Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



A thriving genre with its own charts in Billboard. The Protestant revival at the beginning of the 19th century prod. the spiritual, mainly for rural meetings; black slaves adapted/invented their now-familiar spirituals. During this period the 'shape-note' and 'brush arbor' school of singing was profoundly influential in rural areas: as a means of improving singing in church, the rudiments of sight-reading were taught using notes on the page whose shape denoted their pitch, rather than their position on the stave; 'brush arbor' refers to the practice of clearing a small area and building an arbour for outdoor singing meetings. The traditional sound has survived in country music to this day (see the Chuck Wagon Gang); 'hillbilly hymns' have always been popular, e.g. 'The Old Rugged Cross', 'Just A Closer Walk With Thee'; 'I Saw The Light' and others by Hank Williams; also songs by Thomas A. Dorsey (see below); many if not most country artists have made albums of gospel material (see Vernon Oxford's entry). The City-Revival movement c.1850 was an urban phenomenon which resulted in white gospel hymnody, borrowing forms and melodies from Tin Pan Alley and remaining musically conservative. George Beverly Shea (b 1 February 1909, Winchester, Ontario, Canada; d 16 April 2013, Asheville NC) was the king of traditional gospel music, his bass-baritone heard on ABC radio and the Armed Forces Network for eight years from 1944; he was long associated with the Billy Graham Crusades. Today's white urban gospel music is of little musical importance: the poppish crooning of Amy Grant has won awards and an appearance on the Johnny Carson show; Leslie Phillips was called 'Queen of Christian Rock'; the Chicago band Rez played music described by Glenn Kaiser, vocalist/songwriter/guitarist and senior pastor with Jesus People USA, as 'intense hard rock, something just short of heavy metal', while a band called Stryper went the distance, looking and playing like heavy metal people but mentioning Jesus in the lyrics. There are Grammy awards in the gospel category; the Gospel Music Association has bestowed annual Dove Awards since '69, with separate traditional and contemporary awards for white and black gospel artists. But it is black gospel music which has profoundly influenced popular music.

Blues singers often used religious imagery; Gary Davis was a Baptist minister and much of his repertoire was religious; Blind Willie Johnson's records for Columbia 1927-30 are entirely religious but highly prized by blues collectors. For decades black choirs imitated the Fisk Jubilee Singers (formed at Fisk University in 1867 by a white teacher) who invented their own tradition, were a smash hit at the World Peace Jubilee in Boston 1872 (the first time a black group of any kind was included in a big musical programme in the USA), eventually performed for crowned heads in Europe. Black churches before the Civil War (1861-65) took their starting point from white hymnody, but moved in a different direction: the black Pentecostal churches encouraged the use of musical (especially rhythm) instruments among the congregation, expecting everybody to join in. Among those prominent in black gospel music was W. Herbert Brewster Sr (b 1899; wrote 'Move On Up A Little Higher'); he innovated musically with tempo changes and melismatic cadenzas (allowing the singer to use his/her voice wordlessly, as a musical instrument), and many others; but Thomas A. Dorsey was the most important of his generation. 

Dorsey's father was a revivalist Baptist minister, his mother a church organist; his first composition was 'If I Don't Get There'. He studied music formally before and after moving to Chicago c.1916; as a pianist, guitarist, singer and songwriter had a secular career (as Georgia Tom; see Dorsey, Thomas A.); then his religious background took over: he coined the term 'gospel song'; sold them on sheets of paper called 'ballets' for pennies (songs were called 'Dorseys' for 20 years). He was the first to accompany religious songs on piano outside church, hiring singers to demonstrate them; he founded the first female gospel quartet (earlier gospel groups were mostly male and sang a cappella); he achieved fame at National Baptist Convention in 1930 with 'If You See My Saviour' and formed the Thomas A. Dorsey Gospel Songs Publishing Company that year; he was associated with Sallie Martin from 1932 (b 1896; d 18 June 1988, Chicago; she wrote 'Nearer My God To Thee'), discovered Clara Ward and Mahalia Jackson. He toured internationally with the Gospel Choral Union 1932-44; formed the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses in 1933 and served it until the 1970s; was assistant pastor of Chicago's Pilgrim Baptist Church, toured as lecturer 1960s-70s; was seen in The Devil's Music: A History Of The Blues BBC TV 1976. He wrote about 1,000 songs and published half of them, including 'Peace In The Valley' (for Jackson, 1937), 'Take My Hand Precious Lord' (both recorded by Elvis Presley in 1957), 'Sweet Bye And Bye', etc. One of his most important deeds was promoting a singing contest between Sallie and Roberta Martin (1907-69, not related) at DuSable High School (Chicago 1936), one of the first examples of charging admission for a gospel music performance.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe sang gospel songs in a Cab Calloway show at the Cotton Club in 1938; that year black gospel groups were included in John Hammond's Spirituals to Swing concert, including Tharpe. Black gospel had its own radio shows from the 1940s; the dean of gospel disc jockeys was Joe Bostic (b 1909), who produced the first Negro Gospel and Religious Music Festival at Carnegie Hall in 1950, with Jackson; a 1951 show featured James Cleveland. It moved to Madison Square Garden '59, becoming the First Annual Gospel, Spiritual and Folk Music Festival. Gospel moved to TV in the '50s; Jackson appeared on Ed Sullivan show and was fast becoming a national institution. The Ward Singers were the first gospel group to appear at Newport Jazz Festival, in 1957; Bessie Griffin (b 1927) took gospel to cabaret in a revue, Portraits In Bronze, produced by Bumps Blackwell in New Orleans in 1959; the Wards went into nightclubs and Jackson sang at John Kennedy's inauguration in 1961; the Wards went to Radio City Music Hall and Clara starred in one of the first gospel musicals (Langston Hughes's Tambourines To Glory '63).

Rock'n'roll had happened: white artists like Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis were influenced by the uninhibited style of black (and white) Southern churches; Ray Charles stopped imitating Nat Cole and took his Baptist background to rhythm and blues, even borrowing gospel tunes. But the wildest black rhythm and blues artists (e.g. Little Richard and Screamin' Jay Hawkins) crossed over to the pop charts, singing about sex in the ecstatic, devil-destroying 'sanctified' style, and religious blacks saw it as scandalous. Meanwhile the influence of gospel groups was also felt, principally male quartets, still a cappella. Gospel records had become big business from 1945, with rhythm and blues labels Apollo, Specialty, Peacock, King, Savoy, and others issuing gospel records by the Dixie Hummingbirds (established in 1928), the Soul Stirrers (1935; first to add a fifth voice, allowing four-part harmony support for the lead singer, first to use guitar accompaniment), the Swan Silvertones (1938, with Claude Jeter: b 26 October 1914, Montgomery AL; d 6 January 2009: he sang falsetto with shouting lead singers), the Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet (began recording 1939; their 'Stalin Wasn't Stallin' ' is a fascinating wartime period piece), the Staple Singers, many others. Girl groups included the Southern Harps Spiritual Singers, where Griffin came from, and the Original Gospel Harmonettes with singer-songwriter Dorothy Love Coates. These groups had long been an influence on rhythm and blues, doo-wop etc but the explosion of black soul music in the 1960s came directly from them: Ward influenced Aretha Franklin, whose first records were made in her father's church; the great Sam Cooke came out of the Soul Stirrers: he was the idol of black teenage girls before he turned to pop; his velvet melisma on 'You Send Me' '57 sent it to the top of the charts, perhaps the first soul classic. James Brown was influenced by the ecstasy of Archie Brownlee (the Five Blind Boys); the Silvertones influenced the Temptations etc. The Edwin Hawkins Singers had a huge international hit with 'Oh Happy Day' '69; Cleveland, Alex Bradford and others nurtured talent in the churches. 

All Of My Appointed Time: Forty Years Of A Cappella Gospel Singing on Mojo was a compilation of '36-76 tracks including radio airchecks. The book Black Gospel by Viv Broughton '85 was an illustrated survey. The soulful honesty of black gospel has entered the mainstream of popular culture, a mixed blessing; an ecstatic gospel-style voice was being used on UK TV in the 1990s to sell sanitary towels.