Stan Whitmire’s Old Time Gospel Piano

Thankfully, only the title of this album sounds like a show at Branson.

Whitmire’s cd of old-timey gospel standards has been in my car for the past however many weeks (months?) since Mark Lowry was in town, and it’s captivated me, even though finally it leaves me disappointed (more on that in a moment). As you might recall from a while back, I’ve been looking for some straightahead get-along, well-played solo piano that instead of relying on ginned up orchestral majesty taps into the deeply satisfying rhythms and memorable melodies and happy harmonies of those old songs. To access the best parts of gospel music on the solo piano, it takes the patience of the singularly focused player undistracted by back-up.

Whitmire’s may not be exactly that album, but it’s the closest thing I’ve found. To begin with, Whitmire’s technical facility at the keyboard is as nearly flawless as it comes. If he didn’t play this way in public, you’d think it was a confection of studio overdubbing. As it is, the runs and fills and arpeggiated phrases pop out at you with the kind of careful articulation (and authenticity) typically reserved for classical players. It sometimes seems as though Whitmire is a symphony unto himself.

Few people in gospel music can play this well this reliably, which is why, of course, so many fall back on the string cheese of synthesized symphonies and orchestral back-ups to cover for them when they record a solo project. To be good, solo gospel piano, especially the old stuff, has to manage to convey the vocal richness and complexity of four-part close harmony while also not losing the unique accompaniment style that defines the southern gospel player: it’s about the light touch of bridging vocal phrases when people are singing, but it’s also about jumping out into the limelight between verses or during turnarounds to quickly and evocatively establish a melody or leading theme or key change. The latter part most gospel pianists have down cold. But conveying the vocal style of gospel harmonics requires more than just tone painting, though it requires that too. It’s a matter of using careful shifts in registers, pacing, and emphasis to suggest where the harmonic or melodic center of the song would be if it were being sung. Sounds easy maybe, but remember: there are four voices in a quartet but only two hands to your average pianist.

Whitmire is strongest when he sticks closest to the unadorned convention and quartet styles: “I’m Winging My Way,” “I’ve Got that Old Time Religion” (minus the contrived and hokey bar-room and Rockettes ending), and “Do Right and Come Smiling Through” — all songs that succeed by effectively avoiding the slide into excessive ragtime or bluesy flavoring that muddy things up stylistically in almost all the other cases.

But those three songs are enough for me. They capture the effusive pull of the church-lady strides and the head-thrown-back boomchuck exuberance long associated with the best gospel players. In addition to this, though, Whitmire has brought to these songs the eyes and ears of a musical theoretician. He doesn’t do anything that wouldn’t have necessarily been beyond Eva Mae or Rosa Nell or Tommy Fairchild or other masters of the style in their prime. But Whitmire consciously weaves into these arrangements subtleties of structure and thematic figures in a way that foregrounds not just the tunefulness of southern gospel but its musical sophistication as well. In so doing, he reminds us that we diminish ourselves and the gospel tradition to mistake its simple beauties for aesthetic simplism. As it turns out, those old masters only made it look easy.

My biggest complaint is that the album tries too hard too much of the time. In striving to faithfully capture the vocal intensity of the southern gospel style, Whitmire’s arrangements achieve harmonic verisimilitude at the expense of listenability (though to be fair, this is a critique that could be made of a lot of southern gospel singers and groups). Too many of the songs contain so much fancy-fingered filigree that they create a claustrophobic, mildly oppressive atmosphere. Nary a beat of breathing space is left anywhere in any song. What white space there is (usually near the beginning of songs) quickly gets smothered by dazzling but dizzying displays of virtuosity. “Goodbye World, Goodbye” is illustrative of what I mean: playing all the vocal parts AND providing fantastically arabesque fills between virtually every vocal phrases may technically capture the song’s frenetic style, but by the end of this and many other songs, you’re left with a suffocating feeling, the desire for someone to open a window or something.

Sometimes it’s the notes you don’t play, and I’m sure an accomplished player such as Whitmire knows this. But that only makes for more disappointment (which is why even or especially people who can arrange their own stuff this well should always collaborate with someone of equal or greater ability). What keeps this good album from being great is not the absence of brilliance but an embarrassment of riches – such an overabundance of ability and insight into the pleasures of the gospel piano that nothing is omitted … and all the oxygen gets sucked out of the room.

PS: I didn’t see David Bruce Murray’s inclusion of Whitmire in his underrated geniuses category until after I posted this, and/but obviously I’d second that emotion.

Update: Let me clarify what I say above about Whitmire not doing anything on this album that some of the old timers couldn’t do: My point was not to suggest (though I inadvertently did, I realize) that Whitmire is no better than your average great sg pianist. In fact, he is, as far as I can tell, probably single most talented player to work in the form. But on this particular project there isn’t anything here that necessarily stands out as clearly beyond the ability of some of the best who’ve been on stage (though of course feel free to disagree with me). On this album, Whitmire seems to be focusing on certain skill sets that are more in line with what an Eva Mae or Rosa Nell et al might have done if they had really pushed themselves. Which makes sense, given the title of the album. Now, whether they have actually played that well before is another question. What isn’t in question though, as far as I’m concerned, is that Whitmire is a superior player in general. I’m sure there are albums out there that bear this out, as David Bruce Murray suggests. But in this case, I was only speaking of the Old Time project. Anyway, I probably could (and definitely should) have been clearer.

Later (related) update: For what it’s worth, reader DA has posted this clip of Eva Mae and the LeFevres on youtube. Idn’t grand?

 

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Comments

  1. Bryce wrote:

    “He doesn’t do anything that wouldn’t have necessarily been beyond Eva Mae or Rosa Nell or Tommy Fairchild or other masters of the style in their prime.”

    I recommend you purchase the companion folio to this CD. Walking tenths in the left hand, similar to those used by Fats Waller and Art Tatum (two other “fancy-fingered” stride piano masters who are now heralded as geniuses) are physically impossible to navigate for most southern gospel players.

    Icons like Burger often assumed the second inversion and alternated pinky with thumb and first to carry the rhythm. Others such as Bennett frequently allowed the bass guitar to catch the downbeats, and instead chorded on beats two and three (or four). The pianists you named are/were wonderful, but Whitmire is most assuredly capable beyond those who preceded him.

  2. Bobbie wrote:

    I am a frequent reader of this blog, and it is always well written. Sometimes it teaches me and other times it is “over my head.” This post is of the second kind.
    Stan Whitmire is one of my favorite solo pianists, and I always enjoy when he plays for some group (like Greater Vision) at NQC.
    I’ve had and enjoyed the project you write
    about here although I didn’t know all the technical reasons that it works for listeners like me. Thanks for writing about an older CD (I think it was done around 10 years ago). Wonder what Stan will think about this analysis of his playing??

  3. David Bruce Murray wrote:

    Whitmire has long been a favorite of mine ever since I bought a copy of _Old Time Southern Gospel Piano_. (It just suddenly hit me that I don’t have any selections from this CD on my iRiver. Then, I just went to the shelf and I couldn’t find it!!! ARRRGHGH!)

    I also own a copy of the folio. You owe it to yourself to obtain a copy for yourself before you go so far as say, “He doesn’t do anything that wouldn’t have necessarily been beyond Eva Mae or Rosa Nell or Tommy Fairchild or other masters of the style in their prime.”

    I believe he does.
    http://www.stanwhitmire.com/books.html

  4. David Bruce Murray wrote:

    I just noticed the description of the book on Stan’s website:
    “Old Time Gospel
    Piano Song Book

    Here’s the music for all the Gospel songs on this CD!

    You can sit down at the piano and learn how to play these songs.”

    I wish…

  5. Joe wrote:

    One reason why Stan’s incredible version of “Goodbye World, Goodbye” is so incredible, is that he is playing 2 pianos.

    At 2 separate times. If I am not mistaken, that is the only song on the CD that has double keyboards…

  6. Al Locke wrote:

    I have know Stan since he was a young teenager. One of his teachers was Eloise Phillips, Roswell, GA. She probably has taught more quality SG pianist than anyone in this era. Of course, Tracey Phillips is her daughter. Eloise still teaches at Ben Speer’s school every year.
    Stan is the premier SG pianist today.

  7. Alan wrote:

    As spectacular as Anthony Burger’s piano was, there was a sameness about much of his arranging. Not Stan. Your opinion, Doug, that there was just “too much” on too many of these songs, and not enough time to breathe, is fine. We’re all entitled to our opinions. My take, however, is that if these most stupendous fills made every song sound the same, then I would agree. But, even with so many old-time convention songs, there’s still a breathtaking eclecticism in both style and execution when Stan is playing them. Best of all, he can then turn around and play something that’s as sparse yet technically perfect, as he does on Mark Lowry’s “Come To Jesus”, or LordSong’s “Wandering Heart”, and his treatment of ballads and/or “feel” songs is no less spectacular than his blinding runs on the CD you mentioned. On one of the Gaither “Heaven” DVD’s, Whitmire accompanies David Phelps on “O Love That Will Not Let Me Go”. Phelps nails it, as he tends to do, :-) but Stan’s accompaniment on solo piano alone, is worth the $30 cost of the DVD. Chalk me up as one who believes that overall, both in technicality and precision, as well as passion, he’s the very best who has ever played Gospel piano. Bar none. That he’s left out of award after award is one of the biggest mysteries to me. Maybe it’s because he doesn’t show off, or hog the limelight enough. Ah well…that’s fine with me too. His quiet dignity, and that neat little smile says it all when he plays. He’s at the very top of the very top of his craft, and listening to him is a textbook lesson in piano perfection.

  8. RR wrote:

    I have been very impressed with the piano artistry of Tim Parton.

  9. cdguy wrote:

    RR - thank you for the props to Tim. He is a friend, and an extremely talented artist. He, like Stan, knows how to be a true accompanist, when that’s what’s called for, and how to impress us with flash, when that’s called for. And he’s able to discern the time and place for each.

    Tim was out of the limelight for too many years, and many sg fans were not aware of him and his talent, until he began playing for L5. I’m glad to see him in a place of service, where he can get the recognition he deserves.

    And also I’m glad the L5 fans have embraced him. He’s not Roger, but no one is. Roger’s shoes were big ones to fill, but I think Tim, with his own personality and style, is a nice fit with the other guys of L5.

  10. Rrockindrummer wrote:

    Avery– have only one statement for you since you are an obviously uninformed writer.
    I have listened to this CD’s in fact…. It stays in my car, as well as a copy in the house.
    It is probably my most favorite Record that Stanley has recorded, second only to “Seasons of Life.” To which I am sure you have never heard, because I do not believe you could fully appreciate the pure genius artistry displayed in every note…

    That said, I take a little bit of offence to you statement about the “contrived and hokey bar-room and Rockettes ending” PUH…LEZ… he is just trying to shake a little dust off you stuck in the mud die harts… If you know him you would know that that Jazz blues feel, is because he likes that kind of music… Of course if you knew him you would also know that that CD is a dedicated project to the late D.J. Whitmire (His Father) who was a gem of a man, and loved this music just the way Stanley played it..…..

    If he really cut loose he would blow Anthony out of the water (rest his soul)
    I want to see you attempt to play like Stan.

    Oh and Joe,, there is only ONE piano being used on “Good by World” yep’ he’s that good.

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