Don't Let Me Fall
The gospel according to the Relatives
It's 104 degrees, and the ice cream truck is stalled. Kids run around the faded blue van, banging on the side and waiting for something cold, but the man under the hood is not amused. The fate of that ice cream depends on him. Driving through this West Dallas neighborhood where plywood-covered windows are as common a sight as piles of mattresses, toilets, and strollers decorating random corners, I'm thinking a lot about fate on this Saturday afternoon in August.
One corner up from the stalled ice cream truck sits a small, nondescript brick house with no windows, no signs. Though it's hard to tell a church from a house here, this is the place I've been looking for. It looks like it's been standing a long time.
"Ha! You made it."
Despite the heat, the Rev. Gean West is impeccably dressed in a white button-down shirt, black suspenders with black slacks, and polished black-and-white shoes. Sprightly at 74 years old, West tells stories and cracks jokes like a man who's seen both sides of his faith.
"I been preaching a long time, since about 1957," acknowledges Gean. "But I ain't been preaching the whole time. You know what I'm saying?"
With that, the Relatives, Dallas' best unknown gospel group, break into laughter. Gean's 38-year-old son, Cedric, part of the next generation, sits next to him in the pew, in front of a small stage stacked with flowers and drums and microphones. Behind him sits Gean's brother, Tommy, co-vocalist on many Relatives tracks, and original drummer Ernest Tarkinson. Both West brothers and Tarkinson preach in some capacity.
"You got jammin' preachers right here," Gean drawls, two AC window units casting a low hum over our conversation. "I think that's the way it should be. You take your message on the road, to the people, and maybe one person hears one word in the song that might go with 'em, help 'em. People out there going through things."
The story of the Relatives is very much one of fate, as well as faith and second chances. When they re-emerged last year after a 30-year dormancy, the group took a personal inventory.
"I'd lost touch, you know, but then I started making contact," Gean says. "A lot of the guys, you know, they're on breathing machines, health problems, and some of them just couldn't do it. But we had enough to make it through."
Local screenprinter and DJ Noel Waggener was happy initially to find a single Relative. When Mike Buck, now co-owner of Antone's Records, played Waggener a cracked 45 of "Don't Let Me Fall" nearly a decade ago, the Internet yielded no info on the group, which had at that point been relegated to a regional footnote. Then, by chance, Waggener and his partner, Charisse Kelly, came across the Rev. Gean West's name on another Dallas pastor's website a year-and-a-half ago and found a way to contact him. Waggener wanted to put out "Don't Let Me Fall" on a compilation of his own design, but once he got to Dallas and met with Gean, a session reel with five more songs came to light.
"When we heard the unreleased reel, it was incredible," Waggener remembers, "just like when Mike Buck played me that record 10 years ago. It's just one of those fantastic moments when you collect records. Inspired."
Even with the vinyl resurgence of the last decade and boutique labels popping up left and right to serve Internet rediscoveries in blues, soul, funk, and beyond, gospel has remained on the fringe. Chicago's Numero Group released the excellent collection Good God! A Gospel Funk Hymnal and NYC's Tompkins Square had Fire in My Bones: Rare + Rare + Otherworldly African-American Gospel (1944-2007) last year, but Waggener saw something singular with the Relatives. He and Kelly have been traveling together for roughly 18 years, sniffing out obscure vinyl, and when they'd find a self-release they liked, they often tried to find the artist too. Last year, they created a channel for their lost and found: Heavy Light Records. Along with a record from obscure Texas soul oddity Leroy Franklin, the Relatives' 11-song Don't Let Me Fall was the label's first proper release.
"When we were working out the details of the release," Waggener says, "Gean asked me and Charisse, very coyly, 'Will there be a chance for public appearances?' And I said, 'What do you mean appearances?' And Charisse says, 'He's talking about performing!'
"I told him: 'Be careful what you ask for, Reverend Gean. You just might get it.'"
Already Been to the Mountaintop
The Relatives' appearance at the Continental Club last October was their first live performance in roughly 35 years. Two generations of the West family overtook the stage in matching suits, and it took the ninepiece – 10 counting one original member who was seated onstage, "intercepting" prayers, I was told – a few songs to warm up.
Watching them come to life, stepping back into those songs, was a powerful experience. Knowing now how they came to be on that South Austin stage, it's obvious fate plays no small role with the Relatives. They also played for a long time, and when Gean got tired, he simply spun around and pointed two fingers at someone else, who'd pick up right where he left off.
A year later, they've played the Ponderosa Stomp in Louisiana, cut a track with Black Joe Lewis, and next week, the Relatives make their debut at the Austin City Limits Music Festival.
"As long as life lasts, people's healthy, we gonna enjoy it," Gean says. "I remember one man at the Continental Club, he was an Iraq vet. He was about to go back. He said, 'I'll never forget y'all.'
"That's what we all about. Life is hard as it is."
The Relatives never made much noise outside Texas, or even Dallas, really, but the ensemble's pride and professionalism ring as loud as their faith, in the ability to believe when others don't. There must be peace in knowing your message comes from a higher place.
"It's 1 percent singing and 99 percent sense," Gean exclaims. "You can find a singer on any corner, but they minds ain't together. Now, with us, I ain't so much writing. Tommy write. Cedric write every once in a while. But when they done, I take the song and fix it, make it sellable. You know?"
Nods and affirmative grunts all around.
"Yeah, I got that gift."
"I guess you can equate it to the human anatomy," reasons Cedric. "We bring the skeleton; he brings the flesh." He motions to his father.
"And then you got something living and moving."
Cedric, one of eight West children, grew up listening to his mother and father sing, absorbing those Relatives songs in church. Naturally, in the Southern gospel tradition, he followed in their footsteps. Now there are grandchildren who sing, too. It's the family tree that grew skyward and now all that history is ripe for the picking.
When they started out in the late 1960s, the Relatives played mainly parties and hotel pools around Dallas as an R&B group. Soon after, Gean says, they "found their calling" and reverted back to a gospel group but kept the Relatives name. They founded a West Dallas community clean-up team and performed at a rally. Afterward, the owner of a local jazz club ushered them into the local club scene.
The original Relatives lineup – the West brothers, Tarkinson, vocalist H.G. Turner, bassist Willie Small, lead guitarist Charles Ray Mitchell, and percussionist Ronnie Mitchell – cut three singles from 1971 to 1975. The unrelenting bassline and fried soul organ of "Walking On" was their guiding light, speaking to their funkier tendencies. "Speak to Me," a rumination on the racial and social ramifications of coming home from Vietnam, pleads with genuine sorrow and divine omniscience, "What's wrong with America?" The nearly psychedelic ballad "Don't Let Me Fall," sung by Tommy, follows suit. The message is eternal, whether you're religious or not: "Life is a cancer, as big as the world."
"You know, when you tryin' to write a song, it can come to you like a dream," Tommy says. "You gotta be ready."
Tommy left the group in 1975, as did a few of the original members, but the Relatives soldiered on until the end of the decade, recording a handful of tracks before disbanding. Several unreleased tracks and B-sides also made their way onto Don't Let Me Fall, including the pre-rap jam "Rap On," gospel bordering on night train funk that asks: "Have you tried Jesus? I know he's all right." Gean's natural storytelling ability makes no differentiation in audience, be it a song, church, or one-on-one. Take, for instance, the tale of trying to see Don Robey of Houston's Peacock Records when West was singing with the Southernaires.
"Someone said, 'All the groups are down at the radio station,' so we go down there. Lo and behold, there's Herman Brown. Now, I knew Herman Brown from my traveling days. Stayed at his house with the Mighty Golden Voices. He remembered me, and since there was one group missing, he let us open. And we done good.
"The next morning, we went to Peacock to see Don Robey, and the Davis Sisters were in there talking about us. Don Robey says – you know, Don Robey was a high yeller, he a white guy – he says, 'Tell that little ol' black 'N'-word to get back here.'
"He wanted us to record R&B, and this was before James Brown got famous with that squall.
"But I was gospel. I said: 'I can't do that, man. I'm a preacher.'
"He said, 'Don't you want to eat?' and called me that 'N'-word again.
"He eventually re-corded us, but he had that squall in mind first."
Sitting in church this hot August afternoon, West's faith has obviously been strengthened with the Relatives' rediscovery. That a gospel group could cross over into the secular realm as easily as the Relatives have isn't lost on the participants. Not only is a good portion of the group still around, there's now a new generation to supplement the ranks.
"We had forgotten about everything," Gean nods. "We was through with it. We thought the man who'd recorded us was dead. But the way they found me: That right there says it was the work of a supreme being. So we couldn't say anything except that it had to be God."
Speak to Me
"I know it's hot in here, but it's that Holy Ghost heat."
The Rev. Tommy West is preaching to roughly 30 folks the next morning at No Walls Church, located in a strip mall in West Dallas. He's dressed to the nines in a pin-striped suit, and his wife, Doris, passes the mic to anyone who wants to testify. Women stand up and speak of various ailments, but their faith in God has seen them into another day, and for that they give praise. A drummer, organist, and keyboard player too young to vote provide the musical accompaniment for West's impassioned sermon, as do those in the congregation clapping their hands.
Tommy cues the band and sets the pews to vibrate. He's got the same gravelly heap of a voice as his brother Gean, one made of the grace and grit of the Southern gospel tradition. It's easy to hear his conviction, as on "Don't Let Me Fall," perhaps the Relatives' greatest moment, which Tommy wrote and sang lead on.
The day before, Tommy had been mostly silent, no doubt yielding to his brother's elder statesmanship, Here, he's in his element. It's all right there in his voice, the intersection of fate and faith.
"Are you ready to get out the way so God can get in?"
The Relatives testify at the Continental Club, Friday, Oct. 8, and Saturday, Oct. 9, and the Austin City Limits Music Festival Sunday, Oct. 10.