I’ll never forget the first time I heard Aretha Franklin sing. My mother had a copy of “Aretha’s Greatest Hits”, a compilation of her best known recordings for Atlantic Records she played regularly when I was young. As I stared at the spinning red label I couldn’t help to be moved by what was being translated out of those record grooves into my ears. All these years later it’s hard not to be evoked by the Queen of Soul.
Soul. It’s a genre of music but it’s also that intangible part of everyone where we are most alive. Incidentally, it’s often understood as the part of us that will live forever. It will come as no surprise then when you study the history of worship music that Soul and Gospel music are notable grandparents of the genre.
Whereas it must be noted that the origins of early 20th century hymnody can certainly find connections to black composers, I think many songwriters today may cite the trailblazing black Christian soul artists from the 1960s and 70s as their inspiration. In light of Black History Month, I want to pay homage to a few whose music has helped pave the way for modern worship music.
The Staple Singers
The Staple Singers was a family group led by patriarch, Roebuck “Pops” Staples. Although the group went through several incarnations, it was always made up of Pop’s children, most notably Mavis Staples. If you haven’t heard Mavis sing, you’ve been missing out. At one point, the Staple Singers were the best-selling Gospel group in America.
Beginning in traditional Gospel music, they recorded for Vee-Jay records beginning in the late 1950’s. It wasn’t until their tenure on Epic records though in the mid-1960’s that their music took a shift and began to address issues of human rights and equality.
Leveraging faith-filled songs to draw attention to issues of discrimination, they became pioneers in their field. They were one of the first popular Gospel groups to argue equality from a Gospel, not secular humanitarian standpoint.
Their music would go on to become the soundtrack for the civil rights movement and helped bring attention to racism in the United States. Unlike other groups of the time, the Staple Singers’ platform extended both into Christian and secular arenas, making them truly one of the first popular ‘crossover’ artists on the radio. Never missing an opportunity to preach the Gospel (even when inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame), “Pop” Staples’ bold witness was central to his music.
Referred by some as the “Father of Modern Gospel Music”, Andre Crouch’s prolific tenure as a songwriter cannot be ignored. His compositions have made their way into churches around the world and have crossed racial barriers with the Gospel message.
Andre and his twin sister, Sandra grew up in the church. His father was a minister and when Andre was a pre-teen was prayed over to receive the ‘gift of music’. Shortly after, Andre began writing songs for his local church as a teenager. One of his most enduring songs, “The Blood Will Never Loose its Power” was penned by Crouch shortly before his 16th birthday.
In the late 1960s, CCM pioneer arranger, songwriter and producer, Ralph Carmichael signed Crouch and his group, “The Disciples” to his record label, Light Records, one of the first and early CCM record labels during the infancy of the genre. Crouch’s music would become some of the earliest black gospel music out of the CCM movement to be used regularly in churches through choir arrangements and musicals. His significant contribution is proven by the inclusion of his songs in countless hymnals used today.
If Andre Crouch was the Father or Modern Gospel Music, than it would be only fitting that Thomas Dorsey be known as the Grandfather. Dorsey’s compositions, unlike the previous two artists, have transcended Church culture and been embraced, recorded and celebrated by popular artists of all creeds and colours ranging from Elvis Presley to Johnny Cash. His Christian work was so widely recognized by secular culture that a compilation of his songs was preserved by the Library of Congress as significant to American culture in 2002.Dorsey is probably best known for his hymns, “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” and “Peace in the Valley”, the latter of which, an overtly Christian song now included in hymnals, was recorded by Elvis Presley. It was famously performed on The Tonight Show in 1957 as part of multimillion dollar fundraiser for Hungarian refugees. “Precious Lord” was often cited as one of Dr. Martin Luther King’s favorite songs and was requested by former President Lyndon Johnson to be performed at his funeral.
After being mistreated and taken advantage of in the industry, Dorsey founded the first-ever black music publishing company. The proliferation of his 400 plus published compositions across the globe have established him as one of the most significant influencers of Jazz, Blues and Gospel music in the 20th century.