Tim Dillinger reviews “Soul And Inspiration” the 1969 album by one of the true icons in the world of gospel music…

Remembered as one of Aretha Franklin’s primary influences, gospel pioneer Clara Ward’s career had three major phases. The first was in gospel music’s golden era in the late 1940s and early 1950s as she and The Famous Ward Singers made history with hits like “Surely God Is Able” and “Packing Up” which remain staples in the gospel repertoire. When her first round of singers, which included Marion Williams, Kitty Parham, Frances Steadman, left, her sound shifted as she began straying from the harder gospel sound into a gospel-pop fusion and cultivating a more choreographed performance style.  In the early ’60s, she sent shock waves through the gospel community when she began a third musical chapter taking her brand of gospel pop into nightclubs.

Her recorded content at the beginning of this third chapter was a fusion of Clara’s originals and gospel songs that non-churched audiences would have familiarity with like “When the Saints Go Marching In” and “Old Time Religion.” But in 1966, she would further scandalize the gospel community by recording popular “inspirational” tunes that were not culled from the songbook of gospel pearls for Verve Records. In 1969, she signed with Capitol Records and recorded her third album of this kind.  Thankfully, Capitol has reissued it digitally–the only one of her inspirational albums that has been made available to the streaming outlets.

Produced by David Axelrod (who worked consistently with Lou Rawls at Capitol Records for much of the singer’s tenure with the label throughout the ‘60s) and arranged and conducted by H.B. Barnum (who would, ironically, serve as Aretha Franklin’s musical director for three decades), Soul and Inspiration is bold from its first note, a daring and inventive reimagining of “Born Free,” which had been a hit for Roger Williams a few years before. While Ward’s singers are uncredited, Ward Singer Vermettya Royster (later of Sisters Love) can be heard on the scorching “yeah, yeah, yeahs” that turn this one-time adult contemporary tune into a soul-searching showdown. Similarly, Ward turns Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” on its ear, chock full of groove, punchy horns, and the signature call-and-response vocals from the Ward Singers.

Ward, who always saw herself as a hymn singer at the end of the day, shines on the ballads. She approaches “The Impossible Dream” from Man of La Mancha as just that, delivering a vocal that certainly lands in one of this writer’s five favorite Clara Ward performances.  She approaches “Somewhere” from West Side Story like a contemporary gospel ballad, complete with choral vocals, taking liberties with the song’s structure. These kinds of liberties are often offensive to purists, but it’s that audacity that kept Ward relevant, proving the power of the gospel sound. While her arrangements of “What the World Needs Now” and “Feeling Good” may not sustain the power of their most famous versions (by Dionne Warwick and Nina Simone, respectively), this doesn’t mean they should be skipped or avoided. Hearing how Ward (and Barnum) perceived these songs is an awe-inducing event.

For any who have never taken time to listen to Clara Ward, let Soul & Inspiration serve as your gateway to one of contemporary gospel’s early architects who has, simply by way of Aretha Franklin’s influence, deeply impacted the face of popular music.

Tim Dillinger, February 2022