It’s All Relatives

How a long-disbanded Dallas group’s mash-up of funk, gospel, and psychedelia went from being a footnote in music history to setting the indie-rock world on fire.
The Relatives performing at the KLRU studios, in Austin, in 2011.
Sam Butler

The Reverend Gean West looked out at the packed house and wondered what he had gotten himself into. It was October 2009, and he and his gospel group, the Relatives, which hadn’t played a show in almost thirty years, were about to take the stage at the Continental Club in Austin. The crowd inside the dark, cramped venue was young, fashionably scruffy, and mostly white. The reverend and his bandmates—including a minister, a deacon, and a church elder—were African American, and most of them were well into middle age and beyond. The group couldn’t help but feel a little out of place. “I was thinking, ‘This doesn’t look like a gospel music crowd,’ ” West says. “But if it was meant to be, God would make it work.”

The Relatives had decided to regroup for this one-off gig to mark the release of Don’t Let Me Fall, the first-ever compilation of the psychedelic-laced funk-gospel songs they had recorded decades earlier. Few people had heard their music the first time around, and for years West had had little reason to think many more would. But here he was, at 73, about to experience a storybook second act.

The set started with a bass line and a drumbeat, with some conga and scratchy guitar thrown in. Then the singers, decked out in aqua-blue suits and gold shirts, came onstage one by one. West’s younger brother Tommie let out a wail worthy of Wilson Pickett, the band kicked in, and all heaven broke loose. The crowd went downright Pentecostal, lost in the spirit. 

But the club didn’t feel like church that night. The Relatives may preach, but they do so by way of the psychedelic soul of Sly and the Family Stone and “Ball of Confusion”–era Temptations. It’s a combination captured with gripping intensity on The Electric Word (Yep Roc), the Relatives’ just-released debut studio LP, which was produced by Jim Eno, the drummer for indie-rock heroes Spoon, a band whose aesthetic, you’d think, couldn’t be further from gospel.

The fourth oldest of eight kids, West was always singing—gospel in church and doo-wop on the street corners of his West Dallas neighborhood. His gravelly voice got him noticed, but he didn’t become serious about music until he served a few years in prison for auto theft. When West got out, he left the secular stuff behind and focused on gospel. In the early sixties he joined Shreveport’s Southernaires and hit the road. He didn’t make a lot of money—“We were all so broke that we called bologna ‘quartet steak,’ ” he remembers—and he even turned down offers that might have led to better remuneration. Houston’s Duke/Peacock record label wanted West to bring his gritty yelp to R&B. “This was before James Brown got famous doing the same thing,” he says. But he stayed loyal to gospel. In those days, you didn’t cross over—you defected.

In the late sixties the Southernaires played several shows with the Mighty Clouds of Joy and the Staple Singers, two acts that had begun playing “message songs” that tapped into the era’s currents of cultural change. So when West came off the “gospel highway” in 1970, he immediately understood the songwriting direction his brother Tommie had taken with “Speak to Me (What’s Wrong With America?),” a song that was inspired by the veterans in their neighborhood who returned from Vietnam not as heroes but as black men who still had to deal with racism. Gean realized that gospel wasn’t addressing the sorts of issues that were dividing the country. Popular music was. So he and Tommie formed a “conscious” gospel group with a full backing band. 

The group, calling themselves the Relatives, booked their first gig at the Victory Baptist Church. “The folks just looked at us crazy,” the drummer, Earnest Tarkington, says of the acid-rock guitar and heavy backbeat. They went over better playing from a flatbed truck for a community clean-up campaign. “The church wasn’t ready for us, but the public loved it,” says Tarkington. 

The Relatives put out “Speak to Me” as a single in 1971 to sell at their shows and followed that with “Don’t Let Me Fall” and a third single in 1974. But the excitement they generated onstage never translated into a larger audience. In 1980 West disbanded the group and turned his attention to overseeing his God’s Anointed Community Church.

And that’s where the story would have ended, if not for a sequence of events that some might describe as, yes, miraculous. In the nineties, a woman named Billie Buck bought a copy of “Don’t Let Me Fall” at a Fort Worth garage sale and gave it to her son Mike, the co-owner of Antone’s Record Shop, in Austin. Mike played it for local record collector and DJ Noel Waggener, who was floored by the fuzzed-out faith song. “It was so unlike anything I’d ever heard before,” Waggener says. He wanted to release the song on Heavy Light Records, the reissue label he and his wife, Charisse Kelly, were starting. But getting the rights proved difficult. Over the next twelve years Waggener looked for any information he could find about the Relatives. In 2009 he finally got a solid lead when a new post from a Dallas interfaith council mentioning Gean West popped up in a Google search.

West was initially confused when Waggener called him. His old band was the Southernaires. “The Relatives, you say?” And then it hit him. “Oh, yeah. Now, who wants to know about that group?”  

Waggener explained that he and Kelly wanted to put “Don’t Let Me Fall” on a compilation of Texas soul and gospel obscurities. Were there, he asked, any other Relatives songs out there? West mentioned the two other 45’s and then recalled that the group had made some unreleased recordings in 1974 with producer Phil York, who engineered Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger. Waggener got York on the phone. Amazingly, he still had the master tapes of four Relatives songs.

Those tracks

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