Some voices are what you might call cookie-cutter voices—if you’ve heard one, you’ve heard them all. Not George Younce. You could peg that voice a mile off. Why? Because even when George wasn’t talking to you, he was talking to you. His voice was like that of an old friend—warm and welcoming. In the words of Statler Brothers bass Harold Reid, “It said hello to you.” And once you heard it, you never forgot it.
This project features ten of George’s best solo performances from his post-Cathedrals years. With one exception, they have been given entirely fresh instrumentation, and Signature Sound has recorded full quartet backup vocals on each cut.
I wish that I had George’s original arrangements handy so that I could compare them with these new ones, but from what I can hear after scouring around for samples, Signature Sound has preserved the flavor of the originals without directly copying them—which no doubt is exactly what they were aiming to do. And what arrangements! Dear readers, here is my assignment for you: Read my review, then buy this album as soon as it comes out. Once you have heard it all the way through, taking time to appreciate each nuance, I want you to say out loud to yourself three times, “Wayne Haun is a genius. Wayne Haun is a genius. Wayne Haun is a genius.”
Got it? All right then. On to the review.
Love Was In the Room: Hear that? That’s the sound of my keyboard calling me to come pick out the piano part on this new arrangement. “Come on…you know you can’t resist…come on…” The gentle, cascading ripple of piano notes that flows through this cut is a lovely twist on the more guitar-driven sound the Booth Brothers gave it. Signature Sound also adds some variety in the vocal arrangement as they sing behind George. Ernie mentioned in his recent interview with me and Daniel (conducted when I was still New SoGo Fan) that he got to sing a duet with George on a song, and this is the one. They sound great together, but then they always did.
Lyrically, this song has always reminded me of, interestingly enough, a Keith Green song called “Your Love Broke Through.” They both use the metaphor of the stone being rolled away to describe the act of God’s love reaching a sinner. It’s certainly a striking and effective image.
I’ve had trouble deciding whether overall I prefer the Booth Brothers’ version or this version, and really they’re both so beautifully done that I can’t decide. I do think that the Brothers’ reworking of this song on the album 9 was a marked improvement over their own original, so to make it fair I would have to pit that new version against this new version…which means it’s a score draw. The Brothers bring a unique sound, but so, obviously, does George.
(Oh yes, and my keyboard is happy now because I went and found the piano intro on this cut. Insert contented sigh here.)
At the Cross: The excellence continues with this haunting take on a classic hymn. I was immediately struck by the spareness of the acoustic guitar here as it fingers its way over some dark, rich chords. There is one surprising twist in particular that I do know was not on the original: Basically (for any music theory geeks who might be reading) imagine that you’re in the key of A, and you’re walking down the melody for the line, “And did my Sovereign die?” However, instead of landing on the V7 right away, you suddenly change key and play a G major on the word “die.” If you play an instrument, try it out. I’m actually starting to play this arrangement on my keyboard too. It sounds so good that I would recommend Wayne adapt this for solo piano and play it at Signature Sound concerts. It would make a beautiful, quiet moment in the vein of what Roy Webb used to do with “Softly and Tenderly.”
I find it fascinating to see how many different directions one can take with a hymn. On one hand, this hymn has been done a la GVB powerhouse, complete with David Phelps histrionics…er, I mean gymnastics. Yet here it barely rises above a whisper.
George’s voice aches with sad beauty. Also worth noting is the fact that Ian Owens’ voice comes through particularly clearly here, and his upper register is so smooth that you might briefly mistake him for George in places.
Beyond the Sunset: Because George’s only appearance on this track is a poetic recitation, Signature Sound carries all the vocals. If you had any doubts as to how well the new lineup would gel, they should vanish away once you hear this cut. The group sounds as good as ever. This would be a natural for inclusion in live concerts.
I Know Who Holds Tomorrow: This track begins with an answering machine message from George to Ernie—a priceless little bit of history, and a great way to set up this song as George tells Ernie, “Don’t worry about nothin’.” This message returns at the end.
The new soundtrack complements George’s voice absolutely seamlessly here. One could almost forget that this is a completely fresh instrumentation. As with the last track, we hear a good bit of Signature Sound as they carry the chorus. They sound like they could be on the radio in the 1950s. It’s an utterly beautiful sound.
Room At the Cross: This has always been one of my favorite “harmony hymns.” It was one of the first hymns for which I learned the alto part when I was developing an ear for harmony as a little girl. So of course the harmonies are very rich on this one, with some lovely and surprising chord shifts. Listening to this arrangement, it’s difficult to imagine how it could possibly get by with nothing but generic BGVs. What the full quartet sound adds can’t even really be described: It must be experienced.
Suppertime: This song holds a special significance for Signature Sound, because it was the song they sang with George for his final NQC appearance. Obviously George’s voice sounds much stronger and more confident here. I never get tired of hearing him sing this. Also, he’s pretty much the only singer from whom I can tolerate a mid-song recitation. Anyone else just leaves me impatient to get on with the music, but George compels me to listen, like he’s having a conversation with me.
The piano accompaniment on this track is worth noting. It almost seems like they were trying to capture a Roger Bennett sound, because the piano really reminds me of the way he used to approach a country number. Another subtle little thing I noticed (and maybe this is just a coincidence), is that the very first few notes of the intro are identical to the beginning of the chorus for the Perrys’ “I Will Find You Again,” which Wayne co-wrote. I don’t know whether that was pure chance or not, but it stands out enough that I just wondered.
You’ll Get Your Reward Some Day: This was the only upbeat song chosen for the project. Literally every other track is low-key. So naturally, it’s the project’s first radio single. It’s also probably one of the few new soundtracks that really gives away its age. It sounds great, but you can tell that it’s been given a modern update. A driving electric guitar works to smashing effect with a growling b-3 hammond and some irresistible piano licks. The end result is hard-hitting, gritty, and oh, so catchy. Once again, you might do a double take as Ian’s voice falls on the ear like a young Younce himself.
Journey’s End: Note to self: Must go work the piano out on my…oh wait, I guess I’ve said that a few times already. I love this song. I had never heard it before, but the first time I heard it I thought, “SCORE!” What gorgeous lyrics and music. If I had to pick a single favorite off this project, this would be it. Impeccable delivery and instrumentation.
This song is so moving that I vote the guys just start singing it in concert. They don’t even need to try to bring in George’s voice—just introduce it as a song George used to sing and have Ian carry it. As with “At the Cross,” this is another example of an arrangement that’s simply too good not to be incorporated into live concerts. It is also a song that deserves to be revived.
Sometimes This is Heaven To Me: This is the only track on the project that was not given a brand-new instrumental and BGV treatment. It was lifted directly from Signature Sound’s debut album Stand By Me. It was the last song George recorded. Ernie and Joel Lindsay beautifully captured the bittersweet emotions of a man in the sunset of his life, longing for heaven, yet humbly asking for “just a little more time” to linger with the beauties of this world. I once heard of a great analogy to this which used the image of a mother and son in prison, where all the little boy has known is the inside of the prison cell. His mother paints beautiful pictures of the world outside on the walls where they are imprisoned, and the little boy literally can’t imagine what real trees, grass, or sky looks like. His mother’s paintings are so beautiful that he can’t believe her when she tells him that the real world is so much more beautiful than what she can paint for him. It’s the same for us: Like George, we think, “This world is beautiful in its own way, and the fellowship I have with the ones I love is so sweet it almost feels like heaven to me.” And yet we know that heaven is beyond our comprehension. But in the meanwhile, we should receive the blessings God has for us here, with a thankful heart. In the immortal words of Rich Mullins, “There’s so much beauty around us for just two eyes to see/That everywhere I go, I’m looking.”
Silent Night: I’m a little confused, because it said that this performance was “previously unreleased,” and yet I found what seems like the identical thing on a compilation album called A Season To Remember: Christmas Favorites. However, it was never on one of George’s own projects that I know of, and perhaps that’s what was meant.
Mannheim Steamroller will evermore hold the definitive version of this carol in my mind, but I must say that Wayne’s new arrangement is simply superb. The piano is simple, yet subtly haunting. Its interplay with the strings is just gobsmackingly gorgeous. The chords at the end are almost goosebump-inducing, as the arrangement ends on a vibrant, unresolved fadeout. Curiously, George makes a small lyrical slip in one verse (singing the line “glory streams” as “glorious streams”), but he communicates the lyric in his classically memorable, inimitable style.
Closing thoughts: Daniel Mount has already reviewed this project. As somebody who has collected the originals for these songs, he has recommended this as a must-have. Coming to it with fresh ears as somebody who had only heard George sing a few of these songs, I can unhesitatingly offer my own recommendation from the other end. The instrumentation is fresh enough to catch the attention of someone who doesn’t even primarily listen to gospel music, yet sounds as though it could have been that way all along. Therein lies the genius of Wayne Haun. Also, as even I can tell from snips and snatches of the originals, there’s no comparison between the formerly canned BGVs and Signature Sound’s warm, hearty four-part singing.
I may not be a producer, but I sure do think like one, and I get warm fuzzies just lapping this stuff up. The three tracks that most inspire me as a musician are “Love Was In the Room,” “At the Cross” and “Journey’s End,” but really the whole thing is a masterpiece. Some may have a few quibbles with the song selection, e.g. the inclusion of a Christmas carol like “Silent Night,” or the inclusion of “Sometimes This is Heaven To Me” instead of another rare track from a solo project. I really don’t mind, because it’s good music any way you slice it (and besides, “Heaven To Me” is a logical choice since it was recorded as George’s farewell song).
If you love gospel music, you shouldn’t think twice about picking this up. And if you’re new to the genre and looking for a place to start, this album is a quiet jewel. It shines with warmth, tastefulness, and something else…love.
I hereby raise my glass to Wayne, to Ernie, and to StowTown—long life to it, and may much more fine music be made! *clink*