When Elizabeth King & the Gospel Souls recorded their 1972 single “I Heard the Voice,” they spent hours at the tiny Tempo Studio in downtown Memphis, with the Rev. Juan D. Shipp demanding they repeat the song until they got it right.
Shipp, a local D.J., had just founded the label D-Vine Spirituals, and despite having no experience as a producer, he knew what he wanted and pushed his artists to get it. King, however, finally had enough. “He was hard on us, and he made me so mad I had to go outside and pray,” she recalled in a recent interview. “Otherwise, I would’ve whupped him!”
King and Shipp were sharing a pew at the Earth Temple Holiness Church in North Memphis, which until recently was pastored by another D-Vine artist named Elder Jack Ward. Shipp’s rich radio voice and sly sense of humor made him appear much younger than 84 as he defended his perfectionism in the studio.
The D-Vine aesthetic was special, he explained, because the groups were singing from the heart. “That’s what I wanted to capture, and that’s what I pushed them to get,” he said. “They might have been angry with me, but when the record came out, they were happy.” With that he cast a glance at King, who laughed in agreement.
“I Heard the Voice” was a regional hit that established King’s group as one of the finest in Memphis, at a time when the city was much better known for secular rather than sacred soul. The single also made D-Vine the top gospel label in town. The record “had such a different sound,” Shipp said. “It was professional, like Stax. So the groups started coming from different places to record with me.”
A local success story in the 1970s, D-Vine was largely forgotten by the 1980s. However, the label and its artists have experienced a revival in the last few years, and a handful of archival releases and new albums have not only filled in an important chapter of Memphis’s music history, but have revived the careers of two of D-Vine’s biggest artists, King, 79, and Ward, who died last month.
Shipp started the label because he was disappointed by assembly-line gospel records that sounded flat and spiritless in the early ’70s. “I wasn’t in it for the money,” he said. “I was in it to get a better sound for the groups.”
Working with Clyde Leoppard, a white studio owner, Shipp recorded on old commercial tapes he grabbed from the radio station, emphasizing performance over everything else. The D-Vine sound is defined by urgency and joy, as well as its tight rhythm section and hypnotic, almost psychedelic wah-wah guitar, played by a local teenager named Wendell Moore.
When he signed with D-Vine, Ward was already a local celebrity, thanks to his forceful voice and almost acrobatic performances. In 1964 he and his group the Christian Harmonizers recorded a song called “Don’t Need No Doctor” that features a young Isaac Hayes on piano.
“My father was well known and recognized in Memphis,” said Ward’s son, a singer and guitarist known as the Fantastic Johnny Ward. “Even later in his life, people would come up to him and start singing, ‘Don’t need no doctor!’”
Ward stood out in that he wrote his own songs, including “God’s Gonna Blow Out the Sun,” which he recorded for D-Vine with a new group called the Gospel Four. “He could write a song in one day,” said his daughter, the minister Carla Ward. “If he went through something that day, he would come home and write about it. He left so many notebooks, all with about 50 or 60 songs.”
As the gospel scene grew more lucrative in the mid-1970s, it also became more competitive, effectively squashing the camaraderie between the groups. Ward eventually quit recording, working as a mechanic while singing with his family and serving as a pastor. Similarly untempted by the secular market, King retired to raise her 15 children. “I had them all when I was young, so I had to lay aside what I wanted to do,” she said. “I didn’t want my family to go astray and be no good to the world.”
For decades Shipp believed the old D-Vine masters were lost, but eventually they turned up in Leoppard’s backyard shed. He described their condition as a miracle: “All of the tapes were in one spot and somehow the weather hadn’t gotten to them.” In the early 2010s he moved them to a studio in downtown Memphis, where they sat until Bible & Tire, a label that focuses on gospel and soul, bought the catalog.
Bruce Watson, a music industry veteran who founded Bible & Tire, started the laborious process of organizing and digitizing the tapes, researching the little-known musicians who made them, and assembling them into a series of reissues called “Sacred Soul: The D-Vine Spirituals Records Story.” These compilations — including a third that will be released on streaming platforms in June — depict the local scene as vibrant and lively, with a bluesy sound distinctive to Memphis. Groups like the Spiritual Stars from Kansas City, Mo., and the preteen sibling act the Stepter Four might have spent long hours in the studio with Shipp, but the singles all convey a sense of spirited spontaneity.
When Watson discovered that King and Ward were both alive and still singing, he signed them to Bible & Tire as new artists making their debut albums. To back them, he assembled a loose group of local musicians that became known as the Sacred Soul Sound Section, led by the guitarist Will Sexton and featuring Matt Ross-Spang (who has produced albums for Margo Price and Lucero) on guitar, Mark Edgar Stuart on bass and Will McCarley on drums.
“A lot of what we’re doing now is inspired by the records Rev. Shipp made 50 years ago,” Watson said. “We’re trying to capture that spirit. You just don’t hear that spirit in a lot of modern gospel.”
Shipp called Watson’s arrival “truly a divine thing.” “He puts the wah-wah back in there,” he added. “That makes me feel good, because it’s something I did years ago that nobody else was doing in gospel.”
Balancing the old and the new, the solo albums Ward and King recorded for Bible & Tire have helped to re-establish the gospel scene in Memphis. King continues to perform regularly, often with her daughters harmonizing onstage, and her repertoire has proved ambitious and imaginative, in particular her recent cover of “God Is the Answer (Pushkin),” originally by Bonnie “Prince” Billy. With a rich grain in her voice, she sings with the perspective and authority that age bring. Her bearing onstage is both regal and grandmotherly, and her young musicians refer to her as Queen Elizabeth, or simply Queen.
Health issues prevented Ward from touring and performing, but the studio and the sanctuary were more important to him than the stage. He saw recording as a way to leave a legacy for his family and congregation. “That was his ambition when he was younger,” said Johnny Ward, who plays guitar on his father’s new album, “The Storm.” “He would say to us, ‘We’ve got to cut something.’ After he’d done a few singles, I asked him what it was like. He said, ‘It’ll make you feel like a rock star!’” Ward died at 84 on April 11, just a month before the release of “The Storm.”
Shipp and Watson are aiming to find and record more D-Vine artists, and they’re hoping they’ll find an even larger audience today, one that extends well beyond the city limits. “It took 50 years for the music we recorded back in the day to come to fruition at this time in our lives,” Shipp said. “And at my age I’m just having fun seeing some of the artists from back in the day get the recognition they deserve. To me that’s the beautiful part.”
King likened D-Vine to a foundational text. “Fifty years ago we were back in the Old Testament,” she said, “and now we’re in the New Testament.”