Gospel music is a form of music born out of intertwining events in religion, politics, history and culture in the African American experience. While not exhaustive, below is a timeline chronicling major developments in Gospel music. It attempts to capture the breadth and depth of this art form in the lives of African Americans and also the world.
1400s-1800s: West and West Central African Roots of Gospel
In the eyes and lives of West Africans, music, praise singing and dance were tools needed to create a deep connection to the spirit world. In his seminal book “African Art in Motion: Icon and Act, Art” art historian Robert Farris Thompson lists key elements of their music-making: call and response, flexibility, improvisation, isolation, coolness, ancestralism, percussive element and polyrhythms. These ideas formed the basis of sacred and secular music production in the Americas.
1619: Slavery in Jamestown
The first Africans are brought to the British colony of Jamestown.
1700s-1800s: Merging African Aesthetics Music, Song, and Dance with Christianity in the United States
The conversion of millions of West Africans to Christianity over the course of the slave trade was difficult. Central to this difficulty was the blatant hypocrisy of Christianity in the hands of slave masters, Western interpretations of the Bible that purported that Africans were cursed by God to be servants, and a worship style that negated dance as a form of praise. It was only when the image of God was adapted to be a god of liberation and the African traditions of music making were incorporated into the service did Africans in the Americas began to accept Christianity.
The spirituals are the most powerful expression of the Africans merging of Christian beliefs with the needs of the enslaved and the music traditions of Africa. Although the message of Christ’s resurrection and the afterlife were always present in the spirituals, the story of the enslaved Israelites and their quest for the seemingly elusive Canaan had a special significance for enslaved Africans, who equated themselves with God’s chosen people. The enslaved Africans brought extra power to the Biblical text by “making it live.”
Strong on call and response, highly repetitive, and given to high levels of improvisation, spirituals expressed the collective joy, pain and hopes of African Americans during the period of enslavement.
1865: Slavery Ends
Slavery was legally abolished with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution.
Taking Spirituals to the World: The Fisk Jubilee Singers
After slavery was finally abolished, the message of the spirituals was carried throughout America and the world by vocal groups modeled after the pioneering success of the Fisk Jubilee Singers. Initially created as an extracurricular activity for students at Fisk University, a Nashville school for former slaves that opened in 1866, a group of fourteen male and female students set out on tour in 1871 to raise money for the financially struggling institution.
Taking the words and heartfelt emotion of the spirituals and setting them to arrangements more fitting to the classical stage than the slave cabin, the Fisk Jubilee Singers’ initial seven years of touring netted the group rave reviews in Europe and America and raised over $150,000 to save the school. As time went on the group sharpened its act and reduced its size to a traveling group of four men.
Beginning in the early 1900s, churches, colleges, social clubs, and even factories created their own “Jubilee Quartets.” Specializing in tight harmonies and a cappella performance styles, Jubilee singing became one of the first and most lasting trends in African American sacred music.
Shouts were spiritual services conducted by African Americans in their own religious spaces. Reminiscent of African practices using music, praise singing and dance, shouts were often employed to bring on spirit possession. Combining highly improvised call and response singing, multiple rhythms created by foot stomping, hand clapping, and sticking (percussive beats made by tapping a cane or broomstick on a wooden floor or box), they were performed in a danced circle moving counterclockwise.
Shouts began very slowly, but as they progressed, the music and dancing quickened. As the energy in the room increased, participants who were “feeling the spirit” entered the circle and danced as evidence of the presence of the Lord within them. The belief in the power of the shout was so great that in many African American communities you were not considered to be a true Christian until you had been possessed by the Holy Spirit and danced the “holy dance” within the circle of the shout.
It was the tension between musical conservatism, symbolized by Jubilee quartets, and the power of the shout that led to the creation of what we now call Gospel.
Other Precursors to Gospel
Gospel music is a form of African American sacred music that began to take form in the early twentieth century. Although Gospel is a form of Black sacred music, all Black sacred music is NOT Gospel. Other examples of Black sacred music forms that play a role in the eventual development of Gospel are hymns and anthems, lined hymns and chorale singing.
1906-1930s: Gospel’s Early Beginnings
At the beginning of the 20th century the term Gospel music was not in wide usage among African Americans. When people spoke of sacred music, they talked of spirituals, anthems, jubilees, lined-hymns, and congregational singing. In most cases, these styles of singing were expressed without the accompaniment of musical instruments.
In many denominations, musical instruments like the drums and guitar were considered tools of the devil because they were also used in bars, honky tonks and juke joints. Others believed that since Jesus did not use instruments in His ministry, it was not proper for contemporary Christians to do so either. In order for the modern notion of gospel music to come into existence, a radical change had to occur.
That radical change came in the form of the Azusa Street Revival and the creation of the Church of God in Christ.
1906-1909: Azusa Street Revival
In 1906 an African American religious leader named William Seymour accepted the invitation of one of his former congregants and relocated to Los Angeles, California to pastor a church. At a prayer meeting conducted at the home of one of his new members, participants began to embody the spiritual blessings of Pentecost detailed in Acts 2:4, “And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.”
Encouraged by this revelation, Seymour and his followers decided to host a revival in a building they rented from an African Methodist Episcopal church in the area now known as Little Tokyo. Initially scheduled to last a week, the Azusa Street Revival continued from 1906 to 1909. It is the birthplace of modern Pentecostalism.
In addition to its theological significance, the Azusa Street Revival is also important musically. Using Psalms 150:3-6 to justify the use of instruments in worship, congregants sang, danced and played everything from trumpets and tambourines to cymbals and flutes.
“Praise him with the sound of the trumpet: praise him with the psaltery and harp. Praise him with the timbrel and dance: praise him with stringed instruments and organs. Praise him upon the loud cymbals: praise him upon the high sounding cymbals. Let every thing that hath breath praise the Lord. Praise ye the Lord.”
Preaching the power of possession by the Holy Spirit as evidenced by speaking in tongues, this musical experience reminded many in the audience of the shouts that Blacks had engaged in back on the plantation.
1900s-1930s: Sanctified Singing, the Holy Blues and the Church of God in Christ
For many converts to the new Pentecostal faith, the music of the traditional church did not match the energy and fervor that they felt in those Holiness revivals and camp meetings. In contrast to the tight harmonies of the Jubilee Quartets and the formality of hymns, these individuals created two new genres of Black sacred music to meet their needs. These are known as Sanctified Music and the Holy Blues.
While Sanctified music was an attempt to directly imitate performance traditions of the Azusa Street Revival, the Holy Blues mixed in secular sounds and also influenced Blues, Jazz and Ragtime.
Arizona Dranes, a blind piano master from Texas who migrated to Los Angeles in the 1930s, was the first woman ever recorded playing this music. Because of her affiliation with the Church of God in Christ (COGIC), the largest African American Pentecostal group, she exerted a huge influence on the institutional development and growth of the sound in African American communities throughout the country.
Now referred to as the “Holy Blues” for its blending of hardcore religious lyrics and commanding secular musical accompaniment, early pioneers in this genre were almost exclusively made up of COGIC performers.
Key Gospel Artists from the Church of God in Christ
Arizona Dranes Blind Willie Johnson F.W. McGee
Sister Rosetta Tharpe Ernestine Washington Mattie Moss Clark
Edwin Hawkins Walter Hawkins Tramaine Hawkins
Andrae Crouch Sandra Crouch The Winans
Bebe Winans Cece Winans Keith Pringle
The Clark Sisters Mary Mary Kim Burrell
Deitrick Haddon The Pace Sisters La Shun Pace
1899-1993: Thomas A. Dorsey: The Father of Gospel
No one person did more to make Gospel music a widely accepted and qualitatively distinct musical style than Thomas Andrew Dorsey. The composer of standards like “Peace in the Valley,” “Search Me Lord,” “Old Ship of Zion,” “Hide Me in Thy Bosom,” “Precious Lord” and over 1000 other songs, he was by far the most prolific and influential gospel songwriter of his era. He created the Dorsey House of Music, the first publishing house dedicated to distributing gospel music by Black writers, and founded, with the assistance of pioneering singer and businesswoman Sallie Martin, the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses. The choir director of Pilgrim Baptist Church in Chicago for over forty years, he is called the “Father of Gospel Music” for his unwavering devotion to the professional development of gospel singers, songwriters, and music industry professionals.
While his accolades would take most individuals a few lifetimes to achieve, Dorsey accomplished them after spending the first thirty years of his life as a relatively successful Blues artist known by the stage names “Georgia Tom” and “Barrelhouse Tom.” Born in 1899 in the small town of Villa Rica, Georgia, his mother was a church organist and his father a traveling preacher. When he was eleven years old, his family moved to Atlanta, and young Dorsey became exposed to a variety of musical styles emanating from the Southern city. Developing his skills in churches, at school, and in local theaters, he was a dedicated musician by the time his family moved to Chicago in 1916.
At the time of the Dorsey’s move, Chicago was a favored destination for multitudes of Blacks leaving the rural South. Like the hundreds of thousands of African Americans who would come there in the next thirty years, the Windy City had a place for all of Dorsey’s entrepreneurial and artistic talents. For four years he toured with the great Blues queen Ma Rainey. Always looking for a way to support himself financially, Dorsey felt no guilt about composing Blues and sacred music. In addition to having his composition “If I Don’t Get There” included in the influential hymnal “Gospel Pearls” in 1921, Dorsey also scored hits on the secular charts with songs like “It’s Tight Like That” as late as 1928.
In 1930, Dorsey had a religious awakening and decided to compose exclusively for Gospel. Even though he left the world of the Blues, it is the musical sensibilities of the Blues — the bounce, the rock, the swing — that Dorsey used to accompany his religious lyrics. Initially viewed by many religious folk as a broke down Blues artist trying to make an extra dime during the Depression, Dorsey’s piano grooves did not go over well in many traditional churches.
With partner Sallie Martin, he began to make copies of his songs and tried to sell them through the mail. Because many Black church musicians played “by ear” and did not read music, these initial efforts did not meet with much success. Gathering together a group of singers who could personalize songs to the stylistic sensibilities of each particular congregation, Dorsey began the practice of demonstrating his music to choir directors.
This proved to be the marketing technique that worked best. Throughout the 1930s Black churches throughout Chicago and America began to sing more and more “Dorseys” as they called them.
1921: Gospel Pearls-When did African Americans Start Using the Term “Gospel Music?”
By the late 1920s, African Americans still were not using the term “Gospel” to refer to sacred music. Embracing the change that was occurring in Black music and Black life since the turn of the century, the Sunday School Publishing Board of the National Baptist Convention U.S.A. decided to publish a hymnal containing spirituals, hymns and examples of the newer music being created for churches by composers like Charles Albert Tindley. The name of the book was “Gospel Pearls.”
With sections entitled “Worship and Devotion,” “Revivals” and “Spirituals” it sought to address “an urgent demand for real inspiring and adaptable music in all of our Sunday Schools, Churches, Conventions, and other religious gatherings.” Because of its success across denominations, people begin to refer to the new music as “Gospels,” “Gospel Hymns” and “Gospel Music.”
1943-1960s: The Golden Age of Gospel in Los Angeles
With the success of musicians like Thomas Dorsey, Arizona Dranes and Charles Albert Tindley, Gospel began to spread throughout African American communities in the 1930s. In Los Angeles this spread directly related to the growth of the Black Community in the first half of the 20th century. During this period, the African American population of Los Angeles grew by more than 500%. By the end of the 1950s, there were more than 300,000 African Americans living in Los Angeles.
Due to residential segregation, the vast majority of these new migrants lived in the area known as South Central Los Angeles. With Central Avenue as one of its main thoroughfares, the area was a hotbed of social engagement and political activity. On the music scene, migrants from the Midwest and the South soon brought the new music to Los Angeles and, like the Azusa Street Revival, it spread like wildfire.
In major Gospel cities like Chicago, the expression of Gospel during the Golden Age was centered on soloists, duets, and small groups. In Los Angeles, the most common expression of the music came from key religious leaders who migrated to the city and established churches. These individuals attracted, mentored, and supported a number of key composers and directors who introduced the music, organized choirs and perfected the sound.
- St. Paul Baptist led by John Branham-Echoes of Eden (now owned by a new group)
- Mt. Moriah led by Earl Amos Pleasant
- Victory Baptist led by Arthur Atlas Peters-Voices of Victory
- Opportunity Baptist led by Eugene Douglass Smallwood
- Grace Memorial Church of God in Christ led by William Jack Taylor
1930s-1960s: Modern Quartets
Although quartet singing has been a part of the African American sacred music scene since the Fisk Jubilee Singers, modern quartet singing is very different from its 19th-century forefather. Most importantly, modern quartet singing has nothing to do with the number of people in the group. Instead, it has to do with the style of singing.
Using close harmonies, instrumental accompaniment and grounded by a repetitious chorus line that often continues throughout the song, modern quartets were the place where great Black male vocalists showcased their talents. Instead of singing within the four-part harmony of a traditional quartet, modern quartet groups added at least one other performer to sing against the traditional four-part harmony.
Smooth sounding when they needed to be, the great quartet groups of this era could moan, shriek and bring on the Holy Ghost when the situation demanded. Traveling throughout the country and playing to sold out auditoriums and houses of worship, these groups were known for their showstopping performance and stylistic flair. Claude Jeter, whose impeccable falsetto influenced an entire generation of singers inside and outside of Gospel, headed the Swan Silvertones. From South Carolina came the Sensational Nightingales with Julius Cheeks singing songs like “Standing at the Judgment” and “To the End.” Out of Philadelphia by way of Greenville, South Carolina were the Dixie Hummingbirds and their accomplished lead singer Ira Tucker. From Houston, Texas came the Soul Stirrers with the incomparable Rebert Harris. When Harris left the group, he was replaced by future pop icon Sam Cooke.
1960s-1980s: Big Choirs and Contemporary Gospel
The 1960s were a pivotal time in Black America generally and Black Los Angeles in particular. By the end of the decade, there were more than a half million African Americans living in the city. This accounted for almost 18% of the city’s population and would be the high mark in terms of both numbers and percentage in the city’s history. The Watts Riots, the election of Tom Bradley as the first Black mayor, and the continued development of the recording and entertainment industry in Hollywood all impacted the performance and reception of Gospel music.
In the fall of 1967, the release of the single “Oh Happy Day” by a group of young Bay Area performers soon to be known as the Edwin Hawkins Singers ushered in a new era in Gospel known as Contemporary Gospel.
Joining a myriad of Hawkins family singers (Edwin, Walter, Lynette, and Tramaine), L.A.’s Andraé Crouch and James Cleveland also became pillars of the movement. With a direct appeal to youth, community and church-based mass choirs began to spring up all over Los Angeles.
1931-1991: James Cleveland
James Cleveland (1931-1991) is known by many as the “Prince” of Gospel. He is responsible for producing more than 190 albums, writing and performing some of the most iconic songs in history, and nurturing tens of thousands of Gospel musicians and singers across the globe through the Gospel Music Workshop of America, an organization he founded in 1968.
- 1962 Comes to Los Angeles
- 1963 Records "Peace Be Still" with First Baptist Church of Nutley, NJ
- 1967 Establishes Cornerstone Institutional Baptist (Slauson and Western)
- 1968 Establishes Gospel Music Workshop of America
His longstanding relationship with Aretha Franklin was the catalyst for the recording of Amazing Grace, the best-selling Gospel album of all time. Directed by Cleveland and backed up by the Southern California Community Choir, the album exemplifies the perfecting of Gospel music in Los Angeles and the world.
1942-2015: Andraé Crouch
There is no 20th-century American musician with a greater impact on religious music globally than Andraé Crouch (1942-2015). Although his music was initially rooted in the Holiness-Pentecostal movement, it soon grew to be a huge influence on numerous sacred and secular music forms irrespective of race, religion, and nationality. From churches, temples, and synagogues to movies, Madonna, and Michael Jackson, Andraé Crouch made the world know Los Angeles as a center of sacred music.
Andraé and his twin sister, Grammy-winning Gospel artist Sandra Crouch, were born in San Francisco, Calif. and raised in Los Angeles County. He is a direct product of the Azusa Street Revival and the Church of God in Christ. His uncle, Bishop Samuel Crouch, was one of the most important leaders in the history of the denomination. Bishop Crouch’s conversion of the Lincoln Theater on 21st and Central into Crouch Memorial Temple in the mid-1940s created one of the largest performance venues controlled by African Americans in the West. Andraé’s father Benjamin was a pastor of a COGIC church in Pacoima.
At age 14, Crouch wrote his first song “The Blood Will Never Lose Its Power” while he was part of the group The COGICs which included Billy Preston. Afterwards, he formed the group Andraé Crouch and the Disciples and began producing chart-topping hits that appealed to religious audiences of all races. He is one of the key individuals responsible for the Jesus Music movement and bridging the gap between Black Gospel Music and Contemporary Christian Music.
Andraé Crouch became a favorite of sacred and secular artists including collaborations with Madonna (“Like a Prayer”) and numerous Michael Jackson albums including “Bad,” “Dangerous,” and “History.”
1990s-Present: Outmigration - Rodney King, Gangs and the Challenge of Hip Hop
After decades of exponential growth, the 1990s signaled the beginning of a mass migration of African Americans out of the city of Los Angeles. The challenges of AIDS, gang wars, the crack epidemic, police brutality and the 1992 insurrection in the aftermath of the beating of innocent motorist Rodney King pushed many Black residents to question both the city and the Black Church.
As the overall number and percentage of Blacks in Los Angeles began to decline and the relatedness of Hip Hop culture captured the hearts and minds of Black youth, membership in Black churches declined dramatically. In the local church, big choirs gave way to smaller “Praise and Worship” teams and hundreds of churches either closed their doors or began to share their spaces with new immigrants in an attempt to “keep the lights on.”
While there was an initial push in the early 2000s of African Americans consolidating their social and political power in five or six “megachurches,” the Black Church in Los Angeles, like churches of many of the mainline Protestant denominations, faced the question of relevancy in an American populace that is much more comfortable labeling themselves as “spiritual not religious.”
In the midst of what seemed to be a daunting and losing battle, a small Los Angeles-based Gospel label shook up the world by finding and promoting generationally transformative Gospel acts. That label was GospoCentric.
Started by UCLA alum Vicki Mack Lataillade and her husband Claude with a $6,000 loan from her father’s pension plan, the label’s most important signing was Kirk Franklin, a product of the Baptist Church, the Gospel Music Workshop of America (GMWA) and the relevant call of Hip Hop. Like Thomas Dorsey, James Cleveland and Andraé Crouch, Franklin revolutionized Gospel and the church. For years he hosted a youth-oriented service called “The Take Back” at Los Angeles’ Faithful Central Bible Church, pastored by former GMWA board member and minister of music at Mt. Moriah Baptist Church, Kenneth Ulmer.
After Franklin, the doors were blown open for Holy Hip Hop and singers, directors and musicians who recognize the traditions of the church but who are not bound by them. The best example of this is the wildly popular Los Angeles-based duo Mary Mary. Made up of sisters Tina and Erica Campbell, the sisters are products of the COGIC Church. Since their debut album “Thankful” in 2000, Mary Mary or solo projects by either of the two sisters have dominated the Gospel music charts. They are also pop-culture icons due to their revealing of very intimate aspects of their daily lives on their reality show Mary Mary.
On the cusp of the third decade of the 2000s, Gospel music in churches is very different than what one witnessed in the mid-to-late 1900s. In most churches large choirs have given way to “Praise and Worship” teams, which serve as facilitators of group praise activities more than traditional soloists. Dr. Judith McAllister, President of the International Music Department of the Church of God in Christ and Minister of Music of West Angeles Church of God in Christ, is one of the international leaders of this movement.
For anyone wanting to get a glimpse of Gospel Music in Los Angeles, many of the traditional houses of worship have declined in membership or closed down as a result of the changing demographics of the city. To hear the newest sounds, reminisce on past traditions, or to find out what the latest innovators are up to, one need only tune in on Sundays to KJLH Radio (102.3). Owned by Stevie Wonder, KJLH (Kindness, Joy, Love and Happiness) is the central hub of all things Gospel in Los Angeles.
Top Image: Church services with gospel music playing | Image from "Artbound" How Sweet the Sound