By LaKeshia N. Myers
I once heard a woman say, “I’m Baptist born, Baptist bred, and when I’m gone, I’ll be Baptist dead.” As a lifelong member of the Baptist church, I can attest to this sentiment about my denomination. The Black church is a cultural phenomenon on its own, and at the core of the Black church experience is the music. As we pause to celebrate Black Music Month during the month of June, I would be remised if I didn’t pay homage to the great gospel singers that have spread the “good news” through song.
In the earliest days of gospel music, African American churchgoers began by rearranging the protestant hymns of English minister hymn writer Isaac Watts. Growing up, I enjoyed hearing deacons of the church “line hymns”—“lining” is a type of call and response whereby the song leader says the lyric of the song and the congregation sings the lyrics in a pentatonic scale. Songs like, “I love the Lord he heard my cry,” “Guide me O thy great Jehovah,” and “A Charge to Keep I Have” are traditional “Dr. Watts” hymns that are lined during the devotion of a church service.
As evolution was occurring in secular music with the invention of jazz and blues, many of the musical elements and intonations present on Saturday night, migrated their way into churches on Sunday morning. For this, we can thank early gospel artists Lucie E. Campbell, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and Mahalia Jackson, and Thomas Dorsey. Dorsey, is the composer of “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” one of the most well-known gospel songs ever recorded.
As the contemporary sound of music evolved, younger gospel artists began to make crossover music that was played on both religious and secular radio. Choir masters like James Cleveland, Clara Ward, The Caravans, Mattie Moss Clark, and Edwin Hawkins gave birth to new sounds that received heavy radio play and also made record executives take notice. The Edwin Hawkins Singers 1969 recording of “Oh Happy Day” became an international hit, reaching No. 4 on the US Singles Chart, No. 1 in France, Germany, and the Netherlands and No. 2 on the Canadian Singles Chart, UK Singles Chart, and Irish Singles Chart. It has since become a gospel music standard.
In most American cities there is a thriving gospel music circuit, where singers and musicians gather for special programs and fundraisers. In Milwaukee, I grew up attending many of these programs and my church often hosted them because we had a lot of quartet group members that were members of our church. Deacon Willie Miller was the leader of Just Us gospel singers, LaBertha Campbell and The Celestials, Silverine Carr, the Singing Souls, and the Fabulous Luckett Brothers come to mind. One voice that I remember in particular was that of Mother Mattie Upshaw. Mother Upshaw sang with the Twilights and the Humble Servants. She was also a lead singer for Holy Temple Baptist Church, her signature song was “Lord let me fly.”
I am thankful for all of the singers and musicians that have contributed to the vast body of work that is gospel music. The choirs, directors, singers, and musicians that have inspired and elevated the worship experience and drawn us nearer to God.