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Gospel's James Cleveland dies aged 59
ONE OF the most influential figures in the history of black gospel music, the Reverend lames Cleveland, died in Los Angeles on 9th February aged 59.
Cleveland wrote of 400 songs and recorded at least 100 albums during a career that spanned four and a half decades. Born in Chicago in the depths of the depression on December 12 1932, Cleveland was raised in a gospel environment; his family attended the Pilgrim Baptist Church where the minister of music was one Thomas A. Dorsey, author of "Precious Lord", and co-founder of the National Convention of Gospel choirs and choruses. The organisation was a vehicle for promoting the songs Dorsey wrote that fused jazz, blues and work-song elements and which he termed 'gospel songs.' He is said to have originated the term.
Cleveland was soon singing as a boy soprano at the Pilgrim Church, and always maintained he played piano 'as early as I can remember.' There was no money for pianos at the Cleveland home however, and the young keyboard maestro was reputedly reduced to practising on the imaginary keys of a convenient windowsill. By his early teens in the 1940's the depression had eased, a small upright piano was installed, and lames began to develop the keyboard style that would make him such sought after pianist and arranger in the gospel community. Cleveland performed around the Chicago area during his teens in the Thorn Gospel Crusaders and his talents soon brought him to the attention of some of the established names on the gospel circuit.
Roberta Martin heard one of his early compositions "Grace Is Sufficient" in 1948, and bought it for her publishing house. It was the first of many songs he sold to her at a flat rate of around $40 a song. By 1950 he had made his first recording with the Gospelaires, and by 1952 he was a member of Albertina Walker's star-studded group. The Caravans. Still locking confidence in his voice, strained earlier in ^m attempt to prolong this time as a childhood soprano, his role with the Caravans was initially restricted to pianist and arranger. By the mid fifties he had come to terms with his ability sufficiently to sing lead on the first two big hits for the Caravans, "The Solid Rock" and "Old Time Religion."
As well as time spent with various Caravans line-ups, the 50s saw Cleveland recording with The Gospel All Stars and the original Gospel Chimes. At the same time he continued to work with choirs and in I960 his career took a turn. He had been singing and broadcasting with the Voices of Tabernacle from Detroit and in I960 they recorded a version of the Soul Stirrers ballad "The Love Of God" for Hob Records. The record became a surprise hit was picked up by Scepter Records in New York and was regarded as having initiated a new era in gospel music - the reign of the choirs.
Cleveland's ability to electrify choirs into giving passionate performances both live and on record remained a trademark of his art throughout his career. Talent-spotted by R&B and jazz label Savoy, he recorded an album with The Angelic Choir of Nutley, New Jersey, which sold an unprecedented 100,000 copies. The follow-up, 'How Great Thou Art', sold over a million.
Cleveland's recordings are too numerous to mention - throughout the 1970's he was producing an astonishing six to eight albums a year. With The Angelic Choir, The Southern California Community Choir, The Cleveland Singers and via collaborations with artists like Aretha Franklin, and Billy Preston he entered the homes of more record buyers than possibly any other gospel artist before or since. But James Cleveland's contribution to gospel music was not restricted to producing some of the most inspirational recordings in the genre. Throughout his life Cleveland put much of his prodigious energy into supporting, promoting and developing the music he loved.
In 1968 he fulfilled a childhood dream and convened the first of what have since become annual Gospel Workshops of America conventions. The conventions were built around workshops on aspects of gospel music including choral directing, composition, harmony, organ and piano playing. The conventions grew rapidly, attracting and training a new generation of gospel performers. It was the workshops that sparked the spread of community and mass choirs throughout the world of gospel. The number of artists who have publicly acknowledged their debt to the workshops is a testament to Cleveland's enduring influence on the history of gospel music.The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.