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Elizabeth King's Gospel Sound Transports Believers And Non-Believers Alike

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Elizabeth King is a gospel singer who made some recordings in the 1970s, mostly with a male gospel group, the Gospel Souls, but she left the music business to raise 15 children. Now in her late 70s, she's released her first full-length solo album, her first new music in four decades. It's called "Living In The Last Days," and rock critic Ken Tucker says it's gospel music that will transport both believers and nonbelievers.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A LONG JOURNEY")

ELIZABETH KING: (Singing) Going on a long, long journey after a while (ph). Going on a long, long journey after a while - oh, yeah. Gonna lay my - my burden down. Gotta go home, get my crown. Going on a long, long, long journey after a while. On this...

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: Elizabeth King has indeed been on a long journey. She was singing gospel as a young woman before suffering a near-fatal auto accident in 1969. After recovering, she quit the music business because she placed the needs of her large family before her own ambition. Now, however, she's ready to resume a career that a less pious person might think was jinxed, and what a marvelous return it is.

Listen to "He Touched Me," a deceptively casual song set to an R&B shuffle beat. It possesses a kind of insinuating power. King builds in intensity with each line, singing about being touched by the inspiration of her savior.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HE TOUCHED ME")

KING: (Singing) Got a new way of walking since he touched me. Got a new way of walking since he touched me. Got a new way of walking since he touched me, since the Lord God almighty touched me. Got a brand-new talk since he touched me. Got a talk brand-new since he touched me. Got a talk brand-new since he touched me, since the Lord God almighty touched me. Got a new of way of living since he touched me. Got a new way...

TUCKER: King's voice these days has a thick muscularity, a commanding authority fraying slightly around the edges. Contrast that with the Elizabeth King of the 1970s, when with the group called the Gospel Souls, her lead vocals had a higher register but no less vigor and robustness.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DOWN HERE WAITING")

ELIZABETH KING AND THE GOSPEL SOULS: (Singing) Down here, Lord, waiting on you. Lord, I'm down here - down here - oh, waiting - waiting on you. Lord, I'm down here, Lord, oh, waiting - waiting on you. You know he can't - can't do nothing - oh, Lord - until you come. Oh, I'm singing - singing out. Still I'm waiting - waiting on you.

TUCKER: One of the key reasons we have Elizabeth King's new music is because of Bruce Watson, an engineer and producer long associated with the blues label Fat Possum Records. In recent years, Watson started a record company called Bible & Tire, in part to bring King's music to a wider audience. In 2019, Bible & Tire - the label's motto is, retread your soul - released an anthology of Elizabeth King's work with the Gospel Souls, and now there's this new solo album. Cut in Memphis, Tenn., it features a tight backup band that sometimes sounds like the soul-music makers Al Green and Willie Mitchell used for Memphis' Hi Records label.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIVING IN THE LAST DAYS")

KING: (Singing) Living in the last days - last days. Living in the last one - the last days. Living in a time when no one can see the right way. Calling right wrong - right wrong. Calling wrong right - wrong right. Makes me no why we're living in the last days. Living in the last days - last days. Living in the last one - the last days. Living in a time when no one can see the right way. After a while, they're gonna be too late, run to the rock and hide your face. The rock gonna provide no hiding place in the last days. Living in the last days - last days.

TUCKER: Hearing Elizabeth King sing so vehemently that we're living in the last days reminded me that I'm not a practicing Christian but also that gospel music very often transcends the faith it espouses. It reaches into our lives as what the Bible describes as good works, actions or deeds that make life better for us all. Certainly, the return of Elizabeth King making music in the secular world qualifies as good work on many levels.

DAVIES: Ken Tucker reviewed the new gospel album "Living In The Last Days" by Elizabeth King.

On tomorrow's show, the real horrors of Jim Crow America mixed with supernatural horrors, like monsters and ghosts, in the HBO series "Lovecraft Country." We'll speak with the show's writer and producer, Misha Green, who adapted it from a novel of the same name. I hope you can join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELIZABETH KING SONG, "MIGHTY GOOD GOD")

DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering help today from Al Banks (ph). Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MIGHTY GOOD GOD")

KING: (Singing) I know God. He's a mighty God. He's a mighty God. He's a mighty God. I know God is - he's a mighty God - a mighty God. He's a mighty God. He woke me up - woke me up this morning. He woke me up - woke me up this morning. I know God. He's a mighty God. He's a mighty God. He's a mighty God. I know God is - he's a mighty God - he's a mighty God. He's a mighty God. I know God is - he's a mighty God - he's a mighty God. He's a mighty God. Woke me up - woke me up this morning - told me - woke me up this morning. I know God. He's a mighty God. He's a mighty God. He's a mighty God. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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