by Meredith Rutledge-Borger
A group of young black singers from the newly founded Fisk University first brought African-American religious music to the attention of the American public and the rest of the world in the years following the Civil War. The Fisk Jubilee Singers toured America and Europe in the 1870s, and were often the first black performers allowed access to the concert stage in American and European cities. They soon garnered critical and popular acclaim, performing spirituals, work songs and the popular songs of the day – in the words of a contemporary newspaper reporter – “with a power and pathos never before surpassed.” The Fisk Singers began a tradition that lives on in gospel choruses from the smallest storefront church to professional choruses like the Georgia Mass Choir or Kirk Franklin and the Family.
Spirituals and European-rooted hymns comprised the bulk of music in African-American churches until around the turn of the 20th century, when a new form of sacred music began a rise to popularity in the African-American urban congregations of the North and Midwest. When African-Americans began pouring into urban centers after World War I, they brought with them their raucous and robust, transcendent and transporting church songs.
The rise of Pentecostal churches at the end of the 19th Century also gave impetus to the development of gospel. Pentecostal shouting is related to speaking in tongues and to circle dances of African origin. Recordings of Pentecostal preachers’ sermons were popular in black communities in the 1920s, and sermon recordings along with choral and instrumental accompaniment, and congregational participation became bestsellers. The popularity of sermon recordings continued on through the work of the Reverend C.L. Franklin, who issued more than 70 albums of his sermons and choir after World War II, prominently featuring the burgeoning talent of his daughter, Aretha, later to find fame in the secular world. Aretha Franklin was instrumental in bridging the thin divide between rock and gospel, with transformative gospel recordings such as Amazing Grace – the 1972 sessions of which were visited by members of the Rolling Stones – and albums like 1971's Aretha Live at Fillmore West, which infused rock songs by the Beatles ("Eleanor Rigby"), Stephen Stills ("Love the One You're With") and Simon and Garfunkel ("Bridge Over Troubled Water") with her gospel–inspired timbre.
The free flow of inspiration and talent between the secular and sacred world often meant that the voices of preachers were strongly affected by secular performers, and vice versa. Taking the scriptural directive “Let everything that breathes praise the Lord” (Psalms, 150), Pentecostal churches embraced all manner of instrumentation and secular performance styles and melodies, embellishing worship with full instrumental accompaniment (piano and/or organ, guitar, bass, fiddle, horns, drums and all manner of percussion) and melodic and rhythmic influence from the blues.
In 1921, the National Baptist Convention published a collection of 165 songs called Gospel Pearls, prominently featuring the works of the Reverend Charles A. Tindley, who is considered the earliest important gospel composer. But a radical integration of the secular and sanctified in church music was on the horizon, in the form of a vaudeville accompanist and racy blues songwriter known variously as Georgia Tom or Barrelhouse Tommy.
Thomas A. Dorsey was born in Georgia in 1899 and learned religion from his Baptist minister father and piano from his music teacher mother. He and his family removed to Chicago during World War I. Dorsey began his musical career as Georgia Tom, playing barrelhouse piano in one of Al Capone’s speakeasies and leading 1990 Hall of Fame Inductee Ma Rainey's jazz band (pictured, left). In 1928, he wrote and recorded a best-selling bawdy blues hit called “Tight Like That,” and that same year he wrote more than 460 blues and jazz songs. Personal tragedy struck in 1930 when Dorsey’s wife and newborn child died, inspiring him to a religious awakening. The very day his family died, he wrote “Take my Hand, Precious Lord,” one of the most frequently recorded gospel hymns in history. Dorsey began to inject more of “the feeling and the pathos and the moans and the blues” into his gospel compositions, combining a religious and secular fervor to “get over.” Dorsey is considered the “Father of Gospel Music,” composing nearly 1,000 hymns. He also became the first African-American publisher of black gospel music and founded the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses. Dorsey also discovered and nurtured the talent of many future gospel stars, including the Ward Singers and 1997 Hall of Fame Inductee Mahalia Jackson (pictured, top).
In 1938, gospel songs were formally taken into a secular setting for the first time when Sister Rosetta Tharpe sang and accompanied herself on guitar at a Cab Calloway show at Harlem’s Cotton Club. Later that same year Sister Rosetta became the first gospel singer to record for a major record company when she signed a recording contract with Decca – which would also become the home of Louis Jordan, Billie Holiday, Bill Haley & His Comets and the Rolling Stones. In December 1938, Sister Rosetta again performed on the secular stage when she appeared at legendary talent scout John Hammond’s groundbreaking "From Spirituals to Swing" concert, which presented black musical traditions from African tribal music to big band swing at Carnegie Hall.
The other gospel act on the Carnegie Hall stage that evening was a male quartet called Mitchell’s Christian Singers from North Carolina, which represented another aspect of the gospel genre. African-American quartets had been popular since antebellum times. By the early Thirties all-male a cappella gospel groups consisting of four or five singers were common. These groups influenced the development of popular secular groups like the Mills Brothers and Ink Spots and had direct descendants in gospel groups like the Soul Stirrers – the group that featured Sam Cooke, an artist who combined gospel and pop. Conversely, Al Green famously moved from being a pop sensation to a gospel artist.
In 1956, when Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley gathered for the momentous "Million Dollar Quartet" session (pictured, left), they riffed on the gospel songs they all knew and loved. Presley frequently employed the gospel group the Jordanaires, who sang backing vocals on his 1956 debut for RCA Victor, "Heartbreak Hotel," and Presley himself recorded two gospel albums: His Hand in Mine (1960) and How Great Thou Art (1967).
Throughout the Sixties, in Detroit, Berry Gordy Jr.'s Motown juggernaut was churning out an impressive stream of hits, many of which drew from the gospel quartets, including the Four Tops, Miracles and Temptations. Soul pioneers such as James Brown, Ray Charles and Curtis Mayfield channeled their blues and gospel roots to create fresh sounds that influenced artists across genres. Singer-songwriter Bob Dylan would take a similar path, releasing a series of gospel albums: Slow Train Coming (1979), Saved (1980) and Shot Of Love (1981).
Today, gospel elements can be heard in the works of artists as diverse as the Backstreet Boys and Jeff Beck to Paul Simon and Jack White. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum will celebrate the legacy of gospel and the career of Kirk Franklin with a free concert on April 10 at PlayhouseSquare. Click here to learn more.
[Mahalia Jackson/Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Carl Van Vechten Collection, [reproduction number, e.g., LC-USZ62-54231]; "Million Dollar Quartet" image / Memphis Press-Scimitar.]