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 were combined with the six songs on the 45’s and a live performance on a Dallas television station to create Don’t Let Me Fall. For the record release party, Waggener asked the West brothers if they could come down to Austin to sign copies. “I said, ‘How ’bout if we come down and play a few songs?’ ” Gean recalls. Tommie thought he’d lost his mind. But Gean persevered in assembling a new version of the Relatives, whose triumphant show at the Continental Club convinced everyone that the band wasn’t returning to the wings anytime soon. Continental owner Steve Wertheimer booked them again to open shows for Austin R&B powerhouses Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears, who promptly fell in love with the Relatives. Lewis took them on tour in Australia and France and brought the band onstage during an Austin City Limits taping.
Eno, who had produced the first two Black Joe Lewis albums, conferred with Waggener and Kelly, who now co-manage the group, about recording an album. “We knew that we had to have new songs and not just rehash the old stuff,” says Eno. But when Waggener and guitarist Zach Ernst, who became the Relatives’ full-time music director after leaving the Honeybears, went up to Dallas to hear some new material, which the West brothers had promised over the phone, they were disappointed that there didn’t seem to be any. “We just said, ‘Okay, we’re going to go out and get something to eat, and when we get back we’ll talk about this,” Waggener recalls. When they returned two hours later, Gean handed them a just-finished demo with six songs, a couple of which they’d been messing around with in the seventies.
Four of those songs are on Electric Word, whose standout cut is a spiritualized cover of Bo Diddley’s “Bad Trip.” To drum up publicity for the record, the Relatives traveled to New York City in mid-January. They played shows at Lincoln Center and the songwriters’ haven Joe’s Pub, where an uncontained crowd started dancing in violation of the city’s cabaret laws.
It’s not hard to figure out why audiences are so excited. The Relatives offer hipsters the same sort of throwback thrill conjured up by the likes of R&B revivalists Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, but with an extra dimension. Whereas the blues moaner, the soul belter, and the indie-rock sad sack are all alone in this world, the gospel singer is part of a fellowship—one that a surprising number of rock fans are joining, if only for a few hours on a weekend night.