Remembering James Cleveland On His 80th Birthday

Posted December 5, 2011 by J Matthew Cobb in Features

Hifi Magazine celebrates the irrevocable and undisputed king of gospel on what would’ve been his 80th birthday

Often dubbed the King of Gospel, Reverend James Cleveland irrevocably changed the barometer of gospel music in a way that will probably never be reduplicated. Kirk Franklin may have capitalized on the crossover using his own urban contemporary style, but Cleveland invented the freeway for him and the superstars of today to travel. Many came before Cleveland, from which he gazed upon and learned from. And Cleveland often times acknowledged his musical influences: Mahalia Jackson, Clara Ward, the Alex Bradford Specials and the list goes on. He also looked up to the father of the genre, Thomas A. Dorsey, when Cleveland started singing “Dorsey” songs at Pilgrim Baptist Church under Dorsey’s auspice. But at the young age of eight, Cleveland was oftentimes bored of Dorsey’s style and would come to choir rehearsals feeling lackadaisical, even yawning to Dorsey’s old-timey blues-meets-sacred approach. But it was Roberta Martin, the sweet regal lady who often took a backseat approach to fame and celebrity, opting for a less-than-glitzy showmanship and her ignited focus on strong hymn-structured songwriting that captured Cleveland’s imagination. He studied her piano style and she in turn published his very first gospel song, but Cleveland – aspiring to be his own star – left for New York, came back to Chicago and nabbed former Roberta Martin singers Bessie Folk and Narcellus McKissick to join his new group, The Gospelaires. Taking Martin’s singers was a cold stab coming from her apprentice, but one that propelled him nevertheless towards a brighter future.

He started his recording career playing piano and writing compositions for Albertina Walker’s Gospel Caravans, and from then accepted the role as minister of music for Rev. C.L. Franklin, the father of legendary Lady of Soul Aretha Franklin. Fast forward a couple of years to 1962. The location is Nutley, New Jersey. Savoy Records, a label burning with the hottest jazz and emerging gospel talent of the day, was soon to drop Cleveland from their roster. His time was drawing up and his records with the Gospelaires weren’t producing the big sales figures they’d expected, but Cleveland went an unconventional and untraveled route for what would’ve been his last recording. He chose to record his album live at First Baptist Church in Nutley. Reverend Lawrence Roberts had one of the best choirs in the city and Cleveland wanted to showcase them alongside his progressive style of gospel. The union was like a match made in heaven and they proved just that on the released LP, titled This Sunday In Person, which also featured a blooming superstar talent found in fifteen-year old organist Billy Preston.

Savoy re-signed Cleveland, which began a series of live recordings that sensationalized the fiery contagious gospel style that Cleveland mastered. 1963’s Peace Be Still became a flaming uncontrollable inferno, selling well over 50,000 copies and turning the gutsy, charismatic singer into an overnight sensation. He evoked the preachy spunk of C.L. Franklin, the rock n’ roll charisma of Little Richard and the auspicious drive of Mahalia Jackson. Mahalia was the queen and gospel had its share of queens, including Albertina Walker, Shirley Caesar and dozens more. But James Cleveland was gospel’s first king.

Cleveland attained even greater success when he ventured to Los Angeles for his next phase of what seemed like a gospel takeover. With a high density of competition in Detroit and Chicago, Cleveland set his sights on starting his own league of singers using raw talent in the heart of Hollywood, hoping to cash in on the gold rush on the undiscovered West. With Cleveland in the director’s chair, he made stars out of the Southern California Community Choir, reunited with his childhood friend Aretha Franklin on her best-selling and critically-acclaimed 1972 Amazing Grace album and started working his way onto albums with The Temptations, Quincy Jones, Phyllis Hyman, Lou Rawls, the Gap Band, James Brown and Elton John. On top of that, he invented his own style of touring, which usually encompassed week-long workshops for live recordings showcasing some of America’s unsigned church and community choirs. Those associations created more familiar faces in gospel music and earned him even more gospel hits (“God Has Smiled On Me,” “I Don’t Feel Noways Tired,” “Lord Help Me To Hold Out,” God Has Smiled On Me”).

Towards the end of his life, Cleveland’s style and his own reputation was often frowned upon. He had since been replaced with some of the most creative and sophisticated talent in the contemporary gospel arena. Edwin Hawkins and Walter Hawkins lit the candle for expansive choir music, Rev. Milton Brunson used his Thompson Community Singers to bring tons of firewood to the camp fire and Detroit’s Thomas Whitfield, a genius in crafting his own fusion of jazz-pop gospel, showed the genre how to use a microwave. Cleveland was also struggling with his health. His body started to break down by the late Eighties from heart failure, esophagitis and respiratory problems and he rapidly started to drop the pounds that at one time defined his physical presence. At the age of fifty-nine, just ten months away from his sixtieth birthday, Rev. Cleveland was laid to rest and his army of gospel soldiers, those that made up the 20-000 member Gospel Music Workshop of America in which he founded in 1968, and superstars like him, including Stevie Wonder, Andraé Crouch and Gladys Knight were there to sing into the pearly gates. Amongst them was Tramaine Hawkins, ex-wife of gospel giant Walter Hawkins, who reprised one of Cleveland’s last recordings, “What Shall I Do?” at his farewell at the Los Angeles Shrine Auditorium, before a crowd of 4,000 mourners.

Cleveland is still a mythical and peculiar mystery to the rest of the world, mostly due to his inability to desire the crossover. “I put restrictions on what I accept,” Cleveland told Billboard magazine at a 1980 gospel conference. “I was called to do the ‘Saturday Night Live’ show right after Andraé [Crouch] was on the program. I refused because the show is to risque.”

Much of the Contemporary Christian audience thought Cleveland was too black for their pop. He would’ve never been happy there anyway. His gravely baritone, oftentimes marred with faulty cracks and talk-sing remedies, and his need to incorporate his “shhhh” method on musicians left him half of the time only effective in a live setting. But James Cleveland was a master at what he did; the likes the gospel music industry hasn’t seen since his passing.

Not even Kirk Franklin or Mary Mary combined, even at the plateau of their recording careers, has the sizable influence and grasp that Cleveland once had on the world.

James Cleveland, a four-time Grammy award winner, would’ve been eighty years old today.


UPDATED: 12/5/11; 6:47 p.m.

We regret to announce the recent passings of Gene Viale and Bishop Otis Floyd, who both were attached to the legacy of Rev. Cleveland.

Viale, 65, died on November 29, was a member of the James Cleveland Singers and was best known for his light complextion, although he was of Puerto Rican descent. Still, the idea of intergrating gospel music was still considered a bold, courageous move during one of America’s lowest points in race relations.

Otis Floyd, age unknown, a prominent pastor at New Jersualem (Full Gospel) Baptist Church in Flint, Michigan, died Monday, November 28. In 1978, his church choir rose to gospel fame with their live recording, Everything Will Be Alright, with James Cleveland. The title cut remains a staple in Cleveland’s repertoire. Their recording career continued on Savoy Records and Sound of Gospel Records throughout the Eighties with successful albums including You’ve Been Mighty Good to Me and The Lord Is My Light.


1. James Cleveland with the Angelic Choir “Peace Be Still”
2. Rev. James Cleveland & the Charles Fold Singers “Jesus Is The Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me”

3. Rev. James Cleveland & the Charles Fold Singers “May the Lord God Bless You Real Good”
4. Rev. James Cleveland with the Salem Inspirational Choir “Victory Shall Be Mine”
5. Rev. James Cleveland with the Salem Inspirational Choir “I Don’t Feel Noways Tired
6. Rev. James Cleveland with the Harold Smith Majestics “Lord Help Me To Hold Out”
7. Gospel Music Workshop of America Mass Choir “God Is Still Working Miracles”
8. James Cleveland & the Southern California Community Choir “Where Is Your Faith”

9. James Cleveland & the Southern California Community Choir “He Shall Feed His Flock”
10. Rev. James Cleveland with the Walter Arties Chorale “Christ the Redeemer”
11. Rev. James Cleveland & the Southern California Community Choir “God Is”
12. Gospel Music Workshop of America Mass Choir “Save the Lost”
13. Gospel Music Workshop of America Mass Choir ”Oh Be Joyful”
14. Gospel Music Workshop of America Mass Choir “Until He Comes Again”
15. Gospel Music Workshop of America Mass Choir “New Jerusalem”
16. Rev. James Cleveland & the Southern California Community Choir “What Shall I Do?”





About the Author

J Matthew Cobb

Managing editor of HiFi Magazine


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