Hitting the High, Sweet Notes of Gospel Music


The Golden Age of Gospel

Text by Horace Clarence Boyer

Photographs by Lloyd Yearwood

Elliott & Clark Publishing

272 pp., $26.95

Just before Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech in 1963, Mahalia Jackson sang a song. It was "gospel," the inspiring music that prepared the congregation for the minister's message in America's black churches, and rang out to influence popular music - jazz, blues, country, rock, soul, rap - down to this day.

Jackson was gospel's superstar to the world. But a host of other singers, composers, and instrumentalists have shone in the gospel universe.

"How Sweet the Sound" by Horace Clarence Boyer is the latest word on them, accompanied by sensitive photography, from a scholar whose own experience as a gospel singer (one of the Boyer Brothers) shows in every detail of insider analysis and praise.

Gospel still thrives in some churches, in broadcasts, awards, and festivals on both sides of the Atlantic, and lately in nightclub "gospel brunches." Gospel Explosion XIII took place in Nashville Feb. 15-17. Gospel plays a part in a new movie, "Once Upon a Time ... When We Were Colored," and in a New Haven revival of James Baldwin's play, "The Amen Corner."

Last year, an icon was remembered in "You Send Me: From Gospel to Pop, The Life and Times of Sam Cooke." The Smithsonian Institution has a long-term project on gospel, including the 1993 publication of "We'll Understand It Better By and By," to which Boyer contributed essays on six pioneering gospel composers.

But the golden age of gospel, according to Boyer, was 1945-65, roughly the same as in Anthony Heilbut's more journalistic, "The Gospel Sound: Good News and Bad Time." And "golden" is easy to believe when you're lifted out of your chair by the voices of that time: Alex Bradford ("Too Close to Heaven"), Dorothy Love Coates ("He's Right on Time"), Archie Brownlee ("Our Father"), James Cleveland ("The Love of God"). Has the Lord ever been more decisively appreciated than in Jackson's "How I Got Over," with the other singers echoing her "Thank Him, Thank Him, Thank Him, Thank Him?"

Boyer makes the listening new (though his text needs proofreading). He shows how "sanctified" gospel departs from tradition. How the electric organ made a difference. How complex choral and choreographic patterns developed. How performers define themselves - from the way they attack and release notes to the way they manipulate screams, growls, and falsettos. He traces where Little Richard got those high notes. And where Raymond Rasberry developed his remarkable piano playing - in a Pentecostal church where "the congregation begins the song; the pianist must find their key and create an accompaniment."

Boyer tells who from the golden age continued to perform into the 1990s. He discusses artists who move or refuse to move between the religious and secular realms. He discovers that Aretha Franklin, the "Queen of Soul," is still referred to in the church where she learned gospel as "Aretha, Reverend Franklin's daughter."

It's an eloquent footnote to the history of an American people's art that, like so much European classical music, gospel speaks to audiences beyond the sacred places for which it was composed. As Mahalia Jackson said when she was wishing for more time in a recording studio: "I'm used to singing in church, where they don't stop me until the Lord comes."

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