On a simmering Sunday morning in a tiny brick church in West Dallas, the Reverend Gean West delivers an ambling sermon to a congregation of 15 people. His gravelly voice competes with the constant hum of the air conditioner as he holds court on Psalm 23, comparing the late Michael Jackson to the biblical King David. The finer points of the sermon are punctuated by notes from an electric keyboard played by a young nephew of the Reverend. In fact, most of the parishioners at God’s Anointed Community Church of God in Christ are related to West, who has eight children and “a whole slew of grandkids,” in one way or another.
Like the phenomenal funky gospel band West fronted for a decade beginning in 1970, The Relatives would be a fitting name for this congregation.
Born in Marlin, Texas on April 3, 1936, God and music have long been guiding – and occasionally competing – forces in the life of Gean West. As a child he would mimic preachers to entertain his parents and neighbors. “I would shout – ‘Hah!’ – because that’s what I thought preachers did,” West remembers. “I would say, ‘My mama’s good! Hah! My daddy’s got the devil!’ They would be laughing, giving me quarters, you know.”
But music came before the ministry. West was singing in a neighborhood boys’ choir at age five and crooning gospel standards on street corners by his teenage years. A night of fighting and cruising through Dallas in a stolen car earned him a five year jail sentence in 1952 and it was after his release – hastened because the warden liked his singing – that West first felt called by God.
“I went up on that alter and I got on my knees and those women were over me telling me what to say. They told me to say, ‘Lord, I give up everything. I give up all my sins.’ I said what they told me to say. This is the truth, man. Something came over me and just went all over my body and went down to the soles of my feet. Them old sisters seen what was happening with me and whispered in my ear, ‘The more you feel him the more you thank him.’ You know what they were talking about was God, the spirit of God. The more you feel him the more you thank him. I just went to thanking him and thanking him and thanking him and kept thanking him.”
After a stint as associate minister at a Dallas church, West began touring with the Sensational Golden Knights in 1958 and a year later was singing with the Mighty Golden Voices. By 1961 the gospel group had settled in St. Paul, Minnesota and West hit the road with the Southernaires, a vocal group out of Shreveport, Louisiana.
In the early 1960s the Southernaires camped out in Houston determined to cut a side for Peacock records, Don Robey’s black-owned powerhouse R&B and gospel label. The group caught the ear of a label representative after burning up the stage at a local revue, scoring a subsequent meeting and recording session with Robey.
“Listen, this is the God’s heaven truth,” West testifies. “Don Robey tried to get me to switch to R&B before James Brown got famous with that holler. He tried to get me to do that holler because they told him the way I was hollering at the show. He said, ‘They tell me you act like a monkey on the stage.’ He tried to get me to do that holler and tried to get me away from the gospel group and put me into R&B. That’s before James Brown got famous. That’s the God’s heaven truth.”
Citing a higher calling, West refused to put the pulpit in pop. Less than a decade later, however, he would explode the boundaries of gospel with The Relatives. Robey wanted West to bring gospel-styled shouting to R&B but he did precisely the opposite, poaching elements of psychedelic soul and gut-bucket funk to add to his gospel repertoire.
Formed in Dallas in 1970 by Gean West and his brother Tommy, The Relatives cut three genre-bending singles during their decade-long run that were too freaky for the church and too righteous for R&B radio. Though pioneers of an utterly singular sound, the Relatives never made a splash outside of Dallas and have remained virtually unknown even among serious record collectors.
The Relatives first single, “Walking On,” was released on Shreveport’s Lewis records in 1971. Propelled by a relentless bass line and a fuzzy effects-laden guitar, the track sounds like the Mighty Clouds of Joy on acid. Talk about a higher calling.
The poignant flipside, “Speak to Me,” finds the group in the well-worn shoes of a black Vietnam War veteran, asking God to explain the racial injustices of America. “Back in that time it was tough for a young black,” West says. “We knew friends that had went into the service and gotten out and couldn’t get a job, couldn’t borrow much over a hundred dollars. They went and fought, got cut up, got broke up. That’s why we asked if a black man would go fight for his country what good would that do him when he came back home.”
If “Speak to Me” asks the man upstairs for answers, “Don’t Let Me Fall,” the Relatives’ second single from 1971 on Hosanna records, desperately pleads for his help. The crushing ballad is sprinkled with the weeping notes of guitarist Charles Ray Mitchell as West begs, “Here I am Lord, don’t let me fall.” An emotional hurricane, the song evokes faith as the only source of light during life’s darkest depths. The slow build crescendos with a lyrical gut-punch: “Life is a cancer as big as the world…don’t let me fall!”
“Don’t let me fall, I’ve been as far as I can go,” West explains of the song. “Man’s extreme is God’s opportunity. I can’t go no further. I’m at a crossroads. I don’t know whether to go right, left, backwards or forwards. All I can do is put my trust in you. I got enough faith in you to know that whatever you do, that’s gonna be the thing to do. So here I am. Don’t let me fall.”
The B-side mixes holy and secular sounds like few songs ever have. “Let’s Rap” kick-starts with a strutting James Brown-styled jungle groove before marching straight to church, then sneaking out the back door again on the way to the juke joint. If there were a funkier song about Jesus, angels would be doing the boogaloo in heaven.
In 1975, a shakeup of The Relatives lineup saw Tommy leave the band while several ex-Southernaires were brought into the fold. The new Relatives, still led by West, recorded five songs with prolific Dallas-Fort Worth producer Phil York. Among them was “This World Moving Too Fast,” a message song released as a single with “Free At Last,” a tribute to the slain Martin Luther King, on the B-side.
West may have clung to gospel but he didn’t always live by it. “No sir,” he confesses. “I’ve been so bad it’s pitiful. We were out there playing clubs with The Relatives and you know I wasn’t no preacher with that. I started running around, man, meeting these different women. I just tell it like it is. My life has been raggly!”
After a decade of musical proselytizing at local clubs, hotels and auditoriums and touring the gospel circuit with the likes of the Staple Singers, Mighty Clouds of Joy and the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi, The Relatives hung up their instruments in 1980.
With only a few hundred platters ever pressed, The Relatives left little evidence of a legacy. Until now. Four decades removed from their inception and 30 years after their breakup, Don’t Let Me Fall collects all of the known Relatives recordings on the band’s long-delayed and much-deserved full-length LP.
The Reverend, of course, considers the resurrection nothing short of a miracle. “I just felt like it was some of God’s doing. I felt like couldn’t nobody else do this but God. Man, that’s been 35 or 40 years ago. I never would have dreamed that it was gonna happen like this, but it did. I just put it in God’s hands.”