At 177 Third Ave. N., between Broadway and Commerce Street, steps lead up to the cement and marble plaza of the "Batman Building" — a landmark of the "new" Nashville. Sixty years ago on that same spot stood a far more culturally significant but much less aesthetically striking landmark: Ernie's Record Mart. Housed in a nondescript, aging brick storefront, it was a place where the often divergent streams of art, commerce and spirituality came together in perfect confluence.
The music that flowed forth from that long-gone shop is chronicled in a new CD box set from Tompkins Square Records, I Heard the Angels Singing: Electrifying Black Gospel from the Nashboro Label 1951-1983. Nashboro's story begins with Ernie Young, a white, middle-aged jukebox operator, record store owner and easy-listening music fan who forged a partnership with some of the greatest African-American gospel singers of the time.
In the late 1940s, Young began sponsoring a nightly program, Ernie's Record Parade, on radio station WLAC 1510-AM. In between playing the hottest rhythm & blues records, popular DJ John Richbourg (known simply as "John R." to his loyal listeners) hawked a "special deal" mail-order package from Ernie's Record Mart: six records for a dollar. Although the show focused on R&B Monday through Saturday, the Sunday night shows were strictly gospel, and the gospel package deals proved to be very big sellers. Demand quickly outpaced the supply.
To meet the demand, Young launched the Nashboro label in 1951. Nashboro concentrated on black gospel music, tapping into local talent as well as traveling acts that passed through Nashville. Although payments to Nashboro artists were low, Young built a reputation of being scrupulously honest in his dealings. He eventually built a small recording studio above the store, and later gospel programs on WLAC and WSOK (which would later become WVOL) were broadcast from the store's front window. Because the package deals advertised on WLAC consisted of both "hits" and "non-hits," Nashboro had a steady outlet for every record they released. This gave Young the freedom to record any artist that showed promise, even if they didn't take off in sales through conventional outlets.
Freed from the standard hit-making formula, Nashboro produced an astonishing catalog of African-American gospel for three decades. In the early 1950s, many gospel artists and their audience envisioned a high wall dividing the world of gospel and secular music. But listening to the music reveals the constant interchange that went on between the musical worlds of the sacred and the worldly, from the hard-shouting vocal quartets of the early '50s to the heavy soul gospel singers of the 1960s.
Like other releases from Tompkins Square, I Heard the Angels Singing features top-notch sonic remastering in an attractive package with liner notes by music historian Opal Louis Nations. The set features tracks from the most successful Nashboro artists — The Radio Four, The Fairfield Four, The Consolers, Madame Edna Gallmon Cooke, The Angelic Gospel Singers, Brother Joe May, The Gospel Harmonettes — alongside many lesser-known artists who recorded for the label.
Even after Young sold the company in 1967 and Nashboro relocated across the river to offices in the Woodland Studio building, the label continued to release some of the best African-American gospel music going — until the label's demise in the mid-1980s. More than just a collection of great music, I Heard the Angels Singing provides a vision of a time when the most heavenly sounds could be heard emanating from the most mundane of landmarks.