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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.

 

 

Conclusion

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, http://ezproxy.baylor.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/744206483?accountid=7014. 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 http://ezproxy.baylor.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/921025524?accountid=7014. Accessed 16 Feb 2019.
  • “Bridge Over Troubled Water” With choir “CAFE OF THE GATE OF SALVATION” (2017). https://youtu.be/yGFA6yBfVCM. Accessed 25 Mar 2019.
  • “Carlton Pearson.” Contemporary Black Biography, vol. 140, Gale, 2017. Biography In Context, http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/K1606007980/BIC?u=txshracd2488&sid=BIC&xid=1b50694b. 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, http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/A17586968/AONE?u=txshracd2488&sid=AONE&xid=786b0046. Accessed 8 Apr 2019.
  • Ely, Gordon. “Soweto Gospel Choir: Blessed.” Billboard, 28 Jan. 2006, p. 54. General Reference Center GOLD, http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/A141534735/GRGM?u=txshracd2488&sid=GRGM&xid=009fbb55. Accessed 23 Feb 2019.
  • Horn, David. Popular Music, vol. 13, no. 3, 1994, pp. 366–369. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/852929. 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 http://ezproxy.baylor.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/1796054276?accou ntid=7014. Accessed 5 Feb 2019.
  • Jackson, Irene. “Rosetta Tharpe.” Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History, Macmillan Reference USA, 2006. Biography In Context, http://link.galegroup.com.ezproxy.baylor.edu/apps/doc/K3444701219/BIC?u=txshracd2488&sid=BIC&xid=5a0817cf. 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,http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/K1606007649/BIC?u=txshracd2488&sid=BIC&xid=48a2a60b. Accessed 6 May 2019.
  • “Rosetta Tharpe.” Contemporary Black Biography, vol. 65, Gale, 2008. Biography In Context, http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/K1606003933/BIC?u=txshracd2488&sid=BIC&xid=7dcdcf7c. Accessed 7 Feb 2019.
  • “Soweto Gospel Choir ambassadors of the ‘African spirit’.” The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, 18 Dec. 2008. Opposing Viewpoints in Context, http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/A190809441/OVIC?u=txshracd2488&sid=OVIC&xid=56dcfeb3. Accessed 25 Feb 2019.

 

 

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. When she finishes at Baylor, she will add a Master of Divinity and Master of Music in Church Music to her education. She is a prolific gospel singer and worship leader who travels across the state and country magnifying God’s great name. In addition, Joslyn is also an active member of the Waco Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Incorporated.

 

 

Black Gospel Music Tradition

I grew up going to a church deeply rooted in the Black gospel music tradition. No matter the Sunday or the choir that was singing, I was sure that on that morning I’d be hearing Black gospel music when I got to church. In a lot of music belonging to the genre, the soloist can make or break the songs. I think of the classics that I remember from my childhood, and the songs I remember the most are the ones with highly adlibbed vamps from anointed, gifted, and skilled soloists. In the following entries, I will talk about some of my favorite gospel music songs that feature a power gospel soloist, someone whom without their rich, vibrant, strong voices, these songs would not have the same impact. Though everyone who leads on these tracks is not a Black person or an African-American person, the genre being Black gospel music justifies using a title like Strong Black Lead to describe these soloists. They seat themselves in a musical tradition deeply rooted in Blackness, therefore even though they may not share the culture with those from whom it derives, their musical presence signifies a Strong Black Lead.

 

“Don’t Take Everybody to Be Your Friend”

by Sister Rosetta Tharpe

“Don’t Take Everybody to Be Your Friend” was written by Rosetta Tharpe and was performed by she and the Sam Price Trio. Though there have been over 30 recordings of this song, this is the original recorded by the composer for Decca Records. The recording that I heard was part of the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project, and the date of its original release is unclear. The site says between 1955-1975, while other sites say 1947 for the earliest release. The lyrics speak of the singer’s relationship with other people. It is quite clear that this song is not meant for use in church, though it mentions God at the beginning. God is brought in as a mediator between Tharpe and friends, the song warns the listeners of people who may enter into friendship with you for their own personal gain. She tells us repeatedly, “don’t, don’t take everybody for your friend.” The song feature Rosetta as the main vocalist and the Sammy Price trio as the instrumentalists. Tharpe is a guitarist herself, and subsequently accompanies herself on this track. The song is an example of a subgenre known as the Gospel blues. Horace Boyer says that Gospel blues specifically denotes a sixteen-bar form linked to AABA song structure. Michael Harris, however, says that Gospel blues signifies a blending of sacred texts and blues tunes. Both of these are apparent in this song. While Georgia Tom (Thomas Dorsey) was spreading his music around Chicago and the world thanks to Gospel Pearls, Tharpe and her gospel blues toured all across America and Europe. Around the time that this song was recorded, rock music was just beginning to gain traction. Gospel blues is considered a predecessor to rock-and-roll, and Tharpe is credited as the mother of the genre. Because of this, the gospel blues style is what made Tharpe a name to be remembered up to this day.

 

 

“Changed”

by the Walter Hawkins and the Love Center Choir

In June of 1975, Walter Hawkins and the Love Center Choir released the Love Alive album, containing a track that would that would heavily impact Black gospel music for decades to come. Employing such musical techniques as secondary dominant passages and shifting tonal centers, the title of this song is exemplified musically throughout the song. This song was written by Walter Hawkins. This album also contained “Goin Up Yonder” and “God Is Standing By” and sold over 250, 000 copies, becoming one of Black gospel music’s most successful albums of the 1970s. It is likely that he wrote this song with his then-wife, Tramaine, in mind. She was featured as the lead vocalist. The song is intended for use in church and wherever people need to know about the change that has come over you since encountering Jesus Christ. One of the distinct features of this song is the beginning of the track where there is a bit of a call and response between the choir and the lead. Tramaine begins the song with, “A change, a change has come over me…” and is followed by the choir singing, “He changed my life and now I’m free.” In this phrase the musicians move from an Eb tonality to that of Ab. The music is “changing” along with the lyrics. The Hawkins brothers, Walter and Edwin continued in the vein of gospel musicians that stretched the boundaries of traditional harmonies. The chord progressions that dominate this song were uncommon for that time, and the way that he uses imagery to convey the lyrics is different from those who were making gospel music prior to this era. This was a fresh sound, and the evidence of that “freshness” is apparent in its longevity.

 

“He Cares for You”

by Milton Brunson and the Thompson Community Singers

There are distinct names, voices, and sounds that came out of Chicago gospel music. Milton Brunson and the Thompson Community Singers are the people who come to mind first when I think of Chicago gospel. Milton Brunson was for Chicago what James Cleveland was for Southern California. He broke boundaries, set records, and gave Chicago what the city had been used to for years: a healthy appetite of gospel music. Written by Percy Bady during the early 80s, “He Cares for You” was an instant hit featuring Tina Conley-Watson on lead. This song first appeared on the If I Be Lifted  album released in 1987. Tina’s biting soprano timbre cuts through the choir at the end of the song, demonstrating her expansive range. She begins the song singing softly with “so you think that you can’t make it through.” By the time she builds up to the repeat of that phrase after having sung through the verse once, she sings with much more fervor and intensity. This song was written for a community choir with the understanding that it would be used in churches across the city (and eventually, the country). The rhythmic acceleration to handclapping in the vamp at the end of the song is typical for Percy Bady/Milton Brunson collaborations, as we will see the same thing return on “There Is No Way” later in this paper. The piano plays a prominent role in this song, but Tina Watson is truly the star of this recording. When this song was released, many other gospel artists were on the scene doing music, but this sound, the instrumentation, and the lyrical content was characteristic of Chicago gospel music. The sounds that Andraé Crouch, Edwin Hawkins, and Walter Hawkins were using in California varied in that their music was very electronic and held on to stylistic elements of popular music in 1970s. This was not the case for Milton Brunson at this time. He used 4-piece rhythm section, spectacular soloists, and gifted writers to carry the music he released. This formula is what keeps us talking about the Tommies in the 2010s when they had their album debut in the 1980s.

 

 

“Take It By Force”

by Carlton Pearson (ft. Karen Clark-Sheard)

Any gospel music aficionado would consider Karen Clark-Sheard and her sisters one of the royal families of gospel music. On Carlton Pearson’s first live album, Live at Azusa, Karen Clark-Sheard lends her voice to a track with a 100-voice choir in a large arena at Oral Roberts University. The album was released in October of 1995, but the music has lived on to this day. The Live at Azusa recordings (of which there are five) grew out of the Azusa conference that took place yearly. Though the music is contextualized, it can be used widely. This is a choir song with a strong lead vocalist, so it would easily translate to a Sunday morning service. Karen Clark-Sheard is known for her belting skills, guttural sounds, precise melismatic phrases (runs), scats, and grunts used in her vocal performances. This song features all of those typical “KCS” characteristics. Even as a child, I memorized every adlib and lyric of this song because I wanted to sound like her when I grew up. The Live at Azusa album climbed to #5 on the Billboard Gospel Charts within weeks of its release. Featuring many other strong vocalists such as Daryl Coley, the album’s success was due in large part to the event people were attending. With the sound of the Hammond organ, bass guitar, drum set, keyboard, and synthesizer, this music was very reminiscent of the gospel music genre in 1995. Carlton Pearson did not seem to be creating a new sound in gospel music but jumping on the wave that had already worked for Kirk Franklin, Helen Baylor, Donald Lawrence, and John P. Kee. Pearson, however, found a sound that worked for him and had a very successful music career building on “Live at Azusa” and the street revival Pentecostal legacy.

 

 

“Now Behold the Lamb”

by Kirk Franklin

There are not very many Christmas seasons that pass in mainline Black churches where someone doesn’t sing or dance to Kirk Franklin’s “Now Behold the Lamb.” Making its premiere on the album Kirk Franklin & The Family Christmas in November 1995, this song has had a lasting effect on gospel music today. The composer of this song is Kirk Franklin and this track from his Christmas album is the most well-known recording of it. As I mentioned at the outset, this song is contemporary gospel music meant for use in the church. This was long before Kirk Franklin moved from choir music to that of ensembles and background vocalists. This song can be sung on a Sunday morning during the advent and Christmastide season in church. The song features two soloists and a choir. It opens with a distinct melody in the piano, that when played gives the listeners the signal they they’re about to “go in” (common Black church jargon for being slain in the spirit). The acoustic piano is the main instrument in this track, but Kirk Franklin layers in the musicians, beginning only with piano and drum set. As the choir repeats the verse, the synthesizer joins, padding underneath the melody in the piano. After the synthesizer enters, the Hammond organ is heard entering the musical landscape. The bass guitar is also heard on the track. Musically genius in its arrangement, this song is emblematic of the compositions of Kirk Franklin. The types of poetry that Kirk Franklin writes on this track leads the way to the future of gospel music with lines like, “born into sin that I may live again.” Kirk Franklin comes up with metaphors and similes that transport the listener into a euphoric state of reading as they listen to his music. The two soloists on the track are Tamela Mann and John Gray. Tamela has gone on to see major success in gospel music, radio, film, television, and the play stage with and without her husband, David Mann. John Gray is a popular television preacher known for his television shows, marriage, and work in Lakewood Church and at his new church, Relentless Church. It is hard to believe that this song would have reached the success that it did then and still does now had Kirk Franklin chosen different soloists to lead it.

 

 

“I Love the Lord”

by Whitney Houston

The 1982 album that contained Richard Smallwood’s “I Love the Lord” spent over 80 weeks on the Billboard gospel chart. Composed in the basement of the Fine Arts department at Howard University, this song would gain him international acclaim over a decade later. Whitney Houston loved the song and knew that when she filmed The Preacher’s Wife that the song had to be included. There are quite a few songs that become popular largely because of the soloist and not the composer or the arranger; this song was one of them. Though Richard Smallwood had already achieved commercial success with his albums with Howard Gospel Choir, he would never have never foreseen the success of this recording. This song has great crossover appeal, evidenced by the many people who have taken it and arranged it for choir, solo, instruments, and more and is a personal favorite of the writer to perform, the most recent performance being for an Ash Wednesday service recently. This 1996 release features string instruments and many other instruments that most musicians would expect to find in classical music. However, this is the characteristic of the writing style of Richard Smallwood. Though many of his compositions are quite classical in arrangement, he also composes music for 4-piece rhythm sections on a Sunday morning. Much of his earlier music shows off the breadth of musical knowledge he brings to his compositions. Even in this track, in addition to the stringed instruments, brass can be heard on the part where the choir (and soloist) sings “and trouble rise.” This song is not only a beautiful solo, but a work of art. Employing great musicality, Whitney Houston flips between her head and chest voice varying dynamics to deliver the melody and the lead of this great gospel standard. Her voice being featured on most of the album made The Preacher’s Wife soundtrack the best-selling gospel soundtrack of all time, even to this day. Undoubtedly, this track had much to do with that success.

 

 

 

Part II of this blog, including a list of resources mentioned in this post, is now posted.

Click here to keep reading!