Making a joyful noise: Music or ministry?
Petrie, Phil W
When Crisis was helping to foster the Harlem Renaissance, a new music was creeping into Harlem and other urban areas. Hardly any of the Renaissance writers and musicians wrote or commented then on the new “gospel” music until it was entrenched in black churches. Now the music is an icon of American popular culture. It has leaped over its traditional religious walls. As the music moves beyond its incubator-the church-some wonder where it is going. But, of course, that’s how it started.
Thomas A. Dorsey (1899-1993), composer of such standards as “Peace in the Valley” and “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” is considered the “father of gospel music.” The son of a minister, Dorsey also accompanied on piano two legendary blues singers, Ma Rainey (1886-1939) and Bessie Smith (1894-1937), and arranged and composed blues, such as his popular tune “I Like It Hot Like That.” His penchant for bouncy tunes and bawdy lyrics did not keep him from attending the annual meetings of the National Baptist Convention. A minister’s son, he knew the compositions of the Rev. Charles A. Tindley (1851-1933), composer of “We’ll Understand It Better By and By” and “Leave It There,” and considered Tindley the “father of gospel music.” But at the 1921 National Baptist Convention in Chicago, he heard A. W. Nix’s electrifying rendition of “I Do, Don’t You.” It brought the house down and inspired Dorsey to write only religious music.
He abandoned his brash lyrics but not the jazz rhythms and blues flavor of his songs. Naturally, the “old guard” conservatives branded this melding of the sacred (spirituals and hymns) and the secular (blues and jazz) as “the devil’s music” and banned it from their choir lofts.
With pioneer singers such as Sallie Martin (1896-1988) and Mother Willie Mae Ford Smith (1904-1994) propagating his music, Dorsey stayed the course long enough to write more than 800 songs and to hear his music ascend from the first-row pews (where some ministers would let him sing) to the choir loft, 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.
The Legendary Singers
Dorsey was a planter; the fruits of his harvest were the exceptional singers who sowed the gospel seed around the country-Roberta Martin, Mahalia Jackson, Clara Ward and James Cleveland are a few.
Roberta Martin (1907-1969) was based in Chicago. Her influence on the music was huge. First, there were the songs that became stalwarts in black churches across the nation: “Grace”; “The Failure’s Not in God, It’s in Me”; “God Is Still on the Throne”; and “Since He Lightened My Heavy Load.” Martin also had a penchant for adapting spirituals. With her group, the Roberta Martin Singers, she made classics of “Ride on King Jesus,” “Listen to the Lamb” and “Didn’t It Rain Children.” Her singers were well-trained and topflight soloists in their own right. Several started their own groups, passing the Martin tradition along. Robert Anderson, for example, left the group to form his own. His backup group, the Robert Anderson Singers, eventually became the Caravans.
Mahalia Jackson (1911-1972) had been, in the language of today’s youths, “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.) Although Jackson received opportunities to perform in secular venues, she steadfastly refused.
In contrast, Clara Ward (1924-1973) and the Ward Singers took the opportunity, as Ward put it, “to take God’s words to His people wherever they were–even in night– clubs.” Ward had both flash and substance. Her recording of “Surely God Is Able” was the first-ever million-seller postwar gospel record. Ward affected the career of gospel great Marion Williams (Williams sang with the Ward Singers) and influenced both Little Richard and Aretha Franklin.
James Cleveland (1931-1991) was considered by many gospel enthusiasts to be “The King of Gospel.” He received four Grammys, the last awarded posthumously for the album “Having Church.” That’s ironic because his voice, rough and raspy, could not be considered one of great quality. Nevertheless, Cleveland mesmerized his audience. He brought a standard of excellence to gospel when he organized, in 1968, the Gospel Music Workshop of America, the largest gospel convention in the world. Many of his compositions are now standards.
Legendary singers of the ’50s and ’60s included Edna Galmon Cook and Brother Joe May. Although not quite fittiny the category of pioneers, the following contemporary artists are sure to be seen as legendary singers or composers: Shirley Caesar, Daryl Coley, Andrae Crouch, Tramaine Hawkins and the late Thomas Whitfield.
The gospel quartet reigned supreme in gospel music from the 1920s to the mid– 1950s. It was these vocal groups that most affected American pop culture.
A mainstay of the quartets was The Swan Silverstones 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. Cheeks left the stage, walked the floor and “worked” the audience, keeping its “spirit” high. Had he been on the secular side, one suspects Cheeks would have been dubbed a sex symbol. Other popular groups included The Canton Singers, The Dixie Hummingbirds, The Mighty Clouds of Joy (’60s, ’70s and presently) and The Fairfield Four, the last of which still enjoys immense popularity.
Although 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 lineup on anybody’s program.
Perhaps the most popular quartet of all was the Soul Stirrers, led by the great Robert H. Harris and featuring Sam Cooke, who joined the group in his late teens. Cooke became the closest thing gospel had to a matinee idol. When he left the group 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 cross over into the mainstream successfully and become a “star.”
Many of the rhythm and blues musicians of the ’60s and ’70s had been singers in gospel groups. The following short list of singers, with their gospel affiliation in parentheses, illustrates the point: Ashford and Simpson (The Followers), Chuck Jackson (Raspberry Singers), Jodeci (Little Cedric Haley and the Haley Singers), Wilson Pickett (Violinares), Della Reese (Meditations), Johnny Taylor (The Highway QCS).
In gospel music the mass choir and chorus replaced the quartet in terms of overall popularity. Helping to make that so was Mattie Moss Clark. In 1957, Clark became state minister of music for the Church of God In Christ’s Southwest Michigan region. She changed the sound of gospel choral music.
“She was one of the first to come with the hard-breaking, `knock ’em dead’ style of gospel music,” Donald Vais said in Gospel Today. Vails left his home in Atlanta and joined Moss’ Southwest Michigan Choir. Later, Vails founded his own choir. Another important director during this period was Maceo Woods and the Chicago Tabernacle Singers.
A formidable choir in the 1990s was the Mississippi Mass Choir. Organized by Frank Williams (1947-1993) in 1988, the group’s first recording, Mississippi Mass Choir Live, was an immediate success, with Billboard and Score 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. Hezekiah Walker and the Love Fellowship Choir, Bobby Jones and New Life and Donald Lawrence and the Tri-City Singers show that a continuing variety of styles remain in these larger groups.
Listening to the hip rhythms of today’s gospel music, as exemplified by megastar Kirk Franklin, caused one cynic to comment that it was like being in a nightclub. It is clear that gospel music is changing. And yet, its ultimate purpose is still saving souls and changing hearts. Can it continue to increase its fortune in the mainstream marketplace and maintain its ministry? Perhaps. For the naysayers, just remember Thomas A. Dorsey’s story.
Phil W. Petrie is an editorial consultant and free-lance writer who lives in Clarksville, Tenn.
Copyright Crisis Publishing Company, Incorporated Sep/Oct 2000
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