Thursday, April 06, 2017

Five Myths about Gospel Music in Chicago

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A contribution by Bob Marovich, global gospel announcer and music historian.

Given that much of the world considers Chicago the font of traditional gospel music, we need to clear up some persistent myths about the music’s early history.  Though long ago dispelled, the following five myths are still articulated as if they were the words of God:

1.  Pilgrim Baptist Church is the birthplace of gospel music.

This is the most tenaciously held myth because the Father of Gospel Music, Thomas A. Dorsey, was Pilgrim Baptist Church’s music minister for many decades.  But actually, Ebenezer Baptist Church at 45th and Vincennes is the rightful holder of the title of Birthplace of Gospel Music.  It was at Ebenezer in late 1931 that Dorsey and Theodore R. Frye organized the first modern gospel chorus.  It was only after the Ebenezer choir generated local attention that Pilgrim’s pastor, the Reverend Junius Austin, hired Dorsey to organize a gospel choir for his church.

2. Albertina Walker organized the Caravans.

One of the most popular gospel groups of all time, the Caravans started out as the Good Shepherd Singers, a group of female background vocalists that gospel singer Robert Anderson organized in the late 1940s to support him on programs and records.  At some point, Anderson changed the group’s name to the Gospel Caravan.  In April 1952, with Albertina Walker as its newest acquisition, the Gospel Caravan split with Anderson to become the Caravans.

As the Caravans’ popularity soared, so too did the amount of travel.  Because they were raising families, the original members could not commit that much time away from home.  One by one they departed the group.  Walker, later to be crowned the Queen of Gospel, became the Caravans’ manager and set out to rebuild the ensemble.  The replacements, including Shirley Caesar, Inez Andrews, Dorothy Norwood, Dolores Washington, and James Cleveland, turned the Caravans into national sensations and popular recording artists.

3. No gospel choirs existed before Dorsey’s first gospel chorus.

In late 1931, Dorsey and Frye organized a group of Ebenezer Baptist Church members to sing in the effervescent style we now associate with the gospel choir.  But according to Dorsey biographer Michael Harris, “gospel choruses” existed in Chicago as early as 1910.  These groups were typically comprised of a handful of singers from a church’s large senior choir whose responsibility was to render gospel hymns and spirituals for special occasions, such as funerals. These groups did not sound like the Ebenezer chorus.  They sang in the more classical-influenced senior choir style typical of the early twentieth century.

4. Thomas A. Dorsey stopped writing and performing blues after his initial success in gospel music.

In 1932, Dorsey was dizzyingly busy directing the Pilgrim Gospel Chorus, organizing other gospel choirs, writing new gospel songs, and developing the Chicago Gospel Choral Union.  Despite this work, he still kept one foot in secular music.  It was understandable: Dorsey had the carpet ripped out from under him numerous times in his pursuit of sacred music success.  Blues was the one sure thing in his life.  Even after he recorded two of his gospel songs for Vocalion as “Thomas A. Dorsey, the Gospel Singer,” he performed blues.  It was not until fall1932, after the death of his wife Nettie and day-old son Thomas Jr., that Dorsey forsook secular music forever.

5. First Church of Deliverance was the first African American church in Chicago to broadcast its worship services on radio.

This is a myth even First Church of Deliverance does not reiterate.  In early 1933, two years before First Church began airing its services over radio station WSBC, Elder Lucy Smith and her All Nations Pentecostal Church on Langley Avenue were broadcasting their lively worship and healing services on WIND.

So there you have it—five myths dispelled.

One point that cannot be dismissed is that Chicago is the rightful birth home of gospel music.  It was in Bronzeville where transplanted Southern migrants first melded the sounds of the black church with the beat of the city to create gospel music, now heard and loved around the world.

Robert M. Marovich is producer and host of “Gospel Memories” on WLUW-FM, host of “Conversations with the Gospel Legends” on the PCC Network, editor-in-chief of the Journal of Gospel Music, and author of A City Called Heaven: Chicago and the Birth of Gospel Music (University of Illinois Press, 2015).

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