about a song the Cathedrals recorded fifteen or so years ago for their 25th-anniversary celebration album. The project as a whole is by no means the Cathedrals’ best studio work (that would be High and Lifted Up). The 25th anniversary thing is, overall, serviceable at best, except for an old, short tune near the middle called “Life Will be Sweeter:”

Jesus said it; I believe it:
Life will be sweeter some day.
I’m gonna trust him, never doubt him,
No matter what the folks may say.
CAN’T TURN AWAY FROM HIM LIGHTLY.
[Trammel’s line:] Because the joys of heaven I’ll miss.
[Ensemble again] And I will live on, up in glory, after while, after while.

I first “reheard” this song on my way back from Chicago in the summer of 1999 about 3:30 in the morning somewhere in the middle of Wisconsin. I do this every so often, rediscover a tune buried on a CD somewhere that I’ve forgotten about and then, having “found” it again, will play it until I sing it in my sleep, wake up with it on my lips and in my ears, reflexively hear its arrangement, solos and modulations and harmonies in my head without intending to, get perfectly sick of it even though I can’t seem to hear it enough. Anyway, this tune opens with four bars of Gary Lunn bass and Lari Goss keyboards in a lilting, soothing simplicity that the tune sustains, like a meditation, throughout. I thought then in the middle of all those dairy farms, as I do still now, that that style and form are quintessential Cats: four voices, a bass and a keyboard. I cried in the car, listening to it over and over, laughing out loud at the stunning brilliance of the keyboard-and-bass bridge of 16 plain, classic bars … no notes more complicated than basic quarters and eighths, just tastefully played with the expert sense of rhythm and beauty that transforms the tune from the mundane world of a dashed-off anniversary sale-bin special to something nearly supernatural, yet so palpably real.

“Oh What a Savior,” revisited (II of III)
One morning not too long after rediscovering “Life Will be Sweeter,” I put in the “Cathedrals Alive: Deep in the Heart of Texas” and turned it up (I lived in the far northern reaches of Minnesota at the time and my very unsouthern neighbors must surely have wondered). By the time I am out of the shower and dressed, “Oh What a Savior” is playing and Ernie Haase is standing ‘em up with that second verse and then the rest of the guys join in … “Oh what a savior, oh Hallelujah / His heart was broken” … Roger Bennett plays that little riff to bridge the phrases, and in the quiet of the moment just before the vocals return, some guy in the back rows (standing, I imagine to myself, as I walk into the living room and reach for the remote to increase the volume yet again), shouts “Praise the Lord.” George hears the guy and chuckles in that way he had, as if to say, “Oh, my goodness we’ve been so blessed,” and (here’s the best part) instead of singing the next line with Glen and Fowler and Haase, George, ever so kindly, lightly really, almost to himself, it seems, says, “Thank you Lord.” And that’s it. I can’t take it. I hop around my little living room, laughing and crying and just can’t stand it. The song tumbles toward that final climax, first gently, then more intensely, then fantastically, powerfully … the voices rising, reaching … Fowler’s bass falling, thumping steadily, syncopated against George’s attacks on the descending bass notes … until finally the resolution sets in and the crowd screams, babies fly, arms wave, hands clapping. … And George instinctively takes control of the moment: he laughs with such genuine rapture at what’s just happenned, “Yeah! … Ernie Haase … ” more rapturous laughter, “that’s thuh waytta sing that song right there, boys, Oh, whatta savior! Glooory!…” and so on and so forth. That’s the first time I had heard truly what was going on in that song. I had heard, of course, George chuckle between phrases in the chours every other time I had listened to the track. But that morning, with my freshly showered self and my scrubbed ears keenly peeled, that was the first time I’d ever heard the guy in the back rows of the audience … listen to it yourself: turn it up and put some head phones on (squeeze them really tight to your ears); you’ll hear him too, I bet. He couldn’t stand it any more either, just had to shout, and George magically makes that guy’s declaratory outburst a part of the song, a part of the moment, the phrase, the praise. It is not, in George’s deft, capable, brilliant stage hands, an interruption, but an augmentation to this tune they’ve staged countless times before. With that simple rhetorical trick, that split-second awareness, George gave those folks in that big Baptist church not the umpteen-thousandth rendition of “Oh What a Savior,” but a tune just for them, a creation of that night only, one that they won’t ever forget hearing.

The case for the Cathedrals’ greatness (III of III)
I remember Ernie Haase at the quartet convention’s Catherdals reunion a few years back, describing what George said to him once when he, Haase, complained about having to sing “Oh What A Savior” night after night: “George told me,” Haase said, “’some singers go their whole career without having even one song to call their own. ‘You should be thankful,’ he said to me, ‘that you have that tune.’” Remarkable. Unbelievable brilliance, not just from George Younce (a genius to be sure), but in a way, a summation of the ethos behind the group’s success. The Cats went out night after night for most of the last three decades of the twentieth century with nothing but a keyboard, a bass and four voices. No stack tracks (at least not many), no DAT bands, no dubbed choirs (at least only a few now and then). Just them. And they sang, most of time (except those few years there toward the end of the Funderburk era that weren’t so swell, Funderburk being at the time so out of shape vocally and all) with a degree of expertise and mastery that astounds me even now. Some groups lurch about for years, decades constantly reinventing themselves (”We sing the classic quartet music of the 50s and 60s;” “We’re the ones with clever, reliable stunts;” “Look, over here … we’ve got a flag corps and a petition you can sign”). Which is to say, some groups, to adapt George’s line, are lucky ever to find one stable style of their own. But with discipline and diligence, the Cats patiently tilled the fertile ground that George and Glenn staked out for the group from the beginning. The pricey clothes and the classy stage presence, the snazzy bus, the posh island at the convention exhibit hall, the glossy PR - these things didn’t pave the way for their success but proceeded from them and the elegance embodied in that wonderful name, Cathedral. Their first worry was not so much their look, or their signature stunt, or a trick to set them apart, but the sound, THEIR sound. Not the sound of their voices with DAT tracks and voiceovers and dubbing, but their voices, alone, and whether or not they could stand, vocally and instrumentally, on their own if the power went out. They could, of course, and the plan worked … famously well. The class and the elegance came later, maybe naturally, from the graceful, skilled way they did their music. The first-rate emcee work, the tasteful, right-on comedy, the balance of two old codgers and three young guys - all that came later. What propelled the Cathedrals’ success and enabled their unforgettable music, and what sustained their unrivaled dominance of southern gospel music was that delicate cocktail of style, real style: a sound that is easy to recognize, difficult to describe, and impossible to imitate.

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