The History of Gospel Music


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Though gospel music can be an extremely broad term, This article focuses its attention on the music that sprung from the early African-American church and inspired a host of modern day choirs and contemporary gospel/R&B sounds.


From the smooth sounds of Sam Cooke to the dancing, acrobatic vocals of Kirk Franklin, gospel music does more than just sound sweet--it literally moves its listeners. Whether it's swaying with the choirs or tappin' along with the quartets or simply raising hands to the rhythm of soul-stirring crooners, gospel is one genre of music that needs to be both seen and heard. Once narrowly defined as religious, gospel has transcended those limits to become a profound force in American music and popular culture.

Fueled by major recording companies, it has leaped over its traditional religious walls and is now more than just church music. Last year's phenomenon of Kirk Franklin's Why We Sing (it went platinum) and the current success of William Becton's Be Encouraged (a mainstay on Billboard's gospel chart for 28 weeks and counting at press time) attest to gospel's growing popularity. According to materials received from Gospel Today magazine, within the last five years, seven major recording companies have created and staffed gospel divisions; independent gospel labels increased 50 percent, and total revenues for gospel music have nearly tripled in the past decade-from $180 million in 1980 to $500 million in 1990.

Info about the image-default "Gospel music is coming to the mainstream," says gospel diva Yolanda Adams. "Singers are coming out of the church and introducing the gospel style to a mainstream audience."

Adams herself expanded gospel's exposure when she appeared twice on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno." Meanwhile, television producer Bobby Jones reaches four and a half million viewers each week with his BET program "Gospel Explosion" and believes that while the gospel audience is expanding, "We must honor our pioneers and at the same time greet the best of the new with praise."

The "our" in this instance translates as black singers. To Jones, "gospel music is black music." To others, it is merely a term that encompasses various kinds of religious music--traditional, contemporary Christian, urban contemporary, Southern, hip-hop. Like soldiers waving banners to show their regimental colors, modern-day gospel singers march boldly and beautifully toward Zion and an ever expanding marketplace, hoisting their divisional (take this literally) colors.

As the music moves beyond its incubator--the church--it is imperative to understand where it is, where it has been, and where it is going. As Christians we must hope that the music is building bridges, not walls.

The Beginnings

Thomas A. Dorsey (1899-1993, composer of such standards as "There Will Be Peace in the Valley"), is considered by many gospel devotees to be the "Father of Gospel Music." The son of a minister, Dorsey was a consummate musician and as a young man accompanied some of the most famous blues singers of all time-specifically, Bessie Smith (1894-1937) and Ma Rainey (1886-1939). He also arranged and composed blues tunes. His penchant for bouncy tunes and bawdy lyrics did not keep him from attending the annual meetings of the National Baptist Convention, though. and it was at one of these meetings in Philadelphia that Dorsey first heard the compositions of Charles A. Tindley (1851-1933, composer of "We'll Understand It Better By and By" and "Leave It There" among others).

In his essay, "Rock, Church, Rock," Arna Bontemps says that it was then that Dorsey began to write religious music, abandoning his brash lyrics but not the jazz rhythms and blues flavor and rhythmic style so akin to Tindley's own. Naturally, the "old guard" conservatives considered this blending of the sacred (spirituals and hymns) and the secular (blues and jazz) as "the devil's music" and shunned it. By its actions, the church declared Dorsey's brand of gospel music unworthy of a hearing within the sanctuaries of the day, a story quite similarly echoed by churches responding to the rock 'n' roll Jesus Movement that swept the country in the early '70s. In both instances, the traditional church failed to see the positive influence contemporary music could have, blessing its listeners and encouraging them to draw near God. It is this intense spiritual quality in gospel music that lifts it up beyond its mere form, a quality that most preachers in Dorsey's day failed to understand.

A 1994 Score magazine article titled "The Father of Gospel Music" quoted Dorsey as saying, "When I realized how hard some folks were fighting the gospel idea, I was determined to carry the banner."

Carry it he did. "I borrowed five dollars and sent out 500 copies of my song, 'If You See My Savior,' to churches throughout the country.... It was three years before I got a single order. I felt like going back to the blues."

He didn't. With pioneer singers such as Sallie Martin (1896-1988) and Mother Willie Mae Ford Smith (1904-94) propagating his music, he stayed the course long enough to write over 800 songs and hear his music ascend from the first row pews to the choir stand, where it previously had been banned.

Other composers, such as Lucy Campbell ("Something Within") and Dr. Herbert Brewster ("Surely God is Able"), picked up the torch and the way was lit for another generation to take control. To insure this, Dorsey founded The National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses in 1932, an organization still in existence today.

The Legendary Divas and Dons

Dorsey was a planter. The fruits of that harvest were the exceptional singers who spread gospel around the country and indeed the world in the years that followed--Mahalia Jackson, Clara Ward and James Cleveland are but a few.

Mahalia Jackson (1911-1972) had been, in the language of today's youth, "all that" in gospel long before she signed a lucrative contract with Columbia Records in the 1950s. Her star continued to rise, landing her on the "Ed Sullivan Show" and providing the opportunity for her to sing just before Dr. Martin Luther King, jr. delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech (Interestingly enough, she sang Dorsey's "Take My Hand, Precious Lord at King's funeral in 1968). Her rich alto voice affected all those who heard it and several of today's singers either wanted to sing like her or with her.

Clara Ward (1924-1973) and the Ward Singers, on the other hand, took the opportunity, in Clara's words "to take God's words to His people wherever they were--even in night clubs." This, of course had been done by Sister Rosetta Tharpe decades earlier when she had performed with Lucky Millender and his band. Ward was one of those rare people who had both flash and substance. Opal L. Nation, in writing copy for a reissue of Ward's recording, says that Surely God is Able was "the first ever million-seller post-war gospel record." (If true, this is astounding. Only a handful of gospel recordings ever reach the status of gold, 500,000 copies sold. In 1968, Oh Happy Day by the Edwin Hawkins Singers, was the first to do so since RIAA began keeping statistics.) Ward had a direct effect on the career of gospel great Marion Williams [Williams sang with the Ward Singers] and influenced both Little Richard and Aretha Franklin, who noted Ward as her idol.

James Cleveland (1931-1991) was considered by many gospel enthusiasts to be "The King of Gospel," receiving four Grammys, the last awarded posthumously for the album Having Church. Cleveland was a charismatic singer who, to use a cliche, held the audience in the palm of his hand. This is ironic since his voice, rough and raspy, could not be considered one of great quality. Nonetheless, he mesmerized his audience and brought a standard of excellence to gospel music in general through his organization in 1968 of the Gospel Music Workshop of America, the largest gospel convention in the world.

Legendary singers of the '50s and '60s included Edna Gallmon Cooke and Brother Joe May. Although not quite fitting the category of pioneers, the following contemporary singers are sure to reside in the realm of legendary divas and dons as well: Daryl Coley, Andrae Crouch and the late Thomas Whitfield.

The Quartets

The quartets limelight ran in tandem with those golden gospel voices-from the late 1920s through the 1940s, the gospel quartet reigned supreme in gospel music. In fact, it was these vocal groups that most affected American pop culture.

One of the mainstays of the quartets was The Swan Silvertones led by Claude Jeter. Jeter's innovative style of using falsetto became the industry standard. Not to be outdone, The Sensational Nightingales' Rev. Julius Cheeks delved into flamboyance. He left the stage, walked the floor and "worked" the audience, keeping its spirit high. Had he been on the secular side, one suspects he would have been considered a sex symbol.

Other popular groups included The Dixie Hummingbirds, The Mighty Clouds of Joy ('60s and '70s) and The Fairfield Four, the latter of which still enjoys immense popularity today as much for its members timeless sense of humor as the vocal prowess they have amazingly retained.

Though most of the gospel quartets were male, The Davis Sisters, Harmonettes and that most enduring of groups, the Caravans, provide examples of excellent, and popular, women groups. The Caravans at one time or another included such luminaries as Albertina Walker, Dorothy Norwood, Cassietta George, Bessie Griffin, Inez Andrews, Shirley Caesar and Delores Washington--a stellar line-up on anybody's program.

But perhaps the most popular quartet of all was the Soul Stirrers, led by the great Rebert H. Harris. According to George W. Stewart of The American Quartet Gospel Convention, it was Harris who first developed that vocal ad lib using repetitious sounds that Sam Cooke made so famous rather than words.

"Before that innovation, it was just straight quartet style, a variation of the barbershop quartet," Stewart offered. "Harris started training Cooke when [Cooke] was 10 years old. When he was in his late teens, Cooke joined the group and became the closest thing gospel had to a matinee idol."

When he left the group and Harris' tutelage for the rewards offered by secular music--larger audiences and more money--Cooke became an icon in American popular music. He was the first gospel notable to successfully cross over into the mainstream and become a "star." Gospel singers following his move were both legion and legend. Aretha Franklin, Della Reese and Lou Rawls are prime examples. (Ray Charles, with such hits in the 1950s as "Drown in My Own Tears" and "Hallelujah, I Just Love Her So," both with recognizable gospel influence, appropriated the style without ever having been a "professional" gospel singer. Contrary to rumor, Charles was not one of the Five Blind Boys, a gospel quartet.)

The gospel quartets' influence wasn't confined to just those names either as many of the rhythm and blues musicians of the '60s and '70s first had their imaginations sparked by the quartets. This short list of singers with their gospel affiliation in parentheses prove the point: Ashford and Simpson (The Followers), Chuck Jackson (Raspberry Singers), Wilson Pickett (Violinares), Johnny Taylor (The Highway QCs). Even the current pop/R&B group Jodeci was once a gospel group called Little Cedric Haley and the Haley Singers!

The Choirs

In gospel music the mass choirs and choruses replaced the quartets in terms of overall popularity. Interestingly enough, however, the most popular choir in the '90s was founded and directed by a quartet member-Franklin Williams, commonly called Frank (1947-1993). Williams was part of a family quartet (The Southern Gospel Singers, later called The Williams Brothers) before joining the Jackson Southernaires. In 1979, he joined Malaco Records as executive producer and director of gospel promotions. and he organized and was lead singer for, the Mississippi Mass Choir in 1988. The group's first recording, Mississippi Mass Choir Live, was an immediate success with Billboard and Score magazines naming it the number one spiritual album of the year. The choir is still recording and still setting sales records.

Milton Brunson and the Thompson Community Choir in the '80s and later John P. Kee and the New Life Community Choir established and continue to demonstrate standards of excellence for choirs; and other choirs of the '90s show that there remains a continuing variety of styles in these larger groups. Leaders are Hezekiah Walker and the Love Fellowship Choir, O'landa Draper and the Associates, and Donald Lawrence and the Tri-City Singers. But it's unfair to give even this abbreviated list of contemporary choirs because there exist far too many of excellence--the Dallas-Fort Worth, Wilmington-Chester, Florida and New Jersey Mass Choirs are only a few of the ones that come to mind.

From its early roots through many legends along the route to the modern sounds finding a renewed popularity all their own today, it seems evident that gospel music is here to stay. The test for gospel reflects one that all Christian musicians must wrestle with: Can it continue to increase its fortune in the mainstream marketplace while still maintaining its spiritual base? Modern music lovers, especially the younger audiences, require more "bounce and groove" it seems, and many of them are moved by urban contemporary sounds as supplied by BeBe and CeCe Winans and Take 6; some others, meanwhile, stomp to hip-hop.

Shirley Caesar reminds that these are all merely vessels. "God uses any kind of vehicle He chooses to draw men unto Him," Caesar said. "What has kept me going is that I try to sing about current events: drugs, black on black crime, a lot of hurting women who have been abused, young girls who have had children out of wedlock. I want to let them know about Jesus so that they might just get up and straighten out their lives."

Since Thomas Dorsey first stretched the boundaries to create gospel music, choirs, quartets and powerful vocalists have been singing this same song, albeit in different styles and places. As gospel music continues to grow beyond even Dorsey's expectations, one can only hope that it will be embraced, regardless of how it is labeled, by everyone who needs to be reminded of the Good News it represents.


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