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Los Angeles’s Role in the Rise and Mainstreaming of Gospel Music

Church service. Image from “Artbound” How Sweet The Sound: Gospel In Los Angeles ABs10 Gospel

Praise and worship songs stealing the limelight at a secular music festival in Southern California might seem unthinkable, but Kanye West gave a riveting gospel-inspired performance when Coachella coincided with Easter in 2019.

He rapped his hit “Jesus Walks,” mixed the music of gospel legends The Clark Sisters on his turntable and played house music classic “Brighter Days,” with the refrain: “Lift me up! Oh, won’t you lift me up!” It was all part of the music series West calls his “Sunday Service,” but instead of church robes, his choir wore Yeezy sweats. 

What happened at Coachella might have been unexpected, but it falls in line with Southern California’s history. Along with cities such as Chicago and Detroit, Los Angeles has influenced gospel music for decades. And transplants like West, who came to L.A. by way of Chicago, have often been the architects of the movement.

“Los Angeles can stand up with any other city in terms of gospel music,” according to Aundrae Russell, program director for the R&B and gospel radio station KJLH. “It’s in the top three cities in the country.”

A combination of factors, including the Great Migration, restrictive housing covenants and musicians such as the Rev. James Cleveland and Andraé Crouch, all helped to make L.A. a gospel music center. But far more known for Hollywood than any other industry, L.A.’s contributions to gospel are frequently overlooked. Now, that appears to be changing. The California African American Museum devoted a 2018 exhibition — “How Sweet the Sound: Gospel Music in Los Angeles” — to exploring the city’s connection to the genre. And the documentary “Amazing Grace,” about Aretha Franklin’s L.A.-recorded album of the same name, is giving the city some long-deserved credit about its impact on the music.

More than a century of gospel music roots in L.A. 

Mount Moriah Baptist Choir at Taborian Hall, site of the church in 1949 | Courtesy of Shades of L.A. Photo Collection, Los Angeles Public Library ABs10 Gospel
Mount Moriah Baptist Choir at Taborian Hall, site of the church in 1949 | Courtesy of Shades of L.A. Photo Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

Los Angeles’ gospel music roots date back to the early 1900s when African Americans made up just over 2% of the city’s population. One of these black Angelenos, William J. Seymour, laid the foundation for gospel music to take off nationally after starting a religious movement known as the Azusa Street Revival in Downtown Los Angeles. The revival, the origins of American pentecostalism, led Bishop Charles H. Mason to start the Church of God and Christ. That denomination would embrace a musical genre known as the “holy blues,” performed by blind musician Arizona Dranes in the 1920s.    

Influenced by Dranes, Chicago musician Thomas Dorsey transformed the holy blues into gospel music in the 1930s. With help from Georgia-born singer Sallie Martin and New York-born composer and publisher Kenneth Morris, Dorsey performed gospel throughout the country, including the American West. At this time, the Great Migration — the exodus of African Americans out of the rural South and into cities in the North and the West — was well underway. Black people flocked to states such as California, and the demand for gospel music in the region grew.  

“We’re talking about the children and grandchildren of former slaves who were part of that Great Migration,” explained Lori Grace, a researcher with the Heritage Music Foundation, an organization started by songwriter Margaret Pleasant Douroux to preserve Los Angeles gospel. “They moved for a better way of life, but whether they came from Arkansas, Texas, Mississippi or Alabama, they brought their roots with them. Because of their rearing in the church, a lot of them were songwriters, psalmists, singers, choir directors.”

Hall Johnson Choir | Courtesy of Shades of L.A. Photo Collection, Los Angeles Public Library ABs10 Gospel
Hall Johnson Choir | Courtesy of Shades of L.A. Photo Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

After the Great Depression, black religious leaders in Los Angeles such as Arthur Atlas Peters, Gwendolyn Lighter and Thurston Frazier took advantage of the city’s widely accessible forms of media and began marketing gospel music through television and radio. Their efforts helped to establish Los Angeles as a gospel music hub, as did racial discrimination. African Americans had moved out of the South in droves to escape anti-black violence and Jim Crow laws, but they encountered racial segregation in Los Angeles too. Restrictive housing covenants prevented them from living in most parts of the city, which is how South L.A. came to be heavily black. There, they formed churches and turned to gospel music because it connected them to their faith and helped them cope with life’s indignities.

“The restrictive housing covenants caused neighborhoods near Central Avenue to become a hub for black businesses and churches,” said Jacqueline Cogdell DjeDje, professor emeritus of ethnomusicology at UCLA’s Herb Alpert School of Music. “As blacks moved and settled in communities further south around Central, churches were built near them. Gradually, there arose a community of black gospel musicians who satisfied the musical needs and desires of black churchgoers of that time.”

James Cleveland ushers in the big choir sound

Minister and Gospel singer Reverend James Cleveland (top) poses with his group circa 1975 in New York City, New York. | Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images ABs10 Gospel
Minister and Gospel singer Reverend James Cleveland (top) poses with his group circa 1975 in New York City, New York. | Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images ABs10 Gospel

By the 1960s, gospel artists from other parts of the country, such as Chicagoan the Rev. James Cleveland, relocated to the city. In Los Angeles, where he moved to become music minister at Grace Memorial Church of God in Christ, Cleveland was free to experiment with the genre and developed what some refer to as “the big choir sound.” He fused gospel with soul, jazz and pop in his compositions for mass choirs, including his own Southern California Community Choir.

“James Cleveland’s music was important because it bridged the gap between traditional gospel and contemporary gospel,” said DjeDje. “The West Coast has always been a place for people to try new things, and people loved Cleveland’s music.”

Andraé Crouch, who grew up in Los Angeles, also began to gain momentum for his gospel music during the 1960s. He formed the popular gospel group The Disciples in 1965. Both he and Cleveland paved the way for a number of other recording artists. Crouch would prove influential in launching the careers of the Winans, the Clark Sisters and Walter and Tramaine Hawkins.

In 1968, Cleveland launched the annual Gospel Music Workshop of America to teach others about contemporary gospel and preserve the music’s legacy. Four years later, he brought Motown’s Aretha Franklin to the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in South L.A. to perform the live album “Amazing Grace,” a Grammy winner that’s widely considered the greatest gospel album ever.

“That album had so many special moments,” Grace said. “A lot of it was songs that were traditional hymns that were rearranged. It was drums, piano, choir, clapping and Aretha — let’s get it straight. She took you there. That album was a historical moment. I don’t know any church choir that has never sung a song from that album.”

By the next decade, Los Angeles continued to attract Christian recording artists, including Youngstown, Ohio, transplant Linda McCrary, who began performing in singing group the McCrarys, with her siblings as a youth. She describes 1970s Los Angeles as a melting pot where musicians could make a name for themselves.

“Los Angeles is not only the movies capital, but it’s also the recording capital of the world,” said McCrary, who went on to perform with Andraé Crouch. “In other places we went to, the opportunities didn’t present themselves to us as much as they did in Los Angeles. We knew L.A. was the best place to flourish.”

She and her siblings landed recorded deals with both the gospel music label Light Records as well as Portrait Records and Capitol Records. Their hits include “You," featuring Stevie Wonder on harmonica, "Love on a Summer Night" and "Any Old Sunday," which Chaka Khan went on to cover. McCrary, who has also performed as a solo artist, described the group’s sound as Christian contemporary.

“We were leaning more toward doing inspirational music rather than just gospel,” she said.

The McCrarys weren’t alone. Increasingly, Christian artists were making this shift.

Praise music goes mainstream

Amazing Grace album cover | Brett Jordan/Flickr/Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0) ABs10 Gospel
Amazing Grace album cover | Brett Jordan/Flickr/Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0)

In the 1980s and ’90s, gospel would increasingly go mainstream. It wasn’t the first time. In 1968, the Edwin Hawkins Singers from Northern California scored a crossover hit with “Oh Happy Day.” So when the Clark Sisters’ 1981 hit “You Brought the Sunshine” became so popular that it was reportedly played at dance clubs, it wasn’t necessarily shocking. Folk singer Joan Baez, after all, had performed “Oh Happy Day” at Woodstock. 

During the 1980s, Andraé Crouch continued to perform gospel, but he arranged and performed music for pop artists such as Michael Jackson and Madonna too. According to McCrary, when these artists recorded songs that required a choir, such as 1987’s “Man in the Mirror” or 1989’s “Like a Prayer,” they turned to Crouch to assemble singers, including her, to participate. She said that her mentor was a master arranger.

“Andraé had a way of recording vocals, even Michael Jackson’s music, where he would kind of take the song and make it visual somehow — his harmonies, the way he accented parts of it,” she said. “If you listen to [the Jackson song] ‘Keep the Faith,’ the choir he used for that was huge. He’d use a smaller group and record that group and put a choir on top of that. He had a way of hearing things. He had a way of letting God speak to him, of asking, ‘How do you want me to say this? What’s the best way for this to be delivered?”

The ’80s also saw the rise of pop and R&B star Whitney Houston, who had grown up singing gospel in church. By 1990, the rapper MC Hammer and singer Mariah Carey would incorporate elements of gospel into their singles “Pray” and “Anytime You Need a Friend,” respectively. The next year, Sounds of Blackness, a Twin Cities group that performs gospel, R&B, and jazz scored a mainstream hit with their inspirational song “Optimistic.”  And toward the end of the decade, gospel artist Kirk Franklin, signed to L.A.’s GospoCentric label, topped the charts with “Stomp,” a hip-hop gospel hybrid. Christian rappers flourished during this time, including Los Angeles hip-hop artist Ahmad, whose single “Back in the Day” became a mainstream hit. Today, artists such as the Houston rapper Lecrae continue this tradition.

In the new millennium, Los Angeles still has a grasp on gospel music. The Inglewood gospel duo Mary Mary released their best-selling debut album “Thankful” in 2000 and continued to release hit albums for the next decade. They also starred in a reality television show that ran for five years, ending in 2017.

Gospel Today

More than a century after the Azusa Street Revival, Los Angeles has changed significantly. Now the city’s population of African Americans, about 9 percent, is shrinking, not growing, and fewer people of all racial backgrounds regularly attend worship services. The heavyweights of contemporary gospel, such as James Cleveland, Andraé Crouch and Aretha Franklin, have all died, but Tyree Boyd-Pates, CAAM’s curator of history, isn’t concerned about the music’s future.

“I think it’s alive and well, particularly on Sunday mornings and afternoons,” he said. “Black churches are one of the few places to hear live black music. Gospel music serves as a baton from the older generation to the younger one. It’s one of the ways in which we orally teach each other about our history.” 

The curator also applauds hip-hop artists such as Kanye West and Chance the Rapper, who incorporate worship music into their performances. Chance released the 2016 single “How Great,” a cover of Christian singer Chris Tomlin’s 2004 song, “How Great Is Our God.” By referencing gospel in their music, these rappers give the public touchpoints from which to learn about blackness, Boyd-Pates said.

“Gospel is a staple within black music, and they do use it strategically and add more layers and textural depth,” he said of West and Chance the Rapper.

It helps that gospel music has been a global art form for years. You can find gospel choirs in Europe, Africa and Asia — and, of course, at musical festivals right here in Southern California. What started off as an African-American tradition has now been embraced by people who didn’t necessarily grow up in the black church.

Linda McCrary performs internationally and traveled all over the world with Andraé Crouch. She recalled that sometimes the message of gospel songs gets lost in translation. “They don’t understand what they’re saying or singing,” she said of global audiences. This bothered Crouch, particularly during an Asian tour when he performed his hit “Soon and Very Soon” about how God’s people will one day be reunited with him. The crowd didn’t get it, McCrary said, so Crouch explained that “Jesus is coming back for us,” and hundreds of people began to weep.

“Andraé was one those guys who could be in a store or a restaurant, and he would get an interpreter and begin to witness to people and start telling them about what all this means,” McCrary said.

In the United States, members of communities who didn’t traditionally perform gospel are now embracing the music. The mostly white Eagle Rock Gospel Singers, who formed in Northeast L.A., are examples. The band’s music has been featured on programs on Showtime, Netflix, and MTV, and they’ve performed at gatherings such as Austin City Limits and the New Orleans Voodoo Festival. The members met in the choir of a Los Angeles church called Ecclesia and discovered their shared taste in gospel from the early 20th century.

Linda McCrary-Fisher | Courtesy of the artist
Linda McCrary-Fisher | Courtesy of the artist
Eagle Rock Gospel Singers | Courtesy of the artists
Eagle Rock Gospel Singers | Courtesy of the artists

“I’ve personally always liked anything that was cathartic, anything that involved shouting, stomping and hand-clapping, and gospel music has a lot of that,” said Will Wadsworth, who sings and plays drums in the group that he founded. “Ever since I was a teen, l liked early blues music, early country and folk, and gospel, and they all kind of worked together and had some of the same elements.”

The Eagle Rock Gospel Singers typically play in secular spaces where they’re the only gospel band around, Wadsworth said. But there is no shortage of gospel artists in South L.A., according to KJLH’s Russell, who recommends the contemporary musicians Norman Hutchins, Judith McAllister and Tim Bishop Brown, among several others.

Gospel continues to have appeal well after the pioneers of the music have passed on because it is “feel good” music, Russell said.

“People need hope; they need to hear gospel music because it has a message in it,” he added. “It’s passion music. It makes people feel good, and it gives you the word of God in the songs.”

Top Image: Church service. Image from “Artbound” How Sweet The Sound: Gospel In Los Angeles

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