Ten Defining Moments In Gospel Music History
Gospel music is rich in history dating back to its founding era, from legends such as Mahalia Jackson who set the standard, to those like Kirk Franklin and Mary Mary who reinvented it – all of whom continue to have an impact today.
When you get right down to it, gospel music’s legacy is defined by its milestones. In recognition of Black History Month, watchgmctv.com offers ten such moments that have helped define gospel music – and pave the way for its future.
Known as "the father of black gospel music," Thomas Andrew Dorsey began using the term to categorize the early tunes he wrote, including “If You See My Saviour.” Borrowing $5, Dorsey bought enough one-cent stamps to mail 500 copies of the song to churches around the country, thus launching the industry’s first publishing company. The award-winning 1983 documentary “Say Amen Somebody” chronicles just some of this remarkable story.
Albertina Walker recalls going to churches just to watch Dorsey direct the choir.
“No one could bring the music, lyrics and sound from a choir that he could," says Walker, whose group The Caravans helped launch the careers of other popular gospel artists. "His songs brought a beat that everybody could identify with and through which they could really deliver the sentiment that was gospel. He defined the true essence of gospel music.”
1947: Mahalia Jackson becomes the first gospel artist to sell one million copies with the release of “Move On Up a
Schooled by Dorsey, it was his well-known composition "Take My Hand, Precious Lord" that would become one of Mahalia Jackson's staples. She would sing it many times at civil rights rallies at the request of Martin Luther King, Jr. Dubbed “the queen of gospel," no one forged gospel into a musical art form like Jackson. Most of America had never heard of gospel music until she brought it to the forefront.
"She was the queen; the empress," says Walker, who studied under Jackson in Chicago. "To this day, the white folks still proclaim her as the greatest gospel singer."
"Move On Up a Little Higher" sold two million copies in 1947, an unheard-of number for a black artist. Jackson was featured on prominent radio shows and appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1950.
By 1954, Jackson – who recorded 35 albums in her lifetime – had her own gospel program on CBS-TV and after touring Europe, was named the world’s greatest
1961: The Clara Ward Singers play to wider audiences
It is hard to pick just one career-defining moment for the Clara Ward Singers, who helped define gospel’s golden era with their high-energy performances, trademark flamboyance and series of record-setting firsts, including first group to exceed sales of 500,000 units with their signature hit, “Surely God Is Able." Taking gospel outside the four walls of the church, The Clara Ward Singers were the first gospel group to sing at the inauguration of not one, but two presidents (John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson), and the first to play the Metropolitan Opera House, Disneyland, the Monterey Jazz Festival and even Las Vegas.
“Clara was ahead of her time," says group leader Madeline Thompson, who was just 17 when she was asked to join. "Not only did she glamorize gospel, but she took gospel into venues that church people didn’t accept. It helped to let wider audiences know what gospel really was. It took her all over the world where it was really needed."
1957: Andraé Crouch pens the lyrics to “The Blood Will Never Lose Its Power”
Andraé Crouch was just 15 when he penned the lyrics to the classic church standard. “The Blood Will Never Lose Its Power" was the first of a string of tunes – including “My Tribute” and “Soon and Very Soon” that would redefine worship music in both black and white churches around the country and help to make Crouch a pioneer in the development of contemporary gospel. It would lead to eight GRAMMYs, collaborations with the likes of Michael Jackson and Madonna, an opportunity to work on the soundtracks for “The Color Purple” and “The Lion King,” and garner a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
When asked about his biggest moment, Crouch says, “There was the time when I won my first GRAMMY – that was exciting and something I didn’t really expect. Also, when I was asked to write songs for The Color Purple, that blew me away. I was calm about it, and agreed to do it, and then when no one could see, I just turned around telling
1967: James Cleveland establishes The Gospel Music Workshop of America
In March of 1967, James Cleveland – dubbed “the king of gospel” – called together friends from across the nation in an effort to create a unique venue for gospel music. The association formed the Gospel Music Workshop of America with a national convention motto of Where everybody is somebody. Cleveland was quoted as saying, “There are young folk who have talent but nowhere to get instructions as to how to put that talent to work. I thought, 'how could we help upgrade the music in the church and bring some form of education to the youth?' There is no formal education in schools where they can get the training. So I had the idea to get all the best exponents of gospel from all over the world together to form a workshop to try to teach the young folk whatever they wanted to know about gospel.”
Today, with upwards of 100 chapters and annual attendance topping 10,000, it is the world’s largest gathering of gospel music aficionados and is credited with launching the careers of artists such as Kurt Carr, John P. Kee and Yolanda Adams.
Says GMWA co-chair Al Hobbs, “With 65 classes, the GMWA is the only place in the world you can get the kind of instruction you need in any facet of gospel
For contemporary gospel pioneers Edwin and Walter Hawkins, “Oh Happy Day” – which earned them a GRAMMY and international prominence – also signaled a new day for gospel and gospel artistry, while striking a chord with a mainstream audience.
“We definitely did some ground breaking,” said the late Walter Hawkins, “and I believe God allowed us to cross into the secular market and start turning heads. What we proved was that gospel artists don’t have to sell out to make a dime, while making the music palatable to a broader audience segment. That was a major feat." Hawkins added, "But with the church labeling us secular and the secular market calling us a church group, we really didn’t belong anywhere.”
Black Entertainment Television's longest-running show, "Bobby Jones Gospel" is the first and only nationally syndicated black gospel television program. In the three decades since its debut, it has served as a springboard for the discovery and early success of artists such as Kirk Franklin, J. Moss, Dottie Peoples, Kurt Carr, Byron Cage and Yolanda Adams, for whom the show served as a platform for their first TV exposure.
"I am very excited that Bobby Jones Gospel serves as an important platform to showcase both new talent and the many legends in gospel music today," says Dr. Jones, often referred to as "the dean of gospel music." "It's rewarding to be a part of the longest running program on BET which continues to inspire and encourage millions of viewers through this unique genre of music."
In the 30 years since they debuted on the gospel scene, the name Winans – affectionately called “the first family of gospel” – has become synonymous with the genre, be it through The Winans Brothers to Mom & Pop Winans to BeBe & CeCe, who were among the first gospel artists to sign with a mainstream label.
The collective achievements of the talented musical dynasty – that has helped to change the face of gospel music – include more than 30 GRAMMY Awards, 20 Stellar and Dove Awards, and six NAACP Image Awards.
Said Marvin Winans, “I'm just speechless when it comes to the awesomeness of God. He has allowed some black boys from Detroit to travel the world and make a change. I told my brothers when we first started that God is going to use us to change the face of gospel music, and He's done just that.”
As gospel’s mainstream acceptance began to grow, proof of its crossover appeal came in the form of one of its favorite sons – Kirk Franklin – who had scored platinum sales twice before with “What Cha Lookin' 4" and God’s Property, becoming the first gospel or contemporary Christian artist ever to have an album ship platinum. No one artist is credited with doing more to change the face of urban contemporary gospel music than Franklin, whose cumulative sales have topped 13 million units.
"I don't know why the media has picked me to be the road runner,” Franklin says. “It's very hard to live up to the expectations, especially when you know you had nothing to do with all the success. And when you say in interviews, 'It was the Lord,' they don't want to hear that. They say, 'yeah, well there's got to be some formula."
What made it so significant is that the song is traditional in its scope and yet commanding in its appeal, signifying that a simple gospel song doesn’t need anything other than a great lyric, sentiment and vocals to capture crossover success.
Says Sapp, "Who would have thought that it would become a song so big when it's such a small song...that those three lines would have such an impact in the lives of so many. It wasn't anything I sat down and wrote. It was just something God gave me that was therapeutic. My father passed away and it was the first time I walked into the sanctuary. I started crying and while crying walked to the pulpit and started singing."
Editor's note: In 2011 Marvin Sapp tragically lost his wife, MaLinda, to cancer. A "first lady of gospel" in her own right, MaLinda Sapp managed her husband's professional recording career; her contributions and achievements have made a lasting impact on the industry.
About the Writer
Lisa Collins, a Los Angeles native and resident, is a syndicated columnist, writer, publisher and former Billboard Magazine columnist. Her career in gospel began in 1988 with her creation of "Inside Gospel,"a daily/weekly syndicated radio series that provided news, profiles and product updates relative to the gospel music community. For the next eight years, she would also serve as executive producer of the show that was broadcast in more than 100 markets nationwide. Collins has also served as a segment producer for BET and authored well over 300 articles on a variety of issues for a number of national publications from Essence to Upscale. Her background in the field of entertainment reporting is extensive, featuring cover stories and interviews with the likes of Richard Pryor, Michael Jackson and Prince.
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