Skip to main content

Cleveland, James

James Cleveland

Singer, songwriter, pianist

For the Record

Compositions

Selected discography

Sources

Variously hailed as the King of Gospel Music and the Crown Prince of Gospel, the Reverend James Cleveland has combined his talents as preacher, composer, singer, producer, and philanthropist to become one of the most outstanding exponents of the modern gospel sound. Indeed, with a voice that has earned acclaim as one of gospels greatest, and a religious fervor that has refused the lure of secular music, Cleveland, more than any artist of his generation, has served as a champion of gospel in its purest form. As he explained to Ed Ochs in an interview for Billboard, gospel is not only a music, buta representation of a religious thinking. Gospel singing is the counterpart of gospel teaching. Its an art form, true enough, but it represents an idea, a thought, a trend.

Born in Depression-era Chicago, the son of hardworking, God-fearing parents, Cleveland grew up in an environment where gospel flourished. His grandmother introduced him to Chicagos Pilgrim Baptist Church, where the budding musician was influenced by choir director Thomas A. Dorseyalso known as the father of gospel music. Under Dorseys tutelage, the youth made his solo debut with the choir at the age of eight. The vocalist subsequently taught himself to play piano, often recounting how he practiced on imaginary keys until his parents could afford to purchase an upright for him. As Tony Heilbut quoted the star in The Gospel Sound: My folks being just plain, everyday people, we couldnt afford a piano. So I used to practice each night right there on the windowsill. I took those wedges and crevices and made me black and white keys. And, baby, I played just like Roberta [Martin]. By the time I was in high school, I was some jazz pianist.

Roberta Martin, a Dorsey disciple and one of the Chicago gospel pioneers to gain international recognition, was among Clevelands idols. It was her group, the Roberta Martin Singers, who first helped shape the youths singing and piano style, with Roberta Martin herself inspiring the youngster to begin composing. By the time he was a teenager, Cleveland was singing with a neighborhood group, the Thorn Gospel Crusaders. And once the group began featuring Clevelands compositions, the artist found himself piquing the interest of prominent gospel talents. In 1948 Clevelands Grace Is Sufficient, performed at a Baptist convention, prompted Martin to begin publishing the new composers work.

The next decade proved a productive one for Cleveland. He made his recording debut on the Apollo label in 1950, singing Oh What a Time with the Gospelaires. He composed songs for Roberta Martin, including Stand By Me, Saved, and Hes Using Me. He worked frequently with the Caravans, first establishing

For the Record

Born December 23, 1932 (some sources say 1931), in Chicago, III.; son of Ben Cleveland (a WPA worker); children: LaShone (daughter).

Minister and gospel singer, songwriter, and pianist. Singer with The Thorn Gospel Crusaders, 1940s; The Gospelaires, 1940s; Mahalia Jackson, early 1950s; The Caravans, beginning in 1954; The Gospel All Stars, late 1950s; The Gospel Chimes, 1959; co-director of music for New Bethel Baptist Church, Detroit, Mich., beginning in 1960; minister of music for Prayer Tabernacle, Detroit, beginning c. 1960; recording artist with Savoy Records, 1960; founded James Cleveland Singers, 1963; founded Southern California Community Choir, 1969. Makes concert tours. Ordained minister, early 1960s; Cornerstone Institutional Baptist Church, Los Angeles, Calif., founder and pastor, 1970.

Awards: Award from National Association of Negro Musicians, 1975; Image Award from NAACP, 1976;Billboard magazines Trendsetter Award;Ebony magazines Artist Award; NATRAs award as best gospel artist; Billboards award for best album and best male singer in soul/gospel for Live at Carnegie Hall; Grammy Award from Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences; six gold albums.

Addresses: Home Los Angeles, CA. Office c/o Ed Smith, Gospel Artists Association, P. O. Box 4632, Detroit, MI 48243.

himself as a superlative gospel arranger, then emerging as a singerthe Caravans scored their earliest hits, in fact, with Cleveland as lead vocalist on such tunes as Old Time Religion and Solid Rock. And he founded the first of his own groups, the Gospel Chimes, which helped showcase his talents as composer, arranger, and singer.

By 1960 Cleveland, who had incorporated blues riffs and what Heilbut described as sheer funkiness in his work, had become associated with a new tenor in gospel music. That year The Love of God, a song he recorded with Detroits Voices of Tabernacle choir, was a sensation, and its success helped Cleveland secure a recording contract with Savoy Records, for whom he has since recorded more than sixty albums. The artist passed another milestone with Savoys 1963 release Peace Be Still.A recording pairing Cleveland with the Angelic Choir of Nutley, New Jersey, the album, which held a spot on the gospel charts for more than fifteen years, has sold more than one million copies, an almost unheard of achievement for a gospel recording.

During the 1960s Cleveland also formed the James Cleveland Singers, gradually built an international reputation, and became one of the best paid of the gospel music entertainers. And although two of Clevelands former pupilsAretha Franklin and Billy Prestonwent on to achieve celebrity status, the master himself declined to expand his audience by moving into secular music, choosing instead to devote himself strictly to gospel.

Indeed, in the early sixties Cleveland became a minister and served Los Angeless New Greater Harvest Baptist Church as pastor until he was able to build his own Cornerstone Institutional Baptist Church in 1970. For him, gospel music and gospel teaching are inseparabledifferent mediums conveying the same message. As the minister-musician explained to Ochs: If we cant preach to people in a dry, talking sermon and get their attention, well sing it to them, as long as we get the message across. We have been instrumental in drawing more people to the church in recent years through singing and getting them to find favor with something in the church they like to identify with. Then when we get them into church, putting the same message into words without music is not as hard, for we have set some type of precedent with the music to get them into the church and get them focused on where were coming from.

For Cleveland, gospel music is so vital that in 1968 he organized the first Gospel Music Workshop of America. Designed both to help preserve the gospel tradition and to feature new talent, the workshop has grown to include more than five hundred thousand members representing almost every state. My biggest ambition is to build a school somewhere in America, where we can teach and house our convention, Cleveland told Village Voice interviewer David Jackson. This is the best way, in the artists opinion, to assure that gospels legacy continues.

As a musical artist for more than forty years and a minister for nearly thirty, Cleveland remains not only one of the most successful and popular gospel artists of all time, but also one of the staunchest supporters of gospel in its purist form. Remaining true to the gospel heritage, Cleveland perpetuates an understanding of gospel music and gospel teaching as part of the same religious experience, believing that the music devoid of the mission is not genuine gospel. As Jackson articulated: What Cleveland has been saying since he first started composing and performing gospel music is that God seeks to bring us peaceto reconcile us with ourselves. Through classics like Peace Be Still, Lord Remember Me, Father, I Stretch My Hands to Thee, and The Love of God, Reverend Cleveland retells a biblical love story for the plain purpose of reconciling people to God and to one another. And as his scores of devoted followers attest, concluded Jackson, his message is widely appreciated and applauded.

Compositions

Composer of numerous gospel songs, including Grace is Sufficient, Jesus, The Man, Hes Using Me, and God Specializes.

Selected discography

Albums; released by Savoy Records

All You Need

At the Cross

Bread of Heaven

Christ Is the Answer

Down Memory Lane

Everything Will Be All Right

Free At Last

Give Me My Flowers

Gods Promises

Grace of God

Greatest Love Story

Hark the Voice

Hes Working It Out

Heaven Is Good Enough

His Name Is Wonderful

How Great Thou Art

I Stood on the Banks

I Walk With God

If I Perish

Ill Do His Will

Im One of Them

Its Real

Jesus Is the Best Thing

Live at Carnegie Hall

Lord, Do It

Lord, Help Me

Lord Let Me Be an Instrument

Merry Christmas

Miracle Worker

New Day

99 1/2 Wont Do

No Failure in God

No Ways Tired

One and Only James Cleveland

Out on a Hill

Parade of Gospel

Peace Be Still

Pilgrim of Sorrow

Reunion

Somebody Knows

Songs Mother Taught Me

Songs of Dedication

Soul of James Cleveland

Stood on Banks

Sun Will Shine

Trust In God

Try Jesus

When I Get Home

Where Can I Go

Without a Song

Youll Never Walk Alone

Also released numerous recordings for Savoy in collaboration with other artists, including albums with The Charles Fold Singers, The Angelic Choir of Nutley, N.J., The L.A. Gospel Messengers, The New Jerusalem Baptist Church Choir, and many others. Several early recordings released by such labels as Hob (Detroit) and States (Chicago).

Sources

Books

Broughton, Viv, Black Gospel: An Illustrated History of the Gospel Sound, Blandford Press, 1985.

Heilbut, Tony, The Gospel Sound: Good News and Bad Times, Simon & Schuster, 1971.

Periodicals

Billboard, September 27, 1980.

Ebony, December, 1984.

Village Voice, April 16, 1979.

Other

Baker, Barbara, Black Gospel Music Styles: 1942-1979, Ph.D. dissertation, University of Maryland, 1978.

Casey, M. E., The Contributions of James Cleveland, thesis, Howard University, 1980.

Nancy H. Evans

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Cleveland, James." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. 24 May. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Cleveland, James." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (May 24, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/cleveland-james

"Cleveland, James." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved May 24, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/cleveland-james

Cleveland, James 1932(?)–1991

James Cleveland 1932(?)1991

Gospel vocalist, minister, composer

Wrote Three Songs A Week

Signed to Savoy Records

Maintained Unswerving Allegiance to Gospel

Selected discography

Sources

A prolific composer of pieces that remain gospel standards, a distinctive vocal performer, and a tireless teacher and organizer of huge gospel conventions, James Cleveland spent a lifetime at the forefront of Americas gospel music experience, in the words of his Billboard magazine obituary in 1991. Cleveland paved the way for modern gospel music by incorporating blues and jazz influences, and directly shaping the careers of soul superstars Aretha Franklin and Billy Preston. He was a towering figure, a man considered by many as the King of Gospel Music and the Crown Prince of Gospel.

James Cleveland was born in Chicago, perhaps on December 5, 1932 (his birthday has also been given as December 23, and his birth year as 1931, but the date proposed here accords with that given by gospel music authority Horace Boyer in the New Grove Dictionary of American Music). His earliest musical experiences occurred when his grandmother took him to Chicagos Pilgrim Baptist Church, where the renowned choir director and composer Thomas B. Dorsey was responsible for the music. Dorsey was greatly impressed with the young mans vocal talent and asked him to sing a solo. Cleveland rapidly broadened his musical abilities. He told Gospel Sound author Tony Heilbut that although his parents could not afford a piano, I used to practice each night right there on the windowsill. I took those wedges and crevices and made me black and white keys.

Wrote Three Songs A Week

Influenced by gospel songstresses Mahalia Jackson (whose home was located on Clevelands paper route) and Roberta Martin, Cleveland began performing and composing regularly while still in his teens. As his voice changed, he strained to hit high notes and caused some damage to his vocal cords. As a result, his singing voice took on a rough and raspy quality that became his trademark in later years. Martin, who was active in the gospel music publishing field, began paying Cleveland to write songs for her and he developed into an extremely prolific songwriter. Between 1956 and 1960, he wrote approximately three songs per week.

In 1953 Cleveland joined a gospel group called the Caravans as pianist, arranger, and occasional singer.

At a Glance

Born December 5, 1932 (some sources give the birthday December 23 and the year 1931) in Chicago; son of Ben Cleveland (a WPA worker); children: LaShone; died of heart failure, February 9, 1991. Religion: Baptist.

Career: Minister and gospel singer, songwriter, and pianist; sang with the Thorn Gospel Crusaders and many other groups, 1940s and 1950s; formed own group, the Gospel Chimes, 1959; co-director of music, New Bethel Baptist Church, Detroit, 1960; signed to Savoy label, c. 1961; released over 100 albums; founded James Cleveland Singers, 1963; organized Gospel Music Workshop of America, 1968; founded Southern California Community Choir, 1969; founder and pastor, Cornerstone Institutional Baptist Church, Los Angeles, 1970.

Awards: Sixteen gold records; Grammy award for Amazing Grace, 1972; Image Award from National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, 1976.

With Cleveland on vocals, the group had some success with two recordings, The Solid Rock and Old Time Religion. Seeking to put into action his own creative vision, Cleveland left the Caravans in 1959 and formed his own group, the Gospel Chimes. Over the next several years, Cleveland achieved a series of creative breakthroughs. He moved to Detroit in 1960 to take a position as music director at the famed New Bethel Baptist Church where the Reverend C. L. Franklin, father of soul vocalist Aretha Franklin, was pastor. In 1972, he collaborated with Aretha on the Grammy-winning multimillion-selling LP Amazing Grace.

Signed to Savoy Records

While recording with various Detroit choirs, Cleveland attracted the attention of New York-based Savoy Records and was signed to the label early in the 1960s. He went on to record more than 100 albums for Savoy, sixteen of which were gold albums. One breakthrough recording was Savoys 1963 release Peace Be Still. On the title track of the record, which paired Cleveland with the Angelic Choir of Nutley, New Jersey, Cleveland crystallized his choral work and hit on a powerful formula that he would follow many times throughout the rest of his career. In the words of Horace Boyer, writing in the New Grove Dictionary of American Music, Cleveland half croons, half preaches the verse, shifting to a musical sermon at the refrain; towards the end of the songs the choir repeats a motif over which Cleveland extemporizes a number of variations. Peace Be Still remained on the gospel music charts for fifteen years.

Cleveland moved to Los Angeles in 1963, serving as pastor of the New Greater Harvest Baptist Church. In 1970 he opened his own church, the Cornerstone Institutional Baptist Church. Cornerstone would eventually grow into one of the citys largest congregations. Cleveland always insisted that his work as a preacher was integral to his career, remarking to a Billboard interviewer that gospel was an art form, true enough; but it represents an idea, a thought, a trend.

After a brief hiatus, Cleveland soon redoubled his musical efforts. He formed several successful new groups, including the James Cleveland Singers and the Southern California Community Choir. In 1968, Cleveland founded the Gospel Music Workshop of America. The purpose of the workshop was to bring together singers from all over the country in order to perpetuate the art of gospel music. The workshops eventually attracted thousands of adherents and laid the groundwork for the popularity of gospel music.

Maintained Unswerving Allegiance to Gospel

By the 1970s and 1980s, Cleveland had become a gospel music legend. Disc jockeys, impressed by the sheer power of Clevelands voice, played his music and several of his records became minor pop hits. However, unlike talented gospel artists like Sam Cooke and Aretha Franklin who crossed over to pop careers, Cleveland maintained an unswerving allegiance to gospel. His imaginative arrangements are credited with introducing jazz and pop rhythms to gospel and paved the way for gospel-pop fusion artists such as Edwin Hawkins and Andrae Crouch.

Cleveland suffered severe respiratory problems in his later years and died of heart failure on February 9, 1991, in Los Angeles. Aretha Franklin memorialized Cleveland in the New York Times with these words: Anyone who heard him, you were touched by him. He was a motivator, and innovator. He leaves the greatest legacy.

Selected discography

(All albums recorded on Savoy label)

This Sunday in Person, 1961.

Rev. James Cleveland with the Angelic Choir, Vol. 2, 1962.

Peace Be Still, 1963.

Songs of Dedication, 1968.

I Stood on the Banks of Jordan, 1970.

Amazing Grace (with Aretha Franklin), 1972.

In the Ghetto, 1973.

Tomorrow, 1978.

Lord Let Me Be an Instrument, 1979.

James Cleveland Sings with the Worlds Greatest Choirs, 1980.

Its a New Day, 1982.

This Too Will Pass, 1983.

Jesus Is the Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me, 1990.

Sources

Books

Anderson, Robert, and Gail North, Gospel Music Encyclopedia, Sterling, 1979.

Contemporary Musicians, volume 1, Gale, 1989.

New Grove Dictionary of American Music, Macmillan, 1986.

Romanowski, Patricia, and Holly George-Warren, The New Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, Fireside, 1995.

Periodicals

Billboard, February 23, 1991, p. 4.

Library Journal, February 15, 1998, p. 181.

New York Times, February 11, 1991.

James M. Manheim

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Cleveland, James 1932(?)–1991." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. 24 May. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Cleveland, James 1932(?)–1991." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (May 24, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/cleveland-james-1932-1991

"Cleveland, James 1932(?)–1991." Contemporary Black Biography. . Retrieved May 24, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/cleveland-james-1932-1991

James Cleveland

James Cleveland

The Reverend James Cleveland (c. 1931-1991) combined his talents as minister, singer, composer, and philanthropist to become known as the Crown Prince of Gospel Music.

Variously hailed as the King of Gospel Music and the Crown Prince of Gospel, the Reverend James Cleveland combined his talents as preacher, composer, singer, producer, and philanthropist to become one of the most outstanding exponents of the modern gospel sound. Indeed, with a voice that has earned acclaim as one of gospel's greatest, and a religious fervor that has refused the lure of secular music, Cleveland, more than any artist of his generation, served as a champion of gospel in its purest form. As he explained to Ed Ochs in an interview for Billboard, gospel is not only "a music, but … a representation of a religious thinking. Gospel singing is the counterpart of gospel teaching. … It's an art form, true enough, but it represents an idea, a thought, a trend."

Grew up Where Gospel Flourished

Born in Depression-era Chicago, the son of hard-working, God-fearing parents, Cleveland grew up in an environment where gospel flourished. His grandmother introduced him to Chicago's Pilgrim Baptist Church, where the budding musician was influenced by choir director Thomas A. Dorsey—also known as the father of gospel music. Under Dorsey's tutelage, the youth made his solo debut with the choir at the age of eight. The vocalist subsequently taught himself to play piano, often recounting how he practiced on imaginary keys until his parents could afford to purchase an upright for him. As Tony Heilbut quoted the star in The Gospel Sound: "My folks being just plain, everyday people, we couldn't afford a piano. So I used to practice each night right there on the windowsill. I took those wedges and crevices and made me black and white keys. And, baby, I played just like Roberta [Martin]. By the time I was in high school, I was some jazz pianist."

Roberta Martin, a Dorsey disciple and one of the Chicago gospel pioneers to gain international recognition, was among Cleveland's idols. It was her group, the Roberta Martin Singers, who first helped shape the youth's singing and piano style, with Roberta Martin herself inspiring the youngster to begin composing. By the time he was a teenager, Cleveland was singing with a neighborhood group, the Thorn Gospel Crusaders. And once the group began featuring Cleveland's compositions, the artist found himself piquing the interest of prominent gospel talents. In 1948 Cleveland's "Grace Is Sufficient," performed at a Baptist convention, prompted Martin to begin publishing the new composer's work.

Founded the Gospel Chimes

The next decade proved a productive one for Cleveland. He made his recording debut on the Apollo label in 1950, singing "Oh What a Time" with the Gospelaires. He composed songs for Roberta Martin, including "Stand By Me," "Saved," and "He's Using Me." He worked frequently with the Caravans, first establishing himself as a superlative gospel arranger, then emerging as a singer—the Caravans scored their earliest hits, in fact, with Cleveland as lead vocalist on such tunes as "Old Time Religion" and "Solid Rock." And he founded the first of his own groups, the Gospel Chimes, which helped showcase his talents as composer, arranger, and singer.

By 1960 Cleveland, who had incorporated blues riffs and what Heilbut described as "sheer funkiness" in his work, had become associated with a new tenor in gospel music. That year "The Love of God," a song he recorded with Detroit's Voices of Tabernacle choir, was a sensation, and its success helped Cleveland secure a recording contract with Savoy Records, for whom he recorded more than sixty albums. The artist passed another milestone with Savoy's 1963 release Peace Be Still. A recording pairing Cleveland with the Angelic Choir of Nutley, New Jersey, the album, which held a spot on the gospel charts for more than fifteen years, has sold more than one million copies, an almost unheard of achievement for a gospel recording.

During the 1960s Cleveland also formed the James Cleveland Singers, gradually built an international reputation, and became one of the best paid of the gospel music entertainers. And although two of Cleveland's former pupils—Aretha Franklin and Billy Preston—went on to achieve celebrity status, the master himself declined to expand his audience by moving into secular music, and instead chose to devote himself strictly to gospel.

Worked to Preserve Gospel Tradition

Indeed, in the early sixties Cleveland became a minister and served Los Angeles's New Greater Harvest Baptist Church as pastor until he was able to build his own Cornerstone Institutional Baptist Church in 1970. For him, gospel music and gospel teaching were inseparable—different mediums conveying the same message. As the minister-musician explained to Ochs: "If we can't preach to people in a dry, talking sermon and get their attention, we'll sing it to them, as long as we get the message across. We have been instrumental in drawing more people to the church in recent years through singing and getting them to find favor with something in the church they like to identify with. Then when we get them into church, putting the same message into words without music is not as hard, for we have set some type of precedent with the music to get them into the church and get them focused on where we're coming from."

For Cleveland, gospel music was so vital that in 1968 he organized the first Gospel Music Workshop of America. Designed both to help preserve the gospel tradition and to feature new talent, the workshop has grown to include more than five hundred thousand members representing almost every state. "My biggest ambition is to build a school somewhere in America, where we can teach and house our convention," Cleveland told Village Voice interviewer David Jackson. This was the best way, in the artist's opinion, to assure that gospel's legacy continues.

One Last Message

Cleveland perpetuated an understanding of gospel music and gospel teaching as part of the same religious experience, believing that the music devoid of the mission is not genuine gospel. As Jackson articulated: "Through classics like 'Peace Be Still,' 'Lord Remember Me,' 'Father, I Stretch My Hands to Thee,' and 'The Love of God,' Reverend Cleveland retells a biblical love story for the plain purpose of reconciling people to God and to one another." And as his scores of devoted followers attest, concluded Jackson, "his message is widely appreciated and applauded."

Cleveland died of heart failure on February 9, 1991, in Los Angeles, California. He had not been able to sing for a year before his death due to respiratory ailments. But the last Sunday of his life, he faced his congregation at the Cornerstone Institutional Baptist Church and told them, "If I don't see you again and if I don't sing again, I'm a witness to the fact that the Lord answers prayer. He let my voice come back to me this morning," the Los Angeles Times reported. The same source reverently opined that Cleveland had been "not just … a record maker, but a mentor, producer, primary source of new material and fountainhead of artistic recognition for the form."

Further Reading

Broughton, Viv, Black Gospel: An Illustrated History of the Gospel Sound, Blandford Press, 1985.

Heilbut, Tony, The Gospel Sound: Good News and Bad Times, Simon & Schuster, 1971.

Billboard, September 27, 1980.

Chicago Tribune, February 17, 1991.

Detroit Free Press, February 18, 1991.

Ebony, December, 1984.

Los Angeles Times, February 10, 1991; February 15, 1991.

Village Voice, April 16, 1979.

Washington Post, February 11, 1991.

Baker, Barbara, "Black Gospel Music Styles: 1942-1979," Ph.D. dissertation, University of Maryland, 1978.

Casey, M. E., "The Contributions of James Cleveland," thesis, Howard University, 1980. □

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"James Cleveland." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. 24 May. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"James Cleveland." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (May 24, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/james-cleveland

"James Cleveland." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved May 24, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/james-cleveland