Robert Marovich grew up Catholic, and he didn’t encounter gospel music for the first time till he was in his early 20s. It was January 1984, and he was earning a degree in American studies at Notre Dame University. “I was flipping through the dial on the radio, and I happened upon a Cosmopolitan Church of Prayer radio broadcast on a Sunday evening,” he says. “It just blew me away.” That south-side Chicago church, founded in 1959 and still active today, has a famous choir called the Mighty Warriors. Marovich threw a blank tape into his cassette player to record the music, and he listened to it over and over. But though he’d soon develop a collector’s avid interest in classic soul, harmony singing, and the blues—all forms of music that share plenty of DNA with gospel—it would be ten years before he followed up on his radio discovery. “I literally made a decision in about 1994 to really learn more about gospel, because I knew nothing,” he says.
Marovich, now 52, made up for lost time, reading books and buying records with a vengeance. He threw himself into the history of the music, and in short order he became one of the foremost authorities on Chicago gospel. He’s shared his scholarship in a thoroughly researched book that convincingly establishes the city’s crucial role in the origin of the music: A City Called Heaven: Chicago and the Birth of Gospel Music (University of Illinois Press) was originally scheduled for release in April, but got bumped up to March due to the volume of preorders on Amazon. It does for Chicago gospel what Robert Pruter’s authoritative books have done for Chicago soul and doo-wop, chronicling its development and telling stories that would otherwise be lost to time.
A native of Hammond, Indiana, Marovich moved to Chicago in 1985, after finishing college, and took a job as a fund-raiser and grant writer for the Illinois Institute of Technology—the beginning of a long career in that field. He had practically no exposure to contemporary gospel (the tape he’d made was pretty much all he’d heard) till 1990, when his first wife, Patricia Andrews Marovich, was working as music teacher at west-side private school Providence St. Mel. Its students tackled current gospel hits by the likes of Kirk Franklin and O’Landa Draper, and a semiprofessional female vocal quartet called Voices of Providence, drawn from the senior class, occasionally sang traditional material. This piqued Marovich’s curiosity, and he began buying a gospel record here and there.
Marovich admits to his naivete in the early 90s, explaining that he was only then realizing how important gospel was to the music he grew up listening to—Booker T & the MGs, for instance, or Aretha Franklin. He devoured books by gospel scholars such as Anthony Heilbut and Viv Broughton, and he followed columns about vintage gospel in the record-collecting magazine Goldmine. By 1997 he felt confident enough in his knowledge to approach a website called BluesWeb, run by Washington State music historian Gary Joneson, and began contributing a regular feature on canonical gospel records. He soon began pitching a program focusing on classic gospel to local community radio stations, but in fall 2000 his wife fell seriously ill with breast cancer. Marovich put all his plans on hold. Patricia died in December.
“Around March 2001, after I had begun to get back into the swing of things, I picked up where I left off,” Marovich says. “In some ways, starting the show was a tribute to Pat’s commitment to teaching African-American music history.” In May 2001 he launched Gospel Memories on Loyola University’s radio station, WLUW, and he’s been on the air ever since (his current slot is Saturday mornings at 10 AM). In 2003 he joined the Gospel Announcers Guild, the broadcast personalities’ subdivision of the Gospel Music Workshop of America, which legendary gospel singer James Cleveland had founded in 1968 to connect artists, fans, and advocates. Through the guild Marovich met singers, producers, pastors, and fellow DJs. And because BluesWeb had folded, in 2004 he satisfied his itch to write about the music by starting the Black Gospel blog (he changed its name last year to the Journal of Gospel Music). Though he’s the only regular contributor, he credits the blog with helping him forge a connection to the current gospel scene.
“I would get the Wow Gospel compilation of the year starting in 1998, just to understand what was happening. I was still very much engrossed in the traditional, but I thought I needed to know what was going on,” Marovich says. “But once I got involved with GAG, I realized I had to know more. I really got more involved in the contemporary side, interviewing artists, learning what their concerns were, what the music was about, trying to figure out: As a reviewer, how do I show this continuum between the traditional and the contemporary? It was really with the blog that I got more involved, with both feet, with the contemporary gospel community.” Though only a hobby, gospel music had become his all-consuming obsession.
In May 2006, Marovich took a new job as executive director of Lungevity, a nonprofit committed to eradicating lung cancer, but it didn’t provide him with the new challenges and opportunities he’d hoped for. With the encouragement of his second wife, Laurel Delaney (they’d married in March), he decided to step down in November. He went to work part-time as a self-employed grant writer so he could devote more time to gospel. “It was a tremendous leap of faith, saying ‘I’m going to go part-time, I’m going to start my own little grant-writing firm, I’m going to set time aside to do research,’ and my income dropped precipitously,” Marovich says. “I felt it was the right thing to do. As noble a profession as fund-raising is, I did not that want to be how I would be remembered. I didn’t want someone to read on my tombstone, ‘He was a fund-raiser.'”
Even now Marovich says he’s not out of the woods financially, but once he’d freed up half his work week, it didn’t take him long to figure out what he wanted to do next. At first he thought he’d write a book about great Chicago gospel group the Roberta Martin Singers, but then he had a fateful conversation with Anthony Heilbut, the author and record producer whose 1971 masterpiece The Gospel Sound is often cited as the first significant study of black gospel music. (Heilbut lives in New York City, but the world of gospel scholars is very small, and the two of them had stayed in touch since meeting in the late 90s.) The older man convinced him to pursue an even more ambitious project: a general history of Chicago gospel. Marovich began work in 2007 and spent five years interviewing people, researching in libraries, and writing. In 2012 he finally began looking for a publisher, and by the end of the year he’d landed a deal with the University of Illinois Press.
Most books about gospel examine it from a musicological or historical perspective; what sets Marovich’s work apart, aside from its focus on Chicago, is that he looks at the music through the lens of the church. He discusses the rapid growth and proliferation of black churches in Chicago during the Great Migration, many of them from denominations relatively new to the city; the more formal religious atmosphere cultivated by African-Americans who’d already settled here was transformed by the infusion of more exuberant, less refined southern traditions in the 30s and 40s.
“I was in a position as a generalist to look at the different streams and try to make sense of them from my perspective as an outsider,” Marovich says. “But at the same time, an insider, in that I really took it from the perspective of the church. Sometimes books are written from the perspective of records or radio, or however the author came upon the music, but I knew that church was the primary area we needed to focus on. We needed to focus on the churches and how they developed choruses and how those choruses expanded out from Chicago, and how the African-American church drove the deal until it became a commercial property. That was something I had to work very hard at, not being a member of an African-American church. To learn who the pastors were, what the denominations were about, who believes what and why, and how it is manifested in the music.”
A City Called Heaven begins with gospel’s origins in 1920s Chicago and follows its evolution into the late 60s, barely touching on the four decades since. “By the time of Mahalia [Jackson’s] passing or Roberta Martin’s passing, the contemporary sound—Edwin Hawkins, Andrae Crouch—had taken over the airwaves, and the locus of gospel music by 1970 or ’71 had shifted from Chicago to California,” Marovich says. But before that shift occurred, a mind-boggling amount of indelible music came out of Chicago, and he addresses all of it: he chronicles the innovations of Thomas Dorsey in the early 30s, tracks the evolution in the 20s and 30s of the relatively sedate jubilee style into the raucous and demonstrative vocal-quartet tradition (a precursor of soul music), and follows the emergence of superstar vocalists like Mahalia Jackson and Robert Anderson. In some ways finishing the book was a race against time. Of the 50 or so people Marovich interviewed, he says, 13 have died since he began.
Marovich isn’t a practicing Catholic, and he generally only sets foot in a church for the music. “I like to say I’m a spiritual person. My religion really is gospel music,” he says. “I find that as I got more into the music and learning about it—the lyrics, the feelings, and the reasons the songs were written—I became much more affected by the music. You feel that everyone shares some of the issues, whether it’s needing hope or encouragement or being grateful for the day. A lot of my spirituality, if you will, comes from listening to gospel music—probably more than from any minister or any church service. It takes me to church every time I listen to it.” v
Five must-see Chicago artists at this weekend’s extraordinary Gospel Music Festival
The 30th Chicago Gospel Music Festival has one of the event’s most inspired lineups in years. Local independent artists and national talent alike will gather in Millennium Park to celebrate the spirited, inspirational music that has influenced just about every popular genre today. The entire festival takes place in the park this year, with bookings at Pritzker Pavilion all three days and two additional stages Saturday and Sunday.
Scheduled national acts include Richard Smallwood & Vision, Israel Houghton & New Breed, Vanessa Bell Armstrong, Canton Jones, Rance Allen, Donald Lawrence & Co., and Brian Courtney Wilson (an alumnus of Fenwick High School in Oak Park). Among the Windy City talents on the bill are the five artists below, all of whom perform at Pritzker Pavilion—with the exception of the Brown Sisters on Sunday afternoon, who’ll be on the Spirit Stage in the south tent. —Robert Marovich
Friday at 7:15 PM
Dexter Walker & Zion Movement
I knew Dexter Walker’s Zion Movement Chorale was headed for bigger and better the first time I saw them perform, at the Southside Neighborhood Gospel Festival in the mid-2000s. Indeed, the 90-voice choir’s powerful singing and acrobatic choreography earned them the top prize in Verizon’s 2012 How Sweet the Sound competition, which aimed to crown America’s best church choir. Their performances before national audiences drew accolades from all corners of the gospel community, and the Verizon award included a recording contract with eOne. The group is equally capable on stylized contemporary gospel and a barnstorming “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho.”
Friday at 8:45 PM
Ricky Dillard & New G
Ricky Dillard & New G leaped into the gospel consciousness with a track from their 1990 debut album, The Promise, called “More Abundantly.” The song’s pulse-quickening tempo and cascading choral sections quickly made it part of church-choir canon. But it was the group’s most recent album, last year’s Amazing (recorded in Dillard’s hometown of Chicago), that ended up dominating the Billboard charts and securing the widespread acclaim Dillard and New G have deserved for 25 years. Dillard’s genius is in giving the classic sound of a churchy, full-throated Chicago gospel choir a contemporary makeover, complete with high-octane rhythm section.
Saturday at 4:30 PM
A Chicago transplant from East Saint Louis, Anita Wilson was part of Donald Lawrence & Co. before waxing her 2012 solo debut, Worship Soul, for EMI Gospel (now Motown Gospel). Recorded live at Chicago’s Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church, Worship Soul includes a rendition of James Cleveland’s “Jesus Will” that’s as funky as last Friday but retains the churchiness of the original; the album climbed the Billboard charts and earned Grammy, Dove, and Stellar nominations (the Stellar is gospel’s Grammy). Her new record, Vintage Worship, is garnering equally positive reviews. Wilson performs with fellow Chicagoan Jonathan McReynolds, who’s making national waves with his soulful and elastic tenor voice.
Saturday at 6:20 PM
The Tommies Reunion
Organized by Reverend Milton Brunson on Chicago’s west side in 1948, the Grammy-winning Thompson Community Singers (known affectionately as “the Tommies”) are one of America’s first community gospel choirs. During the Brunson era (he died in 1997) the Tommies produced radio hits such as “I’ll Trade a Lifetime” and “Safe in His Arms.” The choir has spawned soloists such as James and Aldrea Lenox, Jessy Dixon, Loretta Oliver, Vernon Oliver Price, Kim McFarland, and Leanne Faine, and soul star Dee Clark is alleged to have been an early member. Tommies singer-songwriter Darius Brooks aims to bring together as many fellow alumni as possible for this rare performance.
Sunday at 2:25 PM
The Brown Sisters
The Brown Sisters—Vanessa, Lavette, Adrienne, and Andrea—are the sweethearts of Chicago gospel. Recognized not only stateside but overseas long before the release of their 2009 national debut, The Brown Sisters: Live in Chicago, the Browns have sung together since bobby socks. Their praise and worship anthem “Awesome God” was a gospel-radio favorite and Billboard hit, and their album earned a Stellar nomination. The second-oldest sibling, Phyllis, died last year, but the Brown Sisters press on, their warm, embraceable sound reminiscent of two other popular sister acts: the Clark Sisters and the Pointer Sisters. v
Correction: This story has been amended to correctly reflect the name of Robert Marovich’s second wife.