interior top image

Strong Black Lead: Power Gospel Soloists PART II

Guest Blogger Joslyn Henderson is a full-time graduate student at Truett Seminary and Baylor School of Music, having first earned her Bachelors in Music, Vocal Performance from Spelman College in Atlanta. 


Part I of this blog post can be found here.


Moving down into the 2000s, the following entries reflect gospel music as a global phenomenon. Though all of these songs were originally recorded by American artists, most of the performances referred to here display the broad impact of gospel music across the world. Beginning with Judy McAllister out of California and ending with Café of the Gate of Salvation out of Australia, let this music help to affirm that Black gospel music is as valuable in the canon of church music as anything else.


“Like the Dew” by Judith Christie McAllister

“Like the Dew” is one of Judith Christie McAllister’s most well-known songs, likely second only to “Oh Give Thanks” from the same Send Judah First album released in the year 2000. Though the song was also recorded by Juanita Bynum, most gospel music listeners would agree that Juanita Bynum is not a singer. The song’s writer is Tom Bynum, and the song follows a rather basic structural pattern. There is an A section that simply repeats, “like the dew in the morning, gently rest upon my heart” with two different melodies. The B section of the song is a chorus that repeats, “rest, Jesus” three times and ends with “rest.” The rest of the song I would say is a B prime section that uses the same chord that dominates the chorus as the background vocalists repeat verbs that Jesus will do: “rest, reign, rule, move…” This song began an era of praise and worship music released by Black artists (though the composers and writers may not be, as is the case here).

This was a song that was appropriate for use in the Black church that somewhat resembled the Contemporary Christian Music of the mainstream white congregations. Compared against Martin Nystrom’s “As the Deer” from the Wow Worship album that was released the same year, they are quite different sonically but follow the same basic structure. The song opens with an introduction of the melody by the artist and the ensemble joins. Though “Like the Dew” employs some really distinct rhythms, the chords are pretty much the same throughout. Contemporary Christian Music is built off of simplicity, and this song is just that. There is a simple opening phrase that is repeated, then the end is repeated as well.

This music was a bit of a contrast from what many contemporary gospel artists were doing in 2000. This was when Mary Mary was being introduced and when Kirk Franklin’s music was starting to shift and get “radical with [their] message.” While gospel music was changing form and shape, many artists held to the sound and feel of contemporary gospel music during this time. The sound of gospel music of the 1990s held over into the year 2000, but Judith Christie McAllister came with a sound that resembled something different. A classic in its own right, “Like the Dew” is now and continues to a favorite of the writer’s and many praise teams of yesterday and today.


“There Is No Way” by Ricky Dillard & New G

Chicago is generally credited as the birthplace of Black gospel music. Chicago is responsible for the careers of hometown heroes like Chicago Mass Choir, New Direction, Jonathan McReynolds, Milton Brunson and the Thompson Community Singers, Dexter Walker and Zion Movement and so many others. The one who has been consistently releasing music for the church choir since the late 1980s is still doing so up until today. Ricky Dillard grew up in Chicago and has been involved in gospel choirs since he was five years old. Dillard was an early member of the Thompson Community Singers under the direction of Milton Brunson. Percy Bady wrote “There Is No Way” and it was released on the Miracle Live album recorded in 1984. Ricky Dillard’s remake of this Brunson classic was well-received partially because of Nikki Ross being featured as a soloist. Ricky Dillard had the idea of reclaiming the church choir and this album did just that with a more traditional sound. Unplugged: The Way Church Used to Be was released in 2004 and “There Is No Way” was one of the featured songs.

Like the album title alludes, this music is intended for church. There was a sound on this album that did not necessarily fit in with the sound of the day. The early 2000s was a time for gospel music to sound electric, with many MIDI instruments and plug-ins. “There Is No Way” featured a Hammond organ and would be used for what might be called a traditional service today. Nikki Ross’s melismatic phrasing and virtuosic use of her instrument lets the listeners know the type of musician she is, and the type of singer she is. A pianist, the way that her ear can pick up on chord progressions and sing runs that fit the chord being played is something only attributable to the ear that she has as an instrumentalist. In comparison with the original 1984 recording, it is clear that Nikki Ross being an instrumentalist contributed to the way she interpreted this solo. Her being a part of this recording is what gives this track legendary status.



“Oh Happy Day” by the Soweto Gospel Choir

“Oh Happy Day” changed the world of gospel music in America, but the impact of the song traveled abroad as well. The song I found as I looked for music by the Soweto Gospel Choir was this classic, reimagined by this group of South African musicians released in 2005. The song was written by Edwin Hawkins and its most popular recording is the original recording from 1969. The song was also made popular by its feature in the 1993 film, Sister Act 2: Back In the Habit. As we have seen and experienced, “Oh Happy Day” was unlike the gospel music that came before it. This song being part of the Grammy award-winning Blessed album by the Soweto Gospel Choir is just about the same, in that it is distinctive from the other tracks, consisting of native African music genres, Negro spiritual, and even the South African national anthem. This is probably the only Black gospel track on this recording. It begins with a strong bassline. The other instruments come in slowly and the soloist introduces the melody, much like the original. The most noticeable harmonic change is the repetition of the I-IV progression. The progression is played three times before VII is introduced. This changes the tonic center before the return at the end of the verse with “washed my sins away” on the tonic chord. The syncopations differ and the song is rhythmically divergent at the end.

The Soweto Gospel Choir is a performance choir. The auditions for the group brought out over 600 people. They are not only a touring musical group but serve as unofficial ambassadors for the country of South Africa. This song was originally arranged for SGC for performance but can be used in church, with the understanding of difference from the original version.



“Show Up” by Heritage Mass Choir

The New Life Community Choir, led by John P. Kee, had a major influence on my childhood and upbringing. A couple of weekends ago, a certain sector of Twitter was embroiled in a hearty debate about hiring a youth choir director in 1998 and John P. Kee was one of three choices. Though not my first choice, John P. Kee is one of my favorite gospel artists. Imagine my delight in looking for a song by the Heritage Mass Choir and finding one of my favorite songs by one of my favorite artists. The Heritage Gospel Choir is in concert in 2009 doing their live recording singing John P. Kee’s “Show Up.” Though the original recording of this song was released in 1995, this song evidently transcends musical era.

The Heritage Gospel Choir recorded this song for their “The Gospel 2” album release and sticks very closely to the original composition. Translated for their context, this song can be used in worship or in concert (as it is here). I would not be surprised if the Heritage Mass Choir reached out to find the exact loops and musical instruments that were used on the original because this 2009 release sounds very similar to the 1995 original. Only because I see the musicians in the video, I am convinced that this is not a sing-along track. Musically, there are no differences between the original composition and this recording. Sonically, the music is being sung in Korean but the rhythms are also true to the original recording. Even the adlib is singing identically to what John P. Kee does. Near the end of the song, they sing, “show up” in English before ending with a repeat of the end of the B section. The soloist on this track does so much to add to the richness of the text written by John P. Kee by adding his South Korean flavor to it.



“Don’t Trouble the Water” by Café of the Gate of Salvation

Simon and Garfunkel originally recorded “Don’t Trouble the Water” back in 1970. Widely considered their biggest hit, it was no surprise that Aretha Franklin took the song as her own in 1971. She achieved major commercial success spending weeks on the top of the Billboard charts and even winning a Grammy for her “gospel-inspired” version. Written by Paul Simon, this song has been recorded by many other artists including Elvis Presley. It is no surprise then that Australia’s premier a cappella gospel choir took up this song to sing. With the help of Australian singer-songwriter, Diana Rouvas, Café of the Gate of Salvation records this song live at The Basement in the Sydney in November of 2017. The setting of this recording is in a pub with space for live music, so it is safe to say that this song is not intended for use in worship.

Quite frankly, the song is not necessarily a black gospel song in the traditional sense, in that it only alludes to God without naming God. It is assumed that the friend that is sung about in the song is a higher power or presence like Jesus, or even God. This live performance features a really skilled vocalist and a very present bassline. The rhythm in the bassline makes the song emblematic of its earlier recordings. The bassline also connects it to the blues genre that relied heavily on the bass guitar. Although blues takes root in the United States, this country’s music travels further to places that the originators may not visit. Though I am sure Simon and Garfunkel traveled to Sydney, Australia, I don’t imagine they envisioned a white, non-religious gospel choir in Australia singing one of its most famous rerecordings.




In conclusion, these songs might not have been nearly as memorable had another soloist been chosen to lead them. Any time I am asked to sing “I Love the Lord,” it is referred to as the Whitney Houston version. Before writing this paper, I did not know that there was a recording of “There Is No Way” that was released twenty years prior to Nikki Ross making it her song on Ricky Dillard’s album. Without the Strong Black Lead, Black gospel music, especially choir music of the genre, would not be what we know it as today. There is hardly a Sunday at my church where the choir sings and there isn’t someone up leading the song(s). The gospel soloist is crucial to the music because they introduce the melody, help the choir to know where to go next in the music, and add to the music in a way that cannot be done on an instrument. The contributions of gospel soloists are immense, changing the landscape of individual songs and of the genre as a whole. I refrain from mentioning that the choir benefits greatly from the soloist, but even the ensembles and the worship teams have much to gain from a power soloist in front. I believe that one day, a student will be writing about power gospel vocalists in the 21st century and mention me. This legacy given through Nikki Ross, Lecresia Campbell, Dorothy Morrison, Karen Clark-Sheard, and so many others is one I personally hope to carry.


Resources Mentioned

  • Berkley, Gail. “Bishop Walter Hawkins Mourned.” Sun Reporter, Jul 15, 2010. 1, Accessed 6 May 2019.
  • Bernard, A. J. (2011, Aug). Rejoice and sound the trumpet for the glorious return of Judith Christie McAllister. New York Beacon Retrieved from Accessed 16 Feb 2019.
  • “Bridge Over Troubled Water” With choir “CAFE OF THE GATE OF SALVATION” (2017). Accessed 25 Mar 2019.
  • “Carlton Pearson.” Contemporary Black Biography, vol. 140, Gale, 2017. Biography In Context, Accessed 8 Apr 2019.
  • “CARLTON PEARSON ROCKS THE CHARTS WITH WARNER ALLIANCE RELEASE ‘LIVE AT AZUSA’.” PR Newswire, 9 Nov. 1995, p. 1109LA022. Academic OneFile, Accessed 8 Apr 2019.
  • Ely, Gordon. “Soweto Gospel Choir: Blessed.” Billboard, 28 Jan. 2006, p. 54. General Reference Center GOLD, Accessed 23 Feb 2019.
  • Horn, David. Popular Music, vol. 13, no. 3, 1994, pp. 366–369. JSTOR, Accessed 7 May 2019.
  • Hunter, C. (2016). The politics of real spirituality in gospel music discourse and practice (Order No. 10120465). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (1796054276). Retrieved from ntid=7014. Accessed 5 Feb 2019.
  • Jackson, Irene. “Rosetta Tharpe.” Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History, Macmillan Reference USA, 2006. Biography In Context, Accessed 5 Feb 2019.
  • Johnson, E. Patrick, 1967. Appropriating Blackness: Performance and the Politics of Authenticity. Durham [N.C.]: Duke University Press, 2003.
  • MacSwain, Robert, and Taylor Worley, eds. Theology, Aesthetics, and Culture: Responses to the Work of David Brown. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012. Oxford Scholarship Online, 2013. doi: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199646821.001.0001. Accessed 6 May 2019.
  • “Ricky Dillard.” Contemporary Black Biography, vol. 134, Gale, 2016. Biography In Context, Accessed 6 May 2019.
  • “Rosetta Tharpe.” Contemporary Black Biography, vol. 65, Gale, 2008. Biography In Context, Accessed 7 Feb 2019.
  • “Soweto Gospel Choir ambassadors of the ‘African spirit’.” The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, 18 Dec. 2008. Opposing Viewpoints in Context, Accessed 25 Feb 2019.