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Like most musical styles, Gospel music evolved over time by absorbing different influences. It grew up in the parishes and houses of worship in the southern United States, mostly in the early 20th century.
To this day, Sunday church services in many American cities make use of full gospel choirs and amplified sound systems with bass, drums, guitars, and Hammond B3 organs.
An important characteristic of gospel music is the solo singer who often makes the “call” and the choir, who offers the response.
The following ten gospel singers and groups are considered to be the most influential of all time.
Like many people born into poverty, Mahalia Jackson found solace in the community church at a young age. She dedicated her life to bringing the word of God to others through music and became one of the most influential voices in modern history. She was influenced by jazz music of the day and the blues stylings of Bessie Smith.
In 1947 her version of Move On Up A Little Higher sold two million copies, on the way to the more than twenty-two million records she’d sell in her lifetime. Throughout her career, she steadfastly refused to sing secular music.
(October 26, 1911 – January 27, 1972)
I Will Move On Up a Little Higher – Mahalia Jackson
We Shall Overcome – Mahalia Jackson
Daughter of a preacher, Ms. Franklin grew up playing piano and singing in her father’s church. While best known for her soul/r&B/pop career, there is no doubt about Aretha Franklin’s musical pedigree.
Worth the watch is Sydney Pollock’s documentary Amazing Grace; there’s perhaps a no finer document of Aretha’s commitment to gospel music.
Aretha was a great gospel pianist as well. No one accompanied Aretha better than Aretha.
(March 25, 1942 – August 16, 2018)
Songs of Faith: Aretha Gospel – Aretha Franklin
Remarks By Reverand C.L. Franklin – Aretha Franklin
Born in Detroit, Michigan in 1964, Cece Winans is the best-selling and most-awarded Gospel artist in history. Her parents, ardent churchgoers, played only Gospel music in the house.
She and her brother Bebe became a popular duo on the PTL Club TV show which led to their first record Lord Lift Us Up in 1984.
Worthy of It All (Live) – CeCe Winans
Known as the reigning king of urban gospel, Kirk Franklin was born in Dallas, Texas in 1970.
His 1992 release Kirk Franklin and the Family spent 42 weeks at number one on the Billboard Gospel charts and is only the third gospel album to sell a million units.
Franklin is a choir director, singer, dancer, and author. He has won numerous awards including twenty-two Grammys.
Kingdom Book One – Maverick City Music & Kirk Franklin
Born in Durham, North Carolina in 1938, Shirley Caesar recorded the first of her more than 40 albums at the age of 12 for Federal Records.
She was a member of the very influential early Gospel singing group The Caravans.
Her hits include Oh Peter, Don’t Be Afraid, Choose Ye This Day Satan, We’re Gonna Tear Your Kingdom Down, God’s Not Dead, He’s Yet Alive, and Don’t Drive Your Mama Away.
I Remember Mama – Shirley Caesar
Andrae Crouch is considered the father of contemporary Christian and Gospel music.
A visionary singer-songwriter, arranger, record producer, and pastor, he wrote many famous gospel songs including The Blood Will Never Lose Its Power and My Tribute to God Be The Glory.
He collaborated with soul and pop music luminaries such as Stevie Wonder, El DeBarge, Chaka Khan, and Bob Dylan and wrote the musical scores for The Color Purple and Disney’s The Lion King.
July 1, 1942 – January 8, 2015
Through It All – Andrae Crouch
Classic Gold – Best of Andrae Crouch and The Disciples
The Caravans were founded in 1947 under the name Robert Anderson and his Gospel Caravan.
This group launched the careers of many future gospel singing stars, including Shirley Caesar, Rev James Cleveland, Josephine Howard, Inez Andrews, and Delores Washington.
Their popularity peaked in the 1950s, aided by regular appearances on gospel radio and television shows which were gaining larger audiences.
Lore Keep Me Day by Day – The Caravans
The Best of The Caravans – The Caravans
Sister Rosetta Tharpe was an electric guitar-playing, gospel singing miracle. She had a profound influence on not just gospel music, but the blues and rock&roll revolutions that were to come. She was possibly the first performer to use distortion on a guitar.
In a 1964 U.K tour with Muddy Waters, she is said to have had a lasting effect on Keith Richards, Jeff Beck, and, Eric Clapton.
Her 1945 hit Strange Thing Happening Every Day was the first gospel song to cross over after hitting number 2 on the Billboard race records chart. It’s been called the first rock and roll recording.
March 20, 1915 – October 9, 1973
Rock Me – Sister Rosetta Tharpe
Gospel Train – Sister Rosetta Tharpe
Strange Things Happening Every Day – Sister Rosetta Tharpe
Take 6 is a six-voice Acappella group formed in the early 1980s. They are known for their vocal gymnastic jazz arrangements of gospel and spiritual songs.
They’ve worked with Stevie Wonder, Queen Latifah, Ray Charles, Jacob Collier, Brian McKnight, and The Manhattan Transfer. Gifted musicians, singers, arrangers, and committed Christians, all original members were raised in the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
We Wish You A Merry Christmas – Take 6
While known more for his R&B/Soul hits A Change Is Gonna Come and You Send Me, Sam Cooke grew up in the church as the son of a Mississippi preacher.
He recounts, “My father told me it was not what I sang that was important, but that God gave me a voice and musical talent and the true use of His gift was to share it and make people happy.“
He joined the gospel group The Soul Stirrers as lead singer and recorded Jesus Gave Me Water, How Far Am I from Canaan?, Jesus Paid the Debt, and One More River, before becoming the megastar he would develop into in the 1960s.
January 22, 1931 – December 11, 1964
Specialty Profiles – Sam Cooke With The Soul Stirrers
A Change Is Gonna Come – Sam Cooke
If you’re a believer, you already know these voices. If you’ve not yet come to believe you may be instant converts after listening to these tracks.
Praise the music!
Joshua Lebofsky is a musician, writer, composer and observer of popular and not so popular music.
He’s played cello, saxophones, piano and keyboards, and toured internationally . His World Music CD Play A little Prayer garnered international attention. He’s busy with several new music productions slated for release in 2022.