Cathedrals of Gospel Music

This article is a collaborative effort, crafted and edited by a team of dedicated professionals.

Contributors: Andranick Tanguiane, Fred Lerdahl,


A look at some of the most popular and well-known gospel music cathedrals around the world.

The Birth of Gospel Music

Gospel music is a genre of Christian music. The creation, performance, significance, and even the definition of gospel music varies according to culture and social context. Gospel music is composed and performed for many purposes, including aesthetic pleasure, religious or ceremonial purposes, and as an entertainment product for the marketplace.

The Spirituals

The spirituals were originally created by slaves in the American South who were yearning for freedom both earthly and heavenly. These songs were sung in fields, on plantations, and in churches, and they often contained coded messages about escape. The spirituals were also a way for slaves to express their religious beliefs, as most were Christians. While the exact origins of the spirituals are unknown, they are thought to have first emerged in the early 1800s.

One of the most famous spirituals is “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” which was written by Wallace Willis, a slave from the Choctaw nation. This song is about heaven, but it also contains a subtle message about escape: “Swing low, sweet chariot / Coming for to carry me home / Swing low, sweet chariot / Coming for to carry me home.” Other popular spirituals include “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen,” “Wade in the Water,” and “This Little Light of Mine.”

The spirituals played an important role in the development of gospel music, which emerged in the early 1900s. Gospel music is a type of Christian music that is characterized by its joyful lyrics and upbeat music. It is often sung in churches and is used to praise God or give thanks for blessings. Like the spirituals, gospel songs often contain coded messages about freedom and equality. Gospel music was popularized by African American musicians such as Mahalia Jackson and Thomas Dorsey.

The Shout

The shout is a religious testifying style of African-American music that developed in the late 19th century and early 20th century. It is characterized by a call and response between the singer and the congregation, usually accompanied by tambourine.

The shout began to gain popularity in the 1890s, when it was commonly used during the worship services of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME). The style was further popularized by AME minister Charles Tindley, who wrote many of the first gospel songs in the shout style. Shouts continued to be an important part of black religious music throughout the first half of the 20th century.

As gospel music became more popular in the mainstream in the 1950s and 1960s, shouts began to appear in secular music as well. James Brown’s hit song “I Got You (I Feel Good)” includes a prominent shout section, and Brown would often perform shouts during his concerts. Shouts can also be heard in some Motown recordings from the 1960s, such as The Supremes’ “You Keep Me Hangin’ On.”

The First Golden Age of Gospel

Gospel music has a long and rich history, dating back to the 18th century. It was during the early 20th century, however, when Gospel music truly began to shine. This was the era when Gospel music first reached a wide audience and began to influence other genres of music. let’s take a look at this history of Gospel music and how it came to be such an important and beloved genre.

Mahalia Jackson

Mahalia Jackson was born on October 26, 1911 in New Orleans, Louisiana. She was one of the most influential gospel singers of all time and was a major force in the Civil Rights Movement. Jackson began singing in churches as a child and made her recorded debut in 1927. She achieved national fame in the early 1950s with her recordings of “Amazing Grace” and “Move On Up a Little Higher.” Jackson continued to perform and record until her death in 1972.

The Famous Five

The Famous Five are the quintessential Gospel group of the 1940s. They were one of the first groups to popularize the sound that would come to be known as Gospel music.

The Famous Five consisted of James Cleveland, Willie Mae Ford Smith, Mahalia Jackson, Clara Ward, and Sallie Martin. They were all incredibly talented musicians and singers, and their performances were electrifying. They took the world by storm, and their music has inspired generations of Gospel singers since.

The Famous Five were known for their tight harmonies, soulful melodies, and spiritual lyrics. Their music was uplifting and joyful, and it quickly became hugely popular with both black and white audiences. The group toured extensively throughout the United States and Europe, and their recordings sold millions of copies.

The Famous Five helped to define what Gospel music would become, and their influence can still be heard in the music of today.

Clara Ward and the Ward Singers

Clara Ward and the Ward Singers were one of the most popular gospel groups of the 1950s and 1960s. They were known for their powerful and emotive performances, as well as their intricate harmonies. Clara Ward was a master of showmanship, and her group was often compared to a secular soul group like the Temptations. The Ward Singers toured extensively, both in the US and abroad, and they recorded dozens of albums. They were one of the first gospel groups to crossover into the mainstream, appearing on television shows and in movies. Their music helped to shape the sound of gospel for generations to come.

The Second Golden Age of Gospel

The first golden age of gospel music took place in the 1920s and early 1930s. The genre was pioneered by Mahalia Jackson, Thomas A. Dorsey, and the National Baptist Convention Choir. Gospel music went on to influence other genres of music, such as soul and R&B. The second golden age of gospel music began in the late 1940s and early 1950s. This era was characterized by the rise of groups like the Highway QC’s and the Soul Stirrers. Gospel music continue to evolve and influence other genres of music.

James Cleveland and the Cleveland Singers

James Cleveland was born in Chicago in 1931, the son of a Baptist minister. After graduating from high school, he attended the prestigious Concordia College in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on a music scholarship. He later transferred to Roosevelt University in Chicago, where he studied under Margaret Bonds, a noted composer and arranger who had worked with Duke Ellington and Lena Horne.

Cleveland’s first professional gig was as music director for the legendary Mahalia Jackson. He went on to found the Southern California Community Choir, which recorded several albums for Savoy Records. In 1965, he returned to Chicago and founded the Gospel Music Workshop of America (GMWA), an organization that would come to have a profound impact on both the sound and the business of gospel music.

The GMWA was both a convention and a performing ensemble; its members were drawn from some of the best gospel singers in the country. The group recorded several albums and toured extensively, helping to bring gospel music to a wider audience. They also served as backup singers on recordings by such secular artists as Aretha Franklin and B.B. King.

In addition to his work with the GMWA, Cleveland continued to record as a solo artist and with his own ensembles, including the James Cleveland Singers and the New York Restoration Choir. He also wrote or co-wrote several widely-recorded gospel songs, including “Peace Be Still,” “Jesus Is All the World to Me,” and “I don’t Feel No Ways Tired.”

James Cleveland passed away in 1991, but his legacy continues through the work of the GMWA and through the many artists who have been influenced by his music.

The Winans

The Winans are an American musical group from Detroit, Michigan consisting of brothers Carvin, Marvin, Michael, and Ronald Winans. The quartet signed with Motown’s Gospel Division in 1987 and released their self-titled debut album the following year. produced two chart singles: “Ain’t No Need to Worry” and “Tomorrow”. The album peaked at number one on Billboard magazine’s Top Gospel Albums chart. In 1989, they released a live album entitled Live & Direct. The album won a Soul Train Music Award for Best Gospel Album by a Group or Duo in 1990.

Kirk Franklin

Kirk Franklin (born January 26, 1970) is an American gospel musician, singer, songwriter, record producer and author. He is known for leading urban contemporary gospel choirs such as The Family, God’s Property and One Nation Crew (1NC), and has won multiple awards, including twelve Grammy Awards. Franklin’s works are frequently sampled and interpolated by hip hop artists.

Franklin was born in Riverside, Texas to Evelyn Gabrielle (née Barrow; died November 27, 1999) and Joe Louis Franklin Jr. (died July 1984). Kirk Franklin followed in his father’s footsteps singing gospel music at Mount Rose Baptist Church in Euless where his father served as the choir director. He was also a part of the Sunday school choir that his grandmother directed. After the service his father would take him out for ice cream at a local Dairy Queen before taking him home.

As a child he sang with his siblings under the direction of Keith A. Johnson from Good Shepherd Baptist Church in Dallas every Sunday morning on KHVN 97.9 FM promoting weekly church services until he became an altar server at age ten. When he was twelve he became a member of Mount Rose Baptist Church adult choir directed by John Anderson in Euless who later became his first music teacher as well as musical mentor later on in life affecting much of what he would do musically and stylistically on records throughout his career

The Third Golden Age of Gospel

The first golden age of gospel music occurred in the 1920s and 1930s with pioneers such as Mahalia Jackson, Thomas A. Dorsey, and the Dixie Hummingbirds. The second occurred in the late 1940s and 1950s with Roberta Martin, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, James Cleveland, and the Fairfield Four. The third and most recent golden age began in the late 1980s and early 1990s and is still going strong.

Yolanda Adams

A five-time Grammy winner, Yolanda Adams is known as the “Queen of Contemporary Gospel Music” and is one of the most respected and successful recording artists of our time. She has attained critical and commercial success in the gospel, Adult Contemporary, and jazz genres, with multiple gold and platinum albums to her credit. As an actress, she has starred in movies such as Tyler Perry’s “Why Did I Get Married?” franchise, “For Better or Worse”, “Jumping the Broom”, and “Greenleaf”. A former radio host of her own syndicated daily morning show, “Get Up! Mornings with Erica Campbell”, Adams is currently a co-host on “The Steve Harvey Morning Show”.

Smokie Norful

Smokie Norful (born October 31, 1975) is an American Gospel singer and pianist, signed to EMI Gospel. He is best known for his 2002 debut album, I Need You Now, which was certified gold by the RIAA. It remains his only album to achieve that certification. In 2004, he won a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary R&B Gospel Album for his album Nothing Without You.

Hezekiah Walker

Hezekiah Walker is an American gospel musician, choir director, and pastor. He is best known for his work with the Love Fellowship Choir. He has released several solo albums, and his most recent album, Azusa: The Next Generation 2.0, debuted at number one on the Billboard Gospel chart.

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