Gospel music is an American religious musical form that owes much of its origin to the Christian conversion of West Africans enslaved in the American South. Gospel music combines Christian religious lyrics with melody and rhythm that developed in tandem with early blues and jazz. Modern gospel artists have also incorporated elements from soul music, which originally arose as a secular form of gospel. Gospel music partly evolved from the songs slaves sang on plantation, notably work songs, and from the Protestant hymns they sang in church. However, gospel music didn’t derive as much from Protestant hymns as did spirituals. Gospel music first grew popular with African Americans and white southerners but has since become popular around the world. Gospel music is learned by call-and-response signing between preacher and congregation, which became common in black churches. Gospel lyrics often call for obedience to God and avoidance of sin in order to obtain the reward of heaven’s kingdom; they also celebrate God’s love. Gospel style makes use of choral singing in unison or harmony led by a lead singer. The song is performed with much enthusiasm, vigor, and spiritual inspiration, with much ornamentation in the solo vocal lines.
Composer and pianist Thomas A. Dorsey (1899–1993,), often referred to as “the father of the gospel song,” played a major role in the development of gospel music. As formulated by Dorsey, gospel music combines Christian praise with the rhythms of jazz and the blues. Dorsey’s father was a minister and his mother a piano teacher. He learned to play blues piano as a young man. He began his career as a blues pianist and songwriter. Later he became a church choir director in Chicago and was a co-founder of the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses. In his over 1,000 songs Dorsey combined elements of the blues with traditional African-American religious music. His works include the early “If You See My Savior” and his best-known song, “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.”
Important gospel performers have included Mahalia Jackson (1911–1972), widely regarded as the best in the history of the genre. Mahalia Jackson became one of the most influential gospel singers in the world. Mahalia Jackson grew up in the “Black Pearl” section of the Carrollton neighborhood of Uptown New Orleans, Louisiana. She moved to Chicago in 1927 where she sang with The Johnson Brothers, one of the earliest professional gospel groups. When Halie was born she suffered from a condition known as genu varum or what is commonly called “bowed legs.” When Mahalia was six, her mother Charity died. She sang in church choirs during her childhood. Moving (1927) to Chicago, she worked at various menial jobs and sang in churches and at revival meetings, attracting attention for her vigorous, joyful gospel style. As her reputation grew she made numerous recordings, and she gained national recognition with her Carnegie Hall debut in 1950. Jackson toured abroad and appeared on radio and at jazz festivals, refusing to sing the blues in favor of more hopeful devotional songs. At Newport, R.I., in 1958 she sang in Duke Ellington’s Black, Brown and Beige. Deeply committed to the civil-rights movement, she was closely associated with the work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
James Cleveland (December 5, 1931 – February 9, 1991) was born in Chicago to Rosie Lee and Benjamin Cleveland during the height of the greatest depression. He was a gospel singer, arranger, composer and, most significantly, the driving force behind the creation of the modern gospel sound, bringing the stylistic daring of hard gospel and jazz and pop music influences to arrangements for mass choirs. Through his lifetime James Cleveland has won numerous awards and accolades that are too numerous to list. However it is noteworthy to remember James Cleveland won five (5) Grammy Awards. The last was February 21, 1991, awarded posthumous with The Southern California Community Choir on the Savoy Records LP entitled, “Having Church”. It should also be mentioned that Rev. Cleveland was awarded an honorary Doctrine degree from the Trinity Bible College and was the first gospel artist to be awarded a “STAR” on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Professor Alex Bradford (1927-1978) was one of gospel’s most well-loved and versatile figures. A tireless singer, songwriter, and choir director, he was also a promoter and record producer for other singers. Bradford joined Willie Webb and his singers, with whom he recorded “Every Day and Every Hour” (1950). On the strength of its success he organized the Bradford Specials, an all-male group who sang in robes with pastel stoles and choreographed most of their songs. In 1953 Bradford wrote and recorded “Too Close to Heaven,” which sold a million copies and received an award from the National Baptist Music Convention. A series of gospel recordings followed, and Bradford amassed a large following, not only for the beauty of his singing, marked by a throaty baritone and shrill falsetto, but his flamboyance as a stage personality and performer. During the 1960s, Bradford traveled the world in Black Nativity, but his earlier Specialty recordings — among them 1953’s “Too Close To Heaven” — are considered his greatest legacy. He composed more than 300 gospel songs, including (besides Too Close To Heaven) “He’ll Wash You Whiter Than Snow” (1955) and “After It’s Over” (1963).
Pop singers who have been heavily influenced by gospel include Aretha Franklin. Franklin was born on March 25, 1942, in Memphis, Tennessee to Rev. C. L. Franklin, a Baptist minister, and Barbara Siggers Franklin. Aretha’s parents had a troubled relationship and they separated when Aretha was six. She is widely acclaimed for her passionate, soulful vocal style, which is aided by a massive and powerful vocal range. She began singing in the choir of her father’s church. Known as the “Queen of Soul,” she recorded such hits as “Respect,” “Chain of Fools,” and “Who’s Zoomin’ Who,” “(You Make Me Feel Like) a Natural Woman,” and “Highway of Love.”