The African-American religious music known as gospel, originating in the field hollers, slave songs, spirituals, and Protestant hymns sung on southern plantations, and later at camp meetings and churches, has come to dominate not only music in black churches but singing and instrumental styles across the spectrum of American popular music, including jazz, blues, rhythm and blues, soul, and country. Exemplified in songs such as "Take My Hand, Precious Lord" and "Move On Up a Little Higher," gospel music encourages emotional and jubilant improvisation on songs of thanksgiving and praise as well as sorrow and suffering.
Musically, gospel is distinguished by its vocal style, which in both male and female singers is characterized by a strained, full-throated sound, often pushed to guttural shrieks and rasps suited to the extremes of the emotion-laden lyrics. Melodies and harmonies are generally simple, allowing for spontaneity in devising repetitive, expressive fills and riffs. The syncopated rhythms of gospel are typically spare, with heavy, often hand-clapped accents.
The Founding Years
Although the roots of gospel can be traced to Africa and the earliest arrival of Africans in the New World, the main antecedent was the "Dr. Watts" style of singing hymns, named for British poet and hymnist Isaac Watts (1674–1748), who emphasized a call-and-response approach to religious songs, with mournful but powerful rhythms. Thus, in the nineteenth century, African-American hymnody in mainstream denominations did not differ considerably from music performed in white churches. The earliest African-American religious denominations date back to the late eighteenth century, when black congregations split off from white church organizations in Philadelphia. In 1801 the minister Richard Allen, who later founded the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) denomination, published two collections of hymns designed for use in black churches. These collections were the forerunners of similar collections that formed the basis for the music performed in most nineteenth-century black churches, yet they were quite similar to the slow-tempo, restrained white Protestant hymnody. Around the middle of the nineteenth century a new type of music known as "gospel hymns" or "gospel songs" was being composed in a new style, lighter and more songlike than traditional hymnody, written by white composers such as Dwight Moody (1837–1899), Ira Sankey (1840–1908), Philip Paul Bliss (1838–1876), Robert Lowry (1826–1899), and William Batchelder Bradbury (1816–1868).
Another important nineteenth-century influence on gospel music was the idea, increasingly popular at a minority of nineteenth-century black churches, that spiritual progress required a deeper and more directly emotional relationship with God, often through the singing of white "gospel hymns," although gospel as an African-American form would not take that name for decades. These congregations, often led by charismatic ministers, began searching for a religion based on "Holiness or Hell" and were early participants in the Latter Rain movement, which sought to "irrigate the dry bones" of the church. The first congregation known to accept this doctrine, based on the activities of the Day of Pentecost (though, confusingly, this is not what is now called Pentecostalism) was the United Holy Church of Concord, South Carolina, which held its first meeting in 1886 and had its first convention in 1894 under the leadership of Brother L. M. Mason (1861–1930). Another early congregation to accept that doctrine and encourage early forms of gospel music was the Church of the Living God, in Wrightsville, Arkansas, under the leadership of William Christian (1856–1928) in 1889.
The Holiness doctrine proved controversial within black churches, as did the music associated with Holiness. In 1895 Charles Harrison Mason and Charles Price Jones were forced from the Baptist church, and together they proceeded to organize the Church of God in Christ in Lexington, Mississippi, where the music was heavily influenced by the performance style at Los Angeles's Azusa Street Revival, a black congregation that marked the beginning of Pentecostalism, under the leadership of William Joseph Seymour. The Azusa Street Revival featured highly charged services involving "speaking in tongues" as a manifestation of the Holy Ghost. Such activities were eventually integrated into the mainstream of black church activity, but around the turn of the century, Holiness-style services, and even the singing of spirituals, were strenuously opposed by conservative black church elders who had fought to "elevate" the musical standards of their congregations.
Jones, for example, was opposed to the Azusa Street style and eventually split from Mason to organize the Church of Christ, Holiness.
Early forms of gospel music such as sung or chanted testimonials and sermons were used to complement prayers in Holiness churches. Drawing on the call-and-response tradition that dated back to slavery times, members of a congregation would take inspiration from a phrase from the sermon or testimony and out of it spontaneously compose a simple melody and text. A chorus of congregants would repeat the original phrase, while the leader interpolated brief extemporized choruses. For example, in Charles Harrison Mason's 1908 "I'm a Soldier," the leader and congregation begin by alternating the following lines: "I'm a soldier/In the army of the Lord/I'm a soldier/In the army." Succeeding choruses differ only in the lead line, with the leader interpolating such phrases as "I'm fighting for my life," "I'm a sanctified soldier," or "I'll live and I'll die," and the congregation repeating "In the army" as a refrain. The length of such songs often stretched to fifteen minutes or more. Along with simple "homemade" harmonies came hand-clapping, foot-stomping, and holy dancing, also known as "shouting."
Holiness, Sanctified, and Pentecostal congregations sprang up rapidly all over the South, particularly in rural, poor communities, starting around the turn of the century, and in less than a decade gospel music, then known as church music, was being sung in Baptist and Methodist congregations as well. During this time the most popular gospel hymns were by a new generation of black composers, including William Henry Sherwood; Jones, who composed "Where Shall I Be?" and "I'm Happy with Jesus Alone"; Mason, who in addition to "I'm a Soldier" wrote "My Soul Loves Jesus" and the chant "Yes, Lord"; and Charles Albert Tindley, who composed "What Are They Doing in Heaven," "Stand by Me," and "I'll Overcome Someday," which was the forerunner of the civil rights anthem "We Shall Overcome." Since at this time there were no publishing houses for black gospel, these composers began to establish their own. They also depended on recordings and traveling preachers to spread their music. Preachers who popularized their own songs included J. C. Burnett ("Drive and Go Forward," 1926), Ford Washington McGhee ("Lion of the Tribe of Judah," 1927), J. M. Gates ("Death's Black Train Is Coming," 1926), and A. W. Nix ("The Black Diamond Express to Hell," 1927).
The Birth of Gospel Music
The 1920s were a crucial time in the development of gospel music. In 1921 the National Baptist Convention, USA, the largest organization of black Christians in the world, not only formally recognized gospel as a legitimate sacred musical form but published a collection of hymns, spirituals, and gospel songs under the title Gospel Pearls, edited by Willa A. Townsend (1885–1963). That hymnal contained six songs by Tindley, the first gospel composer successfully to combine the conventions of white evangelical music with the simple, often sentimental melodies of black spirituals. The 1921 convention also marked the emergence of the composer Thomas A. Dorsey (1899–1993), who would go on to become known as the Father of Gospel because of his indefatigable songwriting, publishing, organizing, and teaching. Three years later the National Baptist Convention published the Baptist Standard Hymnal, another important step toward bringing gospel into the mainstream of African-American church worship. Other important gospel composers who came to prominence during this time were Lucie Campbell (1885–1963) and William Herbert Brewster (1897–1987).
Despite the publication of these hymnals and the dissemination of individual songs in both print and by record, it was by word of mouth that gospel spread, particularly in working-class communities in the rural South. In Jefferson County, Alabama, workers in coal mines and factories used their lunch hours to organize quartets to sing this new type of religious song. In some respects these groups were inspired by the tradition of the secular Fisk Jubilee and Tuskegee vocal quartets, but the new groups emphasized the powerful emotional experiences of conversion and salvation. One of the first such groups, the Foster Singers, organized in 1916, stressed equality between the vocal parts. However, it was a Foster Singers spinoff group, the Birmingham Jubilee Singers, led by one of the members of the Foster Singers, that inspired gospel quartets that soon started all over the South. The Birmingham Jubilee Singers allowed the bass and tenor more prominence and freedom, raised tempos, and used more adventurous harmonies, including "blue" notes. The vocal quartets organized in this style in the 1920s include the Fairfield Four (1921), which as of 1992 still included one of its original members, the Rev. Samuel McCrary; the Blue Jay Singers (1926); the Harmonizing Four (1927); and the Dixie Hummingbirds (1928). In the 1930s new quartets included the Golden Gate Quartet (1934), which went on to become the most popular group of the 1930s and 1940s, and the Soul Stirrers (1936). The following year, Rebert H. Harris (b. 1916) joined the groups, and over the next fourteen years he became their most famous singer. In 1938 Claude Jeter Harris (b. 1914) organized the Four Harmony Kings, who later changed their name to the Swan Silvertones to acknowledge their sponsorship by a bakery.
By the 1930s gospel music had been firmly planted in northern cities. This was due not only to the Great Migration of rural blacks following World War I but also to the fact that, increasingly, record companies and publishing houses were located in northern cities, and particularly in Chicago, then the focal point for gospel music. Thomas Andrew Dorsey opened his publishing house in 1932, the same year he composed "Take My Hand, Precious Lord" (popularly known as "Precious Lord, Take My Hand"). Through composing, publishing, organizing, and teaching gospel choirs, Dorsey was given the sobriquet Father of Gospel.
Starting in the 1920s, gospel music was taken up by many different types of ensembles in addition to vocal quartets. In urban areas blind singers often came to prominence by performing on street corners and in churches. One of the most important of these was Connie Rose-mond, for whom Lucie Campbell composed "Something Within Me." Others were Mamie Forehand and the guitarists and singers Blind Joe Taggard and Blind Willie Johnson. The blind Texan singer Arizona Dranes accompanied herself on piano and is credited with introducing that instrument to recorded gospel music. Among the gospel singers who sang with piano accompaniment as early as the 1920s were Willie Mae Ford Smith, Sallie Martin, Clara Hudmon (1900–1960), Madame Ernestine B. Washington (1914–1983), and guitarist and singer Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the first important performer to find a large audience outside the gospel circuit. Male-accompanied singers included Brother Joe May (1912–1973) and J. Robert Bradley (b. 1921). The greatest of the accompanied singers was Mahalia Jackson, who was born in New Orleans and found her calling in Chicago at age sixteen. Her 1947 recording of "Move On Up a Little Higher," by Herbert Brewster, featuring her soaring contralto, came to define the female gospel style.
In the late 1930s accompanied gospel ensembles consisting of four to six women, four or five men, or a mixed group of four to six singers, became popular. Clara Ward (1924–1973) organized the earliest notable accompanied ensemble, the Ward Singers, in 1934. The year before, Roberta Martin had joined with composer Theodore Frye (1899–1963) to form the Martin-Frye Quartet, later known as the Roberta Martin Singers. Sallie Martin organized the Sallie Martin Singers in 1940. Three years later the Original Gospel Harmonettes were formed, with pianist Evelyn Stark. They later came to prominence when singer Dorothy Love Coates joined the group and introduced "hard" gospel techniques, such as singing beyond her range and straining the voice for dramatic effects. Other accompanied ensembles included the Angelic Gospel Singers and the Davis Sisters, with pianist Curtis Dublin.
During this time vocal quartets and quintets continued to be popular. Archie Brownlee (1925–1960) organized the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi in 1939, the same year that Johnny L. Fields (b. 1927) formed the Five Blind Boys of Alabama, featuring Clarence Fountain (b. 1929). James Woodie Alexander (b. 1916) began leading the Pilgrim Travelers in 1946.
In the years between the wars, women, who from the start had been pillars of African-American religious institutions, became increasingly involved as publishers and organizers. In 1932, Dorsey, Sallie Martin, and Willie Mae Ford Smith formed the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses. Roberta Martin, the composer of "God Is Still on the Throne," opened her own publishing house in 1939. Sallie Martin opened hers along with Kenneth Martin (1917–1989), the composer of "Yes, God Is Real," in 1940.
The Golden Age
By 1945 gospel was becoming recognized not only as a spiritual experience but also as a form of entertainment, and this became known as gospel's golden era. Singers, appearing on stage in attractive uniforms, had established and refined a popular and recognizable vocal sound. Gospel pianists such as Mildred Falls (1915–1975), Herbert Pickard, Mildred Gay, Edgar O'Neal, James Herndon, and James Washington and organists such as Little Lucy Smith, Gerald Spraggins, Louise Overall Weaver, and Herbert "Blind" Francis were working in exciting styles derived from ragtime, barrelhouse, and the blues, with chordal voicing, riffs, and complicated rhythms. Finally a group of composers including Doris Akers (b. 1923), Sammy Lewis, and Lucy Smith could be depended on to come up with fresh material. Just as early gospel composers relied on traveling from church to church to popularize their songs, so too did the first early popular gospel singers find it necessary to go on the road. Sister Rosetta Tharpe performed at nightclubs and dance halls, but far more typical was the experience of Mahalia Jackson, who by 1945 had quit her regular job and joined a growing number of traveling professional gospel singers performing in churches and schools, moving on to auditoriums and stadiums. These singers were able to support themselves, and some, like Jackson, were quite successful, especially in the context of touring companies.
After the war the recording industry and radio played a large part in popularizing gospel. At first, small companies such as King, Atlantic, Vee-Jay, Dot, Nashboro, and Peacock were the most active in seeking out gospel singers. Apollo Records recorded Jackson and Roberta Martin before they moved to larger labels. The Ward Sisters, the Angelic Gospel Singers, and the Davis Sisters first recorded for Gotham Records. The Original Gospel Harmonettes recorded first for RCA Victor. With the proliferation of recordings,
gospel radio programs became popular. In New York, the gospel disk jockey Joe Bostic was extraordinarily successful, as were Mary Manson in Philadelphia, Irene Joseph Ware in Chicago, Mary Dee in Baltimore, Goldie Thompson in Tampa, and John "Honeyboy" Hardy in New Orleans. Other cities with gospel shows in the postwar years included Atlanta, Los Angeles, Louisville, and Miami.
Among the more prominent performers and leaders who emerged during gospel's postwar golden era were Madame Edna Gallmon Cooke (1918–1967), Julius "June" Cheeks (1928–1981), who joined the Sensationales in 1946, "Professor" Alex Bradford (1927–1978), Robert Anderson (b. 1919), and Albertina Walker (b. 1930), who in 1952 formed the Caravans. Among the members of the Caravans were Shirley Caesar and Inez Andrews (b. 1928), who had a hit record with "Mary, Don't You Weep." Marion Williams left the Ward Singers in 1958 to form the Stars of Faith. Willie Joe Ligon (b. 1942) organized the Mighty Clouds of Joy in 1959. Perhaps the best-known singer to emerge from the golden era was Sam Cooke, who joined the Soul Stirrers in 1950 and revitalized the male gospel quartet movement with his hits "Nearer to Thee" and "Touch the Hem of His Garment" before going on to fame as a popular singer starting in 1956.
The most significant figure from this time was the Rev. James Cleveland, who began singing in Dorsey's children's choir at the age of eight. By the age of sixteen, Cleveland had composed his first hit for the Roberta Martin Singers. He accompanied the Caravans, formed his own group, and in 1963 began recording with the Angelic Choir of Nutley, New Jersey. Cleveland's recordings were so successful that they sparked a new phase in gospel music dominated by gospel choirs. Prominent choirs following Cleveland's lead included those led by Thurston Frazier, Mattie Moss Clark (b. 1928), and Jessy Dixon (b. 1938).
By the end of the 1950s gospel was becoming ubiquitous, not only in black communities but as a part of mainstream American culture. Mahalia Jackson recorded "Come Sunday" as part of Duke Ellington's Black, Brown and Beige in 1958 and the next year appeared in the film Imitation of Life. Langston Hughes, who in 1956 wrote Tambourines to Glory: A Play with Spirituals, Jubilees, and Gospel Songs, wrote the gospel-song play Black Nativity in 1961, for a cast that included Marion Williams and Alex Bradford. In 1961 a gospel category was added to the Grammy awards, with Mahalia Jackson the first winner. During the 1960s costumed groups and choirs began to appear on Broadway, at Carnegie Hall, and in Las Vegas, as well as on television shows. In addition to Sam Cooke, many singers trained in the gospel tradition helped popularize gospel-style delivery in popular music. Rhythm-and-blues doo-wop groups from the late 1940s and 1950s, such as the Ravens, the Orioles, and the Drifters, used close harmonies and a high-crooning-male-lead style borrowed from gospel. Singers such as Dinah Washington, Ray Charles, Al Green, Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Little Richard, and Stevie Wonder used gospel techniques to cross over to enormous international popularity on the rock, soul, and rhythm-and-blues charts.
Gospel music was a crucial part of the civil rights movement. There had been a political thrust in sacred black music since the abolitionist hymnody of the nineteenth-century, and in the 1960s musicians such as Mahalia Jackson, Fannie Lou Hamer, Guy Carawan, the Montgomery Trio, the Nashville Quartet, the CORE Freedom Singers, the SNCC Freedom Singers, and Carlton Reese's Gospel Freedom Choir appeared at marches, rallies, and meetings. Gospel musicians had always reworked traditional material at will, and in the 1960s gospel songs and spirituals originally intended for religious purposes were changed to apply to secular struggles. For example, "If You Miss Me from Praying Down Here" became "If You Miss Me from the Back of the Bus." Other popular songs were "We Shall Overcome," "This Little Light of Mine," "We'll Never Turn Back," "Eyes on the Prize," "Ninety-Nine and a Half Won't Do," "O Freedom," and "Ain't Nobody Gonna Turn Me Around." For many leaders of the civil rights movement, such as Hamer, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and the Rev. Wyatt Tee Walker, gospel music was an essential part of their organizing work. "Precious Lord" was a favorite of Martin Luther King Jr., so Mahalia Jackson sang it at his funeral.
The Contemporary Sound and Beyond
The next phase in the history of gospel music came in 1969, when Edwin Hawkins released his rendition of "Oh Happy Day," a white nineteenth-century hymn, in which he eschewed the gritty timbres of Cleveland in favor of smooth pop vocals, soul harmonies, and jazz rhythms, including a conga drum. The song, which became the number one song on Billboard 's pop chart, represented a fusion of the traditional gospel style of Mahalia Jackson, Thomas Andrew Dorsey, and the Dixie Hummingbirds with elements of jazz, rhythm and blues, and soul. Record producers, inspired by the crossover potential of what became known as contemporary gospel, began encouraging gospel groups toward a more contemporary sound, igniting a long-running controversy within the gospel community.
After Hawkins, one of the principal figures of contemporary gospel throughout the 1970s was the composer and pianist Andraé Crouch, the cousin of critic Stanley Crouch. Also important were Myrna Summers, Dannie-bell Hall, Douglas Miller, Bebe and Cece Winans, the Clark Sisters, and the ensemble Commissioned. At the same time, gospel came to Broadway again in the widely acclaimed musical Your Arms Too Short to Box with God (1976).
In 1983 The Gospel at Colonus was a popular stage production in New York, and in the 1980s and 1990s gospel, particularly contemporary, has continued to attract large audiences. The unaccompanied vocal sextet Take 6 combined gospel-style harmonies with mainstream jazz rhythms to achieve huge popular success in the late 1980s. Other popular contemporary singers from this time included Richard Smallwood, who uses classical elements in his songs, Bobby Jones, Keith Pringle, and Daryl Coley. Walter Hawkins (b. 1949), the brother of Edwin Hawkins, combines elements of traditional and contemporary styles, especially on recordings with his wife, Tremaine (b. 1957). The Hawkins style was taken up by the Thompson Community Choir, the Charles Fold Singers, the Barrett Sisters, and the Rev. James Moore, as well as mass choirs in Florida, New Jersey, and Mississippi. The choral ensemble Sounds of Blackness has been popular in recent years, as have contemporary vocal quartets such as the Williams Brothers, the Jackson Southernaires, and the Pilgrim Jubilees. These groups often use synthesizers and drum machines in addition to traditional gospel instruments. Prominent contemporary gospel composers include Elbernita Clark, Jeffrey LeValle, Andrae Woods, and Rance Allen.
Gospel-style singing, at least until the advent of rap music, dominated African-American popular music. One indication of the importance of gospel to the music industry is the fact that as of 1993 six Grammy categories were devoted to gospel music. Gospel, which started out as a marginal, almost blasphemous form of musical worship, now has a central place in African-American church activity. Not only Holiness and Pentecostal churches but Baptist and Methodist denominations have fully accepted gospel music. Its striking emotional power has enabled gospel music to remain a vital part of African-American culture.
The Stellar Awards
The Stellar Awards, originally called the First Annual Gospel Music Awards, have come a long way from humble beginnings. Gospel music is enjoying mainstream success, in large part because of the award show. In the mid-1980s, when the show premiered, gospel music was so far off the public's radar that the only way the show managed to be televised was by branding it a tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. so as to gain advertising interest. By its twentieth anniversary in 2005, the Stellar Awards had become a yearly landmark event for those who follow gospel music. Some fans, however, are uneasy about the idea of gospel music as entertainment. Others are simply worried that the quality of music will suffer with more mainstream success and commercial ization. Still, the awards show is special to gospel music lovers because it honored black music before it was recognized or honored in the main stream.
In the early 2000s gospel music became a half-billion-dollar-per-year industry and held a 6.7 percent share in the music market. In a 2002 Ebony music poll, 21.2 percent of the respondents cited gospel music as their favorite, whereas 9.2 percent chose easy listening and 6.5 percent noted hip-hop. Because of gospel music's increasing popularity, retail chain restaurants in the southeast United States began instituting "Gospel Nights" in 2002. The program, which brings live gospel music to food establishments, has been met with increasing enthusiasm from patrons.
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Harris, Michael W. The Rise of Gospel Blues: The Music of Thomas Andrew Dorsey in the Urban Church. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.
Heilbut, Anthony. The Gospel Sound: Good News and Bad Times. New York, Simon & Schuster, 1971. Revised, New York: Harper & Row, 1985.
Lovell, John, Jr. Black Song: The Forge and the Flame: The Story of How the Afro-American Spiritual Was Hammered Out. New York: Macmillan, 1972.
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Reagon, Bernice Johnson, ed. We'll Understand It Better By and By. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992.
Ricks, George R. Some Aspects of the Religious Music of the U.S. Negro: An Ethnomusicological Study with Special Emphasis on the Gospel Tradition. New York: Arno Press, 1977.
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horace clarence boyer (1996)
Updated by publisher 2005
Gospel music is arguably the most important African-American musical tradition. Throughout the twentieth century it has managed to instill a vision in African-Americans with its message of hope, love, and compassion through the power of Jesus Christ. Gospel music has also had a profound influence on religious and secular music, enabling it to become a part of the broader American culture.
During the Antebellum period, African-Americans used religious and sacred songs as a tool of liberation in order to help them survive the terrible institution of slavery. Once emancipation had been achieved, they then relied upon spirituals such as "Nobody Knows the Trouble I See," "Steal Away," "Didn't My Lord Deliver Daniel," "Ezekiel Saw the Wheel," and "In that Great Gettin' up Morning," to help them make the transition from slavery to freedom. Beginning in the early twentieth century, however, African-American religious music would enter a new age with the birth of black Pentecostal churches and denominations. With a strong worship emphasis on emotionalism and speaking in tongues, many traditional hymns were instantly "gospelized" by increasing the tempo and, at times, by adding percussion accompaniment. Instrumental in this phenomena was Charles Price Jones of Jackson, Mississippi, founder of the Church of Christ (Holiness) USA, who as the father of African-American Pentecostalism composed over 1,000 songs for his congregation. Jones' songs—such as "I'm Happy With Jesus Only" and "Jesus Only"—were unique in that they expressed the feelings and expressions of African-Americans after slavery.
Beginning in the 1920s, black religious music was introduced to the Quartet movement. Whereas most sacred music was sung by congregations, The Fisk Jubilee Singers of Nashville were responsible for popularizing the groups as they sprang up east of the Mississippi River. Because of their amazing popularity, record companies such as RCA Victor, Paramount, and Columbia, cashed in on the demand for this type of music in the Urban North by recording and promoting the quartet sound. Radio stations also sought to capitalize on the growing popularity of black religious music. Stations such as WLAC of Nashville, with its 50,000 watts, played the music at night to listeners as far away as Chicago, Philadelphia, and New York.
Seeking to take advantage of the growing popularity of black religious music, Thomas A. Dorsey of Chicago took African-American religious music to a new level by combining blues and jazz rhythms to traditional hymns; he labeled his sound "gospel." Dorsey, a former jazz and blues pianist, decided to give his talents to "the Lord" in 1932 and in that same year he organized a gospel choir at Chicago's Pilgrim Baptist Church. One year later he organized the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses (NCGCC). Thus, he had begun a career that would eventually lead him to compose over 500 songs. His most famous was "Take My Hand Precious Lord." In addition to directing and composing, Dorsey also opened a gospel music publishing house and soon thereafter he was labeled the "Father of Gospel Music." Although Dorsey was indeed a prolific songwriter, he did not operate in isolation. He worked with other artists such as Sallie Martin and the popular Mahalia Jackson. Between 1938 and 1947 Jackson made several recordings, but her most popular—"Move On Up A Little Higher"—catapulted her into gospel music fame. On the heels of the popular recording she secured a weekly CBS radio program and she also made a number of appearances at the famed Apollo Theater and the on Ed Sullivan Show. Since she was one of the first gospel artists to take her work to a secular audience, Jackson quickly became an international star and many today consider her the "World's Greatest Gospel Singer."
Beginning in the 1950s, other artists—the Dixie Hummingbirds, the Blind Boys of Alabama, and the Sensational Nightingales—filled churches, auditoriums, and jazz festivals with their unique style as they followed Jackson's lead in taking their message to a broader audience. Again, the media sought to take advantage of the popularity of gospel music by establishing such nationally syndicated television programs as TV Gospel Time. Although the show had a short existence it was nonetheless instrumental in bringing gospel music to a non-religious crowd.
While some artists were bringing gospel to new listeners, others such as James Cleveland were gaining notoriety within traditional gospel circles. Born in 1930 in Chicago, Cleveland served as composer, arranger, and pianist for several gospel groups before starting his own, the James Cleveland Singers, which performed many of his 500 songs. What made Cleveland unique was that he introduced the nation to the "Gospel Choir." At times, his choirs would number several hundred as they entertained audiences with their hand clapping, dancing, and singing, while arrayed in their fashionable robes. In 1968 Cleveland organized the Gospel Music Workshop of America (GMWA) and because of his success he received three Grammy Awards; in 1981 he was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
In spite of Cleveland's broad appeal, there was a faction inside the gospel music industry that wanted to take gospel into the main-stream; quite simply, they wanted to imitate the more popular rhythm and blues songs. Leading this movement was Edwin Hawkins, who in 1969 recorded "Oh Happy Day," which rose to number one on the Top Fifty Chart with its catchy beat and rhythmic sound, but without any references to God or Jesus. A new generation of gospel was born.
Other artists such as Andrae Crouch followed Hawkins' crossover success by writing gospel lyrics for more popular secular songs. Although Hawkins and Crouch were forerunners of this "new gospel music," their popularity was still largely confined to the ears of black churchgoers. Beginning in the late 1980s, however, contemporary gospel groups such as Take 6 and the Winans began to take the gospel message to an ever wider audience. During their heyday both groups could easily fill a concert hall as they played their new style to the sacred and the secular. By the 1990s gospel music had grown to a billion-dollar industry, thanks in part to such artists as Kirk Franklin, whose debut album Why We Sing reached number one on the Billboard Gospel Chart and Number 13 on Billboard's Rhythm and Blues listing. Today, gospel music continues to be an important thread in the fabric of American popular music.
—Leonard N. Moore
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Reagon, Bernice Johnson, editor. We'll Understand It Better By and By: Pioneering African-American Gospel Composers. Washington, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992.