Chicago has earned bragging rights as the birthplace of Black gospel music. It was here that gospel was first composed, sung, played, published, promoted, recorded, broadcast, and formalized—the last via a national convention with regional chapters. Migrants to Chicago from the south in particular found comfort in it, because it articulated their shared experiences as strangers in a strange land and reminded them of their southern roots.
The seeds of gospel took root in Chicago with the planting of Pentecostal and Holiness churches on the south and west sides in the 1910s and 1920s. These “sanctified” churches amplified their spirited, communal music with the beat (and sometimes by the instrumentation) of the city’s blues and jazz scenes. The first commercial recording of this hybrid religious music was made in Chicago in 1926 by Pentecostal pianist Arizona Dranes. Her barrelhouse style and extroverted singing foretold the coming of gospel’s polyrhythms, improvisations, and call-and-response structure.
At that time, very early in the Great Migration, the Black community in Chicago was majority middle class, and the music in Black middle-class churches—mostly Baptist and African Methodist Episcopal—was decidedly different. Congregants used hymnbooks compiled by their white denominational counterparts. There was no improvisation, no barrelhouse piano, no handclaps or hallelujahs. Choirs sang formal hymns and anthems, the congregation listened and didn’t sing along, and unspoken norms discouraged spontaneous emotionality. Bewildered migrants accustomed to less formal worship stole away to the extroverted services at churches such as Elder Lucy Smith’s All Nations Pentecostal or Bishop William Roberts’s Church of God in Christ, both in Bronzeville.
This gap began to narrow in the late 1920s, when Thomas A. Dorsey, a blues and jazz pianist who’d come here from Georgia, began writing gospel songs that blended Baptist and Pentecostal elements. At first, he was shown the door—sometimes not so politely—by Protestant pastors who declared his music too worldly for sacred spaces. At the 1930 National Baptist Convention, held in Chicago, Dorsey was surprised by an upwelling of enthusiasm for one of his songs, which gave him a glimmer of hope. But it still took two more years—and specifically the successful debut of a gospel chorus that Dorsey and Mississippi-born singing evangelist Theodore Frye had established at Ebenezer Baptist Church—for the new music to breach the imposing stone walls of local Protestant churches. Pastors surely realized that it would help build membership, increase donations, and ultimately help them burn the church mortgage faster.
Soon hundreds of gospel choruses were popping up all over the south and west sides and around the midwest, and to train them Dorsey, Frye, and Magnolia Lewis Butts (director of the W.D. Cook Gospel Chorus at Metropolitan Community Church in Bronzeville) formed the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses. The first convention, in 1933, was held at Pilgrim Baptist Church, where Dorsey served as music minister. Under the leadership of Georgia-born gospel singer Sallie Martin, the convention established a nationwide network of gospel choruses and local chapters. By the end of the 1940s, gospel choirs coast to coast were emulating their Chicago counterparts and singing Dorsey songs such as “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” “Peace in the Valley,” and “Highway to Heaven.”
Chicago radio stations further expanded the gospel audience through live broadcasts of local Sunday church services. One of the first and most popular broadcasts emanated from Chicago’s First Church of Deliverance, beginning in 1935. The massive listenership of the Spiritual church’s midnight service prompted songwriters to pitch gospel songs to its choir in hopes of an overnight hit—the 1940s equivalent of YouTube virality. In the 1950s and 1960s, the constellation of Sunday service broadcasts in Chicago supported the practice of “broadcast hopping.” Groups of congregants traveled from one church to the next, visiting successive on-air services from morning till midnight, just to experience the spiritual electricity.
Many other gospel artists also did foundational work in Chicago. The ensemble that Arkansas-born singer and pianist Roberta Martin founded in 1933 would set the standard for piano-led gospel groups. Sallie Martin (no relation) and Kenneth Morris operated the Martin & Morris Music Studio, which for decades was the most successful Black-owned music publishing company in the world. Chicago-based quartet the Soul Stirrers launched the careers of superstar vocalists Sam Cooke and Johnnie Taylor, and helped found a national quartet convention in the late 1940s. Gospel’s royalty—Mahalia Jackson, James Cleveland, and Albertina Walker—called Chicago home.
Chicago television and record companies brought gospel music into living rooms and onto turntables—in the latter case, all over the country and even abroad. From 1963 to 1984, Sid Ordower’s Jubilee Showcase on WLS-TV soundtracked Sunday-morning church preparation rituals. Labels on Chicago’s Record Row—Vee-Jay, Halo, Chess and its Checker subsidiary, United and its States subsidiary—released the latest gospel hits. A gospelized version of “Hello Sunshine” by Chicago’s own Reverend Maceo Woods & the Christian Tabernacle Concert Choir hit the pop charts in 1969, rivaling Edwin Hawkins’s contemporaneous smash “Oh Happy Day” as the harbinger of contemporary gospel—a sound that introduced elements of rock, jazz, R&B, and folk into the traditional organ- and piano-led style.
Chicago in Tune: Gospel Music
Hosted by Jonathan McReynolds, Sonya Blakey, and DeAndre Patterson. Featuring Lashon Brown Jr.; a musical tribute to the Reverend Dr. Clay Evans, Pastor Maceo Woods, and Archbishop Lucius Hall with the Carson Sisters, Nicole Harris, and Illiana Torres; and the Tommies Reunion Choir. Fri 9/3, 5:30 PM, Pritzker Pavilion, Millennium Park, 201 E. Randolph, free, all ages
On the evening of Friday, September 3, Millennium Park will showcase the city’s pioneering and contemporary contributions to gospel in a three-hour program emceed by Chicagoan Jonathan McReynolds, one of the genre’s current leading lights. Radio personalities Sonya Blakey and DeAndre Patterson from Inspiration 1390 will join him to present three musical segments.
Lashon Brown Jr. is a young south-side vocalist who, like McReynolds, plays acoustic guitar and delivers fresh songs of praise and worship in an intimate tenor voice. His thoughtful, melodic religious music resonates especially with younger churchgoers who, like the first generation of gospel fans, want a sound of their own.
The Tommies Reunion Choir will honor its roots as America’s first community gospel choir (unlike conventional church choirs, community choirs welcome singers from different churches and denominations). Formed in 1948 by the Reverend Milton Brunson, the Thompson Community Singers lent new songs and distinctive arrangements to generations of grateful church choirs. Members of the Reunion Choir include stalwarts Leanne Faine, Kim McFarland, and Kevin Brunson as well as songwriters Percy Bady and Darius Brooks.
A tribute to the Reverend Dr. Clay Evans, Pastor Maceo Woods, and Archbishop Lucius Hall will memorialize the golden years of church radio broadcasts. The south-side sanctuaries of these three towering religious and civic leaders were veritable conservatories for emerging gospel artists. Musical guests will include the Carson Sisters, siblings of the late Billy Carson, who know their subject well (as did their brother—Billy made frequent appearances at Evans’s Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church and played drums on Woods’s “Hello Sunshine”). They’ll be joined by contemporary gospel singers Illiana Torres and Nicole Harris, who’ll put their own spin on the traditional music of Evans, Woods, and Hall. Gospel enthusiasts will remember Harris from her vocal contribution to the 2018 hit single “You’re Doing It All Again” by Maywood native Todd Dulaney.
Notable gospel events during Chicago in Tune
Gospel Industry Network Summit
Featuring Adrian B. King, Gods Posse, New Direction, Lemmie Battles, Josh Bracey, and others. Fri 8/20, 7 PM, Christ Unity Church, 208 E. 61st, free, all ages
Power Praise 2021
Featuring Bishop Hezekiah Walker, Donald Lawrence, Mark Hubbard, Krystal Sykes, and LeNasia Tyson. Sat 8/21, 7 PM, Cross Pointe Park, 2801 W. 167th, Hazel Crest, $40, $30 group rate for ten or more, $65 VIP, all ages
With special guests Pastor Roosevelt Dixon Sr. and Evangelist Trina Robinson. Sat 8/21, 5 PM, New Friendship M.B. Church, 1545 Waite, Gary, Indiana, $25, $20 in advance, all ages
ChicaGO REACH Gospel Workshop
Felicia Coleman-Evans and Dr. Lou Della Evans-Reid on Chicago gospel according to “the Ship”; vocal coaching for gospel solo singers with Felicia Coleman-Evans; music and discussion on the Nigerian gospel sound with Olaolu Lawal; Tashielle Gooley leads Gospaerobics; Lonnie Norwood explores pioneering Black women composers in gospel music and the southern hymn choir tradition. Via Zoom at lonnienorwood.com/chigoreachpopshops. Sat 8/21 and Sun 8/22, noon till 7 PM both days, $75 ($50 for students), all ages
A Deeply Rooted Evening for Chicago’s Healing: Goshen
A preview of a Deeply Rooted Dance Theater performance based on Goshen by Donald Lawrence, featuring Le’Andria Johnson, members of the Tri-City Singers, and Zeke Locke & the NuXperience. Wed 8/25, 7:30 PM, Pritzker Pavilion, Millennium Park, 201 E. Randolph, free, all ages
Live recording with guests Dr. Walt Whitman, Dr. Yvonne Ruff, Ann Bridges, Pastor DeAndre Patterson, and others. Sat 9/7, 6 PM, Apostolic Faith Church Chapel, 3823 S. Indiana, free, all ages
Black Violin, Blind Boys of Alabama
Sat 9/11, 7:30 PM, Pavilion, Ravinia Festival, 200 Ravinia Park Rd., Highland Park, $33-$80, all ages