While Chicago is most often associated with the blues, it also gave birth to the infectious and soul-stirring sound of gospel, today considered one of the world's most popular musical forms.
The city's South Side was the epicenter of gospel from the 1920s through the 1960s. Many of the principal architects were Bronzeville residents. Thomas A. Dorsey, Sallie Martin, Roberta Martin, Mahalia Jackson, James Cleveland, and Alex Bradford amalgamated blues, jazz, swing, spirituals, and hymnody to create the gospel sound. In late 1931, Dorsey and Theodore Frye organized the first modern gospel chorus, at Ebenezer Baptist Church on 45th and Vincennes. Two years later, Dorsey, Frye, and Magnolia Lewis Butts launched the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses. The NCGCC planted gospel choruses and gospel music in major urban communities coast-to-coast. Nicknamed the "Dorsey Convention" for its longtime president, the NCGCC remained headquartered on the South Side for several decades.
Blind pianist and singer Arizona Dranes, considered by many to be the first African American gospel recording artist, made her records in a Chicago Loop studio in 1926 and 1927. Starting in 1935, the First Church of Deliverance Radio Choir spread gospel across several states via its 11:00 p.m. "midnight" radio broadcast. It was at First Church of Deliverance in 1939 that musician and songwriter Kenneth Morris introduced the Hammond Organ to gospel music. Today, the warble and chirp of the Hammond B3, transmitted by the boxy Leslie Speaker, are synonymous with the classic, or traditional, gospel sound.
Chicago was also the fertile crescent of the gospel music publishing industry. From the 1920s to the 1980s, Bronzeville was home to nearly a dozen internationally known publishing houses, such as Martin & Morris Music Studio, Roberta Martin Studio of Music, and Theodore R. Frye Publishers. Some of gospel's timeless classics, including "Take My Hand, Precious Lord," "Peace in the Valley," and "Too Close to Heaven," were written in Chicago.
It was to Chicago in the late 1930s where one of the most popular gospel quartets of all time, the Soul Stirrers, moved from Texas, making the city its permanent home. Along the way, Sam Cooke and Johnny Taylor cut their teeth as members of the Soul Stirrers before becoming soul superstars. A teenaged Lou Rawls sang in South Side gospel quartets. The Staple Singers parlayed their reverb-laden guitar and group harmony sound into music history working the city's churches and high school auditoriums. The Caravans, gospel's most significant female group during the 1950s and 1960s, was founded in Chicago. The genre's first two Queens-Mahalia Jackson and Albertina Walker-lived in Chicago, as did its King, James Cleveland.
The contemporary gospel sound of the 1970s shifted the center of gospel gravity to California, and innovative Detroit groups such as the Winans and the Clark Sisters dominated the 1980s and 1990s. Nevertheless, Chicago is revered the world over for retaining the joyous handclapping, foot tapping, aisle-dancing gospel music birthed in its churches more than 80 years ago.
By Bob Marovich, Gospel Editor, ChicagoMusic.org
photo by Paul Natkin
Bob Marovich is the founder and editor of The Black Gospel Blog. He is at work on a book-length history of gospel music in Chicago.
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