A Very Brief History of Gospel Music

Posted: May 30, 2014 in Livin' in the USA, Music
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Front cover of The Drummer's Bible Second Edition(Excerpted from The Drummer’s Bible: How to Play Every Drum Style from Afro-Cuban to Zydeco (Second Edition), by Mick Berry and Jason Gianni)

Gospel Music brings the tradition of Blues into the music of the African-American Baptist Church. It took the form and name of “Gospel Music” (originally called “Gospel Songs”) in the early 20th century through the efforts of a single individual, Thomas A. Dorsey. Born in Villa Rica, Georgia in 1899, Dorsey learned to play piano as a youth in the African-American Baptist Church. As an accompanist for such famed Blues singers as Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, and after seeing Charles A. Tindley perform at the National Baptist Convention, he became inspired to compose church music with a Blues influence. Though these new sounds were initially rejected by the Baptist establishment, Dorsey continued to promote his music.

After several years of Dorsey’s struggling to find acceptance by the church, other singers/musicians such as Mother Willie Mae Ford and Lucy Campbell also began to promote Gospel Music. This, along with Dorsey’s persistent efforts, finally led to Gospel Music’s acceptance. By 1932, Dorsey had established The National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses, an institution which continues to flourish today. By the time of his death in 1993, Dorsey had written over 800 songs, spanning nearly the entirety of Gospel Music’s existence.

Originally sung by large choirs, in the 1930s Gospel Music began to emphasize the solo vocalist. Inspired by Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Gospel singer Clara Ward sang Gospel Music in nightclubs, creating a wider audience; she soon received attention from the recording industry. Her 1950s hit, “Surely God Is Able,” is credited as Gospel Music’s first million-selling record. By this time, several Gospel singers such as Mahalia Jackson and James Cleveland had emerged as national stars along with such notable Gospel groups as The Caravans and The Soul Stirrers. During the 1950s, Gospel Music and its musicians, along with blues performers, began to create the beginnings of Rhythm & Blues. Composers such as Ray Charles, Little Richard, and Sam Cooke (The Soul Stirrers), and later musicians like Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett (The Violinairs) and Ashford and Simpson (The Followers) all created music with strong Gospel overtones. In the last quarter of the 20th century, Gospel continued to thrive in both the secular and sacred worlds, particularly in large ensembles and choirs within the African American Baptist Church.

Gospel is nearly unique in that groups formed as early as the 1920s and 1930s continue to perform today (with, of course, personnel being replaced over the years). Examples of such groups include The Dixie Hummingbirds and The Blind Boys of Alabama. Recent and contemporary Gospel artists include Sweet Honey in the Rock, Edwin Hawkins, Shirley Caesar, Marion Williams, Kirk Franklin, Vickie Winans, John P. Kee, Yolanda Adams, Christian pop-recording star Michael W. Smith, and R&B legend Al Green.

In the early 21st century, drummers in the Gospel community began to “shed” (trading off ideas between two drummers going head to head, typically in a rehearsal setting). This gave drummers opportunities to share extravagant fills, techniques and grooves with one another. In the first decade of the new millennium, “shedding” became so popular that a series of videos, entitled “Shed Sessionz,” was created and successfully marketed by video director Gerald Forrest. Drummers such as Teddy Campbell, Gerald Heyward, Aaron Spears, Tony Royster Jr., Marvin McQuitty, Eric Moore, Chris Dave, and Chris Coleman are just a few of those have introduced this more “extreme” form of Gospel drumming to a wide listening audience.

As always, time keeping is the most important task for the drummer. Supporting the lyrical message of the vocalist requires a drummer to remain in the background virtually at all times, making simplicity another important component of traditional Gospel drumming. Since Gospel adopted ideas from other styles of music, all beats in this chapter can be found in other chapters in this book. The ones presented here (polka, standard rock, 12/8 slow blues, blues shuffle, waltz) are the most practical, or at least the most common, choices. Tempos can range anywhere from slow ballads (quarter note = 50 bpm) to fast gallops (quarter note = 280 bpm).

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