The style of music most people know as gospel was born around seventy years ago in Chicago when it was in the clutches of depression. Piano player and ex-blues musician Thomas A. Dorsey (1899-1993) began composing ‘Gospel Songs’ based on familiar spirituals and brought much-needed messages of hope in hard times.
The origins of Gospel started during the 19th century with the religious revival, the Great Awakening. Preachers drew people together and ‘camp songs’ were sung with abandon into the small hours. African slaves who converted to Christianity revitalised the English hymns with West African rhythms and vocal styles creating what became known as Negro spiritual. As time went on, the form developed with new songs containing political and religious statements. A black university singing group called the Fisk Jubilee singers visited England and are said to have made Queen Victoria cry in 1871. They were the start one of the great cornerstones of gospel music: the gospel quartet.With its enduring message of comfort and inspiration, gospel music’s origins are rooted in the tragedy of African-American slavery. From the earthy recordings of the evangelist street performers to the polished sound of the jubilee quartets, this Rough Guide features many of the trailblazing artists who paved the way for what has become a global phenomenon.
In the 1920s and 30s Jubilee quartets such as the Golden Gate Quartet and Norfolk Jubilee, with harmonies close to the old spirituals, were among the first black recording stars. Jackleg preachers, i.e. itinerant evangelists, were also stars of the genre. Blind Willie Johnson was born and died in poverty but was extremely sought after for his slide-guitar style and acerbic vocals. But the most successful of these early religious artists were the singing preachers such as reverend J.M. Gates, outselling the blues stars of their day.
The end of World War II brought a boom to gospel music. The quartets were the first wonders of this golden age, bringing emotion and hysteria in the crowds. The five Blind Boys of Mississippi with their blind leader Archie Brown had a reputation for wild acts during performances. The quartets produced many great voices in soul music such as Sam Cooke and Wilson Pickett. Lead voices of the Reverend Claude Jeter of the Swan Silvertones and Julius Cheeks of the Sensational Nightingales have had a major influence in the gospel and soul music.
Mahalia Jackson, who started in the Thomas Dorsey road show in the 1930s, became the first gospel artist to cross over to an international audience in 1946. A French award in the early 1950s initiated the first of many European tours, performing for a novice audience. She became a mother figure, supporting the Civil Rights Movement, and greatly influenced the following generation of singers. Aretha Franklin grew up in an environment where she could hear such singers at home and started to perform with her preacher father on the family road show. By 15 she had made her first recording, by 18 she was following Sam Cooke in the pop arena, infusing her records with gospel-soaked backing vocals.
The post second world war period also witnessed the emergence of choirs as major performing and recording artists. This movement owes much to the “godfather of Gospel”, Reverend James Cleveland. He recorded hundreds of albums but also founded the annual Gospel Music Workshop of America in 1968. This workshop was the beginning of many choirs all around the nation and beyond. Today each city has its own community choir. The most radical of the modern choirs is Sounds of Blackness from Minnesota. Recent times have witnessed an urban gospel phenomenon, led by traditionalist young ministers such as Kirk Franklin who astounded everyone with a shrewd mix of tough R&B backing, choreographed choir moves and uncompromising lyrics, selling nearly two million copies of his debut album in 1995.
The 1980s and early 1990s belonged to Detroit, the heartland of black music in the US. Two families contributed to the ‘Detroit Sound’: the Winans and the Clarks. The Winans were a strong Pentecostal family with ten children. Whilst the parents sang, it was the children who brokered gospel’s move into the mainstream of contemporary music. The first big hit was in 1986 with “Let my People Go”. Since this hit, the family has been firmly implanted in the US contemporary music scene, regularly hitting the top of R&B and gospel charts. All siblings followed in the elder brothers’ steps, right down to CeCe Winans who became probably the most successful contemporary gospel divas with her hit duet with Whitney Houston. The Clark Sisters from Detroit, who had a dance crossover hit with “You Bring the Sunshine” in 1983, were also extremely successful. Daughters of the late Mattie Moss Clark who inspired and encouraged many generations of aspiring singers, they now mostly perform individually.
Despite many artists giving their music a contemporary twist, there still exists a huge market for traditional-style gospel performers. Some artists have chosen to come back to the gospel roots after having crossed over to the dancefloor, such as Tramaine Hawkins. However, she remains a relative newcomer next to the veterans of the circuit. Queen of the gospel is Shirley Caesar who began at the age of ten and rose to stardom with the Caravans in the fifties and sixties. Many of her contemporaries are still on the road such as the Mighty Clouds of Joy quartet and Joe Ligon. New young groups are emerging such as the Christianaires. With the recent quartet revival, new groups have brought some of the earliest singers out of retirement such as the Fairfield four and the Five Blind Boys of Alabama. The best female group is currently Sweet Honey in the Rock, founded in 1973 by Bernice Johnson Reagon.
In all its manifestations, from a cappella to R&B and dancefloor, Gospel has come a long way from the simple folk spirituals of a hundred years ago, but the lineage of the music is intact and continues to thrive despite, or perhaps thanks to , its stubborn refusal to be subsumed in the mainstream swamp of American Popular music.