Jack Ward was a successful Stax recording artist, but, remarkably, has never made an album – until now. At a lively 83 years old, he has released a fabulous album of bluesy, soulful gospel songs, Already Made, on Bruce Watson’s Bible and Tire Recording Co. label.
“I was born in the country,” says Jack, “and I would hear Elmore James, John Lee Hooker, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Howlin’ Wolf, all of them guys — and I used to patronize them, and sing like them a little bit, but I came back to my roots. I used to do a lot of blues singing but I broke from that and got into the gospel.”
Jack was the lead vocalist in a 1960s group along with Isaac Hayes on piano and had several hit records with both Stax Records and Peacock Records. He retired from professional singing to concentrate on being a church pastor in Memphis, and although his outstanding singing voice has been heard often in his church, this outstanding release from Bible and Tire gives the rest of us the opportunity to appreciate his considerable songwriting and vocal talent.
Elder Jack Ward’s re-discovery comes as a result of Bruce Watson working with Juan D Shipp on the old D-Vine Spiritual’s back catalogue. On finding some of the artists still alive and active, Watson has had them in the studio, with brilliant results. Elizabeth King’s Living in the Last Days was released to considerable critical acclaim and now we have Ward’s Already Made. [Catch our interview with the remarkable Elizabeth King here.] Produced by Watson and Sacred Soul Sound Section leader Will Sexton at Memphis’s Delta-Sonic Sound Studio, the ten song program features the warmly-recorded winning ingredients that are becoming a trademark of Bible and Tire’s patented Sacred Soul sound, from Ward’s spirited vocals to the crack studio band laying down the grooves behind him.
I was delighted to get the opportunity to chat to Elder Jack Ward about the album, his music and life. I found him justifiable proud of his past singing career, performing and recording in the 1960s.
“I did a recording with Stax, Don’t Need No Doctor. It’s been so long, man, fifty years, but that’s what put me on the top. It was all just about for two years a hit. The Christian Harmonizers, we were with Stax and we went out on the road. I did a lot of writing myself, my own songs. And then I put a group together called The Gospel Four. That’s when we put out, Look Down the Lonesome Road and Change Gonna Come. And that put me in the spotlight.”
When you listen to Jack Ward sing, you hear a soulful tenor voice, with great range and a sweet falsetto. I asked about choosing gospel music rather than blues or soul.
“My mom, she was a singer and, I used to hear her – see, I’m a country boy – she used to pick cotton in the country and drive tractors and mules and she would sing songs. She was the one that kept me in the church whenever I was a lad of a boy. I was the only son and I had two sisters.”
Jack was singing from a young age, better, he said, than the “white boys” he knew, who would get him to sing for them in Moorhead Mississippi. “They heard me sing and I was I think about 10. I’d say, ‘Come on, who you want to hear?’ I used to do Earnest Tubb’s Walking the Floor Over You, Hank Williams and all of that. And they would give me a dime, fifteen cents.”
Jack left his home on the farm and came to Memphis when he was 18 – “I had it in mind to make me a hit record.” He went back and forth for a couple of years, but settled, he told me, when he was 21 and has been in Memphis ever since.
“And I had my mind set to come to Memphis to sing blues or rock ’n’ roll.” But some school friends said to him, ‘Look, man, we need you to sing gospel,’ so he joined the Christian Harmonizers, making a number of successful gospel records before going on to form the Gospel Four in 1968. The Gospel Four had an altogether different sound and style than the Christian Harmonizers, as exemplified by the gripping testimonial The Last Road and the mid-tempo, minor-keyed A Change Is Gonna Come.
“That was something that I enjoyed in my heart,” Jack told me, “and maybe this stopped me going to rock and roll and the blues and I’m glad that I turned around and got into the gospel.”
He earned the moniker “Jumping Jack Ward” around this time, “because, you know, I had a little jump from the singing. It was no outstanding thing, it just made me feel good. And I just do my little thing and they called Jumping Jack Ward.”
For the last fifty years, though, Jack has been Elder Jack Ward. He had started pastoring before his professional singing career finished – “I was doing evangelism and so on” – and went on to found the Earth Temple Holiness Church, which he has led for the past 57 years, although he started to “pass things back” a while ago.
Jack is clearly – and justifiably – quite delighted about the new album and the opportunity to get on the road. “Now this would be my first album [as opposed to 45 singles]. So this is where I am now at this time. I plan to do some traveling as soon as we get everything lined up. I’m an 83-year-old man!”
Watson feels that Already Made is one of the best albums he’s ever produced – given some of the albums he’s worked on at Fat Possum, that’s saying a lot. It is, indeed, very, very good, with Ward’s soulful vocals beautifully backed by both his daughters and Bible and Tire label mates the Sensational Barnes Brothers. Guitarists Will Sexton and Matt Ross-Spang add a little magic to the mix, adding variety to the songs, from the distortion on He’s Got Great Things to the cool reverb of Shout Trouble’s Over to the shimmering vibrato of God’s Love.
God’s Love is a lovely song, with Ward’s tender vocals giving a great sense of somebody who has personally experienced God’s love and care over the years, despite life’s difficulties.
“When you weak, he will make you strong, when you’re lonely, he would never leave you alone. So that was a comfort to me a whole lot. I didn’t drop out. I just kept doing what God had gave me from birth. I love that one, God’s Love.”
Other songs, like Someone Who Is Greater Than Me, Lord I’m In Your Care and God’s Got a Hold of My Hands, all convey the same positive message of Ward’s experience of faith in the nitty gritty of his own life and those of the many people he has pastored over the years.
He’s someone who knows about hard times – not that he’ll be forthcoming in complaining in any way. I asked him, for example, about his early life, and he told me about life in a family of sharecroppers in rural Mississippi in the first half of the last century. Life wasn’t easy, to say the least.
“We was raised up on a farm. I had to work on the farm, my family and I, and my two sisters. And we had to chop cotton, pick cotton. When I turned 17, I was working with my father and some men that he had hired. And we cut wood for cross ties that goes on the rail road. So I was working, doing, the job that men was doing. I was pretty apt to catch on.
“And, as I just come up through the years, I applied to use a one row planter. You had to put the mule on the row with the planter, and you had to walk on the top of it, one road planter, and man, it was hot. We was in the sun. 85 or 90, sometime they would get up there to 105. My head, it was black in the sun! I’ve done some bogus work. I’ve done everything, drove tractors and drove mules and baled hay.”
Sharecropping is a system where the landlord allows a tenant to use the land in exchange for a share of the crop. Mississippi tenant farm families were often kept severely indebted. The landlord would extend a line of credit to the sharecropper while taking the year’s crop as collateral. The sharecropper could then draw food and supplies all year long. When the crop was harvested, the harvest was sold and the debt settled, but with no added benefit for the sharecropper.
“Sharecropper,” Jack mused. “But you would get nothing out of it. You wouldn’t get anything out of that because the boss man, he tell you, ‘Well, Jordan’ – that’s my daddy’s name – he said, ‘y’all just come out, outta debt.’ And so daddy said, outta debt? He said, ‘well, we’ll loan you some money and go through the winter.’” Jack chuckled as he recounted this.
Remarkably, he remembers the good things about those days. His family never went hungry – “because, we raised vegetables and water melons, sweet potatoes, corn, popcorn. We hunted rabbits and stuff like that. And we never did get hungry.”
“I mean, back in the old days, it was pretty good, because, we didn’t have no responsibility like, lights and all of this, ‘cause we didn’t have lights. During that time we had to use kerosene, paraffin, stuff like that, and when the boss man put lights in our house, man, I tell you, I was just so happy.”
“You know, you was in the country. You didn’t have nothing too much to worry about. You had to work hard and they pay you little money. So from that point, yeah, it was tough. But, people was not sick. Like a lot of people now. See, we had chickens, geese, mules and all of that and hogs. Getting close to wintertime, dad would kill a hog. We was in the field and didn’t get sick because you would get out in the heat and sweat all that stuff out. You didn’t have no high blood pressure. They didn’t have no headaches and diabetes.”
Jack remembers being able to dress up once in a while, putting on his best shoes and a suit. “Looking back, we was taken care of. We just did so much hard work, bogus work. I call it like that. You didn’t get no pay amount to anything. I’ve chopped cotton for a dollar and a quarter a whole day. We moved on from that, but, you know, I thank God for how he kept me and I didn’t get sick and a lot, but I just thank God for this time.”
Elder Jack Ward has an incredibly positive attitude to life, and thankfulness is clearly a mark of the man. You just have to listen to He’s Got Great Things Waiting You, to get a sense of the way his faith gives him confidence in God, no matter what life throws at him. “Dry your eyes, and don’t you cry, your blessing is so nigh.”
At 83, Jack knows the road ahead is shorter than what’s behind, but his sense of gratitude, his faith and his enthusiasm for life as inspirational. “I know we all got to leave here, but a whole lot of my friends, they are gone. So I’m thankful. I thank God for just keeping me alive. And I’m doing pretty good and my ministry and then my singing career – I love both. I love singing. I love preaching. I love teaching and that’s me.”
The album finishes with Ward’s favorite, I Feel Better Since I Prayed. When I asked him about it, he got on the theme of thankfulness again.
“We do pray the prayer of Our Father, but perhaps you want to thank God for what he has done and how far he has brought you. And you look back and you see a lot of your friends and your school mates in the singers, they are gone and we are blessed to be here. Now, I’ve got a song called You’re Blessed to be Here, with the Sunset Travelers. You’re blessed to be here. And I tell people without God, we are nothing because he wakes us up in the morning. We have a lot to be thankful for.
“And I thank God every day. You know, you don’t have to be screaming, hollering, you can just pray in your spirit. When we leave home and go places, when we get ready to get out of drive, my wife prays and I’m driving. God has brought us through a lot of things. So I just take a step every day. I don’t worry about what tomorrow would bring. The Bible tells us that the morrow will take care of itself. And, we just go one day, when you wake up, you’re thankful that you are alive. I tell people when you wake up, you sit up and you get up!”
“You can give God praise, you got to tell him, thank you for another day, you kept me, you kept your arms around me.”
He may have just recorded a terrific album in Already Made, but there’re no sense of Jack Ward resting on his laurels. He’s looking to the future with a thankful heart and an optimistic spirit. “I tell people there’s a whole lot to be done and a little time to do it. So I got a message. I got a message I’m going to do on that. It’s a whole lot to be done, but a little time to do it.”
We hear you Jack.
[Check out our interview with Bruce Watson, telling the remarkable story of Bible and Tire here.]