Leonard Lopate on Gospel Music

I combined Please Explain with our annual Good Friday gospel show in order to give some background on gospel music. Many people interested in learning about gospel music have been confused by some of its terminology, so I’ll try to clear up some of that.

The first Christian songs American slaves probably sang were 19th-century hymns like “Amazing Grace and “I Love the Lord, He Heard My Cry,” songs that came to be known in the black church as Dr. Watts, named after one of the more popular hymn writers. They were sung in an a cappella, moaning style that can still be heard in many black churches today. 

Over the years other hymns and tabernacle songs were added to the repertoire, along with newly composed works. I’m often asked things like why the gospel “quartets” often have more than four members. The quartets (which date back to the early 20th century) have usually been all male and—at least in theory—employed four-part harmonies, whether they sprang from the barbershop tradition or later gospel styles.

Another category, called simply “gospel,” came into prominence in the 1930s, and it includes soloists, groups, and choirs. Although this is a great simplification, the quartets can be seen as the forerunners of modern blues singers, doo-wop and soul singing.  Gospel (which also has a lot of blues-based material in its repertoire) can be seen as more closely linked to jazz, because it is often very improvisatory.

The dominant male quartet style from the late 1920s into the mid-1940s was called jubilee. It featured close harmonies, formal arrangements (although those characteristics lessened over the years), and its most famous practitioners were the Golden Gate Quartet, who not only produced hit records but also had a popular national radio show.

Into the early 1950s, whether there was musical accompaniment or not often depended on which denomination the performers belonged to: Baptists and Methodists sang mostly a cappella, while the Sanctified churchfolk citing psalms 98 and 150 considered instrumental accompaniment something of an imperative. After a while, almost every record included piano, organ, guitar, and even bass and drums. Nowadays, it’s not unusual for a recording to even include a string section.

The newer gospel style became popular when composers like Thomas A. Dorsey (who had been called Georgia Tom when he was a blues musician) began writing original songs. He was joined a little later by Roberta Martin, Lucie Campbell, and Reverend W. Herbert Brewster. Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Mahalia Jackson, Professor Alex Bradford, and groups like Roberta Martin Singers and the Ward Singers became superstars within the field, and a few years later they were joined by James Cleveland.

Among the most famous popular singers to come out of the gospel world are Dinah Washington (Ruth Jones when she performed with the Sallie Martin singers), Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin, Lou Rawls, Della Reese, Al Green, Billy Preston, and Dee Dee and Dionne Warwick. Among those most obviously influenced by gospel were Ray Charles, Little Richard, Patti LaBelle, and more recently, singers like Mariah Carey.