Black Music: James Cleveland Sings the Horns off the Devil

Through his gospel classics like “Peace Be Still,” Cleveland retells a biblical love story for the plain purpose of reconciling people to God and one another.


Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., once said that it was conceivable that good could triumph as often as evil if the angels were as well organized as the Mafia. Reverend James Cleveland, founder of the interdenominational Gospel Music Workshop of America, is on the side of the angels. And, along with Count Basie, James Brown, Ray Charles, Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, Sun Ra, and George Clinton, he is one of the godfathers of black music, one of God’s “bad boys.” At the Gospel Mu­sic Workshop’s 12th Annual Board of Direc­tors meeting recently held in Birmingham, Alabama, Cleveland ably demonstrated that he is an outstanding preacher, gospel com­poser, performer, producer, organizer, and philanthropist. I left Birmingham with the conviction that Reverend James Cleveland has fundamental insights into the nature of evil, and is prepared to put the Devil out of business, but might have a harder time than he realizes.

James Cleveland was born in Chicago on December 12, 1932, and raised in a religious environment, attending the Pilgrim Baptist Church. About the same time, the minister of music of the church, Thomas A. Dorsey, co-founded the National Convention of Gos­pel Choirs and Choruses with Theodore Frye. The organization was basically a vehi­cle for Dorsey to promote his own new gospel music, music that fused jazz, blues, and work songs with traditional spirituals, and aimed to inspire and regenerate the faith among the poor. Reverend Cleveland’s or­ganization is similar but has more ambitious aims.

“The Gospel Music Workshop of Ameri­ca, Inc., is a product of my mind born out of the need to have someplace where gospel mu­sic could be dealt with by people who aspire to be gospel singers or musicians,” says Cleveland. “I wanted to get the best expo­nents of gospel music in every area — the best pianist, the best organist, the best director, the best songwriter — to come together and share their knowledge. There is no basic diff­erence between the Gospel Music Workshop and Reverend Dorsey’s group. They dealt with solo singers, choirs, and choruses, but it was more of a fellowship showcase, where they would get together once a year and show off their individual talents. They did not have the workshop aspect of teaching. The kids that are coming up with gospel today don’t know the pioneers, because there have not been chronicles written on the history of gos­pel. Many of the pioneers of gospel are still living, so we try to acquaint people with the living and those that have passed on. The workshop also includes the Gospel Announc­er Guild. The guild is going to establish a scholarship fund for students interested in the field of radio broadcasting and will help them obtain their radio FCC engineering licenses.

The board of directors meeting in Bir­mingham was held to make preparations for the Gospel Music Workshop’s national con­vention, which will take place in New Or­leans in August. Reverend Cleveland expects at least 10,000 of the organization’s 25,000 members to attend. In Birmingham, more than 2000 delegates were kept busy with a full schedule of four days of meetings, ban­quets, receptions, and nightly musical services at different churches throughout the city. There were meetings of the evangelistic board, the women’s council, the men’s coun­cil, the youth department, quartets, academ­ic instructors, nurses and ushers, the mass choir and fashion show committee, chapter representatives, and the board of directors.

But most important to the guests and out­siders was the music. I attended musical services at the AOH Cathedral in North Bir­mingham and the First Baptist Church in Fairfield, and my Northern uprooted South­ern roots were replanted in the saving dark­ness of an abundance of deeply penetrating music. At the AOH Cathedral, the Birming­ham Mass Choir brought the spirit over the house when they performed a gospel arrange­ment of Peabo Bryson’s “I’m So Into You,” retitled “I’m So Into Jesus.” Chills go through you when a good choir raises its voices together and hits those high “healing” notes, and the pianist and organist go beyond the technical scope of their instruments, turning key and pedalboard into the burning bush, through which God spoke to Moses. People “got happy” — felt the spirit and moved with it.

The choirs and groups made their presence felt but the greatest single force at the meet­ing was Reverend James Cleveland. Whether talking with a small group or to a large assembly, whether preaching or singing, Cleve­land suggested that vigilance and courage in the face of darkness and adversity is not only a major theme in black gospel music, but is an essential element to the very nature of sur­vival itself. What Cleveland has been saying since he first started composing and perform­ing gospel music is that God seeks to bring us peace — to reconcile us with ourselves. Through classics like “Peace Be Still,” “Lord Remember Me,” “Father, I Stretch My Hands to Thee,” and “The Love of God,” Reverend Cleveland retells a biblical love story for the plain purpose of reconciling people to God and to one another. His mes­sage is widely appreciated and applauded. However, he does have his critics who de­nounce him for his lack of political involve­ment.

There is a magnetic quality, call it charis­ma, that he has and it could be channeled into social activism, but he doesn’t seem in­terested in anything more than serving God.

James Cleveland is called the King of Gos­pel Music. Hi singing style — a composite of many gospel traditions — and his fine jazz-influenced piano playing have sold millions of gospel albums, mostly on the Savoy label, although Kenwood and Hob have Cleveland in their catalogues. Cleveland has more than 50 albums in the Savoy catalogue, including Peace Be Still, recorded live with the legendary Angelic Choir more than 15 years ago. It has sold more than a million copies to an almost exclusively black gospel audience, and it is still one of Savoy’s biggest hits. Cleveland’s fourth album for Savoy, Stood on the Banks of Jordan, is almost equal in sales. But there is nothing on the album that can compare with Cleveland’s own composition, “Peace Be Still,” and the way he and the Angelic Choir beautifully express the deep intimacy between soul and God:

The winds and the waves shall obey thy will
Peace be still, peace be still,
Whether the wrath of the storm-tossed sea
Or demons or men or whatever it be.
No water can swallow the ship where lies
The master of ocean and earth and skies.
They all shall sweetly obey thy will,
Peace, peace be still.

One of Cleveland’s works, “Without a Song,” became a semipop hit after a deejay in Detroit picked up on it and gave it heavy airplay. Cleveland could have used it to move toward the wider popular market but, instead, chose to convene the first annual Gospel Music Workshop of America convention in 1968.

Following the lead of Cleveland’s Southern California Community Choir, many workshop chapters started their own choirs. Isaac Douglas, strongly influenced by Cleveland as a performer, organized one of the first, the New York City Community Choir, and then moved on to Birmingham to fulfill a similar function. By the early ’70s hundreds of community or mass choirs had sprung up all over the country. The Northern California Community Choir later became the Edwin Hawkins Singers and achieved international fame with “Oh, Happy Day.”

Edwin Hawkins now sings with his brother’s group, the Walter Hawkins Singers, who along with Andrae Crouch and the Disciples are the major gospel groups to cross color lines. Not only are Crouch’s compositions sung by all the major groups in white gospel, but his personal appearances have brought the first integrated audiences in the music’s history.

Cleveland explains Crouch’s success: “There is no musical form that Andrae Crouch doesn’t embrace. He can be Dixie­land, jazz, soulful; he can be extremely con­temporary, then he can be extremely tradi­tional, if he wants to be. Wherever his creativity leads him he goes there. He never al­lows himself to get boxed in. If he plays on the college circuit, he has a bag of tricks for the college students, and if he’s in crusades he has something for crusades. If he’s in open air pavilions, he has something for that. Being one of the more fortunate, he can adapt to anything, whatever the call might be.

“People try to box me into a traditional category. I allow them to box me in wherever they want to, but I sing what I feel and what I want to sing, no matter how they label it. Nine times out of 10 it’s mislabeled, anyway. I find most people aren’t knowledgable about what they talk about anyway. They’ll call you contemporary when you’re traditional. They’ll call you a radical when you’re a Re­publican. They can call me whatever they want to, but all of my music flows through me completely free. I must admit that I am a victim of the old school. I will sing what I know folks want to hear. Many times I would like to perform other things: but if people come out and tell me what they want to hear, then I feel that my program should contain what that audience wants to hear. I can per­form new things and have them accepted be­cause people respect me as an artist, but to leave them completely satisfied, I have to go back and do the old things that made me what I am. I don’t go out and experiment anymore. I go out and feel the pulse of the audience and feel what they want, and go right to that.”

James Cleveland “Live” at Carnegie Hall and James Cleveland Presents the Charles Fold Singers, both on Savoy, are two of his finest albums in recent years. The former won him a Grammy Award in 1977 and Billboard’s No. 1 Soul/Gospel Album Award in 1978. The latter includes “Say You Love Him,” a gospel arrangement of D.J. Rogers’s “Say You Love Me,” and is one of the best songs ever written in the gospel vernacular. But both albums illustrate the infectious appeal Cleveland has, the appeal common to all great performers. “The focal point of my life,” Cleveland says, “is music. I love it. I have respect for rock music, jazz, but I love gospel music. I don’t think there is anything that I do better. I never tire of it. I never tire of writing it, of performing it myself. An art­ist has to be in love with what he or she does.”

James Cleveland has been in love from “as early as I can remember,” singing and play­ing piano at the Pilgrim Baptist Church in Chicago. Since he didn’t have a piano at home, he practiced by improvising on the make-believe keys of a windowsill. By his early teens, his family had managed to obtain a small upright so he was able to work on the tunes of his early heroes like Roberta Martin and Robert Anderson.

The first group he sang with outside his own church choir was the Thorn Gospel Cru­saders, teenagers from his neighborhood. Their appearances on shows around Chicago brought him to the attention of established gospel performers in the area, particularly when the group began using material Cleve­land had composed.

In 1948, one of his early compositions, “Grace Is Sufficient,” was presented at a Baptist Convention in Chicago and so impressed Roberta Martin that she was soon purchasing material from Cleveland for her prosperous publishing house. Her flat fee payment for songs was about $40.

A short time later, Norsalus McKissick and Bessie Folk left the Roberta Martin Sing­ers to form their own group, the Gospelaires, with James Cleveland as a pianist and occa­sional third lead. The group is reported to have been sensational, if short-lived. In 1950, Cleveland made his recording debut on the Apollo label, singing “Oh, What a Time,” with the Gospelaires. He went on to travel with one of his idols, Mahalia Jackson, dur­ing the illness of her regular accompanist, Mildred Falls.

In the mid ’50s, Cleveland joined the Cara­vans, a group led by contralto Albertina Walker. She credits him as being a great cata­lyst: “James’s arrangements simply make you sing.” Gospel historian Tony Heilbut says that James Cleveland and Clara Ward were the best gospel arrangers around in the ’50s. Cleveland is renowned for adapting old spirituals and making them rock. His version of “Old Time Religion,” performed with the Caravans, was guaranteed to turn out the church: “Give me that old time religion, gets in your feet and makes you shout sometime.” Unfortunately, Cleveland’s recent Reunion album with Albertina Walker doesn’t include the song, but it does have a hand-clapping, hip-slapping, foot-stomping gospel arrangement of the hymn “I’m on the Battlefield for My Lord.”

When the Caravans began recording for the States label in Chicago, Cleveland was at the piano. He remained in this supportive role for about a year, lacking confidence in his voice, which had been strained, earlier when he attempted to prolong his boyhood soprano. But by 1955, Cleveland had come to terms with his gruff, dry baritone, and took the lead on the Caravans’ first big hits, “The Solid Rock” and, what else? “Old Time Reli­gion.” According to Heilbut, other singers often said, “James has the worst voice I know and he does more with it than anyone else out there.” Reverend Cleveland’s “unpretty” voice earned him the title of the Louis Arm­strong of gospel music.

He briefly joined the Gospel All Stars, re­cording with them the classic “Lord Remember Me,” and an arrangement of Ray Charles’s “Hallejulah I Love Her So,” under the title of “That’s Why I Love Him So.” Cleveland returned to the Caravans, but in quick succession moved on to the Original Gospel Chimes, then to Detroit where he worked with Aretha’s father, Reverend C.L. Franklin, as musical director of the New Bethel Baptist Church. He worked with oth­er choirs as well, including Detroit’s Voices of Tabernacle, and participated in their regu­lar radio broadcasts. In 1960, Cleveland and the Voices of Tabernacle choir recorded a version of “The Love of God,” a gospel bal­lad originally written for Johnnie Taylor, then lead singer with the Soul Stirrers. The record, on the Hob label (owned by and named after Cameron Murphy’s House of Beauty in Detroit), was a hit, and Cleveland became a major gospel attraction. “The Love of God” is included on The Best of James Cleveland (Hob).

Herman Lubinsky, who ran a small record store in Newark, New Jersey, established Sa­voy Records in 1942. It was the first major r&b and gospel independent label, in terms of the artists it developed and its longevity. Lubinsky, knowing that the Voices of Taber­nacle and not James Cleveland were signed to Hob, approached Cleveland during an ap­pearance at the Apollo in Harlem in 1960. Cleveland said, “I didn’t want to go with him, because I wanted to go to Vee-Jay which was a big successful company then.” But Lubinsky persisted and finally won him over. Cleveland has been with the company for almost 20 years. After Lubinsky’s death in 1974, Savoy was acquired by Arista Re­cords.

Fred Mendelsohn is the president of Savoy Records today. He grew up on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, loving blues that he heard on the radio, and later recorded blues artists like Pig ‘n’ Whistle Red, and Blind Willie in Atlanta. Before coming to Savoy as A&R man in the ’50s, Mendelsohn was an owner of three record labels, Regent, Regal, and Her­ald. As A&R man with Savoy, he worked with Big Maybelle, Little Jimmy Scott, Nappy Brown, Charlie Parker, and gospel artists like the Davis Sisters, the Ward Singers, and, of course, Cleveland.

Savoy Records is a major supporter of the Gospel Music Workshop of America, and Fred Mendelsohn has been one of the most committed champions of black gospel music. During the meeting in Birmingham, Cleve­land and the other leaders of the workshop treated Mendelsohn as a trusted friend and showed their respect by electing him to the board of directors. Of the 2000 delegates at­tending the meeting, the only other white person directly associated with the activities was the manager of the Mighty Clouds of Joy, who, like Mendelsohn, is Jewish.

Christianity acknowledges its roots in Jud­aism and their common areas of agreement, but it does not seek to equate the two. At least white Christianity doesn’t; black Chris­tianity equates itself with the Jews of the Old Testament held in bondage in Egypt, and the legends of the biblical Jews have been much used in black gospel songs.

Black gospel music probably developed before blues. Gospel songs were popular on the plantations years before the Civil War, but no writer mentions hearing blues before the 1890s. Of course it’s possible that the ear­ly bluesmen, like shamans in many tribal cul­tures, eluded most western investigators. In any case, gospel music and blues have fed each other for at least 90 years. Although their true power has not been fully under­stood by the American mainstream, both have rightfully earned the title of great art.

Gospel music can be traced back to the first slave who looked to the sky and asked for understanding and a sign of hope from traditional African gods. Combine the Afri­can slave’s prayer tradition with Jesus and Christianity and you have the beginnings of black gospel music.

A decade after Newport Gardner opened the first black singing school in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1791, Richard Allen, the first bishop of the African Methodist Episco­pal Church, compiled and published the first hymn books by a black for blacks in Philadelphia. But it wasn’t until 1841 that choral singing was first heard in black churches. Many church members became upset be­cause they felt that music should be sung by the entire congregation; choirs and anthems simply were not part of black people’s history. An argument also arose in some churches over instruments being allowed as part of the service. Congregations were split in their de­cisions. In Baltimore’s AME Church around 1848–49, musical instruments were permitted for the first time. Several churches held concerts, using their choirs to raise money for the needs of the church.

As Eileen Southern explains in The Music of Black Americans (Norton), when black people began pouring into the nation’s cities during the 1920s, they took their spirituals, hymns, and anthems with them, but found the rural-born music to be unsatisfactory in urban settings. Consequently, the church singers created a more expressive music to which Thomas A. Dorsey and James Cleve­land have added their visions.

Dorsey turned to the composition of reli­gious songs after joining the Pilgrim Baptist Church in 1921. As a blues pianist, he worked with Ma Rainey, Tampa Red, and in a band called the Whispering Syncopators, directed by Will Walker, which included Les Hite and Lionel Hampton. When the Na­tional Baptist Convention met at his church that year, A.W. Nix so impressed Dorsey with his singing of C.A. Tindley’s “I Do, Don’t You,” that Dorsey decided to devote his life to the art of writing sacred music: “Precious Lord,” “I Surely Know There’s Been a Chance in Me,” and “If You See My Savior” are among the more than 400 songs he’s written.

Post-World War II gospel music can be di­vided into four major styles: male quartets; female groups; male and female soloists; and choirs. Modern male gospel quartets often have more than four members, sometimes as many as six or seven, including guitar, bass, and drums, unlike the prewar groups. Quar­tets usually rely on two lead singers, who al­ternate during performances. Female gospel groups are a little looser in size than male groups, and are often accompanied only by a piano. They place more emphasis on group harmony than on a lead voice. Male and fe­male soloists share similar styles and James Cleveland has acknowledged both Myrtle Scott’s and Robert Anderson’s influence on his singing.

There is a genius, a soul force in gospel music that gives it life and vitality, that makes it stand out among other American cultural developments. But the biggest prob­lem that threatens to erode the force is that many black people aren’t true believers in Christianity anymore, aren’t accepting Jesus as their savior anymore. Reverend James Cleveland has said that the church’s role is to save souls and it shouldn’t be involved with social and political problems. Critics of the church, of black religion, are saying that Christianity is a “slave’s religion” because it encourages people to die before they live, and to be a Christian is to be a passive participant in the continuation of the status quo. Because there have been so many “con men” and “pimps” in black pulpits, many people are turned off to “any” preacher’s words, spoken or sung. Cleveland, or somebody in the workshop, has to know that the social and political implications of black religion are more important — not idealistically but realis­tically — than the spiritual implications. If Cleveland really wants to keep gospel alive, he had better come up with something to educate people to the viability of traditional values and practices. Fred Mendelsohn has said that Reverend James Cleveland “wants what he wants when he wants it, he has tre­mendous ambitions.” The workshop is something he wanted to see happen, and it happened. Perhaps Cleveland’s other dream will provide the answer: “My biggest ambi­tion is to build a school somewhere in Ameri­ca, where we can teach and house our con­vention and everything of it, and perpetuate gospel music for all time.” ■

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on August 30, 2019