British Black Gospel, Part 2: Two Journeys one Destination
Steve Alexander Smith is the writer of British Black Gospel, a book which traces the roots of Gospel in Britain. Exclusively for MOBO.com, Smith will be provding an overview of the world leading US Gospel market, and how it compares historically and economically to its British counterpart - taking us from the origins of British black gospel up to the present day. You can find out more about the British Black Gospel book on Amazon.
“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”.
These were the powerful and inspired words uttered by Franklin D Roosevelt during his 1933 US Presidential inauguration. The people of America were in the midst of an economic super storm and needed a leader of Moses-like stature to navigate the ship through the ‘great depression’.
In the midst of this unprecedented human despair the black church of America began to open up to a new style of music to uplift and motivate. The time of the spirituals had passed and was replaced by the new and sometimes controversial melodies and rhythms of Gospel. Inside the walls of the church, traditionalists remained diametrically opposed to what they saw as the contamination of God’s music.
Thomas Dorsey was the man and visionary behind the merger of Jazz, blues and the spirituals which became the soundtrack for his gospel highway. What began as a poverty stricken dirt track connecting concert halls and churches in the southern States would over the decades develop into a nationwide commercial billion-dollar gospel music superhighway.
Some of the early pioneers and legends that travelled this road included Mahalia Jackson, Sam Cooke, Albertina Walker and the many thousands of gospel quartets that would inspire groups such as Motown’s Four Tops.
The infectious sound of Dorsey became the template for the 1950s Rhythm and Blues explosion which in itself would metamorphose into Soul. Ray Charles, Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson, James Brown, Prince and Aretha Franklin sampled from the sounds of gospel to enrich their own repertoire.
The 1940s to late 1960s were considered by musicologists to be America’s golden age of gospel. In 1969 ‘Oh Happy Day’ recorded by the Edwin Hawkin Singers became an international hit in Britain and the USA. From the 1970s onward, Gospel music entered the commercial age and names such as Andrae Crouch, The Clarke Sisters, Kirk Franklin and Mary Mary would produce music that for the first time would appeal to a mainstream market.
Across the Atlantic the British Black gospel journey began to take shape after the Second World War when migrants from the Caribbean arrived on the ship, Empire Windrush in June 1948. By the mid-1960s the spiritual needs of the immigrants were catered for with the establishment of hundreds of churches spanning cities and towns across the country. In the heat, intensity and emotionally charged up environment of worship a crude gospel sound underpinned by a Caribbean rhythm was delivered by congregation and its musicians. By 1980 the first generation offspring of the Afro-Caribbean immigrants began to develop other ideas and deviate from what they felt was parent-influenced and creatively limited church music.
The new British Black gospel community began to nurture and develop its own pioneers and build its own highway. Names such as the Bazil Meade inspired London Community Gospel Choir, Lavine Hudson, Birmingham’s Majestic Singers, Paradise and the Trumpets of Zion began to emerge. In an historical reflection of its American counterparts of the 1930s the old guard in the black British church viewed this upwardly mobile form of gospel with suspicion.
When Virgin Record’s British Gospel artist Lavine Hudson shared the stage with American Gospel performers in Chicago in the late 1980s it symbolised an important musical intersection point between the two countries. Different Journeys but the same destination and objective…to take Gospel music to the mountain top.