THE EDITED PRESS RELEASE: “Memphis gospel singer Elder Jack Ward’s spirit took flight on April 11, 2023 after a remarkable life of spreading God’s word through example, message and most especially, song. His latest album The Storm has now become the final word and work of a life well lived.
Like its 2021 predecessor Already Made, The Storm captured an element of Ward that producer Bruce Watson found truly rare in the world of gospel music: Songwriting. “When we connected with him and heard him, his voice was still amazing,” Watson recounts. “He can still really hit those high notes. He has hundreds of songs… he would start singing all these different songs to us and we were pretty blown away. The fact that he writes his own songs is fairly unique. Most gospel artists, they’re doing traditional numbers. But he actually writes. So it really brings a different element to what he’s expressing.”
Ward was born March 11, 1938 in the land where the blues began, the often mythologized Mississippi Delta, but as he recalled, the area’s gospel heritage was every bit as rich as its secular counterpart — and the two were forever intertwined. “I was born in the country and I would hear Elmore James, John Lee Hooker, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Howlin’ Wolf, all of them guys — and I used to patronize them, and sing like them a little bit, but I came back to my roots. I used to do a lot of blues singing but I broke from that and got into the gospel.
“I grew up around Itta Bena, Mississippi, that’s about six miles from Greenwood, and I used to sing with a group there called The Kings Of The South. I did a lot of singing, but I was a farm boy; worked on the farm. I chopped cotton, picked cotton, drove mules with a one row planter. But music’s been in me since I was about seven or eight years old when I first tried to sing. My mother, my father and my two sisters would be in the cotton field and I did a little song called I Woke Up This Morning — I didn’t know how to put it together but my mother said, ‘Hey, boy! I don’t want you singin’ no blues.’ ”
What she couldn’t have known then was that a journey to Memphis when Ward was a teenager would inadvertently insure that he would take the right road. “My mom came up here to see her grandmother. I was 16 at the time. And I said to myself, ‘When I turn 18 I’m coming back to Memphis and make me a hit record.’ And I did.” That disc was 1964’s Don’t Need No Doctor by The Christian Harmonizers, a group comprised of old friends from Ward’s hometown. “I knew the Brooks brothers, who organized The Christian Harmonizers, from Itta Bena,” he explained. “And I had my mind set to come to Memphis to sing blues or rock ’n’ roll. But I found them and they said, ‘Look, man, we need you to sing gospel.’ ”
Ward got down to business with the brothers, and even briefly replaced soul sensation O.V. Wright in The Sunset Travelers during one of Wright’s secular sabbaticals. Nicknamed Jumping Jack Ward for his in-the-anointing antics, he soon came to the attention of Stax Records, and The Christian Harmonizers christened Chalice, Soulsville’s sacred subsidiary, with its debut record. Isaac Hayes was on piano and Ward was on lead vocals.
Don’t Need No Doctor, in Ward’s words, “went every whichaway. That record was on the chart for two years. Oris Mays was a producer in Memphis and he said, ‘Jack, I’m gonna put you on a big label.’ He told us to get a couple of songs together and we did a thing called Another Day’s Journey, then we did another record, God’s Going To Blow Out The Sun.” The singles were released on Peacock Records’ Song Bird imprint. “We just went to bigger things, higher exaltations.”
In 1968, Ward and David Hart formed The Gospel Four, whose haunting harmonies were bolstered by the grooving guitar and bass of brothers George and Robert Dean. Memphis disc jockey Juan D. Shipp soon approached them about recording for his newly founded D-Vine Spirituals label. “I knew him from the broadcast,” says Ward of Shipp, “and he knew some of my former material. And so I went and we sat down and talked and he said, ‘How would you like to record with D-Vine?’ ” The results, as soulful as they were sacred, were among the absolute highlights of Shipp’s ever-impressive catalog. The Gospel Four had an altogether different sound and style than The Christian Harmonizers, as exemplified by the gripping testimonial The Last Road and the mid-tempo, minor-keyed A Change Is Gonna Come.
Breaking new ground, a Ward hallmark, determined that Already Made — which focused on Jack front and center — was no exception. But like Elizabeth King’s critically acclaimed Living In The Last Days, it was a direct outgrowth of D-Vine’s heyday. Watson, who had founded Bible and Tire while transferring Shipp’s tape archive for an ambitious D-Vine Spirituals reissue project, asked Shipp how many of the artists from his old label were still around and active. Aside from King, Ward was one of the first he named. King’s Living In The Last Days was the first result of that conversation; Ward’s Already Made took its rightful place as the second, and The Storm is the latest to emerge from Watson’s Delta-Sonic Sound Studio. Laying down the grooves behind Ward’s spirited vocals is guitarist and co-producer Will Sexton and his crack studio band The Sacred Soul Sound Section, who are as naturally at home with the countrified picking of Do Lord as the fuzz guitar crunch of Payday After Awhile.
Watson feels that Ward’s albums are two of the best he’s ever produced, and after redefining the dismal blues scene of the ’90s with the Delta juke joint sounds of R.L Burnside and Junior Kimbrough for Fat Possum Records, that’s saying quite a bit. Ward might have been right there with them were it not for that trip to Memphis back in the late ’50s. “I have pretty good talent, I can just about sing anything anyone else sings. I never bragged on myself but this was a gift from God and the Bible says, ‘A gift comes without repentance.’ In other words, you don’t have to be a Christian to be able to sing. If you’ve got that God-given gift you can do it — your choice if you want to sing rock ’n’ roll, blues, gospel — but I choose the right side.”