“Her words have a clear message, but her deep feeling could move anyone.”
Photo: Houston Cofield
Elizabeth King is a remarkable woman. She was the female lead of a successful, previously all-male gospel group, The Gospel Souls, in the 1960s and 70s, which had a significant gospel hit on the D-Vine Spirituals label, I Heard the Voice.
She quit singing professionally to raise her children, and now, after a hiatus of nearly 50 years, she has gone into the studio to record a fabulous new blues-tinged gospel album, Living in the Last Days, on Bruce Watson’s new Bible and Tire label. [check out our interview with Bruce here]
Her powerful vocal performance on the record, reminiscent at times of Mavis Staples, is supported by a top-class band assembled by Watson (Will Sexton and Matt Ross-Spang (guitars), George Sluppick (drums), Mark Edgar Stuart (bass), and Al Gamble (organ)) and features the excellent harmonies of Christopher and Courtney Barnes from The Sensational Barnes Brothers. It’s a funky, blues, soul-filled pot of rich gospel fare.
Down at the Crossroads called Ms. King at her Memphis home, and asked her about making the album. She said first of all that this album was her debut solo album and it’s been forty-seven years since she stopped singing professionally. She told me that she was “just sitting at home one day,” when Pastor Shipp, the founder of the 1970s D-Vine Spirituals label, who had recently started collaborating with Bruce Watson, called her up. “And he asked me, did I want to record again? I told him, yeah. That’s how it came to be.”
From initial call to getting into the studio was very quick – “Yeah, no time for rehearsal or nothing,” said Elizabeth.
I asked her about the songs on the album, all terrific, positive songs. She told me that there are some that she has been singing for many years, and some that Bruce Watson brought to her. “And then there are a couple of songs on there I did myself that I have been singing from when I was, you know, a child growing up. The song Walk with Me, my mom used to sing that to me. And then, I got a song, Blessed Be the Name, I kinda got most of that out of the Bible.”
She sings this song unaccompanied on the album, a quite spine-tingling performance. The song tells the story of Job, perhaps a story that not a lot of people are familiar with these days. Job is a character in the Old Testament book of the same name, who suffers tremendous loss, including his family and all his possessions, but somehow is able to say, “God gives and takes away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”
“To me,” she told me, the story “means that we can be blessed, in that God gives us a thing, and he has a right to take it away. And, I take the role of Job to just be patient. And when things are going good, or going bad, you just have to be patient.”
That’s a lesson that Elizabeth King has learned through the ups and downs of life. “Well, I kind of learned it mostly through my lifetime. And when I was a child – because my mom, you know, would tell me she gonna give us something, but you got to wait for it. So, as I got older. I found out that if you really want something, just wait, it’ll come.”
Elizabeth King was born in 1944 and grew up in Charleston, in Tallahatchie County, Mississippi. Life wasn’t easy, with the young Elizabeth having to help the family pick cotton before going to school each day. Positive person that she is, she had nothing negative to say about that.
“Well, to me it was fun, I guess, because that was all I knew. And we had to walk a long way to school and I would get tired walking, so my brothers would carry me because I was younger than they were. But it was a lot of picking cotton and chopping cotton. I loved to chop cotton. It really wasn’t so hard for me because I guess I was the only girl in the family and my brothers kinda spoiled me a little bit.”
I mentioned one of the songs on the album to her, Testify, which is a rocking, upbeat number. I wondered if, looking back over the years, this song of a testimony to God’s goodness and God’s guiding hand, reflects her own experience?
She told me that she had recorded a version of this song back in 1970, but was keen to have it on this new album, though rearranged somewhat. “It’s been a part of my life, because I’ve gone through quite a bit. I got fifteen children, and I’ve gone through three accidents. So, I do have a testimony.”
Elizabeth King quit recording music in the mid-seventies to concentrate on family life. She told me she has fifteen children, 57 grandchildren and 33 great-grandchildren. And she is proud of every one of them, including some of her grandchildren who are now recording artists in their own right.
“When my children were small, I stopped. Let’s see, what year was that? It’d be around, 1970, maybe 1972, and an opportunity for travel overseas came. But my children, my older two, were small and I didn’t want to leave them. So, I stayed at home to raise my children. Everybody said ‘you won’t get a chance to do your dream if you have to wait until your kids get grown.’ But I still have an opportunity. I just still believe I would have an opportunity to sing, you know?”
And here she is, all these years later, having just made this wonderful album. Not that she had quit singing entirely – for many years she has been singing in her church choir and singing solos. But “the only music and singing I know is a spiritual song and they call it a gospel song.” She was never interested in sing the blues or R&B.
“I guess because my heart just wasn’t in it. I didn’t like going to parties and stuff like that when I was young, I just didn’t like it because I always was afraid of drunk people.”
I asked Ms. King why music is important to her, and in particular, why gospel music is so important to her. She told me that it was her way of communicating with God and the source of God’s power in her life – to help her “be a better person. That’s what inspires me.”
And what does she think is at the heart of gospel music? The music, the feeling, the words?
“The words mostly would count for me. The music is good, don’t get me wrong. But it’s the words that carry the message for me. Because you know, you got some songs that they call gospel songs but they really don’t have too much of a meaning. But when you sing songs like Precious Lord or Amazing Grace, when you sing songs like that, it touches people’s heart. If you do it from your heart it’s going to reach the heart of any man, whether he’s saved or unsaved, and you can connect to that spirit.”
She had mentioned the accidents that had affected her life and I asked in particular about the one back in 1969, that was very serious.
“That one was a serious accident. I worked for a florist at the time, and a man hit me head on. I stayed in the hospital, I think, around 17 days. I really couldn’t remember anybody coming to visit me, but there was this one priest in the hospital that would come in every morning and ask me, ‘My child. Can I pray with you today?’ I would say, Yes. And so, when I came to myself, I was asking the staff, you know, the nurses about him. And they said that they didn’t have anybody on their staff like that. So, I said, who was this? Now I never could see his face, so I just described his body and what he had on and all of that. And they said, ‘we don’t have anybody like this on the staff.’ So, I just started praying and I just knew it was God. I knew I was in bad shape. I really was; I had to learn to walk all over again.”
With her remarkable recovery, Elizabeth King said she “dedicated my life to God, to my singing and to try to encourage people. My job now is just try to encourage people…when you’re going through something, just turn to God. If you don’t know him, get to know him.”
I wondered how Ms. King had got on with the musicians when she’d gone into the studio to make this record, and how had she learned the songs so quickly.
“Oh, they had the music all lined up for me and I don’t know, I just sing to the music! I used to be real fast learner when I was young, but the process of learning now is quite a bit slower, as I get older. But it wasn’t hard for me to adapt to the music because, you know, I never stopped singing. I’ve been singing all the time. I just hadn’t recorded.”
The album finishes with a very cool, bluesy version of one of my favourite songs, You Got to Move, famously recorded by Mississippi Fred McDowell and then, of course, the Rolling Stones on their Sticky Fingers album. I’ve always thought of that song as a resurrection song. When the Lord gets ready, you gotta move – it always reminds me of Ezekiel’s valley of the dry bones. Elizabeth agreed and said, “I would say no matter what nobody tried to do to keep you here, when it’s time for God to say you got to move, you got to move. I just love it.”
I asked her about another song on the album, A Long Journey, another one about Christian hope which talks about going home to get your crown. Elizabeth said, “My mom used to sing that to me when I was a child. Now that was a long time ago because I’m 76 years old! And that song has been with me all these years, but she used to tell me that I’m gonna leave you one day. I’m going on a long journey and I won’t be back. And I tell you, that song, it has stayed with me in the heart, and anytime I record an album, A Long Journey going to be on there.”
We finished up our conversation by talking about Elizabeth’s faith, which is clearly central to her life and being. She told me, “It’s been important to me because of the things that I suffered, things that happened to me, a lot of things that I had to go through. My faith made me strong about suffering, that’s what made me strong.” Life has not been easy for her, but she is certain that it was God that kept her going in the hard times and it was her faith that sustained her. “I believe in God, God gives me strength. And that would keep me going.”
Elizabeth King is a remarkable woman. She is positive, upbeat, ready to take on the next challenge and opportunity in life. She is a breath of fresh air. Here’s what she finished our chat with:
“Every day I get up, I thank God. Just let me be able to just take care of myself you know, and I just thank him. And I’m going to keep on trusting him until the time comes when he says that you gotta move!”
Living in the Last Days is testimony to Elizabeth King’s remarkable spirit and faith. Not only that, it’s a top-notch album, full of great songs, music that touches you, and Ms. King’s powerful vocal performance. It’s a gift for us all.