By ROBYN H. JIMENEZ
The Dallas Examiner
Gospel music is the oldest genre of music in the Black community that has evolved and endured throughout the years – from old Negro Spirituals to the modern gospel music to today.
The Fisk Jubilee Singers were one of the first group of gospel performers to introduce Black spiritual music to the world. Established in 1871, it was comprised of a group of African American students that performed a cappella. The Fisk University, an HBCU, formed a group of nine students to help raise money for the university in order to avoid bankruptcy. For many years, it toured the path along the Underground Railroad.
In 1872, the group sang for President Ulysses S. Grant and became the first Black choir to perform at the White House. The next year, growing into an 11-member group, it toured Great Britain and Europe. In 1875, the university was able to build a residence hall.
In 1881, the group sang for President Chester Arthur, moving him to tears. The group continues to perform, recruiting new students each year.
They were honored by the Library of Congress in 2002 by adding their 1909 recording of Swing Low, Swing Chariot into the United States National Recording Registry. The group received the National Medal of Arts in 2008. PBS released a documentary on the group, Jubilee Singers: Sacrifice and Glory.
Texas has also had its share of renown gospel singers.
George Washington Phillips, born Jan. 11, 1880, in Freestone County, was one of Texas’ first gospel singers on record. He was known for his unique gospel songs, mostly focused on moral issues, from 1927 through 1929. In 1928, Columbia Records recorded his first album, Take Your Burden to the Lord, which sold over 8,000 records – making him one of the best-selling soloists during that time. Other songs included The Church Needs Good Deacons, I Am Born to Preach the Gospel.
The 1930s saw the emergence of the first of many gospel quartets – the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi and the Five Blind Boys of Alabama. However, it is not clear which was formed first.
The Five Blind Boys of Alabama was originally formed in 1939 in Talladega, Alabama. While its artists changed over the years, most of the performers were visually impaired. Their first performances were for World War II soldiers stationed close by. The Coleman label recorded their first record in 1948. The following years, they released I Can See Everybody’s Mother But Mine, which became a national hit. In the 1960s, the group performed at benefits for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movements.
While the group performed a more traditional gospel style, the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi was a post-war gospel quartet whose style is more of a gospel/rock fusion. The group’s 1951 single, Our Father, became one of the first gospel records to top the Billboard R&B charts when it landed in the No. 10 spot.
Through time, gospel music continued to shift to uplift the broken and worn but spoke to more modern hardships.
Thomas Andrew Dorsey, born July 1, 1899, in Georgia, was a gospel music artist and composer. Known as the Father of Gospel Music, his music influenced early development of blues and gospel. He wrote 3,000 songs that made an impact on the Christian music, differentiating his “gospel songs” from the gospel hymns sung in African American churches.
He developed what is now known as traditional gospel music, with songs such as Take My Hand, Precious Lord.
Known for his mentorship of young gospel artists, he co-founded the Gospel Choral Union of Chicago in 1932, later renamed the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses. He helped to launch the careers of many Black gospel artists, including Mahalia Jackson, for whom he mentored and wrote Peace in the Valley and Take My Hand, Precious Lord. The two also toured together during the 1940s.
One of the most influential gospel singers of the 20th century was Mahalia Jackson, born Oct. 26, 1911. In her early years, she performed with the Johnson Singers, a 50-member choir with and the first Black gospel group in Chicago.
She recorded her first solo record in 1931 but didn’t sell many of them. She soon began performing as singer at funerals and political events.
She later signed with Apollo Records but still struggled to sell records. After her single, Move On Up a Little Higher, was released in 1947, she gained national attention. She became the first gospel artist to sell 2 million records and the first to land the No. 2 spot on the Billboard charts.
She brought gospel blues to the worldwide stage. In 1950, she was the first gospel artist to perform at Carnegie Hall. Four years later, she signed with Columbia Records.
Her powerful voice was an inspiration during the Civil Rights Movement. She was a supporter of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and often participated in marches. She performed I’ve Been ‘Buked and I’ve Been Scorned and How I Got Over at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963. Five years later, she sang at King’s funeral.
She has performed in a handful of films, including Imitation of Life as the funeral singer, performing Troubles of the World. One of her last filmed performances include the 2021 release of Summer of Soul, which featured her performance at the Harlem Culture Festival in 1969.
In 1973, the Mahalia Jackson Theater of the Performing Arts in New Orleans was established in her honor. She has received numerous awards and nominations, including three Grammys.
Her music is in the Grammy Hall of Fame three times. She was inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame, Hollywood Walk of Fame, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Louisiana Music Hall of Fame.
Gospel music also spoke to the realities of being a Christian, but still being human. Andraé Edward Crouch was known as much for his struggles as he was for his gospel music. He used those struggles to influence his music in order to inspire his audience.
He and his twin sister, Sandra, were born in California on July 1, 1942. Both sang gospel, however, he also wrote, arranged and produced music. Known as the Father of Modern Gospel Music, he was known for his style of mixing gospel with secular music and often performed with popular music artist of other genres, including Michael Jackson, Chaka Khan, Stevie Wonder to name a few.
As a young boy, he was encouraged to play piano for the church pastored by his father. As his skills increased, he began writing and playing his own music. By the time he was 14, he wrote his first gospel song.
He is best known for his 1972 album, My Tribute. The sought-after producer and writer wrote musical arrangements for the movies The Color Purple and The Lion King and the TV series Amen. In 1988, he helped with the arrangement for Jackson’s Man in the Mirror. Additionally, his choir sang backup for the song.
He’s won seven Grammy’s, six Dove Awards. He was inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame and has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
In 1964, the Gospel Music Association was formed to celebrate gospel music and its recording artists. In 1969, the association began honoring artists with Dove Awards. Three years later, it established the Gospel Music Hall of Fame. However, it wasn’t until the late 1970s that it began honoring Black gospel artists with the creation of subgenres.
Other notable gospel artist that made an impact on gospel music was James Cleveland – who established the Gospel Music Workshop of America in 1969 for Black gospel artists – as well as the Roberta Martin Singers, James Cleveland, Aretha Franklin, The Mighty Clouds of Joy, The Staple Singers, The Clark Sisters and many more.
These gospel music greats of the pasts have greatly influenced current gospel artists.
Presently, Dallas/Fort Worth has several modern gospel artists. Some of its most notable artists are Kirk Dewayne Franklin and the gospel duo, David and Tamela Mann.
Franklin, born in Dallas on Jan. 26, 1970, is a contemporary gospel artist known for his unique style – combining prose or rap with gospel music and a choir background – also known as Christian hip-hop.
He was raised by his aunt in Fort Worth. At age 11, he became the choir director of the Mount Rose Baptist Church adult choir.
In 1992, he organized his first choir, called The Family. The next year, they released their first album, Kirk Franklin & the Family, named after the group’s new name. The album reached platinum status, selling over 1 million albums. It hit No. 1 on the Billboard Top Gospel Albums chart for 42 weeks. The group recorded several chart-topping hits in the few years that it was together.
Franklin’s success continued as he began performing as a soloist. He won several awards, including 16 Grammy Awards, 22 Dove Awards, 23 Stellar Awards, a BET Award, Soul Train Music Award and an American Music Award.
The Mann’s began their singing career as part of Kirk Franklin & the Family. In 1999, they were discovered by Tyler Perry and began performing on in his musical stage plays. Though they added acting to their repertoire, they have focused on Tamela Mann’s gospel music career.
She is known for Take Me to the King on her 2012 Album, Best Days, which reached gold and platinum status as it topped the Billboard Gospel Music chart. The couple worked together on the 2018 album, Us Against the World: The Love Project. The album was part of a campaign focusing on Christian love and marriage.
From The Fisk Jubilee Singers to Franklin and the Manns, gospel music has evolved, but continues to serve the same purposes or worship and praise. It will continue to change and grow as music artists discover more ways to reach a broad audience in churches and across the digital world.
Black First: 500 Years of Trailblazing Achievement and Ground-Breaking Events, Handbook of Texas Online, The White House Historical Association, Arts.gov, Kirkfranklin.com