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The Canton Spirituals
The Live Experience 1999 - Recorded Live in Jackson, Mississippi
The Canton Spirituals never imagined that when over 2000 years ago, the Apostle Paul penned, “if we keep trusting God for things that have not yet happened, it will teach us to wait patiently and with confidence,” it would become a sustaining truth in their lives.
Riding high on the heels of their newest release, The Live Experience 1999, the eight-man group – based in Jackson, Mississippi – is one of the most sought-after and successful acts to emerge in Gospel music in the last decade. But the Cantons, and especially group leader and lead vocalist Harvey Watkins Jr., know a lot about patience.
The first incarnation of the group, formed by several men, including Harvey’s father, Harvey Watkins Sr., came in the mid-1940’s. The original quartet became a popular weekend act in and around their hometown, of Canton, MS, then a mere fly-speck of a town north of Jackson. It would be over 40 years of hard work and persistence (and numerous personnel changes) before the Canton Spirituals would ascend the stairway to international stardom.
Recorded live in Jackson’s Greater Bethlehem Temple Apostolic Church before an audience of several thousand people, The Live Experience 1999 captures the excitement of the Cantons performing for the people who have known and loved them for years.
“There was a very special, hometown kind of vibe in the air that night,” Harvey recalls. “We were very excited to bring our music home to so many friends – many of whom we hadn’t seen in quite some time – and who have literally grown up on the Cantons. There were people of all ages there, from little kids to grandma and grandpas. It was a powerful night.”
The Live Experience 1999 is a summation of the Cantons’ well-honed signature sound and Harvey attributes the group’s uniqueness to the creative cross-pollination of the nearly two generations of members that the Canton Spirituals now comprise. He is joined in the Cantons by organist Norman Williams, drummer Michael Richardson, vocalist Theo Thompson, and Merlin Lucious on bass. Lead guitarist DeWayne Watkins and keyboardists Wallace Strickland and Victor Allen are singers as well, rounding out the rich vocals that are a Canton trademark.
“DeWayne, who is my nephew, and Wallace and Victor are all younger guys in their 20’s and they add some kick to things which comes from the music they grew up on,” Harvey explains. “There’s no telling what might come out, I just turn them loose, and whatever they play that I like, we keep. So we get a distinctive mix of the traditional and the contemporary. Gospel, R&B, jazz, rock … you name it.”
The Live Experience 1999 rocks with a healthy dose of joyful, irresistible cuts that defy listeners to sit still, as well as several deeply moving emotional ballads. On “I Made It,” a duet with Gospel legend Albertina Walker, she and Harvey pour out their hearts in thanks for all of the trials the Lord has seen them through. “The song means a lot to me,” says Harvey. “The Lord has blessed us in so many ways, it’s almost hard to take in. This is a song of praise for all He’s done.”
The gorgeous and gripping “Invisible Faith” is a passionate profession of faith in things unseen, dramatically contrasting Harvey’s soul-deep baritone with Victor Allen’s soaring tenor on what could stand as a six-minute spiritual biography of the Canton’s over the years.
A punchy horn section and popping snare drum drive “What Love,” and is without a doubt the most swinging and catchy recounting of the life of Christ. The album closes with the almost aching honesty of “(Memories) When Will I See You Again,” an emotional tour de force that poignantly tempers the Christian’s certainty of eternal life with the inevitable heartache of losing loved ones.
Harvey describes his own parents as “strong, strict and spiritual,” and both musically gifted. “I thank God for my parents,” he says “My daddy was a good, hard-working man and a great singer and entertainer. He always encouraged me and was a tremendous influence in my life.”
“As a kid, I would go to rehearsals with him every Thursday night and learn just by listening. The most important lessons came when we would go out in the truck together and he’d teach me things not just about music but about life. He always said; be myself, sing from my heart and be sincere – and that’s what I’ve always tried to do. I literally grew up with the Cantons, and he handed the leadership to me in 1974, when I was 18 years old.”
Harvey, Sr., died of cancer in 1994, but not before seeing his son and the group he’d fostered realize the dream he himself had carried for a lifetime. The Cantons had cut close to 20 independent and small-label records before signing their first major label deal in 1992, followed quickly by their album and video, “Live In Memphis,” which garnered the group a Grammy nomination and the first of several Stellar Awards.
Contemplating what his father would think of the whirlwind the Cantons have created throughout the 90’s, Harvey responds with certainty, and some vivid imagery. “I know he’s proud,” he says, “and I can almost hear him telling me to go for it! If there’s an angel choir, he’s right down in front singing along. And I know that’s got to be a sweet, sweet sound.”