The West brothers’ entrenchment in American music predates The Relatives by over a decade. In the late ‘50s, older brother Gean sang in gospel groups like Mighty Golden Voices and Southernaires. And in a country where it was difficult for touring African-American musicians to book hotel rooms, the West’s Dallas home often hosted artists like Aretha Franklin and Sam Cooke. Little brother Tommie would sit in a tree by the porch and watch the musical legends walk their voices down musical scales.
The Relatives formed in 1970 when Gean and a grown-up Tommie recruited a band, including Earnest Tarkington on drums, and started playing gospel songs with a seldom heard ferocity. Gean led the band with what he calls his “squall,” an uncaged scream that, a decade earlier, Peacock label executive Don Robey recognized as comparable to James Brown’s. “We was a little ahead of our time back then,” says Gean.
The Relatives were always stuck between two worlds, wanting to play music with the intensity in their souls while remaining true to their gospel roots. “The church wasn’t ready for that type of music. So we ventured out,” says Gean, who has always seen The Relatives’ funk-injected gospel as a form of missiology. As he explained his philosophy in a 2012 interview on Austin’s KLRU, “[Christ] didn’t only go in the night club, He went into Hell.”
The group continued playing until 1980. A lack of airplay and national profile eventually stalled The Relatives, most of whom already juggled other vocations and projects. Reverends Gean and Tommy continued their ministerial lives. Gean turned his part-time musical efforts toward supporting his wife, Sister Maxine West. Earnest also started playing with other music groups and what was once a potent Dallas band faded into obscurity.
There was little chance Dallas was ever going to rediscover what it missed with The Relatives. But in 2009, two record hounds from Austin, Noel and Charisse Waggener, made the acquaintance of Gean. The couple tracked him down after hearing three of the The Relatives’ singles from the early 1970s, which comprised all of their released material. Gean gave the Waggeners a treasure trove of unreleased recordings, the compilation of which led to The Relatives’ first full-length album, Don’t Let Me Fall, in 2009 on the Waggeners’ Heavy Light Records.
When Noel and Charisse asked Gean if he wanted to appear at the album release, Gean had more ambitious ideas. “Noel asked could I come when they released the record and do some autographs,” remembers Gean. “And I asked him ‘You think we might could get together and sing a song?’” Gean, now 75-years-old, then approached his brother Tommie (66-years-old) and Earnest Tarkington (65-years-old) with the idea of performing. Their reaction was beyond reticent. “Everybody thought [Gean] had lost his mind,” says Tarkington.
Always the preacher, Gean found a way to coax the two back on stage. They also recruited singer Tyrone Edwards and a cast of musicians including guitarist Zach Ernst and drummer Matthew Strmiska from Austin’s Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears. Dressed in matching black and white suits in Austin’s Continental Club, The Relatives performed like they hadn’t missed a beat. “Five minutes after we hit the stage, it was all back: the energy, the hunger and the joy of it,” says Tommie West.
The Relatives didn’t stop at a handful of reunion shows. They have just released a new album titled The Electric Word on February 19, their first recording in over 40 years. The opening track, “Things are changing,” epitomizes The Relatives. It opens cheerfully: gospel harmonies over hand claps. Then, somewhere around the minute and a half mark, they just hit it. The music accelerates from gospel to funk, from safe to seriously jamming. It is the calling card of a group that has always believed worship should be operated at reckless speeds.
When I ask The Relatives what other Dallas artists they consider peers or inspirations, they rattle off a list of acts with which, to my shame, I am unfamiliar: Frankie Lee Sims, The Mighty Travelers, The Sensational Harmonizers, Bobby Patterson. The list, Earnest assures me, is exhaustive. Correspondingly, so too are the Dallas acts that could have defined the city, but were instead shelved somewhere inconspicuous.
There is a reason many Dallas residents know little about the era between Blind Lemon Jefferson and The Toadies. The perception of Dallas music history is as segregationist as it is revisionist. The rediscovery of The Relatives demonstrates that the cultural lode South of I-30 is more potent than the gas under the Barnett Shale. If the city could find a way to tap into it, we would never have confused conversations about “Dallas music” again.
More than an exciting contribution to this year’s local music scene, The Electric Word also gives Dallas a chance to reconcile with an era that it never properly celebrated. It is an appropriate task for The Relatives, a band that has always treated social, cultural and musical barriers with the same impunity that Jesus treated the gates of Hell. “There’s a set of people out there that’s for us to reach and that’s the way God designed it,” insists Gean. “We got the words and the same anointing and energy.” “Oh yeah,” adds Earnest. “We ready.”
The relatives will perform at their record release party at The Kessler Theater on March 22.